In my quest to seek Tom Robbins’s inspiration for bestowing Even Cowgirls Get the Blues‘s Sissy Hankshaw with huuuuge, ubervoluptuous thumbs, I wrote the author a letter. It read something like this:
Dear Mr. Robbins:
For my master of fine arts in creative nonfiction, I am writing a book of essays revolving around the human thumb. (Imagine, through the telescope lens, a Tang-splattered volume, pages flapping in the cosmic wind, locked in orbit by the gravity of Digitus Primus.) So, in the course of research, I have realized that not many people — not hand surgeons, not hand therapists, not palm readers, not fingerprint specialists, not hitchhikers, not even thumb wrestlers — have contemplated the primary digit in as many convolutions as I have. Except, of course, you, when you created Sissy Hankshaw.
I know what I was thinking on the day I decided to write a book about thumbs. I was thinking, “Sheetcake! My thesis topic has just been gnat-flicked off the potato salad. Now what the fork am I going to write about? Seriously, what do I know about anything enough to write a whole book about it? Kayaking? Maybe I’ll just go kayaking and think about books later.” That’s when I glanced down at the barbecue-sauce-smeared calluses on the lower pads of my thumbs — kayaker’s calluses. Then I looked across the porch at my geriatric Australian cattle dog and remembered all the times in 16 years he’d broken into the trash and I’d suspected him of harboring secret thumbs. After that, thumbs were everywhere.
I’m wondering what you were thinking when Sissy Hankshaw entered your consciousness. Which thumbs inspired you to create Sissy? . . .
Yep, it read something like that. The reply? No reply . . . yet. I can still hope. Meanwhile, on the advice of Allison at the Aftrlife discussion group (“aftr” is an acronym for alt fan Tom Robbins), I have written a different letter. It sounded nothing like the one above. This time, I wrote to Professor Philip Tobias, who, according to the Aftrlife’s Allison, “knows more about thumbs and the evolution of the thumbs than anyone else on earth. And that’s official. He’s the doyenne of paleoanthropology and is a super treasure store on this subject.” And this time, I got a reply.
In the Witwatersrand University Department of Anatomy (now the School of Anatomical Sciences), at least two instances occur to my memory of triphalangeal thumbs in humans. This refers to a thumb in which there is not the usual two phalanges, as in humans in general, but the rare occurrence of a thumb or two thumbs with three phalanges as is usual in some other mammals such as the Cetacean mammals (whales etc.). These occurrences were found in cadaver dissections in this department and a paper was published on each of these cases – the latter one by Dr I. Abramowitz, a Johannesburg surgeon and former staff member of the Anatomy Department. That was published I should think in the 1960’s or 1970’s and it would take some little research to find the reference. The earlier example was published by, I think, Alexander Lee McGregor, a former prominent surgeon of Johannesburg and a member of staff of the Anatomy Department. I think his paper on triphalangeal thumbs must have been published in the 1920’s or 1930’s. When Dr Abramowitz published his paper, it was under my supervision – I was at the time Head of the Department of Anatomy and I certainly referred him to the evolutionary as well as the embryological aspects of the thumb’s development.
As regards . . . “the central place they hold in human evolution”, it is perfectly true that the length of the thumb, the joint at the base of the metacarpal of the thumb and the muscles controlling the thumb in humans of today enable the soft pad on the palmar surface of the thumb to be apposed to the corresponding soft pads on the palmar surfaces of the other four fingers. This feature of opposition is not possessed by modern apes (chimpanzee, gorilla, orang utan). The anatomy of their thumbs, length, joints, muscles, do not enable them to oppose the thumb to the other fingers. It was therefore a matter of great interest when the australopithecine fossil ape-men of Africa were first brought to light in southern Africa, to ascertain whether their thumb-bones permitted opposition or whether that essentially human feature had not yet arrived. It is certainly there in later fossil hominids like the Neanderthals, Homo erectus, etc.,but the question is whether it was present in the earlier hominids such as Homo habilis and the australopithecines. In the apes of today, the bones of the thumb are so short that it cannot be opposed to the other fingers. But we have found that in australopithecines where the appropriate fossil-bones have come to light, they testify to longer thumbs, suggesting that already in these ape-men, from one to three million years ago, the propensity for thumb opposition, this essentially human feature had already arisen.
— Professor Emeritus Phillip V. Tobias, Honorary Professorial Research Fellow, School of Anatomical Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand Medical School, South Africa