These days you have to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth to get a free ride to the top, but in ancient times, an extra toe was all it took. According to new archaeological evidence, people displaying polydactyly – referring to the possession of superfluous digits on the hands or feet – were given preferential treatment among the pre-Columbian Puebla communities that inhabited the Chaco Canyon in New Mexico a thousand years ago.
Writing in the journal American Antiquity, researchers report the finding of hand and foot-shaped artifacts and paintings at an ancient site known as Pueblo Bonito. Consisting of a vast number of rooms, including burial chambers and ceremonial alters, the Pueblo Bonito complex is thought to have been constructed in the late 9th century, before being expanded over the following 200 years as it developed into a site of major social and religious importance.
When initial excavations took place in 1896, archaeologists discovered the skeletal remains of 96 people, three of whom possessed an extra toe. This is somewhat surprising, since polydactyly only affects 1.32 out of every 1,000 people in the US. Discovering such a high prevalence of the condition at Pueblo Bonito therefore indicates that people with extra digits may have held a high social status in Chaco society, leading to improved reproductive success and the passing on of the genetic mutation responsible for the condition.
Why this is the case is something of a mystery, although several scholars have noted that ancient Mesoamerican divinities were often depicted with extra fingers and toes. It is therefore possible that people with this condition were somehow seen as divine.
Shown is a petroglyph – a carved image – of a six-toed foot by the Puebla comunity 1,000 years ago. Courtesy of Chaco Culture National Park / Patricia L. Crown
Taking a closer look at the Pueblo Bonito relics, the researchers discovered that one woman who had six toes on her right foot was buried with 698 turquoise beads scattered over her right ankle, apparently as an offering to her polydactyly. The researchers also note that while many of the walls at Pueblo Bonito are adorned with handprints and footprints, those with more than five fingers or toes were most commonly found in and around burial chambers and ceremonial rooms, suggesting they were of higher importance.
Furthermore, it is assumed that people with extra toes would have worn a special type of footwear known as jog-toe sandals, as normal shoes would have been highly uncomfortable. With this in mind, it is significant that the majority of stone offerings and implements discovered at ceremonial sites throughout Pueblo Bonito appeared to be in the shape of jog-toe sandals.
On the whole, the Chaco people are described by the study authors as a civilization with a fixation on feet and footwear, yet with a particular preference for those with extra toes.