Dying for dinner?
A debate rages over desert cannibalism
BY RACHEL HARTIGAN
"Holy smokes, I'm looking at a feast."
That's what anthropologist Christy
Turner thought when he opened a
cardboard box of skeletal remains at the
Museum of Northern Arizona 30 years ago
and found over a thousand broken and
burned bones. They looked like butchered
and cooked animal remains. But the Arizona State professor knew the bones belonged to humans.
Turner believes the battered bones hold
the answer to a puzzle that has long preoccupied archaeologists: Why did the
Anasazi start building massive stone pueblos around A.D. 900 at Chaco Canyon
in New Mexicostructures that aligned
with the sun, the moon, and each otherthen abandon them 250 years later?
At first, Turner didn't particularly care
who ate whom. His goal was to determine
what signature, if any, cannibalism leaves
on bones. Comparing butchered animal remains with those he suspected were cannibalized, he devised six criteria for cannibalism, from cuts by sharp defleshing
tools to scorch marks from cooking fires.
Using this list, he examined bones from 76
sites and concluded that, at 38 sites, 286
people were eaten.
But why? Turner believes he found the
answer in central Mexico, where cultures
that used cannibalism in religious ceremonies had left similar evidence. "It takes
nearly blind faith in the effectiveness of
geographical distance ... to believe that
this [culture] failed to reach the American Southwest," he writes in his 1999
book, Man Corn. Turner speculates that
members of a Mexican warrior cult headed north, where they found that killing
and eating a few desert-farming Anasazi
terrorized everyone else into paying tribute and building monuments to the Mexicans' religion. Eventually, the culture
built on cannibalism collapsedhow,
Turner does not knowand the Anasazi
deserted Chaco Canyon. Today's Pueblo
people are Anasazi descendants.
Food for thought. Man Cornnamed
after the Aztec word for a sacred meal of
human meatprovoked a firestorm. Critics have charged him with everything from
shoddy science to racism. He countered
with a widely distributed manuscriptrejected by American Antiquitydenouncing them as "professionally reckless," "politically correct," and "rude."
Turner's proposal that ancient Mexicans invaded from the south has aroused
the most derision. "The idea of a [Mexican] goon squad is ridiculous," says Kurt
Dongoske, an archaeologist for the Hopi
tribe. While remnants of trade with Mexico existpottery, copper bells, and
macaw skeletonsthere's little evidence
of Mexicans' living in the area at the time.
Turner's theory hangs on one skull found
with notched teeth, a practice common in
Mexico but rare in the Southwest. "Turner stepped beyond his level of expertise,"
sniffs Steven LeBlanc, director of collections at Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
Some archaeologists and Indians accuse
Turner of recklessly ignoring native beliefs. "One of the worst things you can do
in Pueblo society is to eat flesh," says Andrew Darling, an archaeologist with the
Gila River Indian Community in Arizona.
"That's how you become a witch, and the
penalty for witches is death." Suspected
Pueblo witches were killed and their
corpses ravaged to find the so-called evil
heart. Darling believes those actions could
leave the same bone signature as cannibalism. He says Turner's theory revives
racist stereotypes of savage Indians.
Other archaeologists point out that little is known about how the Anasazi normally treated their dead. Standard burial practices could have caused the skeletal
damage ascribed to cannibalism. Ventura
Perez, a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, found
faint marks around the jaws of some of
Turner's skulls. Perez suspects the marks
are light because the skulls had been
stripped long after the flesh had begun to
decomposesuggesting that meat removal was a burial practice.
Peabody's LeBlanc thinks a more likely
explanation is that the Chaco Anasazi brutalized a subclass of their own people.
Healed bone fractures suggest that many
Anasazi were beaten repeatedly. Others
were dumped on garbage heaps after they
died. And still others may be Turner's cannibal victims, butchered like game animals
but not necessarily served for dinner.
Turner has his allies. Tim White, professor of human evolutionary studies at
the University of California-Berkeley,
compared broken, scarred, and scattered
Anasazi and animal bones from Mancos
Canyon in Colorado and discovered striking similarities. He dismisses the reburial theory, saying no other society uses
the same method to prepare food and
bury its dead. Even so, he refuses to speculate about who was behind the cannibalism. "It's too early," he says.
Fossil find. White and Turner thought
they could prove that some people had cut
up and cooked other peoplebut not that
anyone was chewed and swallowed. Until
two years ago, that is. A
group of archaeologists
working for Soil Systems Inc., an archaeological consulting firm,
claims to have found
the smoking gun.
Wash, they unearthed fossilized
fecal matter containing human remains, probably left
by an attacker to
desecrate an Anasazi hearth. Turner's
critics say the ancient excrement could
have come from anyone or anything,
and, even if it is human, it only proves
that a single person indulged in a taste
for his fellows.
Nonetheless, there's a growing awareness among archaeologists that something awful happened among the Anasazi.
Soon after abandoning Chaco, they began
building cliff dwellings from which they
could stave off almost any attack. But
what were they afraid of? Each other?