Bones of Contention

New Book Puts Anasazi Diet Under Scrutiny.

PEOPLE FROM ALL over the world have admired the culture of the ancient Anasazi, believing them to have been deeply spiritual. But what if that peaceful image is wrong?

Few ever raised the question. Those who did received blank stares and angry letters. One who persisted was Christy G. Turner II, the regents' professor of anthropology at Arizona State University in Tempe. And now, mainstream Southwestern anthropologists and archaeologists can no longer ignore him.

In 1300, the vast settlements of the Anasazi underwent what historians term "The Great Abandonment." The eastern part of the Four Corners region became uninhabited in a flicker of geologic time. Why? Drought? Famine, enemy raiders, disease? Overpopulation? A curtain fell on their Golden Age and the people departed swiftly, in some cases leaving pet birds behind to die on their roosts. They bequeathed a ghost world for future explorers to discover.

To the many who have studied them, the Anasazi appeared to have been "supreme beings, skilled at astrology, peaceful, cooperative and wise," says David Ortiz, staff anthropologist for Navajo archaeology at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. In the escarpments, open desert and high mesas of the southwestern states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, they became farmers and artists. They fashioned intricate cliff dwellings and created beautiful pottery and baskets.

Now, the cherished image of these remarkable people has been cracked -- some say shattered forever. The publication of Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest, by Turner and his late wife, Jacqueline, is the first detailed account of cannibalism and violence on a regional scale in the prehistoric American Southwest, especially in the Chaco Canyon area.

"Man corn" comes from an Aztec word meaning a "sacred meal of sacrificed human meat, cooked with corn." The Turners' 547-page book is a shocker, and Ortiz predicts it will take Southwestern archaeology in a new direction.

Despite the romantic aura of the Anasazi, Turner notes, many famous scientists through the years have suspected them of cannibalism, and he presents Man Corn as a tribute to them. Walter Hough in May 1901 discovered the first site, east-southeast of Holbrook, Arizona, dated to the period 1200-1300. Though his discovery never made it into the textbooks, Hough wrote of his findings in Harper's Monthly magazine:

"In the cemetery, among other orderly burials, was uncovered a heap of broken bones belonging to three individuals. It was evident that the shattered bones had been clean when they were placed in the ground, and some fragments showed scorching by fire. The marks of the implements used in cracking the bones were still traceable."

"The vast majority saw it correctly," Turner says, "but their work was never acknowledged in the profession's mainstream because it flew in the face of conventional wisdom."

Turner believes cannibalism was practiced for almost four centuries, starting around 900. It was most common in the Four Corners area, especially among people living in Chaco Canyon and outlying Chacoan great houses, and it increased dramatically shortly before the Anasazi abandoned their pueblos.

Years of research were required under various auspices, including the Museum of Northern Arizona at Flagstaff and the National Geographic Society, before Turner and his wife felt on sufficiently firm ground to challenge prevailing thought on the Anasazi.

Turner's book analyzes in excruciating detail 76 Anasazi sites at which he says violence or cannibalism occurred: 11 in Arizona, the rest in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

How can scientists distinguish between violence and cannibalism? Turner answers: "Bone damage is able to be classified, inventoried, identified and pigeonholed. It turns out that in factoring out different kinds of damage, cannibalism far exceeds anything that we can refer to as violence....In cases of violence, they didn't go to the next step of sitting down and peeling the people, defleshing them, breaking the bones open for marrow and showing us every sign of cooking -- heads roasted, bodies boiled, bones pot-polished."

"He has not proven a thing," charges Kurt Dongoske, tribal archaeologist of the Hopi Tribe. "What he has demonstrated is that people were hacked apart, their bones dismembered. He presents no evidence of human ingestion."

Cannibalism is a terrible thing, Dongoske says, and would not have gone unmarked by the Anasazi. "Don't you think that someone would have depicted the consumption of human flesh in the petroglyphs and pictographs? They depict everything else -- Spaniards arriving, clan migration routes, ceremonies. If human flesh had been consumed, it would have been depicted on the rock walls. Turner's work is part of a long legacy to denigrate Indians, to dehumanize them."

In Santa Fe, Peter Bullock, an anthropologist at the Museum of New Mexico, also dismisses Turner's work. "We don't accept it over here. In fact, we consider it pretty much of a joke."

Turner believes people misunderstand the way science works. "People say, 'You cannot prove cannibalism.' ...Science works based on footprints and very powerful inferences. You can only prove something with mathematics."

"We will never know for sure whether Turner is correct unless we can find a way to go back in time," Ortiz says. "But he is very well respected and I am urging my Indian students at Northern Arizona University to leave concerns of racism aside and look at the facts."

Warren Cremer, a veteran Southwestern anthropologist based in Arizona's Verde Valley, is persuaded that the controversial book is solid science. "Turner has gathered, examined and presented his evidence with great care and precise measurements. Other scientists can independently test his claims. So far, none of his critics have challenged his methodology."

Another scientist who thinks Man Corn should be taken seriously is David R. Wilcox, senior research archaeologist at the Museum of Northern Arizona and sometime colleague of Turner through the years.

Sitting in his small office in the museum's research wing, Wilcox says, "Turner presents a very reasonable scientific argument for cannibalism." But, he emphasizes, one can't generalize to include all Anasazi, and Turner's theories don't establish motivation. "That there were individuals at certain times and places who, for reasons still controversial, may have conducted massacres of multiple people, then butchered and cooked and quite possibly ate them, is very difficult to deny."

It was an obscure box of ancient bones in the Museum of Northern Arizona archives that led in 1967 to what Arizona State University paleoanthropologist William Kimbel terms Turner's "legitimate inference" about Anasazi cannibalism. Fascinated by prehistoric bones and teeth, Turner asked a museum curator to let him examine a cardboard box resting on a top shelf.

The box contained human bone shards excavated three years earlier in northern Arizona at a site called Polacca Wash. The bones had been defleshed, cut up and roasted, and they looked, Turner recalls, like "food trash."

Turner and his colleague Nancy Morris presented the findings in 1969, but the work was not welcomed, either by peers or by Native Americans -- the Hopi, in particular. Unperturbed, Turner continued to gather bone assemblages from many Anasazi sites excavated by his scientific predecessors -- in all more than 15,000 skeletons.

When Turner was to present a mini-symposium on cannibalism at the 51st Pecos Conference -- the World Series of archaeology conferences -- at Dolores, Colorado, in 1988, angry phone calls and threats of disruption caused cancellation of the session -- a first in the history of the Pecos conference.

But Turner's research only intensified, and in 1993, during a long meeting with Wilcox, who'd laboriously created a map displaying the location and distribution of the great pueblos at Chaco Canyon, Turner placed his suspected cannibal sites on Wilcox's layout of the pueblos.

"It was a 'Eureka!' moment," Turner recalls. "David's map coincided with the location of the cannibalized bone deposits. It was then I knew that the civilization centered in Chaco Canyon was likely the locus of Anasazi cannibalism."

Though cultures everywhere have denounced it, the practice of cannibalism goes back thousands of years, as Turner's work details. Worldwide folklore, oral traditions, sacred writings, anthropological narratives, war stories, urban police records and tales from lost wanderers all contain references to cannibalism.

The reasons range, in addition to social pathology, from starvation cannibalism in the Arctic to cannibalism as a ritual element of social control in Mesoamerica. In China, it was an institutionalized way of showing love and respect. In pre-Columbian Brazil, it was a way for obtaining the power and strength of a sacrificial victim.

Turner favors a combination of reasons for cannibalism among the Anasazi: ritual human sacrifice, social control and abnormal, criminal behavior.

"There is no way at this time to determine who did the eating or who was eaten -- friends, relatives, slaves, strangers," Turner concedes. After searching for similar sites in California, in the Rocky Mountains, on the Great Plains and among the Anasazis' neighbors, he concluded that Southwestern cannibalism "appears to have originated in Mexico, where the practice was common and dates back 2,500 years..." Cultists and warriors of the Quetzalcoatl overwhelmed the local residents, he believes, "much the way the soldiers led by Cortez fell upon Mexico. Terrorism is what we are talking about."

Turner believes the terror and power of cannibalism was the force that built Chaco Canyon. The great wooden beams were cut at least 50 miles away, he says, "and you don't haul 200,000 beams of wood voluntarily." But, while colleagues such as David Wilcox at the Museum of Northern Arizona believe Turner has a strong scientific argument for cannibalism, they part company with him over the Mesoamerican connection. Some sort of organized terrorism occurred in and around Chaco Canyon, Wilcox agrees. "But then one runs into the Chinese Box syndrome -- lots of meat was being generated. Why? Whatever they were doing was not acceptable in human terms. When Chaco was abandoned, evidence of cannibalism disappears. Was it evil that caused the Great Abandonment?"

Asked if he thought the publication of his book would cause tourists to abandon the Four Corners region, Turner smiled. "Too much money is involved in commercial tourism," he says. And, he suspects that denial will continue. "I am certain that I've found the answer," he concludes. "Let others test it."

High Country News ( covers the West's communities and natural-resource issues from Paonia, Colorado.
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