Indian Stew

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

Turner came up with the title of his recent book, Man Corn, as a literal translation of a Nahautl (the Aztec language) word for human sacrifice, and the first paragraph of the book not only sets the tone of the book, but hints at the author's sense of humor as well:

The word cannibal comes from the Carib Indian tribal name. It refers to a person who eats human flesh, as well as any other organism that eats the flesh of its own kind. Regardless of a few local, affirmative customs involving cannibalism, humans are usually enjoined not to eat one another, at least not their own family, friends, and neighbors (a practice usually referred to as endocannibalism). Eating strangers or enemies, called exocannibalism, is less strongly prohibited and sometimes even expected. Aztec feasting on sacrificed enemy captives was permitted, for example, although supposedly only by members of the upper class.

In other words, it's not nice to eat people. And as Turner well knows, it's not polite even to talk about it.

Reports of cannibalism are not unique to the American Southwest by any means. They turn up in the ethno-historic record or in the archaeological record in every continent. In North America, claims for cannibalism have been made at sites in Alaska, New York, the Pacific Northwest and even Wisconsin. The first published account of possible cannibalism in the Southwest was in 1902, when a Smithsonian scientist named Walter Hough presented his findings at an Arizona site to Harper's Monthly.

After Turner's first paper on cannibalism was published in 1970, other archaeologists were suddenly turning up possible cannibal sites in Arizona and New Mexico. Turner established a checklist for determining if remains had been cannibalized, and he and his wife catalogued 76 sites over the course of researching Man Corn, poring through museum collections and going out on digs. They would have investigated more if Jackie hadn't become too ill to continue.

The Polacca Wash remains, the assemblage that had led Turner to this study, turned out to be unique among the bones they examined. Turner believes they date to the 18th century. Most of the other sites spanned the Anasazi centuries, roughly from A.D. 900 to 1300, with most of them dating to the 1100s, which are usually thought of as the height of Anasazi civilization. Other anthropologists think Turner is mistaken about the Polacca Wash date.

"Because it is an anomaly, you have to wonder about the dates," says David Wilcox, an anthropologist at the Museum of Northern Arizona and a longtime friend of Turner's.

Wilcox, too, believes the Polacca Wash assemblage comes from the 1100s, which would only strengthen Turner's theories on cannibalism among the Anasazi.

Turner believes that the killing migrated north from Mexico, where a tradition of cannibalism and human sacrifice flourished before and after the brief historical Chacoan period.

One of the great mysteries of archaeology is the downfall of the Anasazi and the apparent abandonment of the great houses and kivas at Chaco Canyon near Farmington, New Mexico. From the archaeological record, Chaco appears to have grown from 900 to its zenith around 1100, then fallen into decline and was deserted by 1300.

The textbooks say the Anasazi disappeared. The Hopi and Zuni and some Navajo say they stayed and became the same tribes that live in the region today.

To the chagrin of Native Americans, some Anglo anthropologists put little stock in oral history.

"Science likes to get down to three decimal points," says Turner. "You can't do that with oral tradition. The farther back in time you go, the greater the possibility that oral tradition will be warped."

And many Native American legends serve as metaphor, as in many religions, stories to help them live their lives, leading back to an origin in which their ancestors came from a hole in the ground.

"At that point, the oral tradition becomes incredible," says Turner.
Many scientists assume that great droughts drove the Anasazi away. Julio Betancourt, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Tucson, has presented compelling evidence that the Anasazi deforested their environs and otherwise destroyed the region's ecology before moving on--another idea that doesn't sit well in New Age quarters, because the Indians were supposed to have lived happily without sullying the Garden of Eden.

Still others have interpreted the cannibal evidence as a sort of a homicidal Mad Max element that drove the Anasazi out of the wide open spaces of Chaco and into fortified cliff dwellings. Turner doesn't buy that, because it would imply someone came in near the end of the Anasazi reign; he thinks he identified a continuum of cannibal sites over the entire four-century Chacoan period. Chaos theory took over and rattled the civilization apart, in his opinion.

"The systems lost their synchronization, and once out of sync, it's just like a manual transmission: Just wipe out a few of those gears and you lose the whole box," he says.

But as for who was eating whom, "The bones don't tell me this."
What they tell him is that someone was terrorizing someone else.
Brian Billman, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina who stumbled across an apparent cannibal site in southern Colorado while working as a contract archaeologist there, thinks the cannibalism was committed to scare away intruders during times of drought. When people seeking resources wandered into the area, he believes, they were descended upon, because the locals "may not have looked too kindly on newcomers coming into an area when times are hard."

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