Saturday, September 6, 2014


Cheyenne River Coup Count, Linnea Sundstrom.

A recent paper, Rock Art Tallies: Mathematics on Stone in Western North America, in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics (Vol. 3, No. 2, July 2013, pages 76 - 88) by James V. Rauff of Milliken University discussed a number of rock art examples that he identified from Western North America. I have a couple of minor problems with Mr. Rauff in his designation of some of these markings as tallies. First, let me state that some undoubtedly are tallies, although we may not be able to determine what they are tallies of. He presented the example of the very impressive Cheyenne River coup count from Linnea Sundstrom. A coup count is, of course, a tally of the coups counted.

Jeffers Petroglyph Site, Station 16. Lothson, p.16.

Close-up, Jeffers Petroglyph Site, Station 16. Lothson, p.16.

Rauff also presented a panel from the Jeffers Petroglyph Site in Minnesota which shows an anthropomorph with a line of eleven dots behind him as a tally. Any student of Plains Indian art recognizes the row of dots as footprints denoting that the figure is traveling and Rauff correctly explained that they could represent a tally of distance, or time traveled. I had not before thought of this sort of portrayal as a tally per se, but I can give him this one as well.

Table 1, Rauff.

Basketmaker II or III, Hidden Valley, CO. Schaafsma, 1980, p. 129.

My only real problem with some of Rauff’s designated tallies comes from the fact that he seems to consider any and all cases of a repeated symbol as a tally of something. This can be best illustrated by referring to his table 1 of figures he identified as representing tallies from various locations in the West. In this table he includes an example of Basketmaker Culture masks from Colorado (I am sure they represent something, but I am not sure that they constitute a bona fide tally). I would be as likely to consider this a portrait gallery as a tally per se. Another example is his designation of astronomical symbols of a crescent moon and a star in his table of tallies. I would suggest that multiple star symbols are much more likely to represent a portrayal of an asterism or constellation than a tally.

Stylized anthropomorphs, upper left and right
(with possible brands). Signal Mountain, MT,
Sundstrom, 1990, p.295-C.

Rancher's brands, Atherton Canyon, Mont.
Sundstrom 1990, p.294-A.

Other of the symbols that he designates as part of a tally count appear to me to be a highly stylized anthropomorph (#5), and a possible rancher’s brand (#1). These images are taken from Linnea Sundstrom’s Rock Art of the Southern Black Hills (1990), as examples of Vertical Series rock art. According to Sundstrom this style occurs in the southern Black Hills, the Bighorn Mountains in north central Wyoming, and in south central Montana. She identifies this rock art with Lakota or other Siouan-speaking groups in the region (Sundstrom 1990:293-9).

Many of his examples strike me as a stereotypical case of finding what you are looking for. Overall, however, I do find the premise of Mr. Rauff highly laudable, and I could not agree more with these sentences from his conclusion, which I will also let be my conclusion to this posting. “Rock art tallies provide a nice source of data for speculation and creativity. They also provide a nice focus for cross-disciplinary study.” It is obviously a subject that needs a lot more consideration.


Lothson, Gordon Allan
1976    The Jeffers Petroglyphs Site: A Survey and Analysis of the Carvings, Minnesota Prehistoric Archaeology Series No. 12, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Rauff, James V.
2013    Rock Art Tallies: Mathematics on Stone in Western North America, in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics (Vol. 3, No. 2, July 2013, pages 76 - 88).

Schaafsma, Polly
1980    Indian Rock Art of the Southwest, School of American Research, Santa Fe, and University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Sundstrom, Linnea
1990    Rock Art of the Southern Black Hills: A Contextual Approach, Garland Publishing Co., New York.

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