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.
"This place was just as violent as any place else in the world," says Turner. "Mean and unhappy."
Turner has identified one cannibal site that, if he's correct on its date, would move it out of the age of Anasazi prehistory and into Hopi history.
"Almost every reaction we've had has been, 'It can't be! How could the Hopi do things like this? How could the Zuni do this?'" he says.
More than one anthropologist has said that they couldn't have. Turner hasn't proved a thing, they say.
"Proof is not the issue," William Kimbel, a paleoanthropologist at ASU's Institute of Human Origins, says in Turner's defense. "The goal is legitimate inference."
"The prevailing way of thinking," says Turner, "influenced by the beautiful architecture and the beautiful pottery, is that the people who created such beautiful things couldn't possibly have done these things. The ruins are terribly romantic. There's beautiful country. It's a fantasy world, and that's a great influence on a lot of archaeologists."
Christy G. Turner II, is a graying and bespectacled man of 65. He rides a neon pink bicycle to campus from his Frank Lloyd Wrightish home in Tempe, and so his hair is matted from the helmet as he paces in front of the class, ad-libbing a lecture from an outline in his head. He speaks quirkily but authoritatively, feathering in editorial asides about other researchers, exotic anthropological trivia, and cracking corny old jokes with a cackle and a peep like Danny Kaye might have made in a '50s movie. He fits a profile of a university professor, in other words, a stereotype nearly as old as the skeletons he studies.
But students haven't changed much in the last several decades either, judging from the 45 men and women who file into the lecture hall. The hair length is sometimes shorter than 20 years ago, the clothes nearly as bad. But the affects are unchanged: angst or attitude, aloofness or lost and hopeless puzzlement, grad-student weariness and other-worldliness.
Students find Turner warm and personable; in 1998 they voted him an award for teaching excellence.
But his colleagues on campus and off find Turner unknowable, even if they have done field work with him. He's considered a loner at best, and difficult at worst.
"He has always aimed for the national and international, and the locals be damned," says one ASU prof who asked that his name be kept out of the discussion. "He's kept his personal life very private, and he's not played a very big role in our program or department."
"I want to use my time in different ways," Turner counters. "I spend most of my time in a professional capacity. My friends are few but close, but I don't get the benefit that other people get chatting over hamburgers at lunch. Most of the people I know have lunch here while doing paperwork."
And in that regard, he eschews e-mail and voice mail, feeling that there are already too many ways for people to get in contact with him. His schedule is his own.
For more than 40 years he worked in close collaboration with his wife, Jacqueline. They worked together in the field, traveled the world to pore over dusty museum bone collections, and co-authored Man Corn.
Jackie died of breast cancer in 1996. She worked on the book right up to the end of her life.
"We continued the project because we were interested in what we were doing," Turner says. "It was also distraction, which was a very important purpose in that regard. I can't say we had any great sense of hurrying."
But distraction for whom? Turner's daughter Korri, an archaeologist and graduate student in anthropology at ASU, describes an urgency in her mother's last years to finish a labor of love. Turner's close friends describe the marriage as a long love affair and say that Turner was devastated by his wife's death. He refuses to talk about it, his voice choking up as he changes the subject.
The New Yorker profile quotes Turner as saying, "I have no friends, but I have no scars."
His daughter Korri disputes it.
"It's a good quote, but it's not true," she says.
And indeed, while talking of the pot shots he's taken from the anthropology world, Turner blurts out, "You see the scars?"
Korri recalls accompanying her father to the Soviet Union as a teenager in 1983. It had seemed an appropriate time for her to read George Orwell's novel about totalitarianism, 1984. At the end of the novel, the protagonist is punished by having a mask filled with rats affixed to his face to bring about his worst fears. And so Korri decided to ask her father what his worst fears were.
"Not to have my freedom," he answered.
"I didn't appreciate it at the time," Korri says. "I thought, 'Well, that's not very fun.' I wanted something gory. But as I get older, I see how that epitomizes him."
Turner was born in Missouri in 1933, but his family moved to Southern California in 1941. As a high-school student he felt torn between art and science, and when he went off to college at the University of Arizona, he fell into anthropology because it was "a place where you could put all your talents together in one place and anything was legitimate."
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.
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."
But Turner thinks the terror may have been used to control the population.
One of many curious points about the Chaco Canyon buildings is the origin of the great beams supporting its roofs. There were no large trees in or near the canyon, and scientists have pinpointed locations up to 50 miles away where the Anasazi cut their beams. They weren't floated to Chaco because there are no rivers to do so. And they weren't dragged because they bear none of the scars that dragging would cause. They were carried 50 miles by humans.
"You don't haul 200,000 beams of wood voluntarily," Turner says. "Somebody was being coerced into producing Chaco. The only way you coerce people is through power and terror; you don't talk them into it."
Because the cannibalism seems to occur mostly in the easternmost realms of the Anasazi world, theoretically those portions under control of the Chaco peoples, Turner believes it came in from outside, specifically from Mexico. He doesn't believe it grew out of an older culture, a scenario in which it would more likely have shown up not only among the western Anasazi, but among related groups such as the Hohokam.
It is well-known that trade routes existed all over the Southwest in the time of the Anasazi, and that goods found their way between the Anasazi lands and southern Mexico. Santa Fe turquoise turned up in Mexico; tropical macaws were reported in Chaco, along with seashells from the Gulf of Mexico. Copper and pottery and corn moved north as well, and Turner points to similarities among the prehistoric and historic gods of various Indian cultures as further evidence of interaction. And among the skeletal assemblages, Turner found an individual whose teeth had been deliberately filed in a manner more customary of Aztec noblemen.
But his Mexican influences are the most criticized part of Turner's theory.
"To say that cannibalism came in because some Toltec guys came up here and took charge, well, that's one version of what might have happened," says David Wilcox of the Museum of Northern Arizona. "I think there's a lot of others that are very possible."
"One individual with filed teeth (quite possibly from Mexico) does not mean the spread of Mexican cultural influence in Chaco," wrote Polly Schaafsma, an expert on prehistoric rock art, in an e-mail to New Times.
Neither expert, however, refutes Turner's extensive bone work.
But indeed, it has been disputed.
Turner's book, Man Corn, sold 1,400 copies in the first month after it came out, hardly enough to get it on the New York Times best-seller list, but a respectable number for an academic text, which the book most decidedly is.
Jeff Grothwall, director of the University of Utah Press, which published the book, chuckles that New York publishers called to inquire about paperback rights, and he told them, "Let's not even talk about it until you see the book." He hasn't heard back from them.
But rumors spread among Turner's naysayers that the book had been recalled because Turner had too closely identified the locations of his sites, a mortal sin among some archaeologists, partly out of fear of pot hunters and partly out of the jealous instincts and attitudes of the field. And partly because they find the discussion of cannibalism to be politically incorrect.
Cannibalism among their own is not something Native Americans care to discuss, especially when people from New York to London are reading descriptive tales of Southwest tribes eating each other, but they don't shy away from it either.
"Why not?" says Terry Knight of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe in southern Colorado. "It's happened all over the world."
The debate over cannibalism, Knight says, is not among Indians, but rather "among the archaeologists."
"The white man is looking to the Indian as an object of curiosity instead of a man with a history. And as long as there is no proof, their research is safe."
Hopi and Zuni and Navajo have religious beliefs that make them hesitant to talk about death in general, and managing the repatriation of exhumed human remains required by federal laws has created distasteful problems for them. And inquiries about Turner are likewise not particularly welcome.
"I'm pretty tired of him," says Kurt Dongoske, an Anglo anthropologist working for Hopi. But Dongoske speaks for them on the subject.
"People actually being eaten isn't shocking to Hopi," he says. "Their question is who's eating whom? And some of the claims Turner's making is that it's pueblo against pueblo."
Dongoske does find offensive some statements Turner made to the New Yorker comparing the Hopi chief at the Awatovi massacre to genocidal leaders such as Stalin and Hitler and Pol Pot. Dongoske also wonders if the skeletons in question were not subject to some other sort of ritual--punishment for witchcraft is one that is often mentioned by anthropologists.
"What do you do, just sit around and cook a bunch of people? That always seemed far-fetched for me," he continues. "What I've been saying for the last three or four years is that it's one thing to have disarticulated and fragmented bone, which means that somebody did something to a deceased individual. But the inference that cannibalism occurred is not well supported."
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: email@example.com
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter