Search This Blog

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Southwest and Cannibalism

By Kristy McCaffrey

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.
Why did the Anasazi start building massive stone pueblos around A.D. 900 at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico—a barren gorge in the desert of the San Juan basin—and within 250 years suddenly abandon them? Pueblo Bonito contained over 650 rooms and its construction required more than 30,000 tons of shaped sandstone blocks. Hundreds of miles of roads were created that stretched out from Chaco Canyon in arrow-straight lines, an engineering marvel achieved without compass, wheel, or beast of burden. Shrines, irrigation systems, and a network of signaling stations were erected. These structures aligned with the sun, the moon, and each other.

Anthropologist Christy Turner.
Physical anthropologist Christy Turner, professor emeritus at Arizona State University, and others have detected traces of extreme violence and cannibalism on human bones unearthed at 40 different Ancestral Puebloan sites in the southwestern United States.

The earliest locations with cannibalized human remains date around A.D. 900. Turner identified 72 Anasazi sites at which violence or cannibalism may have occurred. He estimated that at least 286 individuals were butchered, cooked, and eaten. After the Chaco civilization collapsed around A.D. 1150, many Anasazi moved into deep and remote canyons, living in dwellings hugging the sides of cliffs on high, fortified mesas. The Anasazi had been seized with paranoia, or, perhaps more simply, fear.

There are roughly six criteria for determining whether human remains have 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. Opponents to the cannibalism theory argue that the condition of remains can also be caused by the chewing of a carnivorous animal, re-burial, or witch executions, in which the victim was cut up to locate the witch’s evil heart, anywhere from the head to the big toe. Dismembering was the only way to prevent the witch from wreaking revenge after death.

Anasazi ruin.
In the 1990’s definitive proof arrived when a group of archaeological sites were excavated at the base of Sleeping Ute Mountain in southern Colorado. Within the first kiva was found a pile of chopped-up, boiled, and burned human bones. In the second kiva were found the remains of five people in which evidence suggested they had been roasted, then the bones defleshed and split open for the marrow. The skulls of at least two people had been placed upside down on the fire, roasted, and broken open, and the cooked brains presumably scooped out. Tools for chopping were found with traces of human blood on them.

In the third kiva, however, was the most unusual find. In the ashes of a central hearth was found a nondescript lump. Further analysis revealed it was a coprolite—desiccated human feces. Testing revealed that the feces contained human myoglobin, a protein found only in skeletal and heart muscle. The only way it could get into the intestinal tract was through eating. Based on the evidence at hand it was clear the community had been attacked. The people had been killed, cooked, and eaten. Then, in an ultimate act of contempt, one of the killers defecated in a hearth, the symbolic center of the family and the household.

Turner offers more
details in his book,
Man Corn.
Turner found that most deposits of cannibalized bones were often situated near Chaco Great Houses, spread across the Four Corners region, and that most dated from the Chaco period. The eating of human flesh seems to have begun as the Chaco civilization began, around A.D. 900; peaked at the time of the Chaco collapse and abandonment, around A.D. 1150; and then all but disappeared. Turner theorizes that cannibalism might have been used by a powerful elite at Chaco Canyon as a form of social control. Ancient terrorism.

Toltecs.
And who were these powerful elite? Most likely the Toltecs—precursors of the Aztecs. The Toltec empire in Mexico lasted from about A.D. 800 to 1100. It’s possible a heavily armed group of these “thugs” infiltrated into the southwestern part of the U.S. and found a suspicious but pliant population whom they terrorized into reproducing the theocratic lifestyle they had previously known in Mesoamerica. This involved heavy payments of tribute, constructing the Chaco system of great houses and roads, and providing victims for ceremonial sacrifice. The Mexicans achieved their objectives through the use of warfare, violent example, and terrifying cult ceremonies that included human sacrifice and cannibalism.

The Navajo have stories in their folklore that reveal aspects of Chaco Canyon that are very different from the Anglo view. Elder Navajo say that Chaco was a place of hideous evil. The people there abused sacred ceremonies, practiced witchcraft and cannibalism, and made a dreaded substance called corpse powder by cooking and grinding up the flesh and bones of the dead. Their evil threw the world out of balance, and they were destroyed in a great earthquake and fire.

The final truth is that the Anasazi, around A.D. 1150, abruptly fled their homes in the Chaco region to live in remote cliff sides, behaving as if chased by a formidable opponent. When the evidence of cannibalism is presented, the motivation for this departure can be understood under a different light.






* * * *
Connect with Kristy



Historical Western Romance Novel
Rancher Ethan Barstow is weary of the years-long estrangement from his brother, Charley. Deciding to track him down is easy; not so easy is riding in the company of Kate Kinsella, Charley’s fiancĂ©e. In the land of the Navajo, spirits and desire draw them close, leading them deeper into the shadows and to each other.


* * * *
Works Cited

Hartigan, Rachel. “Dying for dinner? A debate rages over desert cannibalism.” U.S. News Magazine. July 2000.  <http://www.usnews.com/usnews/doubleissue/mysteries/anasazi.htm>

Preston, Douglas. “Cannibals of the Canyon.” The New Yorker Magazine. November 1998.

Pringle, Heather. “Were Some Ancestral Puebloan People the Victims of Ethnic Conflict?” Archaeology Magazine. September 2010. <http://archive.archaeology.org/blog/were-the-ancestral-puebloan-people-victims-of-ethnic-cleansing/>

Turner, Christy G. and Turner, Jacqueline A. Man Corn: Violence and Cannibalism in the Prehistoric American Southwest. University of Utah Press, 1998.

Witze, Alexandra. “Researchers Divided Over Whether Anasazi Were Cannibals.” National Geographic Magazine. June 2001. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/06/0601_wireanasazi.html>



12 comments:

  1. I have been following this story myself for years (anthropology major/archaeology junky!). Toltecs moving up from Mesoamerica and decimating/displacing the Anasazi is a plausible theory. You can imagine how these acts of terrorism affected the region! PBS Secrets of the Dead: Cannibals in the Canyon covered this topic well. Have you seen it? Thanks for a great overview.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Patti--I haven't seen the PBS show. Yay! I'll have to look for it. Thanks for the heads up.

      Delete
  2. Ohmygosh! I had no idea any of these violent things were part of the history of New Mexico or that there were theories of cannibalism in this regard. Holy cow. This was a great blog and very eye opening, Kristy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's not something that gets a lot of exposure. As you can imagine, it's very controversial.

      Delete
  3. Oh, Kristy! I had no idea of this! Fascinating, but...ewwww. Yeah, no wonder they got the heck out of there as fast as they could go! Great post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is hard to believe this could occur. Definitely ewwww LOL.

      Delete
  4. I'd read these theories, and find them fascinating. Chaco Canyon is fascinting in itself. When younger, I was intrigued by the Omlec civilization. This adds another layer to a history we are just really starting to learn. Thanks Kristy. Doris McCraw/Angela Raines-author.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Doris,
      I've never heard of the Omlec civilization. I'll have to check it out.

      Delete
  5. There went my creepiness quotient for the entire week in one fell swoop.

    This is fascinating stuff. Didn't you use corpse powder in one of your stories?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Why yes, I did. THE CROW AND THE COYOTE. Really, how I could I resist? It's just so bizarre.

      Delete
  6. Oh my Kristy...leave it to you to write such a thought provoking blog. I am so impressed. I remember watching those old movies where they threw the virgin into the volcano to appease their Gods but this...human sacrifice and cannibalism. Wow! It makes me wonder if this is why the area around the four corners is so mystical and full of mystery. The big mystery it seems would be ...who did you eat for lunch?? I recently read a bit on cannibalism and found it fascinating. This incident was done by white folk....As far as the Anasazi becoming paranoid and such...I read somewhere where the cannibals in south America developed laughing disease from eating human brains. Cool info. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Barb,
      I've heard of strange diseases happening as well when people eat other people. It's such a strange ritual and rarely having anything to do with actual survival. Thanks for stopping by!

      Delete