Indian Stew

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

This despite evidence that the bones were cooked. But Dongoske raises a strong point.

"Cannibalism is a pretty dramatic event," he says. "There is enough rock art in the Southwest that don't you think at some point someone would have depicted the consumption of human flesh in the renderings on the stone? They depicted horses coming in, they depicted the Spaniards coming in, they depict clan migration routes, ceremonies. You'd think they'd depict human flesh being consumed."

There is a powerful school of thought among anthropologists that it never happened. Anywhere. At least not as a social phenomenon. Sure, Jeffery Dahmer sociopaths have always existed, they argue, but cannibalism as a part of culture is nothing more than hearsay, the accusations that one tribe makes against another that they don't like much. The Hopi and Navajo, for example, make such inferences about each other.

And as for Turner's theories in the Southwest, "We pretty much don't accept it over here," says Peter Bullock, an anthropologist at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. "In fact, we consider it pretty much of a joke."

Cannibalism is a non-issue, Bullock continues, not worth studying, and he thinks Turner in particular works his ideas too hard, forcing the evidence into paradigms.

There are politics underlying this debate, political correctness. In one instance at least, Turner notes, apparently cannibalized remains have disappeared from a museum collection without explanation. The repatriation of prehistoric Native American remains has become largely politicized, and the layers of state and federal regulations dictating archaeological mitigation in many parts of the country has given archaeologists power they never had before.

Other anthropologists, however, have taken up the study of cannibalism among prehistoric peoples. Tim White of Berkeley, former associate of paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson, and one of the most respected paleoanthropologists in the field, published a book in 1992 about an apparent cannibal site in southern Colorado. White also identified certain markings on bones as effects of cooking and coined the phrase "pot polishing," which has become standard.

And Brian Billman of the University of North Carolina came upon another cannibal site while doing work as a contract archaeologist for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, also in southern Colorado. In addition to the disarticulated and scattered skeletons, in a hearth Billman's group found a coprolite--a dried-out turd, in effect. It appeared as if the assailants had killed and eaten their victims, and then defecated in the fireplace in what Billman calls "a near universal sign of contempt."

Billman has had the coprolite analyzed to see if it contains human protein that would indicate whether the person who passed it had eaten human flesh. Douglas Preston, the author of the New Yorker profile of Turner, deduced that the telltale proteins had turned up in the turd. Billman won't say, nor will Knight, who was in charge of the archaeology project from the Indian side. Billman says he'll reveal his findings in late February or early March.

Knight says that if and when the results are disclosed, "It doesn't take a real genius to figure out why did [the Anasazi] leave."

Turner thinks that even if Billman were to present a compelling case for cannibalism, the "Santa Fe" faction would still dismiss it.

Peter Bullock, the Santa Fe anthropologist, already dismisses Billman as one of Turner's students, which he is not. The two men do not know each other.

And of the Case of the Campfire Coprolite, Bullock says, "My suspicion is that we'll never see the results."

As might be expected, on a recent evening in a Scottsdale restaurant, Christy Turner's dinner conversation turned to cannibalism. The waitress delivering the meal's non-human main courses recoiled when she overheard the centuries-old contention that human flesh tastes like . . . pork!

Turner wondered aloud why there are so many jokes about cannibals. Example: Two cannibals are sharing a clown for lunch. One turns to the other and asks, "Does this taste funny to you?"

Turner's dinner companion, a woman he met some years ago when she served as his translator in Siberia, offered up a Russian twist on a classic: several students sitting glumly around the dinner table. "I hate the dean," one of them says. "So eat your vegetables instead," another tells him.

Turner is returning soon to Siberia to study the animal skeletons and other body parts that have been preserved for centuries in frigid hyena caves. He wants to see what carnivores do to their prey. Whether there are human bones in those caves remains to be seen. He's received a grant from the National Geographic Society, which has funded most of his research projects.

He has no more intentions of studying cannibalism in the Southwest.
"I'm satisfied that I have found the answer," he says. "Let others test it. This is no longer an interesting problem."

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address:

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