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.

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