Researchers Divided Over Whether Anasazi Were Cannibals

Alexandra Witze
The Dallas Morning News
June 1, 2001
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 cannibalized—breakage, 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.

For instance, Debra Martin, an archaeologist at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, has restudied "cannibalized" bones from La Plata, New Mexico. She argues that the bone destruction is best explained by several different reasons, including witch execution, chewing by a carnivorous animal or being re-buried.

"We can't force the evidence to fit a theory," Martin said at the meeting.

Southwestern cultures may have been violent, but only at certain times and for certain reasons, she argues. After all, no one would label all North American pioneers as cannibals based on the experience of the Donner Party, or stereotype Colorado residents because of the tale of Alfred Packer, the "Colorado Cannibal."

Other scientists point out that the "cannibalized" bones lie among other evidence of destruction, such as scattered medicine bundles, torn-down walls and ash from burning. J. Andrew Darling, an archaeologist with the Gila River Indian Community in southern Arizona, thinks the entire picture paints a story of witch execution rather than cannibalism.

After researching the folklore of modern Pueblo tribes, Darling discovered that killing witches could have been a logical explanation for violence among the Anasazi. For witches to lose their power, he said, others would have had to cut up the body until they found the location of the witch's "evil heart," which could be anywhere from the head to the big toe. Dismembering a witch would have been the only way to prevent the witch from wreaking revenge after death, Darling says.

Witches, in fact, were the only Anasazi people who would have practiced cannibalism; eating human flesh would have been considered an initiation into witchhood, Darling says. In this context, cannibalism would have been just as reviled among the Anasazi as it is today.

So witch-killing better explains the brutalized remains, he argues; archaeologists like Turner may have jumped to conclusions.

"To me that's a Western bias," says Darling. "Why are we so concerned about cannibalism when there are other explanations?"

But Tim White, an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who worked with Darling on one site, argues that the reverse of this argument is true—that archaeologists go out of their way to avoid the cannibal explanation.

"In the final analysis," White wrote in an e-mail, "many anthropologists are as uncomfortable with cannibalism as creationists are with the fossil record for evolution. Both are likely to remain in denial until replaced with another generation of folks."

In fact, cannibalism carries much the same association in all cultures from ancient Anasazi to today, argues Peter Whiteley, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

"Cannibalism is the archetypical sign of otherness," he says. Western culture equates it with folk stories of ogres, like the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, or horror stories, like "Hannibal the Cannibal." Similarly, modern Hopi folklore tells of flesh-hunting ogres, but they are no more based on reality than Little Red Riding Hood is. Cannibalism in all cultures is seen as a transgression, as separating the good from the evil, Whiteley says.

The myth of the Anasazi as "noble savages" has been replaced by that of "bloodthirsty savages," notes Randall McGuire of Binghamton University. But neither stereotype addresses the truth—that of a culture like any other, sharing in both peaceful and violent times, he says.

Even those who argue for cannibalism note that the evidence drops off after about A.D. 1200, around the time the Anasazi moved out of their main strongholds and scattered across the countryside. Archaeologists don't know what caused this massive migration, although a major drought may have played a role; nor do they know what caused the great social upheavals that apparently brought an end to the violence.

Michael Adler, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University, says scientists may never be able to prove whether the cannibalism or witch-killing theory is correct.

Either way, he says, "this is not a happy past."

(c) 2001 The Dallas Morning News.

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