Ancient Massacre Discovered in New Mexico -- Was It Genocide?

Blake de Pastino in Jemez Springs, New Mexico
National Geographic News
July 12, 2007

Seven skeletons discovered in a remote New Mexico canyon were victims of a brutal massacre that may have been part of an ancient campaign of genocide, archaeologists say.

The victims—five adults, one child, and one infant—were members of an obscure native culture known as the Gallina, which occupied a small region of northwestern New Mexico around A.D. 1100 (see New Mexico map).

The culture suddenly vanished around 1275, as the last of its members either left the region or were "wiped out," archaeologists say.

The newfound skeletons could provide crucial clues to the people's mysterious fate, since scarcely more than a hundred Gallina remains have ever been found, said Tony Largaespada, an archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service who made the discovery in 2005.

"Almost all of [the Gallina ever found] were murdered," he said. "[Someone] was just killing them, case after case, every single time."

Greg Nelson, a physical anthropologist at the University of Oregon, studied the newly unearthed skeletons and said they paint a macabre picture of violence inflicted on both sexes and all age groups.

"It's pretty obvious that they were killed—they're people who were wiped out," he said.

One skeleton was found with a fractured skull, forearm, jaw, thighbone, pelvis, and several broken ribs, Nelson said. Another bore cut marks on the upper arm that suggest blows from an ax. The child, about two years old, had had its skull crushed (see photos of the massacre scene).

The findings are grimly consistent with previous reports from other Gallina sites, the pair said. But the new skeletons offer tantalizing signs of how unique the culture may have been.

In particular, the skulls of two of the victims have an "unusual" flattened shape that has never been seen before in the Southwest, the experts said.

Such signs of a distinctive culture may help explain why the group was so plagued by violent conflicts with neighboring groups. But the scientists stress that their research is ongoing, and the ancient murders remain unsolved for now.

"We just don't know right now," Nelson said. "The evidence indicates that somebody was going through and killing them. Why and to what extent? We're not sure."

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