Indian Stew

Not every anthropologist can digest Christy Turner's theory that the Anasazi were cannibals

In 1955, he went on his first archaeological dig at Point of Pines, Arizona, on the San Carlos Apache Reservation, where the university had a field school. Turner didn't have enough money to pay for the summer program there, and so he talked the program's director into letting him work his way through as a photographer. Turner's longtime friend and colleague, Donald Morris, who is retired from ASU's anthropology department, still recalls the young Turner borrowing climbing irons from an Apache linesman and climbing to the top of a tall pine tree to get a photograph of a kiva--a giant, sunken, circular, ceremonial room.

Turner met Jackie at that field program. She came from a world away--a ranch in southeastern Arizona--but she and Turner had similar enough interests to fuel a marriage of more than 40 years. One of their daughters now manages the family ranch; another is an archaeologist.

The Turners came of age in a formative time for anthropology. The cultural anthropologists were running out of primitive native cultures to study because they were going extinct. But the same modern world that was wiping out quaint, indigenous cultures was bringing wave after wave of technology for the physical anthropologists to better poke and probe at bones. Archaeologists were finding those bones more interesting than pots, and instead of using the pots to mark points in history, they started wondering what they were used for. Increasingly anthropologists began pondering the peopling of the world.

Turner rammed through a master's degree at UofA, then took a job with the government chronicling prehistoric rock art in Glen Canyon before it was flooded to create Lake Powell. Then he packed off to Wisconsin to earn his Ph.D., spending parts of the next five years in the Aleutian Islands for his dissertation. He landed a teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley.

His work in the Aleutians attracted the attention of the Smithsonian Institution, and in 1966, he was offered a curator's post there. He had already resigned from Berkeley and was packing up his family when the Smithsonian called to tell him the job had been canceled by federal cutbacks related to the Vietnam war.

"I was a Vietnam noncombatant casualty," Turner quips.
Academic jobs were easy to find in those days, and he took a position in the anthropology department at ASU, where he has remained for the past three decades.

Until his controversial cannibal studies, Turner was best known for his work in dental morphology. Teeth are not so genetically distinctive as DNA, but the number of roots and the configuration of bumps on the teeth vary according to race.

"I could take a molar, with my eyes closed, and feel the root length and tell if it was Asian or European," he once told a newspaper reporter.

By charting teeth in the new world and the old, he confirmed the theory that Native Americans came across the Bering land bridge in three separate migrations. To do so, he haunted museums in Asia and the Americas to examine the teeth in their collections. And that is how he stumbled into his cannibal work.

While examining skeletons in the closet at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff in the late 1960s, he came across a box that held human bones unlike any he'd seen before.

"It looked exactly like the food trash I'd excavated on the Glen Canyon project in the late '50s," he says, "and food refuse I saw in the Aleutians. It was all cut up and broken and burned."

He borrowed the collection and brought it to ASU for further study.
The anthropologist who had first analyzed the bones years earlier had described them as a ceremonial burial because it was out of the ordinary. Anasazi burials are generally quite orderly, with largely intact--or articulated--skeletons lying on their backs or on their sides. These remains of 30 individuals had been disarticulated, scattered, and shattered. The earlier researcher also felt that the assemblage dated to the Anasazi. Turner thought from the excellent condition of the bones that they couldn't be that old. He has since learned that bone that has been defleshed--as in butchering--does not rot as quickly as bone with flesh left on. But to confirm his hunch, he had radiocarbon dating tests done on a piece of rib. That established a date of 1600 to 1700, making it younger than Anasazi, and, given the location where it was found, a desolate spot named Polacca Wash, suggested the bones were Hopi.

Curiously, the individuals in the assemblage were all women or children or men who were small and feminine, an out-of-the-ordinary social group. Turner began tracking Hopi oral history and matched his date for the bones to a Hopi tale about a massacre in a village called Awatovi. According to oral history, one group of Hopi descended on another, killing the men in the village and taking women and children hostage. Then, after an argument over what to do with the captives, they killed them.

The legend, however, said nothing of cannibalism. This Turner deduced from the state of the remains. That the people had died violently was evident from the smashed teeth and bashed skulls, but cut marks on the bone indicated that they had been butchered as well.

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