Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Back in 1982 I had the privilege of meeting H. Marie Wormington on a few occasions. During the course of one conversation we discussed her theory of why so many 6-toed footprints (and 6-fingered hand prints) can be found in rock art.

The doyenne of 4-corners archaeology, Marie had joined the Denver Museum of Natural History staff in 1935 as an archaeologist, and was the curator of archeology there from 1937 to 1968. Her knowledge and opinions were extremely influential in early studies of prehistoric cultures of the 4-corners and Great Plains.

She explained to me that her theory had been based upon the circumstances of a Fremont culture burial that she had excavated many years before. This particular male skeleton was found with valuable grave goods suggesting a VIP, and she found that this person had displayed polydactylism - the man had six fingers. She had put those two facts together and theorized that perhaps the presence of the polydactylism had contributed to the person’s status. We frequently hear that among Native American cultures physical and mental differences were looked upon as marking a person as special instead of being a cause for discrimination against them. Following this thought it only made sense that a person born with six fingers might have gravitated to a position of influence in the society, perhaps a shaman or medicine man. And then, to expand on that thought we have to ask who was most likely to have been commemorated in rock art?

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

It is often assumed that a hand print in rock art represents a person’s signature or identity and, if this is indeed the case, the six-fingered hand print or footprint represents a particular important individual who possessed that trait. At Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, at the base of the cliff behind the magnificent ruin of Pueblo Bonito, traces of a small room can be found with a series of six-toed footprints carved into the cliff face which served as the back wall of the room. These footprints were carved up the cliff face as if emerging from the ground. This might possibly represent the residence of some powerful shaman, a member of the group but residing somewhat separately, identified as someone with great spiritual power by polydactylism, and thought of as emerging from the underworld to the fourth world in which we all reside.

Room behind Pueblo Bonito, Chaco
Canyon, NM. Photo: 1994, Peter Faris.
6-toed footprints behind Pueblo
Bonito, Chaco Canyon, NM.
Photo: 1994, Peter Faris.

Given the separateness of the residence, the polydactylism, and the footprints shown as if walking up the cliff from underground, it is a possibility that we should consider.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff, especially linking the imagery with known ethnographic and dirt archaeological findings.
    The rooms behind the great houses and the petroglyphs covered by the plaster covering the rear-wall cliff faces need to be studied systematically to help answer questions such as "what glyphs are never covered by the rear walls of cliff-side dwellings?"