Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Close-up of giant lizard panel, Cub
Creek, Dinosaur National Monument,
Utah. Photo: Peter Faris, 2005.

One location in Utah where extensive rock art is associated with abundant fossil remains is found at Dinosaur National Monument in northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado. Fossil dinosaur bones there first appear in our history with the 1909 discovery of what is now called the Douglass or Carnegie Quarry by Earl Douglass. From 1909 to 1924 thousands of fossil bones were removed for museum collections. It does not seem likely that such deposits of fossil bone would have been overlooked by Native Peoples who lived there before the arrival of Euro-American explorers and exploiters. A large number of rock art sites are also found in what is now named Dinosaur National Monument. A few miles from the Douglass/Carnegie Quarry is an extensive collection of Fremont petroglyphs at the location named Cub Creek.

Giant Lizard panel, Cub Creek, Dinosaur National
Monument, Utah. The top arrow points to the small Fremont
figure and the lower arrow points to the six foot lizard.
Photo: Peter Faris, 2005.

The Fremont people were proto-agriculturalists who lived on the northern and western peripheries of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples planting some maize and hunting and gathering to make up the balance of the year’s food needs (sort of like the country cousins of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples of the Colorado Plateau). The Fremont culture may have developed from the Desert Archaic Culture by AD 500 in eastern Utah and western Colorado. Abandonment of the region by Fremont people falls at ca. AD 1300. They manufactured some ceramic vessels and built permanent dwellings in villages. The Fremont group occupying the area of Dinosaur National Monument has been designated Uintah Fremont. They created the marvelous rock art of the area which has been designated the Classic Vernal Style by Polly Schaafsma. The dates of Classic Vernal Style rock art has been estimated as between AD 600 and AD 1000 by Sally Cole.

A large concentration of Classic Vernal Style anthropomorphs are found on the cliff along a trail up the mesa at Cub Creek in Dinosaur National Monument, a few miles from the location of the Douglass/Carnegie quarry. In this case however, the images of interest are a group of solidly pecked petroglyphs of very large lizards (eight in total) seemingly focused on a small human figure (arrow). The human figure measures perhaps 12”, the largest lizard is about six feet long, and some of the lizards are very obviously focused on the anthropomorph. Other lizards at the site are not focused on the human figure but seem associated with the ones that are in the main group. Given a reasonable estimate of the minimum height of a Fremont male at just a little over five feet the creator of this petroglyph panel was picturing lizards that would approach thirty feet in length correspondingly. Such a juxtaposition of small human and large reptiles is, of course, tremendously suggestive. The most common form of animal life seen there today (other than tourists, of course) are small lizards and, since the climate in that region was similar in the time of the Fremonts to that of today there is no reason to assume that lizards were any less common then.

Therapod dinosaur track, Cub Creek dinosaur track site.
Photo: John Mayers, BLM, Vernal, UT, 2005.

One hundred and eleven Chinle formation dinosaur track sites in and around the Dinosaur National Monument have been recorded to date. One of these is located at Cub Creek, approximately 2.5 km. from the Cub Creek lizard petroglyphs. “It has produced the trackways of more than fifty individual vertebrates from five stratigraphic levels.”(Lockley 1995:97) The track site is up the watershed of Cub Creek itself from the petroglyph panel which was the natural thoroughfare for native peoples who would have followed the water course. The tracks are located in a rock shelter which is found over a saddle from Cub Creek above an adjoining drainage, but again in the reasonable route for passing from the Cub Creek drainage to the next canyon. Most of the visible tracks are casts in the ceiling of the rock shelter but one fallen boulder has many tracks on its face. This location suggests that the dinosaur tracks are certainly within a reasonable distance and position for influencing the creation of the petroglyphs.

The Navajo people of northern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico reportedly recognize petrified dinosaur tracks as the tracks of monsters described in their creation story. An article in the Arizona Republic newspaper stated that “Navajos call the fossilized footprints ”Naasho’illbahitsho Biikee’,” which means “big lizard tracks.” (Anonymous 2004) This article cited 16-year old Stephanie Haskie who works part-time as a tourist guide to show people the trackways near Tuba City. “Fifty years ago, Haskie’s grandparent, while herding sheep home, stumbled across the tracks. They believed that the tracks must have been made by the monsters described in the Navaho creation story. All of the details fit – the muddy imprints, the three toes of a lizardlike animal.” This is tangible evidence that fossil dinosaur footprints were believed by Native American peoples to have been made by giant lizards.

People who had witnessed the gigantic bones of animals weathering from the rocks around them needed to explain their presence and, in this instance, I assume that explanation included mythological accounts of gigantic creatures. The presence of nearby lizard-like footprints measuring eight inches in length would certainly reinforce such an interpretation and would have also suggested that the creatures were giant lizards. Unfortunately this assumption cannot at present be tested because anthropologists are still uncertain of the fate of the Uintah Fremont people. They may have eventually migrated away to become one of the historic period groups of the southwest, or they may have stayed in place and evolved into the Ute and Paiute peoples of the proto-historic period. Indeed it may be possible to throw some light on the question of the eventual fate of the Uintah Fremont people by looking for mythologies of giant lizards among the extant peoples of the southwest.
Until such a time we can only assume such a connection based upon available evidence, but I suggest that the evidence available may well be strong enough to warrant such an assumption.

Lockley, Martin, and Adrienne P. Hunt
1995      Dinosaur Tracks and Other Fossils of the Western United States, Columbia University
              Press, New York.

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