Monday, February 8, 2010


Paleontologist George R. Wieland and 11-foot-tall
Archelon ischyros, 1895, from South Dakota,
Peabody Museum of Nat. Hist.

In Native American mythology the world is known as Turtle Island. They see the world as existing on the back of a great turtle swimming in an endless ocean. This could seem to be quite a stretch of the imagination, where could the idea of such a gigantic turtle come from? One could well suppose that very large turtles such as snapping turtles could have influenced this belief. Another possibility however, is that it was suggested by a Native American finding the exposed fossils of one of the prehistoric giant turtles like the eleven foot skeleton illustrated. Once you have proof of a turtle of that scale, turtles of almost any size seem possible.

Turtle Island, Seri Indian, p.134, People
of the Desert, Time-Life, 1993.

This picture was painted by a Mexican Seri Indian portraying his homeland on the back of Turtle Island and illustrating the concept clearly.

Turtle petroglyph, Purgatoire Canyon, CO.
Photo: 1999, Peter Faris.

Legend Rock, WY.
Photo: 1998, Peter Faris.

The presence of turtle imagery in rock art is well documented with examples found all over North America. The examples I have included come from Legend Rock in northwestern Wyoming, and from the Purgatoire River canyon in southeast Colorado.

Fossilized mud cracks, Painted Canyon, TX.
Photo: 2002, Peter Faris.

Once while on a field trip in western Texas visiting rock art sites I came across a horizontal outcropping of stone which was patterned with fossilized mud cracks. At the time I immediately thought of the pattern of plates or scutes on a turtle’s shell, and I realized that I was seeing the real surface of Turtle Island. Here in the eroded Texas landscape the earth had washed and/or blown away , down to the surface of the rocky shell of Turtle Island. No wonder the turtle became such a symbol of strength and endurance.

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