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The child had apparently been eaten, his skull cracked open ear to ear, his brain scooped out, his bones scattered as trash. All that remains of him is the plate of bone that gave form to his face. It had lain for centuries beneath Southwest soil, sat decades more on museum shelves, and finally came to rest on a table in the office of Christy Turner at Arizona State University.
Turner is regents' professor of anthropology at ASU, and, since 1970, he has claimed that humans were eating humans during the time of the Anasazi civilization, 700 to 1,100 years ago. The Anasazi filled the lands that are now northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southern Colorado and Utah; and depending on your point of view, they either disappeared mysteriously in the 1300s, or became the Hopi and Zuni tribes, and maybe even one clan of Navajo, or all of the above.
Archaeologists have been digging up split and burned and shattered bones in the Southwest and elsewhere for nearly a century and theorizing that they were cannibalized. But the notion has faced great resistance.
History tells us, after all, that the Anasazi were peaceful farmers who made beautiful pottery and magnificent buildings. The "great houses" and kivas at Chaco Canyon, an apparent center of the civilization's zenith, are masonry marvels and tourist meccas. Add on layers of New Age claptrap and political correctness, and even academic anthropologists refuse to accept the evidence that Turner and other scientists have pointed to for years. One scientist has gone so far as to do a chemical analysis of a petrified turd found at an apparent cannibal site to see if it contains human proteins. The results of those tests are to be announced at the end of February. But it's unlikely they'll stop the bickering.
Still, Anasazi cannibalism has been in the news of late, and so has Turner. In November, he was the subject of a long profile in The New Yorker magazine. He's just published a book on the subject, Man Corn, which is a compendium of cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest. And so a whole new generation of reporters has latched onto the sensational possibility that the gentle Anasazi were not so gentle; they've been calling Turner to chat about it.
He keeps a set of cooked and butchered human bones in his office that makes vivid visual aids during such conversations. On a recent morning, he rolls the child's skull fragment in his hand, pointing to fractures on its surface.
"These all happened at or around the time of death," he says dispassionately. "The little child was cut up and there are skull abrasions and the teeth were smashed and the nose was smashed."
He picks up another bone fragment, this piece the back of an adult skull, and he holds it in his hand like a bowl.
"The back of the head was sitting on the coals like this," he says, then points out the spots where it burned, and how it had apparently been smashed apart to get at the brain after it was cooked.
He sets the skull back with a series of bones, most of which show signs of cannibalism, and all of which were collected from various sites across the Southwest.
"A number of them have severely mutilated faces that look like they were terrorizing people, keeping them alive in pain for a fair amount of time with non-lethal wounds," he continues.
Who "they" were is up for question.
"That's part of the problem," he says. "We don't know who they were. The assailants didn't leave a signature. They left food trash."
Turner thinks that some cult migrated north from Mexico, took over the Chacoan center of the Anasazi, and used cannibalism and terrorism to keep the indigenous population in line. Other anthropologists theorize that the natives themselves swooped down on newcomers during times of drought and scarce resources, killing them and eating them to discourage others from moving in. Still others refuse to believe it happened at all--at least the eating part. They explain away cut marks that couldn't possibly have been received fighting off attackers--inside ribs and skulls, for instance--the bones that are burned or "pot polished," or split open to get at the marrow, or broken to lengths that would fit in cooking vessels.
Cannibalism, after all, violates food taboos in nearly every culture. Regardless of language, the term is often used as a derogatory one for those people in the next village or the next tribe. And despite a Bible story in which the Lord asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, despite church ceremonies in which the blood and body of Christ are symbolically consumed, cannibalism is ghastly to Judeo-Christian culture.
Furthermore, for the Anasazi or any other Native American tribe to have done such things, goes against the dearly held cliche of the noble savage living in harmony with nature, an idea pulled out of the air and the Romantic era by philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 18th Century, and bolstered by tourism promoters. And many an archaeologist and vacationer alike, seduced by the blue skies, the mystic high desert landscape of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, have fallen into that mindset.