Saturday, March 27, 2021


I now pick up my examination of polydactyly in rock art in Chaco Canyon. Chaco canyon is a center or cluster site for six-toed footprints, leading some researchers to speculate that if the Chaco Canyon elites had polydactyly it would come to be seen as special and something to be reproduced.

6-toed footprint trackway, behind Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, San Juan county, New Mexico, Photograph Peter Faris, August 2004.

6-toed footprint in mud plaster and plaster cast of same. Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Crown et al., Footnotes, 2016, p. 434, Fig. 5.

A number of examples portraying foot polydactyly are located in Chaco Canyon, NM. Behind Pueblo Bonito the remains of a small room built against the cliff shows a series of six-toed tracks pecked into the back wall cliff face. In Pueblo Bonito itself three buried individuals were recovered displaying polydactyly of a foot (Crown et al. 2016:431) and foot impressions in the mud wall plaster show at least one six-toed impression (Crown 2016: 432). “Careful morphological examination of reassociated foot bones, as well as of individual elements from Pueblo Bonito, has identified three separate cases of polydactyly, two of which were not previously recognized. Thus, instead of the single previously reported case of polydactyly, it appears that the trait occurred with some frequency within this population.” (Crown et al. 2016:429) These figures were apparently also interred with grave goods and/or in locations that suggested they were elite members of the community, reinforcing Wormington’s suggestion that Native Americans considered the physical differences as a mark of being somehow special.

Jog-toed sandal prints, Glenn Canyon, below Smith's Fork, San Juan County, Utah. Online photograph, Public Domain.

Jog-toed sandal prints, Oljeto Wash. Utah. Photograph Chuck LaRue. 

Since more examples of polydactyly are found that involve the foot than he hand it may have been natural for attention to have been paid to sandals that indicate that they were woven to accommodate the extra toe on the foot. These are referred to as jog-toe sandals. “Recently Crown et al. (p.445) assert that the jog-toed sandal itself evolved as an accommodation to polydactyly in the form of six toes, a trait characteristic of an early elite burial, although no sandal was found in association. The burial in question (Burial 13 in Room 33 in Pueblo Bonito) was recently radio-carbon dated between A.D. 690-887, with a median date of A.D. 741 (p.19623), dates that precede in time the iconography under discussion. Nevertheless, a synthesis of foot imagery at Chaco emphasizes the symbolic role of the foot in Ancestral Pueblo ideology during these years, accounting for its presence in the rock art.” (Schaafsma 2016: 17)

Twined jog-toed sandals, Pueblo Bonito, room 24, Schaafsma, 2016, fig. 34.

It certainly seems reasonable to make these inferences, because not only were portrayals of six-toed footprints produced, but portrayals of the jog-toed sandals to accommodate the sixth toe became common as well.

“The symbolic importance of the sandal as a graphic image is also underscored by its replication in other media found within archaeological contexts that indicate it had a ceremonial role. Thus, its representations in rock art can be viewed as part of the symbolic and ritual repertoire or ‘vocabulary’ that prevailed among the Plateau Pueblo peoples throughout the San Juan and neighboring regions during Pueblo II - III times.” (Schaafsma 2016: 17)

There are also instances that record polydactylism that are not necessarily rock art, not painted or engraved on rock. Special sandals called jog-toed sandals are thought to represent sandals made to accommodate a sixth toe. These are occasionally found illustrated in rock art, but they also are known through discoveries of actual examples of the sandals.

This has been seen as a Pueblo-wide phenomenon. “For example, many twined sandals from the Pueblo II and III periods have what appears to be a stylized sixth toe on the outside of the foot. Sandal-makers might have added these toe-jogs to commemorate real or fictive associations with important leaders at Chaco Canyon, at least of few of whom actually had a sixth toe. Because of that feature, and because these sandals required such intense effort to make, their wearers might have been high-ranking individuals who associated themselves with religious and political movements in the larger Chaco world.” (Bellorado 2018:40)

Sandal stones, larger than life-size, Long House, Mesa Verde, Colorado. Figure 3, p. 2, Schaafsma, 2016.

Knobby Knee Stockade, Site 5MT2525, US Bureau of Reclamation Hovenweep Laterals, photograph from Scott Schumaker.

And not only images and sandals have been recovered. Sandal effigy tablets in both wood and stone have been found, both jog-toed and non jog-toed. “Commonly larger than live-sized, finely worked, ground stone or wooden sandal effigy tablets in plain or jog-toed shape are characteristic. Although the ‘sandal stones’ were once erroneously tagged as utilitarian ‘sandal lasts’, this idea has been not only questioned, but vigorously challenged and dismissed. Further, their associations with caches of ritual paraphernalia or kivas are documented from Mesa Verde, Chaco, and Aztec sites. Wooden forms often bore painted decoration comparable to those seen on sandals in rock art. From Aztec two painted wooden sandal forms (at least one of which is jog-toed and with rounded heel) are painted on both sides with geometric designs. Their archaeological contexts in ritual caches and the investment in time represented in their manufacture are testimony to their iconic status and symbolic significance that can be extended to the graphic examples, and their use as altar furnishings is likely.” (Schaasma 2016)

Miniature jog-toed stone sandal effigy, Little Colorado River drainage. (1963 photograph by Myrtle Perce Vivian; courtesy of R. Gwinn Vivian). P. 15, fig. 17, Schaafsma, 2016.

Aside from their suggested use for “ritual” purposes, the only real suggestion of a possible significance for the jog-toed images and artifacts are as references to the presumed hereditary polydactylism of persons at Chaco Canyon who seem to have been important people in the community. This is suggested as a “me too” second-hand sort of significance by association. I honestly do not know if this is a real answer to the question of the significance of polydactyly in rock art, but it seems to be the best answer we have currently, and it will have to stand until a better answer comes along.

NOTE: Some images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the original reports at the sites listed below.


Bellorado, Benjamin A.2018 Sandals and Sandal Symbolism in Greater Bears Ears and Beyond, Archaeology Southwest Magazine 32 (1)Tucson, AZ, 39-41.

Crown, Patricia L., Kerriann M. Hedman, and Hannah V. Mattson, 2016 Foot Notes: The Social Implications of Polydactyly and Foot-Related Images at Chaco Canyon, American Antiquity 81, 426-48

Hirthler, Maureen A., and Richard L. Hutchison2012 Polydactyly in the Southwest: Art or Anatomy - a Photo Essay, October 16, Hand (Journal), NY.

Shaafsma, Polly2016 Sandals as Icons: Representations in Ancestral Pueblo Rock Art and Effigies in Stone and Wood, 7 October 2016, published in Arts, 5, 7, academic editor Robert Bednarik.

Saturday, March 20, 2021


Six-toed footprint, Newspaper Rock, Utah. Photograph Richard Coleman.

A fascinating feature of rock art is the occasional occurrence of polydactylism (polydactyly) in hand or foot prints. I have written on this subject a number of times before (see polydactylism in the cloud index at the bottom of this blog). The archaeologist H. Marie Wormington explained her theory of polydactyly in Fremont rock art to me back in the 1980s (a personal conversation). She had found a Fremont Culture burial of a six-fingered man who had deluxe grave goods interred with him and, from that, she inferred that the polydactyly made one special in that society, and hence more likely to be considered important, important enough to bury with special deluxe grave goods, and important enough to be pictured on the rocks.

Polydactyly of the hand. Online photograph, Public Domain.

"Bigfoot Man" with six fingers, McConkey Ranch, outside of Vernal, Utah. Photograph 10 September 1994, Peter Faris.

This may have been the case with the so-called “Bigfoot Man” at McConkie Ranch, outside of Vernal, Utah. This Fremont painting of a warrior shows him with six fingers on each hand.

Three Rivers, New Mexico. Online photograph, Public Domain.

Polydactyl Mayan hand print, Temple of the Frescoes, Tulum, Mexico. Online photograph, Public Domain.

In Crown, et al. (2016) polydactyly is classified as Type A (the extra digit may be well-developed and functional, or Type B. With Type B polydactyly the extraneous protrusion is without bones, comprised only of soft tissue. Type A postaxial polydactyly occurs in modern Native American populations in .11/1000 births, and in a ratio of males to females of 1.6. The figure for Type B is .73/1000 live births. The feet are affected more often than the hands and the left side more often than the right. (Crown et al. 2016:427)

Nine-Mile Canyon, Utah, Photograph Peter Faris, August 1993.

Nine-Mile Canyon, Utah, Internet photograph, Public Domain.

Hirthler and Hutchison have a higher figure citing “a relatively high incidence of polydactyly in contemporary Native American populations. The modern incidence of finger and toe duplication is approximately 2.4 in 1,000, with hands preferentially effected. Thumb duplication is more common in Native American populations (0.25/1,000) than it is in Afro-Americans (0.08/1.000) or caucasians (0.08/1.000).” (Hirthler and Hutchison 2012) Whichever set of figures is accurate, this condition, while relatively rare, is still known among First American descendants.

Then we come to six-toed footprints. For some reason (unknown to me at least) there are a large number of six-toed footprints at the Newspaper Rock site in Utah. 

6-toed trackway, Newspaper Rock, Indian Creek, San Juan County, Utah. Photograph Peter Faris.

Newspaper Rock, San Juan County, UT. Photograph Sherman Spear, October 1967.

Newspaper Rock, San Juan County, UT. Photograph Richard Coleman, October 2011.

This is part one of my revisit to the theme of polydactyly (polydactylism) in rock art. In part two I will continue with polydactyly at Chaco Canyon and then expand it into sandals and sandal prints that exhibit signs of polydactyly as well.

NOTE: Some images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the original reports at the sites listed below.


Crown, Patricia L., Kerriann M. Hedman, and Hannah V. Mattson, 2016, Foot Notes: The Social Implications of Polydactyly and Foot-Related Images at Chaco Canyon, American Antiquity 81, 426-48

Hirthler, Maureen A., and Richard L. Hutchison2012, Polydactyly in the Southwest: Art or Anatomy - a Photo Essay, October 16, Hand (Journal), NY.

Saturday, March 13, 2021


 "Venus" of Willendorf, 4.4", carved limestone, covered with ochre, ca. 25,000 BCE, Austria. Internet photo, Wikipedia, Public Domain.

Among the many mysteries in Paleolithic art are the chubby little femalefigures first named by French researchers as “Venus” figures. Their purpose/uses are unknown but among the questions is the obesity or chubbiness displayed by so many of them. These figures, primarily figurines although they include a painted figure and a bas-relief, have been found from Italy through France and Germany to Russia. So why are the figures predominately portly with a few shown as extremely obese?

Lespugue "Venus", ca. 25,000 year old, Photo Musee de l'Homme, Paris.

Now a new study has tackled that question with a clever approach. They measured figurines and cave art and calculated in the distance from the glacial front at the time of their creation.  “Figurines of woman with obesity or who are pregnant (“Venus figurines”) from Upper Paleolithic Europe rank among the earliest art and endured from 38,000 to 14,000 BP (before present), one of the most arduous climatic periods in human history. We propose that the Venus representation relates to human adaptation to climate change. During this period, humans faced advancing glaciers and falling temperatures that led to nutritional stress, regional extinctions, and a reduction in the population. We analyzed Paleolithic figurines of women with obesity to test whether the more obese figurines are from sites during the height of the glacial advance and closer to the glacial fronts. Figurines are less obese as distance from the glaciers increases. Because survival required sufficient nutrition for child-bearing women, we hypothesize that the overnourished woman became an ideal symbol of survival and beauty during episodes of starvation and climate change in Paleolithic Europe.” (Johnson et al. 2020)

"Venus" of Hohle Fels, mammoth ivory, ca. 40,000 - 35,000 BCE, Schelklingen, Germany. Internet photo, Wikipedia, Public Domain.

The results of this analysis seem to confirm a theory published in 2014 in the journal Endocrinology. “We propose here that the ability to thermoregulate in extreme heat or cold afforded powerful survival advantages and therefore commanded much higher selection coefficients than those for thrifty genes, which purportedly provided merely a slight fecundity advantage. Moreover, to reproduce you must survive. Survival advantages must therefore supersede fertility advantages. Genes that were essential to survival, particularly in newborn or young children, such as those that control thermoregulation would be of greater importance than thrifty genes because they would allow an individual to survive to reach reproductive age.” (Sellayah et al. 2014)

"Venus" of Laussel, France. carved limestone, painted with ochre, 18.11" high, ca. 25,000 BCE. Internet photo, Wikipedia, Public Domain.

Chauvet "Buffalo Woman", France. Photo, Public Domain. A woman's obese lower torso formed from the front legs of a buffalo and a lion with the addition of the vulva.

In other words, the closer to the glacier front the more obese the female portrayals in cave art and figurines. This would seem to provide a survival advantage in two ways. One, the extra adipose tissue could be drawn on for nutrition at times of nutritional stress, and two, extra body fat provides extra insulation against the cold. Additionally, with these reserves a woman would be more reliably fertile and so would insure a next generation for the clan, and just might pass this trait to obesity on genetically to her offspring. This suggests that such a woman would be highly regarded within the group and looked up to by others.

"Venus" of Gagarino, carved ivory, ca. 21,000 - 25.000 BCE, Russia. Internet photo, Wikipedia, Public Domain.

The attitude of a group toward the “ideal” figure is heavily influenced by the examples of persons in the upper echelons of society.

“An important cultural question is, ‘what is a ‘good’ - desirable, beautiful, impressive - body?’ The answers are legion; here I examine why bigger bodies represent survival skill, and how this power symbolism is embodied by behaviors that guide larger persons toward the top of the social hierarchy. Bigness is a complex concept comprising tallness, boniness, muscularity and fattiness. Data show that most people worldwide want to be big - both tall and fat. Those who achieve the ideal are disproportionately among the society’s most socially powerful.” (Cassidy 1991)

"Venus" of Dolni Vestonice, Czech Republic. Ceramic, ca. 29,000 - 25,000 BCE, one of the oldest known ceramic articles. Internet photo, Wikipedia, Public Domain.

The concept of large bodoy mass being considered desirable is not foreign to history. In the reports of western explorers of the 17 and 18th centuries we read of the Polynesian ideal of beauty involving considerable body mass and gives us a tangible example of the concept in action.  Writing about the native Hawaiian race in 1917 MacCaughey stated: “Many of the chiefs and women of their families have been remarkable, not only for their height, but also for their weight. Four hundred pounds was formerly not unusual for one of this favored class, and three hundred pounds was the prevalent weight among the nobility. This corpulence was much more common among the women than the men.” (MacCaughey 1917:169)

Figure from Brassempouy, mammoth ivory, 3.65 cm. high, ca. 26,000 - 24,000 BP. Internet photo, Wikipedia, Public Domain.

As far as the question of the likelihood of reproduction, it is well known that being underweight for a woman severely effects her fertility. “If you’re underweight and have too little body fat, you may have too little progesterone and higher than normal levels of the stress hormone cortisol, either of which could impair ovulation and implantation. ‘If you underweight, your body sensed this as stress and shuts off the reproductive system to focus on things that are essential to survival.’” (Colin 2020)

"Venus of Polichenelle", carved green steatite, 61mm high, ca. 27,000 BP, Grimaldi, Italy. Internet photo, Wikipedia, Public Domain.

While it is true that being obese can also affect a woman’s hormones and interfere with reproduction, all in all it seems that being somewhat overweight must have been seen in the Paleolithic society as more attractive, and more likely to bear children. While this new study (Johnson et al. 2020) can not help settle whether these “Venus” figurines are objects of devotion or pornography, it does help us understand the social background that led to their creation.

NOTE: Some images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the original reports at the sites listed below.


Cassidy, C. M.1991, The Good Body: When Big is Better, Medical Anthropology 13(3),Sept. 1991, pp.181-213

Colin, Stacey2020 How Body Weight and Body Mass Index (BMI) Affect A Woman’s Fertility and Ability to Conceive, February 24, 2020,

Johnson, Richard J., Miguel A. Lanaspa, John W. Fox, 2020, Upper Paleolithic Figurines Showing Women with Obesity May Represent Survival Symbols of Climatic Change, December 1, 2020, Obesity, Journal of the Obesity Society,

MacCaughey, Vaughan1917 The Physique of the Ancient Hawaiians, Scientific Monthly, August 1917, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 166-174, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, URL:

Sellayah, Dyan, Felino R Cagampang, Roger D. Cox2014, On the Evolutionary Origins of Obesity: A New Hypothesis, May 1, 2014, Endocrinology, Vol. 155, Issue 5, p. 1573-1588



Friday, March 5, 2021


Nilometer, Egypt. Internet image, Public Domain.

Readers of RockArtBlog will remember that I include inscriptions on stone as a part of our field of interest. I cannot personally find the dividing line between petroglyphs or pictographs and various forms of writing (which can be pictograms such as Egyptian hieroglyphs). I have recently run across a form of inscription carved in stone that I had been previously unaware of - the “Hunger Stone.” Art historians, and historians in general, will have heard of nilometers, the various inscriptions carved into rock that allowed Egyptians to judge the height of the Nile flood phase each year. These have been used for thousands of years. Hunger Stones (hungersteins) are sort of the opposite of this. The nilometer measures the height of the water in the Nile, a hunger stone indicates that the water level is dangerously low. When the river flow is low enough that the inscription is exposed the inhabitants are, in effect, warned that famine may occur because of water shortage, lack of moisture and crop failure.

Hunger stone at Decin, Elbe River, 
Czek Republic, 

Hunger stone at Decin, Elbe River, 
Czek Republic, 

Hunger stones are “a type of hydrological landmark common in Central Europe. Hunger stones serve as famine memorials and warnings and were erected in Germany and in ethnic German settlements throughout Europe in the 15th through 19th centuries. These stones were embedded into a river during droughts to mark the water level as a warning to future generations that they will have to endure famine-related hardships if the water sinks to this level again. One famous example in the Elbe river in Děčín, Czech Republic, has ‘Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine’ (lit. ‘If you see me, weep’) carved into it as a warning.

Elbe river in Decin, Czech Republic, AP Photograph Petr David Josek, Aug. 23, 2018.

Many of these stones, featuring carvings or other artwork, were erected following the hunger crisis of 1816-1817 caused by the eruptions of the Tambora volcano. In 1918, a hunger stone on the bed of the Elbe River near Tetschen, became exposed during a period of low water coincident to the wartime famines of World War I. Similar hunger stones in the river were uncovered again during a drought in 2018.” (Wikipedia

The “If You See Me, Weep” warning had been carved in German by boatman and riverside innkeeper Franz Mayer during a period of low water in 1904 while the country was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (Marchal 2018) Others have considerably less carving bearing only dates marking the low water levels for that specific year.

Hunger stone, Photograph Norbert Kaiser.

Hunger stone, photograph 1995, Brazdil and Kotyza.

Boatmen and rafters had earned their livelihoods by ferrying goods and passengers back and forth over the river, and when the river water was too low their business and income collapsed. “The rafters engraved the dates of those bad years on the soft sandstone boulders typical for this region, hence the name ‘Hunger Stone.’ About 20 such boulders, engraved with markers and dates going back centuries, can still be found on the banks of the Elbe, a major central European waterway running from the Czech Republic through Germany to the North Sea.” (Marchal 2018)

Hunger stone in Elbe River, Dresden. Photograph Wikipedia.

The 2018 exposure of that stone was caused by drought that “affected around 94 percent of the Czech Republic, causing crop damage estimated at nine to 11 billion koruna (350-427 million euros, $408-500 million), according to the Agrarian Chamber.” (Marchal 2018) It would seem that, in spite of modern dams and water control features, the message of the hunger stones is still relevant to modern times, and in the age of global warning, may become ever more pertinent.

NOTE: Some images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the original reports at the sites listed below.


Hunger Stone,

Marchal, Jan, 2018 ‘Hunger Stones’ Tell Elbe’s Centuries-Old Tale of Drought, September 10, 2018,