The “spider” is unlike any spider we know of, with 16 legs gathered at one end of the oval body. That the humanoid figure is attached by an umbilical cord to this creature is extraordinary. What is the relationship between the spider and the alleged human? The painting is clearly a dream, a nightmare or a vision. There is nothing like it anywhere else in North America, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. As with all prehistoric rock art, we can never know what this means.
In the mid-1960s, a team of archaeologists led by Dr. James Fitting of the University of Michigan conducted an excavation and survey of the Burnt Bluff area. In Spider Cave, there was no trace of pottery or tools, the usual signs of habitation. It is unlikely that anyone has ever lived there.
However, over 100 broken arrowheads and spearheads have been found in the Spider Cave. An 18th-century explorer’s diary suggests a reason: Witnesses described a cliff face in northern Minnesota with rock paintings and numerous cracks in which Indians were seen shooting arrows as they passed in their canoes. Presumably, this had some magical or ritual significance: shooting in the cave was perhaps seen as an offering of luck for the hunt.
In addition to Spider Cave, the University of Michigan team discovered several other sites of interest in Burnt Bluff. A smaller cave, 300 feet from the nearest pictogram and probably unrelated to it, contained 247 bone and tooth fragments representing at least six individuals, including two infants who had been buried together on a bark mat birch tree resting on coniferous poles.
The charcoal in the cave containing human remains has been dated to around 375 AD, although there is no way to correlate this date with the age of Spider Man and the other paintings. Comparisons of the Burnt Bluff paintings with rock art sites in northern Minnesota and Canada suggest certain stylistic affinities and seem to place the Burnt Bluff images in what is known as the Middle Woodland period (300 BC to 800 AD).
It is interesting to note that the ancestors of the contemporary Aboriginal peoples of the Great Lakes region, according to their own legends and archaeological evidence, migrated from the Atlantic coast (now Maine and New Brunswick) around AD 900. , that is to say a century after the time in which these paintings would have been created. This migration and chronology are traced in “The Mishomis Book” by Edward Benton-Banai, (University of Minnesota Press, Second Edition, 2010). The author, an Anishinaabe Ojibwe who died last year, was one of the founders of the American Indian Movement and the grand chief of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge in Wisconsin.