The Dallas Morning News
Archaeologists call it "the C-word."
It's a word so dirty, so divisive, that a recent scientific symposium about it was evasively titled "Multidisciplinary Approaches to Social Violence in the Prehispanic American Southwest." But it was really about the C-word: cannibalism.
Archaeologists argue bitterly over whether the ancient Anasazi, the ancestors of today's Pueblo Indians, routinely killed and ate each other. From one point of view, the evidence seems overwhelming: piles of butchered human bones, some of which were apparently roasted or boiled. In one instance, ancient human feces even seem to contain traces of digested human tissue.
But from another standpoint, Anasazi cannibalism doesn't make sense. Eating people obviously isn't part of modern Pueblo culture, and local tribes are deeply offended by the suggestion that their Anasazi ancestors may have been cannibals. Many researchers argue that the marks attributed to flesh-eating could instead be created during slightly less gruesome activities, such as the public execution of suspected witches.
The scientific battle has polarized into two camps: "the bleeding hearts vs. the rip-their-hearts-out" factions, as Colorado archaeologist Steven Lekson calls them.
Most of the rip-their-hearts-out group declined the chance to attend the recent symposium, held in New Orleans during the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. But those archaeologists who did show up began moving toward a broader understanding, in which the Anasazi are seen neither as bloodthirsty savages nor as an entirely peaceful culture.
"Southwestern archaeology would be poorer without this discussion," says archaeologist Ben Nelson of Arizona State University.
Looming largest in the discussion was Nelson's colleague at Arizona State, archaeologist Christy Turner. For the past three decades, Turner has collected what he calls incontrovertible evidence of cannibalism and violence among the Anasazi.
At sites dating between about A.D. 900 and 1250, spread across the Four Corners region, Turner has amassed more than 30 examples of brutalized human remains. In a series of academic papers, and in his 1999 book "Man Corn" written with his late wife, Jacqueline, Turner paints a picture in which humans were systematically butchered and eaten, their remains tossed casually aside. He blames a band of "thugs," the Toltecs, who invaded from what is now Mexico.
Other archaeologists half-jokingly call these moments "Turner events." Most scientists agree that the Anasazi experienced brutal violence. But what that violence means is unresolved.
"Cannibalism is an easy and blood-curdling explanation but not necessarily a particularly precise one," says archaeologist Wendy Bustard of the National Park Service.
The Turners proposed six criteria for determining whether human remains had been cannibalizedbreakage, cut marks, abrasion from being smashed against an anvil, burning, missing vertebrae, and "pot polish" created by stirring bones in a pot. But these criteria don't necessarily add up to cannibalism, other scientists argue.