Monday, March 2, 2015

Cannibalism: U.S. Southwest Region

By Kristy McCaffrey

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.
Why did the Anasazi start building massive stone pueblos around A.D. 900 at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico—a barren gorge in the desert of the San Juan basin—and within 250 years suddenly abandon them? Pueblo Bonito contained over 650 rooms and its construction required more than 30,000 tons of shaped sandstone blocks. Hundreds of miles of roads were created that stretched out from Chaco Canyon in arrow-straight lines, an engineering marvel achieved without compass, wheel, or beast of burden. Shrines, irrigation systems, and a network of signaling stations were erected. These structures aligned with the sun, the moon, and each other.

Physical anthropologist Christy Turner, professor emeritus at Arizona State University, and others have detected traces of extreme violence and cannibalism on human bones unearthed at 40 different Ancestral Puebloan sites in the southwestern United States.

The earliest locations with cannibalized human remains date around A.D. 900. Turner identified 72 Anasazi sites at which violence or cannibalism may have occurred. He estimated that at least 286 individuals were butchered, cooked, and eaten. After the Chaco civilization collapsed around A.D. 1150, many Anasazi moved into deep and remote canyons, living in dwellings hugging the sides of cliffs on high, fortified mesas. The Anasazi had been seized with paranoia, or, perhaps more simply, fear.

Anasazi Ruin.
There are roughly six criteria for determining whether human remains have been cannibalized—breakage, cut marks, abrasion from being smashed against an anvil, burning, missing vertebrae, and “pot polish” created by stirring bones in a pot. Opponents to the cannibalism theory argue that the condition of remains can also be caused by the chewing of a carnivorous animal, re-burial, or witch executions, in which the victim was cut up to locate the witch’s evil heart, anywhere from the head to the big toe. Dismembering was the only way to prevent the witch from wreaking revenge after death.

In the 1990’s definitive proof arrived when a group of archaeological sites were excavated at the base of Sleeping Ute Mountain in southern Colorado. Within the first kiva was found a pile of chopped-up, boiled, and burned human bones. In the second kiva were found the remains of five people in which evidence suggested they had been roasted, then the bones defleshed and split open for the marrow. The skulls of at least two people had been placed upside down on the fire, roasted, and broken open, and the cooked brains presumably scooped out. Tools for chopping were found with traces of human blood on them.

Sleeping Ute Mountain.
In the third kiva, however, was the most unusual find. In the ashes of a central hearth was found a nondescript lump. Further analysis revealed it was a coprolite—desiccated human feces. Testing revealed that the feces contained human myoglobin, a protein found only in skeletal and heart muscle. The only way it could get into the intestinal tract was through eating. Based on the evidence at hand it was clear the community had been attacked. The people had been killed, cooked, and eaten. Then, in an ultimate act of contempt, one of the killers defecated in a hearth, the symbolic center of the family and the household.

Turner found that most deposits of cannibalized bones were often situated near Chaco Great Houses, spread across the Four Corners region, and that most dated from the Chaco period. The eating of human flesh seems to have begun as the Chaco civilization began, around A.D. 900; peaked at the time of the Chaco collapse and abandonment, around A.D. 1150; and then all but disappeared. Turner theorizes that cannibalism might have been used by a powerful elite at Chaco Canyon as a form of social control. Ancient terrorism.

Toltec civilization.
And who were these powerful elite? Most likely the Toltecs—precursors of the Aztecs. The Toltec empire in Mexico lasted from about A.D. 800 to 1100. It’s possible a heavily armed group of these “thugs” infiltrated into the southwestern part of the U.S. and found a suspicious but pliant population whom they terrorized into reproducing the theocratic lifestyle they had previously known in Mesoamerica. This involved heavy payments of tribute, constructing the Chaco system of great houses and roads, and providing victims for ceremonial sacrifice. The Mexicans achieved their objectives through the use of warfare, violent example, and terrifying cult ceremonies that included human sacrifice and cannibalism.

The Navajo have stories in their folklore that reveal aspects of Chaco Canyon that are very different from the Anglo view. Elder Navajo say that Chaco was a place of hideous evil. The people there abused sacred ceremonies, practiced witchcraft and cannibalism, and made a dreaded substance called corpse powder by cooking and grinding up the flesh and bones of the dead. Their evil threw the world out of balance, and they were destroyed in a great earthquake and fire.

The final truth is that the Anasazi, around A.D. 1150, abruptly fled their homes in the Chaco region to live in remote cliff sides, behaving as if chased by a formidable opponent. When the evidence of cannibalism is presented, the motivation for this departure can be understood under a different light.

In my book, THE SPARROW, I’ve weaved the idea of cannibalism into my story, not only through the Anasazi ruins that lay within the Grand Canyon—showcasing the peoples who strove to live in such a hard-to-reach place—but also through the folklore of cannibalism that exists in the Hopi heritage as well.

In 1877, Emma Hart comes to Grand Canyon—a wild, rugged, and, until recently, undiscovered area. Plagued by visions and gifted with a second sight, she searches for answers about the tragedy of her past, the betrayal of her present, and an elusive future that echoes through her very soul. Joined by her power animal Sparrow, she ventures into the depths of Hopi folklore, forced to confront an evil that has lived through the ages.

Texas Ranger Nathan Blackmore tracks Emma Hart to the Colorado River, stunned by her determination to ride a wooden dory along its course. But in a place where the ripples of time run deep, he’ll be faced with a choice. He must accept the unseen realm, the world beside this world, that he turned away from years ago, or risk losing the woman he has come to love more than life itself.

Works Cited

Hartigan, Rachel. “Dying for dinner? A debate rages over desert cannibalism.” U.S. News Magazine. July 2000.  <>

Preston, Douglas. “Cannibals of the Canyon.” The New Yorker Magazine. November 1998.

Pringle, Heather. “Were Some Ancestral Puebloan People the Victims of Ethnic Conflict?” Archaeology Magazine. September 2010. <>

Turner, Christy G. and Turner, Jacqueline A. Man Corn: Violence and Cannibalism in the Prehistoric American Southwest. University of Utah Press, 1998.

Witze, Alexandra. “Researchers Divided Over Whether Anasazi Were Cannibals.” National Geographic Magazine. June 2001. <>


Rain Trueax said...

I bought 'Man Corn' years ago as well as anything I could find on the Anasazi. At that time, it wasn't for a book but my fascination with being in those ruins and how it felt. I won't read yours until I finish my next one, Aztec Moon for fear I'd be influenced although mine will be centered in the Cibecue and Sinagua ruins-- with no supernatural element other than reincarnation. The stories that can arise out of that region are so many :) I look forward to reading yours-- after I finish mine. I bought a book to help me with it, maybe you already have it-- Earl Morris & Southwestern Archaeology. Another good one is 'Echoes in the Canyon' about more current digs in the Sierra Ancha :)

Kristy McCaffrey said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I don't have either of those books. Will have to check them out. I look forward to reading your books!!

GiniRifkin said...

HI Kristy: What an interesting post. I had no idea cannibalism was so prevelent in the areas I have visited. Great research on your part, and your book sounds so intriguing.

Kristy McCaffrey said...

Hi Gini,
Thanks for stopping by. It's an odd, and kinda creepy, subject but one I find so fascinating. Cheers!

Caroline Clemmons said...

My family love visiting the Anasazi sites, especially Chaco and Mesa Verde. Thanks for this aspect.

Shanna Hatfield said...

What an interesting post, Kristy. I had no idea about the cannibalism.

Kristy McCaffrey said...

Thanks Caroline and Shanna. It's rather gruesome, but a subject not normally addressed when considering the abandonment of these places. Certainly food for thought.