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Tucson Weekly The Anasazi's Amazing Feet

A Modern Sandal Company Is Haunted By The Soles Of An Ancient People.

By Leo Banks

JUNE 29, 1998:  FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA--Enter the back-country around this picturesque mountain town and see the bottled-water and fanny-pack crowd spending summer vacations crawling through canyons, just as the ancients did--except for the high-tech running shoes.

But wait. Lagging behind the group is a fellow in black socks and sandals, an obvious tinhorn, probably from New Jersey.

Sandals in canyon country? Truth is, they might be the best way to traverse the mountains, riverbeds and rock-strewn deserts of southern Utah and northern Arizona.

Recent work by archaeologists reveals that Native Americans from 1,400 years ago wore a sandal with a sole so well-designed they're the technological equivalent of modern-day Nikes and Adidas. Two hundred of these yucca sandals, finely woven by artisans using 22 different textile techniques, were discovered in 1930-31 by Earl Morris, an archaeologist for the Carnegie Institute, and his wife, Ann.

For much of the next half century, they languished in a drawer at Arizona State Museum in Tucson--until Kelley Hays-Gilpin, an archaeologist at Northern Arizona University, studied the so-called Prayer Rock sandal collection as part of her dissertation. That project led to a collaboration with Elizabeth Ann Morris--daughter of the original discoverers--and a third archaeologist, Ann Cordy Deegan, on a book, Prehistoric Sandals from Northeastern Arizona.

Hays-Gilpin and her co-authors studied the safety literature used by modern shoemakers and found that the Prayer Rock sandals, most likely made by the Anasazi, forerunners of present-day Hopi and Zuni people, measure up quite favorably.

Their soles have the perfect tread depth for gripping and the edges point out so that water squirts away, as it does with modern tires. The soles also have multi-directional ridges to reduce slipping, and the yucca gives them flexibility.

"The Anasazi had deer, badger and elk to kill so they could easily have relied on leather moccasins, but they didn't," says Morris, a retired Colorado archaeologist. "In a country of cactus spines and sharp rocks, they mostly wore these open sandals. They must've known something we don't."

Enter Mark Thatcher, who put himself through NAU in the late 1970s as a guide on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The experience led to an idea, which led to a company and a product that's currently a craze throughout the West and beyond--the Teva sports sandal.

As he led tourists through the Canyon, often hiking through water, Thatcher watched his guests remove their running shoes, swim across a pool, then stop to lace their shoes back on before continuing. That and other experiences convinced him that the best way to traverse that terrain was in amphibious sandals.

Thatcher, now 43, started his company in 1984 and soon discovered great enthusiasm for his product beyond the amphibious market. Marathon runners and athletes of all kinds have used Teva sandals.

"I can make a case that anything you can do in an athletic shoe, you can do as well in a well-designed sandal," says the Flagstaff-based Thatcher. "The foot functions better when it isn't locked in tight, like in a running shoe." As for getting jabbed by a sharp plants and rocks, he says socks provide as much protection as a strip of nylon.

But it was only after designing his own sandal, and being in business for several years, that Thatcher became aware of the Anasazi sandals.

"When I started out, I knew nothing of the Anasazi," says Thatcher. "But the environment of the Grand Canyon had taught me the same thing it taught them. I was having an Anasazi experience and didn't know it." Since then, he has studied Anasazi sandals, and their design has inspired changes in his own product.

Teva's worldwide distribution and sales are spreading the word on the wisdom of these Native Americans. In 1995-1996, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City hosted an exhibit of Anasazi sandals, sponsored in part by the Teva company. Its opening was blessed by a Navajo medicine man.

"Athletic sandal design in America has been lost since the Anasazi," says Thatcher. "But it's coming back. We're getting smarter."

Something else the ancients knew, a fact of human nature as deep and everlasting as any other. "People just love to wiggle their toes," says Thatcher.

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