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'Adam and Eve' by Maerten van Heemskerck (ca. 1550). Note that Adam has six fingers on his left hand.

In Search of Six-Fingered Men (and Women): Indicators of a lost civilization?

In our Monday news briefs we posted a link to an extraordinary story, which detailed recent discoveries at the archaeological sites of Gobekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe that suggest most of the remains of an unknown, extraordinarly ancient civilisation still lie buried beneath the soil of eastern Turkey (as in, possibly 13,000 years ago – three times as long ago as the building of the Great Pyramid).

I posted a Twitter thread pointing out some of most eye-opening parts of the article, but here I just wanted to touch on perhaps the weirdest thing mentioned:

Another unnerving oddity is the curious number of carvings of people with six fingers. Is this symbolic, or an actual deformity? Perhaps the mark of a strange tribe? Again, there are more questions than answers.

If you mention six-fingered people today, most might think of ‘the six-fingered man’ that Inigo Montoya is seeking revenge against in The Princess Bride (aka Count Rugen). But having an extra digit is a well-known and reasonably common condition, referred to as polydactyly or polydactylism, caused by genetic mutation and occuring in between 1 in 300 and 1 in 3000 births (though it doesn’t always result in a fully formed and functional finger).

But polydactyly has been observed throughout earlier times in history – sometimes the condition was revered, other times feared, but in both cases usually within mythical or supernatural frameworks. In “Six Fingers in Art and Archaeology” (available online within this PDF), archaeologist Richard Barnett noted that though the topic had received virtually no attention from scholars, his own research had found that polydactyly was represented in ancient art, literature and artifacts from multiple locations including Egypt, Malta, Jordan and Iran. Though it was “most often recorded in divine or heroic representations”, he noted it also clearly occurred occasionally in representations of everyday people as well, such as on sarcophagi with images of the deceased.

The same appears to have been true in the New World, where Native Americans tribes are thought to have revered people with extra toes or fingers. The Pueblo culture of Chaco Canyon “decorated rocks throughout the regions with images of polydactyly and even had those with an extra appendage decorate walls by smooshing their feet into wet clay”. And sculptures at the Maya site of Palenque (PDF) also portray individuals with six fingers or six toes.

Figure with six fingers at Palenque

Perhaps the most well-known ancient mention of polydactyly though is in the Bible, where in 2 Samuel 21:20 we find one of a number of stories under the ‘War Against the Philistines’ involving battles against ‘giants’, or at least very large men (redolent of the David vs Goliath story):

In still another battle, which took place at Gath, there was a huge man with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot—twenty-four in all. He also was descended from Rapha. When he taunted Israel, Jonathan son of Shimeah, David’s brother, killed him.

It is in this passage that we find a possible link to the Karahan Tepe six-fingered carvings that I think many fringe researchers in alternative archaeology, ancient alien theory, or Biblical literalism might jump on. Some in those groups have previously suggested that these Biblical ‘giants’ – and via this passage, people with six-fingers – might have been members of a lost civilisation, or a hybrid alien species, or the offspring of angelic beings, respectively. This comes from a couple of passages in the Old Testament referring to a race of giants that lived before (and after) the great flood:

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days — and also afterward — when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown. (Genesis 6:4)

So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” (Numbers 13:32-33)

See, as an example of these associations, this segment from Ancient Aliens:

A number of alternative history theories have also linked the culture that built Gobekli Tepe with the Nephilim – so the news that there are representations of six-fingered individuals there will surely be taken by some as supportive evidence for this idea.

Obviously, we don’t need to go as far as suggesting the presence of six-fingered statues at Karahan Tepe is proof of ancient aliens or angelic hybrids – polydactyly is a known human condition caused by genetic mutation, so we don’t need to reach for out-of-the-box theories. However, the link is still interesting: polydactyly can be passed down within families as a genetic trait (see below), so is it possible that just such a genetically distinct group with a high rate of polydactyly was responsible for the culture currently being unearthed in Turkey (and perhaps helped spread civilization elsewhere?), and the mentions in the Bible and other stories, and artistic works, were mythical memories of these people (or stories about pockets of their ancestors that continued to exist and intermingled with other populations)?

Of course, representations showing six-fingers could sometimes just be dumb mistakes by the artist (or in some cases, mistakes by the observer, such as seeing a non-anatomically-correct depiction of a thumb as an extra finger), but when we find many of these images grouped together (such as at Chaco Canyon, and apparently at Karahan Tepe), we would have to think that it is purposely describing people/beings actually having six fingers. That could in many cases still be a symbolic or mythical representation of course. But the relatively large amount of these images found at a number of very ancient sites seems to suggest that, from the very beginnings of human civilisation, people or beings with six fingers were revered for whatever reason.

I don’t want to make too much of it, but it still seems like a thread worth pulling on to some extent. As author Jim Vieira notes in the video below that provides a comprehensive look at representations of polydactyly in ancient cultures (along with his pet research topic of ancient tales of giants):

What do you make of all this? If you’re an academic you can pick away at pieces of this, but it’s tough to start talking about hybrids and gods and the supernatural and be taken seriously. So you know I like to think of myself as a goodwill ambassador from the lunatic fringe and I just try to piece together this information…I think there’s something to this, it is well beyond coincidence. I think any rational person, strapped down to a chair and forced to listen to me talk about this for an hour, will say ‘there’s something to this story, I don’t know truly what it is but it seems like there’s something here.

I don’t agree with all Vieira’s theories (or even all of the evidence presented in this video), but overall the topic is fascinating and Vieira’s lecture does a good job of displaying the impressively large number of artifacts of this type in the ancient world:

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