Petroforms, also known as boulder outlines or boulder mosaics, are human-made shapes and patterns made by lining up large rocks on the open ground, often on quite level areas. Petroforms in North America were originally made by various Native American and First Nation tribes, who used various terms to describe them. Petroforms can also include a rock cairn or inukshuk, an upright monolith slab, a medicine wheel, a fire pit, a desert kite, sculpted boulders, or simply rocks lined up or stacked for various reasons. Old World petroforms include the Carnac stones and many other megalithic monuments.[1]

Petroform at Whiteshell Park, Manitoba
Aligned boulders at Whiteshell Park, Manitoba


Petroforms are shapes and geometrical patterns made from arranging large rocks and boulders, often over large areas of open ground, unlike the smaller petroglyphs and graphs which are inscribed on rock surfaces. They were originally made in North America by native peoples for astronomical, religious, sacred, healing, mnemonic devices, and teaching purposes. The specific names of these rock formations and the uses varied by political and religious group. Presently, some of these sites are still being used by First Nations, elders, and others.


The first stone phase at Stonehenge has been dated to about 2600 BCE. Stone circles are still being made in Wales as part of the Eisteddfod movement, which incorporates this among other elements from the Druidic revival. Desert kites were used possibly by 3000 BCE; they fell out of use in the Neolithic as prey populations declined and the human population rose.

Petroform 3 josephprymak Joseph Prymak
Turtle petroform in Whiteshell Provincial Park, Manitoba

Some of the North American petroform shapes are over 2,500 years old. It is difficult to date all of them accurately because of a lack of soil deposits in some areas. Like the petroglyphs, many petroforms have complex and lengthy teachings that have been passed down orally by the Ojibway, other First Nations, and the Midewiwin. Some teachings may have been lost, along with the peoples that originally made some of the oldest petroforms in North America. In some North American states and provinces, there are laws to protect these important archaeological and historical sites. There were very few studies or specific mention of Manitoba petroform sites until the 20th century. The first detailed studies and descriptions of some sites in Manitoba were done by J. Steinbring and R. Sutton after the 1950s.

Presently, many Ojibway or Anishinaabe ceremonies in North America involve the making of turtle shaped fire pits for sacred fires. In some instances, rocks are aligned near the entrance and fire of sweat lodge ceremonies that symbolize the Moon, the Sun and other things. Rock piles are still made to mark trails and important locations. A large turtle petroform of piled up boulders was recently made in the Whiteshell Park area of Manitoba.

Designs and purposes

In some cases, petroforms were made by non-literate cultures who have left no written record of whatever reasons led them to construct these forms. Oral history was passed along by many native groups, and a few groups had very complex symbolic writings on rock, petroglyphs, birch bark scrolls, and other media.

Astronomical markers

Some petroforms were used as astronomical calendars, with rocks aligned to solstice and equinox sunrises and sunsets. They are often found in higher areas, on hills, mounds, ridges, and natural rock formations. Higher ground allowed humans to carefully observe the horizon to mark and measure astronomical events. Some rock alignments point out four or more directions, lunar events, the rising and setting of planets, some stars, and other astronomical events. Some petroforms can also be used in more complex ways for astronomical predictions, mapping of the sky and ground, and for complex ceremonies that help to memorize many oral stories and songs. Petroforms are similar in some ways to medicine wheels which are also aligned with sunrises and sunsets, equinoxes, solstices, lunar events, and star patterns. Petroforms also mirrored the night sky, and the patterns of the stars, similar to astrological signs and symbols. The Sioux have oral stories of the serpent in the sky, a turtle, a bear, and other patterns seen in the stars. What is often known today as Orion's belt was one prominent, bright star formation, along with the central and stationary north star, now named as Polaris. What is now known as the planet Venus is the very bright morning and evening star that is very noticeable and at times is the first and last to appear. Petroform sites in North America can be found in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Wyoming, Montana, along the Mississippi River, the Missouri River, and elsewhere. It has been suggested that megalithic monuments including Stonehenge may have incorporated important astronomical alignments.

Hunting aids

The desert kites of Syria, Jordan, and the Negev—long lines of stones—are interpreted as aids to hunting large game animals like gazelles, ibexes, wild asses. There are similar structures on most continents.[2][3][4][5]

Navigation aids

The inuksuit of the Arctic act as navigation aids, an aid for hunting, or to mark important locations. The rock marker helped the traveler or hunter to find the best route across the land. Someone left a marker to help anyone else passing through the area, and to help with not getting lost. These markers can have very practical and universal purposes. Some petroforms are located along portage routes and canoe routes as well. Human made markers can be easier to remember than common natural features of the landscape. Rock ridges would have been natural trails through dense forest or wet terrain. Whiteshell Provincial Park petroforms are located on top of the granite ridges that snake through the forest and wetlands landscape.

Burial sites

The Dolmens widespread in Europe and much of Asia are interpreted as Neolithic burial chambers. Large boulders make excellent long term markers for important and sacred places, just as burial plots are marked by large stones today. Some petroforms could be close to ancient burial areas, or near sacred areas associated with the dead. Large rocks are a universal marker that can last for generations. Boulders will last for tens of thousands of years. In memory of a person or the history about a place, these markers help future generations to learn about the past. These markers help to provide long term memories and reminders of a time long ago.

Mnemonic device

Indigenous peoples have an oral tradition of story telling. Many of these rock shapes are used to memorize and to help tell stories and legends. Some petroforms go in the order of the story, helping one to memorize the successive steps. Large rocks are very permanent, thereby helping to pass along certain memories, knowledge, and wisdom. Some large boulders in North America have long stories that relate to the area and a memory about that place. A large boulder, sitting alone, catches the eye as a major landmark. Many petroforms in Whiteshell Provincial Park have long stories associated with each one.

Other rituals and unknown purposes

Aboriginal groups also made shapes of humans, snakes, turtles, fish, bears, cougars, thunderbirds, medicine wheels, circles, rectangles, and other complex geometric shapes that are still intact today. There was certainly an attempt to leave their mark upon the landscape, and large boulders or rocks are very permanent markers. The Nazca Lines include many animal and other shapes. Petroforms in North America are often related to earthen mounds. Mounds were sometimes built over the older petroforms, or later made near them. Petroforms also marked out the area for various ceremonies, sweatlodges, fasting, and sacred fires. They often mark an important or sacred area, or point to an important place. Offerings and prayers are made in these areas, along with initiations and vision quests. The exact, original purposes of the Carnac stones, Stonehenge, and many other megalithic monuments are lost.


Whiteshell Provincial Park

One of the locations of petroform sites, including effigies, is in Southeastern Manitoba, in Whiteshell Provincial Park, Canada. Whiteshell Park is named after the white cowrie shells used by some Anishinaabe peoples in ceremonies. The natural landscape of the park, with many movable rocks and boulders left behind after the last ice age, gave humans the easy opportunity to arrange them into many human-made patterns. It is an area where three rivers meet, along the edge of the Canadian Shield, close to the edge of prairie grasslands. The rivers were ancient highways and trade routes, bringing humans from far and wide to the area. Some large boulders appear to be carved, chipped, or altered to look like turtle heads and other animals. A very wide variety of petroform shapes are found in the park, including snakes, turtles, geometric lines, patterns, and large circles. Most of the known petroforms are found on the top of granite ridges. The granite ridges and hills are often very flat in areas, resembling a large concrete parking lot. These open areas have a very smooth granite left behind from the last ice age. In some areas there is no soil, no lichen, and the surface is polished to a shine. The large boulders aligned are in striking contrast to the flat granite beneath them. Local First Nations have teachers and elders that pass along the stories associated with some of these petroforms. Many of the sites and their past use is a mystery, with no certain answers. Some elders refer to one site as extremely sacred and important, and few people should venture there. The Midewiwin have oral teachings about some of the petroforms, but no one group claims to know all the history of the area.


The petroform sites in Wisconsin are being studied more closely, and can be dated more easily because of soil deposits over centuries. Many other sites have no layers of soil deposited around the petroforms. Forested areas and soil cover have partially protected many of the petroforms in Wisconsin and Minnesota. In many areas across the prairies, large circular medicine wheels were made as astronomical devices, directional maps, and for ceremonial use. Some of these medicine wheels are large, and many were destroyed for agricultural needs by clearing the grasslands of any rocks. Some are intact, such as in the Turtle Mountains, and other sandy, rocky, or more remote areas that had less crop farms and settlements. Mound building was also associated in some way with petroform use. Petroforms originally predated the use of mounds and other human-made earthen works that required more time and effort. Although mound building could have originally been necessary and practical to provide some higher ground during floods. There is some speculation that larger mounds would have served as dikes and defensive fortifications, including providing higher ground to keep watch.

See also


  1. ^ The Megalithic Portal and Megalith Map:
  2. ^ Sinai: Excavations and Studies. Ze'ev Meshel. 2000. BAR S876. ISBN 978-1-84171-077-8
  3. ^ The Megalithic Portal and Megalith Map: Desert Kites
  4. ^ O'Hanlon, Larry (Apr 20, 2010). "Mysterious Desert Lines Were Animal Traps". Discovery News. Retrieved 21 April 2010.
  5. ^ Amos, Jonathan (19 April 2011). "Gazelles caught in ancient Syrian 'killing zones'". BBC News. Retrieved 19 April 2011.

External links

Bare Island projectile point

The Bare Island projectile point is a stone projectile point of prehistoric indigenous peoples of North America. It was named by Fred Kinsey in 1959 for examples recovered at the Kent-Halley site on Bare Island in Pennsylvania.

Celt (tool)

In archaeology, a celt is a long, thin, prehistoric, stone or bronze tool similar to an adze, a hoe or axe-like tool.


A cist ( or ; also kist ;

from Greek: κίστη or Germanic Kiste) is a small stone-built coffin-like box or ossuary used to hold the bodies of the dead. Examples can be found across Europe and in the Middle East.

A cist may have been associated with other monuments, perhaps under a cairn or long barrow. Several cists are sometimes found close together within the same cairn or barrow. Often ornaments have been found within an excavated cist, indicating the wealth or prominence of the interred individual.

This old word is preserved in the Swedish language, where "kista" is the word for a funerary coffin.

Cumberland point

A Cumberland point is a lithic projectile point, attached to a spear and used as a hunting tool. These sturdy points were intended for use as thrusting weapons and employed by various mid-Paleo-Indians (c. 11,000 BP) in the Southeastern US in the killing of large game mammals.

Eden point

Eden Points are a form of chipped stone projectile points associated with a sub-group of the larger Plano culture. Sometimes also called Yuma points, the first Eden points were discovered in washouts in Yuma County, Colorado. They were first discovered in situ at an ancient buffalo kill site near Eden, Wyoming by Harold J. Cook in 1941. The site, named after discoverer O. M. Finley, eventually yielded 24 projectile points, including eight Eden points, eight Scottsbluff points and one complete Cody point, both other sub-groups within the Plano group. Eden points are believed to have been used between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago by paleo-indian hunters in the western plains.

Eden points are the most common paleo-indian projectile points found today. They have been discovered across the western plain states, including Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, and Montana.

Folsom point

Folsom points are a distinct form of knapped stone projectile points associated with the Folsom tradition of North America. The style of tool-making was named after the Folsom Site located in Folsom, New Mexico, where the first sample was found by George McJunkin within the bone structure of a bison in 1908. The Folsom point was identified as a unique style of projectile point in 1926.

Grattoir de côté

A Grattoir de côté (translates from French as Side Scraper) is an archaeological term for a ridged variety of steep-scrapers distinguished by a working edge on one side. They were found at various archaeological sites in Lebanon including Ain Cheikh and Jdeideh II and are suggested to date to Upper Paleolithic stages three or four (Antelian).

Grinding slab

In archaeology, a grinding slab is a ground stone artifact generally used to grind plant materials into usable size, though some slabs were used to shape other ground stone artifacts. Some grinding stones are portable; others are not and, in fact, may be part of a stone outcropping.

Grinding slabs used for plant processing typically acted as a coarse surface against which plant materials were ground using a portable hand stone, or mano ("hand" in Spanish). Variant grinding slabs are referred to as metates or querns, and have a ground-out bowl. Like all ground stone artifacts, grinding slabs are made of large-grained materials such as granite, basalt, or similar tool stones.

Lamoka projectile point

Lamoka projectile points are stone projectile points manufactured by Native Americans what is now the northeastern United States, generally in the time interval of 3500-2500 B.C. They predate the invention of the bow and arrow, and are therefore not true "arrowheads", but rather atlatl dart points. They derive their name from the specimens found at the Lamoka site in Schuyler County, New York.

Pesse canoe

The Pesse canoe is believed to be the world's oldest known boat, and certainly the oldest known canoe. Carbon dating indicates that the boat was constructed during the early mesolithic period between 8040 BCE and 7510 BCE. It is now in the Drents Museum in Assen, Netherlands.

Plano point

In archeology, Plano point is flaked stone projectile points and tools created by the various Plano cultures of the North American Great Plains between 9000 BC and 6000 BC for hunting, and possibly to kill other humans.

They are bifacially worked and have been divided into numerous sub-groups based on variations in size, shape and function including Alberta points, Cody points, Frederick points, Eden points and Scottsbluff points. Plano points do not include the hollowing or 'fluting' found in Clovis and Folsom points.

Prehistoric numerals

Counting in prehistory was first assisted by using body parts, primarily the fingers.

This is reflected in the etymology of certain number names, such as in the names of ten and hundred in the Proto-Indo-European numerals, both containing the root *dḱ also seen in the word for "finger" (Latin digitus, cognate to English toe).

Early systems of counting using tally marks appear in the Upper Paleolithic.

The first more complex systems develop in the Ancient Near East together with the development of early writing out of proto-writing systems.


In archeology, a racloir, also known as racloirs sur talon (French for scraper on the platform), is a certain type of flint tool made by prehistoric peoples.

It is a type of side scraper distinctive of Mousterian assemblages. It is created from a flint flake and looks like a large scraper. As well as being used for scraping hides and bark, it may also have been used as a knife. Racloirs are most associated with the Neanderthal Mousterian industry. These racloirs are retouched along the ridge between the striking platform and the dorsal face. They have shaped edges and are modified by abrupt flaking from the dorsal face.

Stone row

A stone row (or stone alignment), is a linear arrangement of upright, parallel megalithic standing stones set at intervals along a common axis or series of axes, usually dating from the later Neolithic or Bronze Age. Rows may be individual or grouped, and three or more stones aligned can constitute a stone row.

Tool stone

In archaeology, a tool stone is a type of stone that is used to manufacture stone tools,

or stones used as the raw material for tools.Generally speaking, tools that require a sharp edge are made using cryptocrystalline materials that fracture in an easily controlled conchoidal manner.

Cryptocrystalline tool stones include flint and chert, which are fine-grained sedimentary materials; rhyolite and felsite, which are igneous flowstones; and obsidian, a form of natural glass created by igneous processes. These materials fracture in a predictable fashion, and are easily resharpened. For more information on this subject, see lithic reduction.

Large-grained materials, such as basalt, granite, and sandstone, may also be used as tool stones, but for a very different purpose: they are ideal for ground stone artifacts. Whereas cryptocrystalline materials are most useful for killing and processing animals, large-grained materials are usually used for processing plant matter. Their rough faces often make excellent surfaces for grinding plant seeds. With much effort, some large-grained stones may be ground down into awls, adzes, and axes.


In archeology, a uniface is a specific type of stone tool that has been flaked on one surface only. There are two general classes of uniface tools: modified flakes—and formalized tools, which display deliberate, systematic modification of the marginal edges, evidently formed for a specific purpose.

West Hawk Lake

West Hawk Lake is located in the Whiteshell Provincial Park in southeastern Manitoba, Western Canada. The central portion of the lake is formed by the West Hawk crater, caused by a meteor impact into an ancient rock bed composed of mostly granite. Granite cliffs surround parts of the lake. This area is also known as part of the Canadian Shield that was formed billions of years ago. Parts of the Whiteshell park have elaborate petroforms that were made by First Nation peoples, possibly over a thousand years ago. There are petroform shapes of turtles, snakes, humans and geometrical patterns, often found upon pink granite ridges that were shaped during the last ice age.

The lake has private cottages, public beaches, campgrounds and other tourism amenities, and extensive undeveloped shoreline, and is popular for boating, sailing, Wakeboarding and scuba diving. It is just north of the Trans-Canada Highway, and on the Trans Canada Trail, on the border of Manitoba and Ontario.

At 115 metres (377 ft), it is the deepest lake in Manitoba.

Whiteshell River

The Whiteshell River is one of the major rivers in Whiteshell Provincial Park, in southeastern Manitoba, Canada, near the Ontario border. This river is close to some petroform sites that are about 2000 years old or older. The name "whiteshell" is in reference to the Meegis or cowry shells used by Ojibwa peoples in their ceremonies and teachings, especially the Midewiwin, and as recorded in their birch bark scrolls.

The river was used for thousands of years as a major canoe route by native peoples. The Winnipeg and Whiteshell Rivers are the only waterways to easily travel between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Superior. The copper culture period of about 4,000 years ago involved the trade of copper from the north shore of Lake Superior to the Whiteshell Provincial Park area and other areas now known as Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. Manitoba also has prehistoric quartz mines to the far north, and evidence of ancient quartz mining also exists along the Winnipeg River area. Quartz, copper, and other minerals were used to make prehistoric arrow heads, tools, scrapers, spears, and artwork.

Whiteshell Provincial Park is still a popular area for wild rice harvesting, as it was for thousands of years. Today this river system area is popular for canoeing, hiking, swimming, fishing, boating, and many cottages are located along the lakes and rivers of the park.

The geography and geology of the area consists of Canadian Shield granite rock ridges, cliffs, boreal forest, bogs, and only one main road through the park. It is a very wild and pristine area with many deer, bear, wolves, coyotes, bald eagles, fox, cougars, lynx, and other wildlife.

Yubetsu technique

The Yubetsu technique (湧別技法, Yūbetsu gihō) is a special technique to make microblades, proposed by Japanese scholar Yoshizaki in 1961, based on his finds in some Upper Palaeolithic sites in Hokkaido, Japan, which date from c. 13,000 bp.

The name comes from the Yūbetsu River (湧別川, Yubetsugawa), on the right bank of which the Shirataki (白滝遺跡, Shirataki Iseki) Palaeolithic sites were discovered.

To make microblades by this technique, a large biface is made into a core which looks like a tall carinated scraper. Then one lateral edge of the bifacial core is removed, producing at first a triangular spall. After, more edge removals will produce ski spalls of parallel surfaces.

This technique was also used from Mongolia to Kamchatka Peninsula during the later Pleistocene.

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