Tuesday, July 28, 2009


One of my areas of interest for some time has been the pursuit of evidence of knowledge and awareness of fossils in the mythology of Native Americans and the art with which they illustrated those myths. Their observations of fossils in the landscape demanded explanations, and they inevitably developed a mythology that explained their existence. In fact, John Feliks* has proposed that the origins of rock art may have originally been inspired by seeeing fossils in the rock.

Block of stone with carved lines at the right end,
fossil trackways are visible on the rest of the surface
of the block. Chimney Rock Archaeological Area,
Colorado. Photo: Steven Main.

At the Colorado Rock Art Association annual symposium on May 7, 2005, Steven Main presented a paper about a rock with pecked lines found at the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area in southwestern Colorado. Markings purposely made on a movable object are referred to by the term mobiliary art.

Side view of the block of stone showing traces
of trackways on other layers. Chimney Rock
Archaeological Area, Colorado. Photo: Steven Main.

The interesting thing about this rock is that the obvious pecked parallel lines at one end of the rock are connected to a number of fainter markings meandering over the rest of that face of the rock. These fainter markings have been identified as fossilized Ophiomorpha trackways, the remaining trace left behind by an extinct crustacean on the sandy ocean bottom, preserved as the sand was consolidated into sandstone. Traces of more trackways can be seen in cross section on the side of the block of stone as well.

This block of stone displays an instance in which the natural markings of the fossilized trackways apparently inspired additional pecked markings to complete a design or pattern imagined by the prehistoric artist (again this would fit in with John Feliks’ theories of the origins of rock art having been inspired by seeing fossils in the rock). Main stated that his original impression of the rock image was its likeness to images of Tlaloc from the greater southwest, but that he had abandoned that possibility because of lack of evidence. My personal reaction to the rock is that the image resembles the foot or footprint of a bear.

Whether or not the fossil traces inspired the original idea of creating petroglyphs in general, it seems certain that these fossil trackways inspired the addition of the pecked parallel lines in this example, proving not only Native American’s awareness of fossil traces but also implying the connection between those fossils and some of their art.

I am grateful to Steven Main for allowing me to use his photos and information.

* John Feliks is an independent scholar researching early human cognition. Along with the science, he offers an inside perspective based on an extensive background in the arts. Feliks’ recent studies involve the language and mathematics capability of Homo erectus and other early people.

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