Monday, June 28, 2010


On June 26, 2010, I was driving north to Fort Collins, Colorado, to attend a High School class Reunion, when I got a great view of an old friend – Horsetooth rock. Although there was a forest fire just a few miles south in the foothills making the air smoky, from my vantage point the air was clear enough to give me an unusually good view of the rock.

Horsetooth rock, west of Fort Collins, CO.
Photo: Peter Faris, 26 June 2010.
(Click on photo for an enlarged view.)

Horsetooth rock is a peak in the foothills of what is called the front range of the Rocky Mountains, overlooking the Fort Collins area in Larimer County, Colorado. The distinctive shape of this rock with its two gaps reminded early settlers of the molars of a horse. Those Anglo settlers, however, were not the only people who found this prominent peak remarkable.

An Indian legend I heard back when growing up in Fort Collins referred to what we have named Horstooth rock as the heart of a giant who lived up that canyon. According to this Cheyenne or Arapaho story every time the tribe in their annual rounds and migrations passed by the canyon mouth that leads to Horsetooth; they were accosted by the giant who demanded that they give him a pure young maiden in exchange for peaceful passage. After many years of this sacrifice the maiden chosen one year was beloved by a heroic young warrior of the tribe. Determined to rescue his beloved, he waited behind when the tribe passed on. That night the giant tied the maiden securely and lay down to sleep. As he slept the young hero crept into the giant’s camp and struck two mighty blows with his tomahawk, chopping directly into the heart of the giant. The blows killed the giant, the warrior freed his beloved, and they left the canyon, presumably to live happier ever after.

The distinctive rock that we see now represents the heart of the giant, turned to stone in death and by the passage of time, with the two gaps showing where the young hero struck with his tomahawk. As a young man, climbing and hiking around the rock myself, I felt that the native legend about this rock was of considerably greater interest than any implications of our name for it, however descriptive it might have been. In our search for scientific truth we sometimes give up a certain amount of excitement and glamour.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


HOW THE EARTH CHANGED HISTORY – EPISODE 1, National Geographic Channel, Host: Professor Ian Stewart, 2010.

The introductory episode of this new series focused upon water and how its presence or absence has affected human cultures. As it opened the host was seen driving across the sand of the Sahara and he stated that he was six hours from the nearest human habitation. He arrived at a cliff upon which he pointed out a collection of marvelous petroglyphs of African wildlife. Images on the cliff included giraffes, crocodiles, antelope, a warthog, and many others, and his point was that this locale had once been well watered and lush. This sequence also included some of the most amazing and marvelous film effects I have ever seen. It began with a petroglyph of a lizard which was engraved into the cliff, while the camera was focused directly on it, as we watched all of a sudden the lizard scurried up the cliff face and away. Not turned into a real lizard which ran off mind you, the petroglyph, the image grooved into the cliff face began to move. Then other images also began to move including an elephant petroglyph which shook its head and moved its trunk. The surprise was considerable because I had never seen, or even imagined, anything like this.

While I have not fully figured out my reactions and thoughts about it the first thing that came to mind was that I have just seen something totally new and unique. The whole concept of rock art has always been solid permanence, and the idea of petroglyphs as ephemeral moving images seems a total reversal of our expectations. In the long run this sort of modification to our habitual expectations will open up new areas of consideration and understanding of the meaning and effect of these images. In a small way, in my chosen field of study it was a historic moment, and I did not even know the name of the art director who came up with the idea. I have sent an inquiry to the National Geographic Channel asking for the name of the person who should get credit. I will pass that information on if I receive an answer.

Watch for a rerun of this amazing program on the National Geographic Channel and let me know what you think when you see it.

Friday, June 18, 2010


Insect forms, Village of the Great Kivas,
Zuni, New Mexico. Photo: Teresa Weedin.

One insect form found in rock art in the American Southwest consists of a line with a number of shorter crossing lines, and with a fork or prongs at each end. The example illustrated is from Canyon de Chelley, Arizona. I believe that this form may have been intended to represent the common insect known as an earwig.

Earwig, Canyon de Chelley, AZ,
Photo Peter Faris, 1997.


According to Wikipedia:
Earwigs are characterized by the cerci, or the pair of forceps-like pincers on their abdomen; male earwigs have curved pincers, while females have straight ones. These pincers are used to capture prey, defend themselves and fold their wings under the short tegmina.
The common earwig is one of the few insects that actively hunts for food and is omnivorous, eating arthropods, plants, and ripe fruit. They have also been known to eat corn silk, damaging the corn.
Earwigs are generally nocturnal, and typically hide in small, dark, and often moist areas in the daytime. Earwigs tend to gather in shady cracks or openings or anywhere that they can remain concealed during daylight.

In a patch of growing corn the earwig finds ideal hiding places between the leaves and cornstalk, as well as within the leaves that make up the husks of the ears of the corn plant. Anyone who has ever experienced husking fresh picked corn from the garden has found earwigs in the process and would definitely accept an association between the corn and the insect.

Ancestral pueblo people of the Southwest depended upon their corn crop for the survival of their families. They would be expected to have an intimate knowledge of the life and development of the plants and would have been fully aware of insects associated with their corn crop. While the earwig might have damaged some of the corn crop by eating the silk on developing ears of corn, they also ate insects that may have damaged the corn such as aphids and plant lice. This knowledge may well have inspired the sort of approach-avoidance relationship that would lead to granting the insect a special place in agriculturally related belief complexes.

While I have been personally unable to find any ethnographic background that links this image to the earwig, I have little doubt that there is such based upon locations where this symbol is often found and which relied upon maize agriculture for subsistence.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


In far northwestern Colorado adjoining Dinosaur National Monument on the north side in Moffat County is an area known as Brown’s Park. Towards the eastern end of Brown’s Park, Vermillion Canyon runs from the north to the south to join up with the Green river. As a permanent source of water in a dry area Vermillion Creek must have served as a travel route for the Native American inhabitants of the area from the arid lands to the north to the more watered Brown’s Park. They left considerable rock art on the canyon walls along the creek, most of it traceable to the Fremont culture of Eastern Utah/Northwestern Colorado.

Water bug petroglyphs, probably Fremont,
Vermillion Canyon, Moffat County, CO.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1988.

The importance of this water source is suggested by the presence of a unique petroglyph found in the narrow reaches of the canyon. This image appears to present four insects above a zigzag horizontal line which is usually thought to represent water, and could be intended to represent Vermillion creek. The canyon in this area is deep and narrow with vertical cliffs, and on a searing hot summer day the bottom of the canyon is cool and comfortable.

So what would this grouping represent? While it is possible to stretch some of the traditional explanations of rock art such as sympathetic magic or shamanism to explain these that would be pretty much a modern intellectual construct. Within an animistic religious framework the spirits of the water bugs could well be thought to appeal to the Great Spirit to keep the cool water flowing for them. I prefer to think, however, that some Native American, probably from among the Fremont people, sitting in the cool shade by the streamside during a mid-summer hot spell, was amused by watching water bugs scooting around on the surface of Vermillion Creek, and decided to affectionately record the moment on the handy cliff face. Remember, not all meanings have to be big, important, and significant. Some rock art may have been done just for fun!