Getting to heart of cannibalism


New evidence: A study finds further evidence that Southwestern Indians might have resorted to cannibalism, but opinions vary on whether they did and why.

May 29, 2001|By Bryn Nelson | Bryn Nelson,Newsday

Probably no other word in the English language matches the revulsion or fascination evoked by the label "cannibal."

Researchers are debating not only the merits, but also the ramifications, of evidence for prehistoric instances of cannibalism in the American Southwest.

"I can't imagine anything else in Southwest archaeology that has gotten so quickly and so deeply into the popular media," says Randall H. McGuire, an archaeologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, who was attending the annual conference of the Society for American Archaeology. "We need to think about that impact."

FOR THE RECORD - An article reprinted Tuesday from Newsday about prehistoric cannibalism in the American Southwest wrongly attributed a quotation to archaeologist Sharon Hurlbut. The statement, "Cannibalism is an easy, blood-curdling explanation, but not necessarily a precise one," was made by Wendy Bustard, an archaeologist with the National Park Service. Hurlbut does not share that view. The Sun regrets the error.

Many archaeologists say the most compelling evidence of cannibalism in the distant history of the Southwest is a study published in September in the journal Nature.

Banks L. Leonard, one of the study's five authors, told the conference about the discovery of bone fragments from four adults and three children of the Anasazi Indian culture who he said were probably victims of a an attack about 1150.

At the site in southwestern Colorado, Cowboy Wash, the research team documented chop marks, abrasions, cut marks and light to moderate burns on the bones, which had been broken into pieces.

The researchers also found human blood residue on cutting tools, human muscle tissue in a cooking pot and human muscle and brain tissue in fossilized human excrement. The lack of nonhuman proteins in the excrement suggested that the preceding meal was human flesh.

Brian R. Billman, a University of North Carolina archaeologist who co-wrote the study, conceded that the find doesn't tell the full story. "We must keep in mind that this evidence says nothing about why these acts occurred," he says.

Billman and his colleagues have suggested that social chaos brought on by the second-worst drought in the region in the past 2,000 years led to the slaughter.

Christy G. Turner II, an Arizona State University physical anthropologist who has spent 30 years developing theories about prehistoric cannibalism in the American Southwest, has championed a contested theory holding that an invading band of Toltec Indians from central Mexico resorted to cannibalism to terrorize and control the local Indians.

The success of these Toltec invaders, he argues, led to the Anasazi civilization's being reduced to living in remote canyons.

McGuire and other scientists have dismissed the Toltec invader theory as "completely lacking in evidence."

In 1999 Turner and his wife, anthropologist Jacqueline Turner, published their Toltec theory in "Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest."

The resulting uproar among researchers and Indian communities has yet to die down.

"It's sort of like saying your town fathers were all homicidal maniacs," says archaeologist J. Andrew Darling, a former Smithsonian Institution research associate.

Darling, who works for the Gila River Indian Community in Sacaton, Ariz., says the ancestors of the Hopi, Zuni and Rio Grande Pueblo peoples weren't immune to violence. But he believes researchers are superimposing pop-culture images, such as that of the movie psychopath Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter, onto the inhabitants of the ancient Southwest.

And he contends that the label of "cannibal" and its commonly associated discussions of social pathologies, terrorism or warfare ignore key aspects of the shared Pueblo culture.

In Pueblo society, he says, witches are icons of lust, greed and insatiable hunger. They are also the legendary practitioners of cannibalism. Darling and others researchers believe many instances of supposed cannibalism were instead ritual executions of alleged cannibalistic witches.

That style of execution might have been violent, Darling says, but instead of cold-blooded homicide, it might have been considered retribution for lethal sorcery.

Disease, inclement weather and other societal problems were generally blamed on witches, who were thought to operate in family groups, Darling says.

In ritual re-enactments of Pueblo witch hunts today, priests and village elders dress as bears in a kiva, or ceremonial room, before beginning their communitywide search. The guise of the bear symbolizes predators preying on the witches, a reversal of the supposed predatory nature of witches in Pueblo society.

The ceremony is now performed on a witch effigy, but Darling says the ancient witch hunts were probably tense times when villagers tried not to attract the elders' attention.

The maximum penalty for witchcraft was death, but a variety of lesser punishments were meted out to those found guilty, including beatings, ostracism or forced membership in a medicine society to divert their purported powers to good use.

Killing witches was complicated. They were believed to consume human flesh to steal the souls of the living, preventing their own souls from going to the afterlife.

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