Cannibalism in the Prehistoric Southwest

Steve’s post below on PC Reburial alludes to a controversial subject – evidence of prehistoric cannibalism in Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo) sites of the Southwest. I thought I’d say more about it as it’s a subject I have followed since graduate school, when two colleagues of mine, Larry Nordby and Paul Nickens, excavated (Larry) and analyzed (Paul) site 5MTUMR2346 in southwestern Colorado that showed evidence of this. This site was less than a mile away from the four sites I wrote up in my thesis and we visited the site and discussed their research many times.

The floor of one of the rooms at 2346 was strewn with human bone and Paul’s analysis of this indicated that at around AD 1100, thirty men, women and children were butchered and cooked. This collection was later reanalyzed in meticulous detail by Tim White, who reached the same conclusions, and published this book on it. This appeared in 1992 and was the first of a number of high profile studies on the subject.

These culminated in the publication of Christy & Jacqueline Turner’s Man Corn in 1999 which took a synthetic review of possible instances of cannibalism at 75 sites in the Southwest. Their conclusion was that almost all of these were indeed provable as cannibalism and that the practice was not uncommon in prehistory here. This set off a storm of controversy and disagreement from other anthropologists who said they were misinterpreting the data, and Native Americans who believe the very idea is insulting to them and their ancestors. Some reasonably balanced accounts of both sides of this argument can be read in this article that originally appeared in The New Yorker as well as here and here and here.

Our grad school discussions about the findings at 5MTUMR2346 often speculated on the reason for cannibalism there. As I recall most centered around a “Donner Party” situation where people may have been driven to desperate measures by famine. The Turners reach a different (and even more controversial!) conclusion in Man Corn. They believe that it served as a form of punishment and social control. Individuals and whole villages that did not follow the dictates of Puebloan political authority were murdered, ritually butchered, cooked and eaten. The Turners believe that this behavior was learned from Mexico, where human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism were common among groups such as the Toltec and Aztec.

I can certainly understand how many Native Americans would be unhappy at the thought that their ancestors could have done such things, but looking at the amount of evidence marshalled by White, the Turners, and others, it’s difficult to reach a different conclusion.

Pleistocene Sloth Poop

I just looked at the link to the Arizona Daily Star that Steve had in his last post that had this great picture of Dr. Paul Martin holding a Pleistocene Ground Sloth – “coprolite” is the proper term – and thought it deserved a post of its own. Such a priceless picture! This is real science! This is a man who has his “stuff” together!Seeing it also reminded me of my days in graduate school. A colleague that I shared lab and office space with was doing studies of human coprolites from dry shelters in the Southwest for his master’s thesis (theses on feces?). As found in the rock shelters the coprolites were firm and dry, like the one Dr. Martin is holding. For my friend to do his research to see what the prehistoric people were eating, what parasites they had, etc., he had to rehydrate them. You can imagine the smell. For a number of weeks there we had very few visitors. Actually, I found it imperative to do a lot of library research during that period.

Fear vs. “Re- Wilding”

Curious how the memes of “Re-wilding” and that of animal fear (scroll down and see Reid on sharks; I hope soon to post on Timothy Treadwell) seem to be multiplying on the news pages. For Re-wilding see this good commentary in Slate, and this article on Paul Martin from the Arizona Daily Star, showing him holding what is probably the same lump of sloth dung he once graciously placed in my hand. (How’s that for an unlikely sentence?)

But the “rewilders” are going to have to deal with the attitudes of people who seem to think they can purchase absolute safety. Consider this NYT article on hysterical California billionaires and their terror over cougars who haven’t done anything, and this slightly more tempered essay wondering how to deal with our situation , where predators come up against the edge of the suburbs.

The Californians are– almost– just plain silly, and seem prone to that syndrome peculiar to certain rich folks of thinking they can buy immortality. Most cougars– I have lived in an area where they are common for over 25 years– are no threat.

“Wildlife experts say that residents are overreacting to the presence of a stealthy animal that has been part of the landscape for as long as there has been a California. They say that mountain lions – also known as cougars – present an infinitesimal threat, especially if people avoid behavior like jogging alone at dawn or dusk close to the reservoir on Atherton’s western border. (My emphasis).

Of course we do have one important cultural difference here– we hunt them; though I have always been mildly skeptical of whether it actually changes the cats’ attitudes, it makes people, even joggers or mothers with children, a bit less fearful. Unlike Californians, we can even carry unconcealed handguns without special permits. While jogging.

The second article seems saner, but it manages to lump “Timothy Treadwell, Assaulted by Bears” (apologies to the late Edward Gorey) with New Jersey suburban trashcan- raiding bears, skulking California cougars, and African lions that routinely dine on poor African farmers. Sorry, those are at least three and probably four different things.

First: treating grizzlies like teddy bears is…..let’s be kind and say foolish. Most people have better survival instincts than Mr. Treadwell. I have no problem with the bears and probably would not have killed them. In his saner moments even Mr. Treadwell knew he was likely to attain his apotheosis as grizzly scat.

Black bears are garbage raiders. Deal with, meaning kill, real problem bears– otherwise, get a life, or simply a better garbage can. Stop leaving bird seed on the ground. You are the same people who want the deer gone but hate hunters. Don’t be such babies.

Cougars: real predators. But what is with the one destroyed by Park personnel in Colorado because it “looked at people”? Why not require all campers to stay on roads, and no climbing? Oh, right, they’re already thinking about that in Yosemite…

Lions in Africa: deadly predators that have been eating us since before we were human. Ever have a lion look at you, even in a zoo? (I have worked in zoos). Ever see one after dark in Africa, gray in the edge of the headlights? Ever try to sleep as one worked the brand new electric fence twenty yards away, roaring for hours? A suburbanite in the Bay Area should not compare himself to a peasant in Africa whose life and livelihood is endangered by what is to him– in fact not fancy– a real “monster”.

I support long- range Re- Wilding. I think the plains will never have a real population again– no civilization has ever taken root on shortgrass plains or steppes, and it was a mistake– an understandable one– to try. Courageous men and women who have a prudent sense of what is dangerous and the attentiveness to live among dangerous animals may one day live lightly on the restored savannahs of North America. But they won’t be the descendants of those who fear the cougar. And it is likely that they will fence the cats out of their yards the way I saw in Zimbabwe, not “confine them behind fences”. It doesn’t work that way.

PC Reburial?

i need to blur this story a bit to protect…. well, the guilty, but someone who told me this tale in confidence.

A few years a young woman, relative of someone we know, told us the following.

She had worked at [fill in the blank with any famous Southwestern site] and other places, and proudly bragged how at one site they had found an Anasazi- era “shaman’s skull”– her words– filled with rattlesnake bones–!!– and that they had turned it over to “the Indians” [which?] for instant reburial so no Anglo anthropologists would do any more “misinterpretations” [exact quote] like Christy Turner’s of cannibalism. (Non- archaeologically- minded readers of this blog should know that Turner’s work is meticulously documented and well- nigh irrefutable).

Makes one wonder what else has been reburied or destroyed to fit somebody’s political agenda, on any side. “Truth is the first casualty”, maybe especially when the wars are cultural. What can we do?

Thanks to Chas for persuading me to tell this tale.

Bernd Heinrich on Penguins

Vermont naturalist and prolific writer Bernd Heinrich, who knows a thing or two about birds and cold weather among other things, loved “March of the Penguins”.

“As the movie continues, everything about these animals seems on the surface utterly different from human existence; and yet at the same time the closer one looks the more everything also seems familiar. Stepping back and viewing from the context of the vast diversity of millions of other organisms that evolved on the tree of life – grass, trees, tapeworms, hornets, jellyfish, tuna, green anoles and elephants – these animals marching across the screen are practically kissing cousins to us. Like many others who loved the movie, I admired the heroics of both the birds themselves and the intrepid camera crew that braved the inhumanly hostile environments of the Antarctic. But as a research biologist who has spent half a century studying the behavior and cognition of animals other than ourselves, I also admired the boldness of the filmmaker, Luc Jacquet, to face down the demon, if not the taboo, of anthropomorphizing his subjects”.

He believes that, rather than potraying the birds as little humans, it reminds us what we share with other creatures.

“….the new breed of nature film will become increasingly mainstream because, as we learn more about ourselves from other animals and find out that we are more like them than supposed, we are now allowed to “relate” to them, and therefore to empathize”.

And he contrasts thhis with ourculture’s former anthropomorphism:

“Paradoxically, the cartoonish anthropomorphism of “Bambi,” although it entertained the youngsters, blocked rather than promoted an understanding of animals. In “Bambi” we do not see other creatures. Instead, we are presented humans with antlers, and with our thought and speech”.

I may have to see this movie after all!

John Carlson On Penguins

Wildlife biologist John Carlson, last seen in a tux in Antarctica (go here for reference), offers some reasons why penguins are admirable, despite the fact they are not “cute:”

…I totally agree with the young lady concerning the nasty nature of penguins, but I also feel I must defend the little buggers too. Any wild animal I have ever dealt with has objected quite violently to being handled. Probably wouldn’t survive very long if they didn’t, so you can’t be surprised or dismayed when it happens—No matter if they are cute or not.

If I can anthropomorphize a bit too: I would probably react similarly if some giant pulled me out of my living room, slapped a metal band on my arm, poured warm seawater down my throat and turned me upside down to “offload” my stomach to see what I had for breakfast, threw me in a bag and weighed me and then dropped me back in the living room (reminds me of the Larson cartoon with the male bear returning to the cave with an ear tag and a collar around his neck and trying to explain what happened to an obviously ticked off mama bear).

The young woman at the movie actually displayed as much ignorance as the Audubon folks and the audience by being surprised that the penguins reacted the way they did. She just got to live it and have her innocence taken away. I suspect that she hadn’t had much experience with animals prior to heading south. I think she should have done the lecture and told people the truth…although I can really appreciate the standup routine too.


Anyway, in defense of the penguins — they are the toughest animal I have worked with bar none. I have seen penguins with large chunks removed from their sides by leopard seals that apparently managed to survive. They beat on each other horrificly in defense of their territories and withstand some of the most brutal conditions on the surface of this earth. I am still in awe of their abilities to survive the demands that their lifestyle places on them. I suspect much of their rude behavior is a result of where they live: You don’t mess with things that work in that environment. It is pretty unforgiving.

The Adelie penguin photo I have below pretty much sums up a penguin’s life for me.

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The Tazi Girls

The attraction of, and also the problem with “primitive” breeds of dogs is that they are intelligent. Interestingly, many pop boooks say the opposite; Oriental sighthounds, huskies, laikas are not neccessarily “tractable”– they figure things out, and you must work with them. This makes many people think they are stupid. As someone who has trained spaniels, lurchers and — is “trained” applicable?– a dachshund, as well as dogs of the saluki/ tazi complex, I say “HAH!”

Their traits may be a result of their “growing up ” to (nearly) adult or ”wolf” behavior, rather than being stuck at some level of neoteny, as Raymond Coppinger has suggested. (I will blog more on this subject later if anyone is interested but I suspect a Google search of his name would turn up plenty).They tend to howl and yodel rather than bark, have only one estrus a year, dig dens, and form remarkably complex hierarchies with or without you. As Libby says, they are not beginner’s dogs.

One thing they do that can be maddening or endearing is initiate original behavior. For reasons of peace and hierarchy the two female tazis– Lashyn from Kiev, a South Kazakhstan “Semirichensky”- line tazi, suited for the biggest game and our fiercest dog, and Ataika from Almaty, our Turkmeni-strain sprite, smaller and sweeter but just as tough and arrogant– spend the day largely indoors. Taik (pronounced “Tyke”) can jump over the 8- foot backyard fence and would spend the day killing cats and risking death; Lash is jealous of her status, thinks she is my mistress and that only Libby ranks above, and dominates all the dogs but the Alpha male Plummer, yielding even to him only on food (Taik will submit but only if Lash is gentle about it; otherwise she will fight back hard).

Usually Lash sits to my left on the couch as I type, one paw touching me (Lib calls her “the jealous girlfriend”). This morning dawned cool and gray and windy and she wanted something else. She began to vocalize, making low “wuffs” and grumbles and yodels. She sat on the floor to my right, pawed me, got up, circled, and sat again. Taik murmured agreement from the couch. Every time I moved the mouse, she would catch my right hand with her paw. I said “do you want to go outside?” and walked to the back door. She sat down stubbornly. It was impossible to work.

Finally I went to the front door and both T- girls started racing around the house in ecstasy. “He got it, he finally got it!” I loaded them into the truck and took them for a run. They came back to the truck without hesitation– often an issue– and have been angels since.

Now– I have seen countless dogs who, when you go to the door, know what is going on. I know many more that will even bring you their leashes when they want to go out .

But they had NEVER asked to go out. That is not the way we do it. They don’t get a walk when I am at the computer. They have never before initiated a walk. Until this summer, Lash usually spent this time of day outside.

So how the hell did she figure out a way to demand one?

Above photo: T-Girls wrestling in freshly-cut tarragon: brindle Lashyn (“Peregrine”), and red Ataika, whose name means “Ruddy Shelduck”. Most Kazakhs give tazis bird-related names.

Life is Dangerous – Deal With It

The title Biting Back: just because great white sharks are protected doesn’t mean we should be on their menu of this LA Times op-ed almost says it all. It is symptomatic of the age we live in that an increasing proportion of our population believes that nature belongs in nature movies and we as individuals should never have to deal with its messy consequences. As I commented to Steve and Matt when I forwarded copies to them – it’s as though we have a RIGHT to always be at the top of the food chain! I was appalled that the author of this piece, presumably a savvy “nature writer” published in Outside and Environmental History, could have taken this tone.

Read the article to get the facts that undermine its emotional argument: there have been 11 fatal shark attacks in California in the last 55 years. That’s one every five years. Shall we compare those statistics with annual deaths due to car accidents, swimming pool drownings, home accidents and other risks we accept blithely each day? You know the answer and I’m not going through the exercise. Yet the author still feels entitled to say, ” The urban beaches of Southern California are not the same as an oceanic ‘wilderness’ like the Farallon Islands. They are our backyard. We should not have to forfeit our right to security the minute we step off dry sand — especially because the scientific case for the great white shark’s immediate endangerment becomes less convincing with each new sighting.”

This “right to security” in nature? Where does it come from?

The article gives the story of the poor woman killed by a shark while swimming off Avila Beach in 2003. The lady was in the habit of putting on a black wetsuit and fins and swimming in the middle of a group of seals each morning. How a predator was to discern her from its normal food supply is beyond me. It’s the moral equivalent of you or I grabbing a long steel rod and running to the top of the nearest tall hill in the middle of a thunderstorm. Not smart.

Sorry, but we all take risks as long as we’re breathing. Know your environment, know what its risks are, accept them and do what you can to minimize them, as intelligent people do.

Of Pigs and Pit Bulls

How long can anyone sane continue to live in California? (Reid?)

It’s not just the cost of living or the deficit or the smog or the crime or the massive illegal immigration– one might put up with many of those things for the glories. It’s the endless niggling laws, the superficial reverence for an environment that fewer and fewer people connect with, the…

Well, let’s back up to those laws. The LA Times contained two stories today that may be of interest. While the problems– non- native animals, animal rights, dangerous dogs, a state which thinks it can fix everything by regulating those who didn’t “do it” (William S. Burroughs: “Every time some lunatic goes on a shooting spree they go out and take away the guns of everybody that didn’t do it”)– the particular instances are completely Cailifornian.

First, non- native species in the Channel Islands. The story begins:

“Animal rights activists will get another chance to try to persuade a federal judge to halt what they consider the senseless slaughter of thousands of pigs on Santa Cruz Island.

“Recently rebuffed in their attempt to secure a temporary restraining order against the National Park Service, In Defense of Animals and two individual plaintiffs intend to ask Central District Judge Dickran Tevrizian Jr. on Sept. 26 to reconsider the case and grant an injunction against the feral pig eradication program”.

The principal species that they are worried about are the Santa Cruz Island fox (not actually a species but a subspecies of the gray fox) and eight species of plants. If these are indeed endangered, I have no trouble with them removing the pigs by any reasonable means — they are a fine game animal, though maybe for the taxpayers’ sake and to annoy the Puritans they should allow year- round no limit hunting rather than employ “Pro Hunting, a New Zealand-based company, [with] a two-year contract to track down the pigs, using snipers, dogs and electronic collars”.

Humans have introduced, aaccidentally or intentionally, many species– goats, several species of deer which attain trophy proportions and are also fated to be eliminated– in the Channel Islands, and eliminated others like the pygmy mammoth. The Park Service’s most absurd move so far was to suggest shooting the island’s Golden eagles, which they claimed were attracted there by the piglets but were now eating foxes, while denying most permits to falconers on the mainland (and of course letting Indian tribes strangle them without limits). I think the fetish of Pre- Columbianism is just that, and management (i.e. judicious killing) of the hooved immigrants would probably work better and be cheaper than a crew of Kiwi (why not Hawaiian, who would have at least as much experience, and are still American?) hotshots.

But the animal rights activists have managed to come up with an even dumber plan than the government’s. ” “Since there are probably not a lot of pigs left, I think the agency should give the contraceptive approach a chance; do the right thing and allow the remaining pigs to live out their lives”. “

And then there are the poor pit bulls.

“Spurred by a recent rash of pit bull attacks on children in California, state lawmakers voted Monday to give local governments authority to require the spaying and neutering of specific dog breeds”.

As usual “humane” groups, who the late dog trainer and philosopher Vicki Hearne said preferred animals to be either cute or victims, joined with the banners. Also, of course, not a few of these, like PETA, want an end to all domestication (“slavery”), though they may soft- pedal this fact to outsiders.

One congresswoman spoke sense.” “The problem we have is not with our dogs but with our dog owners,” said Assemblywoman Audra Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks). “There are a significant number of dog owners who abuse their dogs and condition them to fight and become vicious. Those people are the culprits.””

Exactly. To lose the brave genes that can go to make superior defense and schutzhund dogs because a few moral idiots (like the owners of the Presa Canarios that killed a young woman in San Francisco) will not be responsible is another kind of crime. What would happen to dogs like my Kazakh friends working tobets, who are certainly capable of killing armed adult humans in their Border Patrol work but will guard my friends’ babies? If someone’s dog kills an innocent, imprison him for murder and put his dog down. Don’t ban breeds.

On the other hand, as long as proponents of bans are this dumb we may still stand a chance: ” “It’s time to get rid of these pit bulls,” said Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City). “I think we ought to string ’em all up, send them to some other state”. “

In Germany animal rights group can now regulate the size of the wattles on pigeons.

A character in Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, who asks an old sheriff if she can smoke, receives the laconic reply “its still America last time I looked”.

Update: Lib looked at this and said:”They want to neuter both of them”. Hmmmm….