14) Multivalence of Footprints

In Mesoamerican art, footprints have clearly left their mark. Three-thousand-year-old eagle footprints carved in stone are known from an Olmec site in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. Artistic representations of human footprints date back at least as early as the Classic period in Mesoamerica. They can be found, for example, on murals at Teotihuacan. In one example, from a piece of mural originating from Teotihuacan (left) and now located at the Dumbarton Oaks museum in Washington, D.C., footprints occupy a space that may be a symbolic path. As Stephen Houston's fifth of six public lectures given at the National Gallery in April and May 2023 showed, some footprints also accompany the presence of foreigners (perhaps from Teotihuacan) in the Maya zone in the fifth century, and single footprints found their way into some Maya glyphs.

In Aztec hieroglyphs, black human footprints have a regular presence in a wide range of settings and with many different readings. They point to roads [o(tli)] in place names such as Xomeyocan, Ocapayocan, and Tizayocan, or they play a semantic role in marketplaces, where people move around a lot, such as Tianquiztenco. Footprints recall verbs, such as "to go" (yauh) in Yaqui, or "run away" (choloa), "run fast" (paina), "cross" (pano), "go down" (temoa), "go about" (nemi), "travel" (nenemi), or to "stand" (quetza), finding expression in place names and personal names. Not surprisingly, footprints can also allude to the foot or things relating to it in the form of xo(tl). In the same vein, the Aztec leg sign also has at least eleven different readings (Whittaker 2012, 55), including foot as xotl. Carmen Herrera and her co-authors (2005, 64) provide an impressive list of examples showing the multivalence of footprints, and Gordon Whittaker discusses a number of footprints in his book (2021, 100–101). But this database is actively adding to these lists (e.g. with quetza and nenemi), for example. The attestations in the image below will probably still not be exhaustive as this digital collection continues to grow. (SW, 23 May 2023).