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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Cannibalism in the American Southwest

By Kristy McCaffrey

It’s known as the C-word among archaeologists, and often leads to bitter disputes over whether cannibalism is fact or fiction. Physical anthropologist Christy Turner, now a professor emeritus at Arizona State University, has spent his life’s work in the pursuit of fact. He 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.

It begins with the question: 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? These structures aligned with the sun, the moon, and each other; 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 constructed 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.

The earliest sites 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.

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, 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. 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.

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.


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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.



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.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Wave in Arizona ~ Amazing Sandstone Formations

By Kristy McCaffrey

On a chilly December day I embarked on a hike with my dad to see The Wave. While you may envision us searching for an ocean overlook, this swell of nature exists along the Arizona/Utah border among the bottom of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the upper section of Arizona’s Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area. And after that mouthful, all you really need to know is that it’s a really cool-looking sandstone alcove.

To enter the North Coyote Butte Special Management Area, where The Wave is located, you must have a permit. Only 20 people per day are allowed—10 through a lottery system and 10 for walk-in permits submitted the previous day. It took my dad two tries to gain two permits and to my great fortune he invited me along. To understand this you must know that my younger sister is a ski patroller, nurse, gun-toting park ranger, and well-versed in search and rescue. I, however, am a writer. Who would you choose to take into the wilderness? Exactly, not me. So I was thrilled by the invite. I might not be able to save my dad should he fall from a cliff, but I’d be able to inscribe my thoughts about it later. And what about my mom? I think she gave birth (twice) so that my dad would have someone to hang out with on his outdoor adventures.

We arrive the day before in Page, Arizona and stay the night in a hotel. We arise early the next morning, find a Denny’s open at 6 a.m., and eat a hearty breakfast since our day packs aren’t filled with anything hot and tasty. The drive to the Wire Pass parking lot—the start of the trailhead—is about 43 miles from Page. The last 8 miles are on a dirt road that is impassable when wet, the red clay turning into a slippery muck. With the day overcast and the air a bit misty, the fact that we threw a few sleeping bags into the back of my dad’s truck at the last minute suddenly seems like a good idea.

The parking lot houses a restroom and a sign-in, likely to find those who enter and never return. But this wouldn’t be us since we feel well-equipped with a very detailed map provided by the Bureau of Land Management, a compass, and a GPS. But the start of the trailhead soon leads to a non-trail. We don’t pay close enough attention to the landmarks provided on the map and manage to spend the first hour in the wrong direction. Of course the GPS indicated we were moving farther away from our target rather than closer, but in my defense it was the first time I’d used the GPS app on my smartphone. I figured we were taking a circuitous route that would eventually bring us to where we needed to be.
Our detour did lead to an awesome slot canyon, however. And after backtracking we were soon headed in the right direction. We made certain we nailed every landmark thereafter.

The 5.5 mile hike scrambling over sandy hills and red rock takes us about 2 hours. The terrain offers sweeping views of sandstone pillars and red rock buttes, tiny cacti growing in crevices and giant juniper trees standing vigil. It’s a desolate and quiet place, far from civilization.
But that’s why we come to areas like this—to know ourselves with no expectations, no grasping for outcomes; to search for the boundary of our Self in a wide open space. It’s as if in this natural environment our own internal compass is reset. We’re grounded in a way we can’t be in our busy, everyday life, our soul craving the true order of things.

At last we climb a hill just below a prominent landmark called “the Black Crack” and enter the alcove known as The Wave. The undulating swells of sandstone greet us and we’re awed, but admittedly slightly confused. Is this all there is? I think we both thought it would be more like a bowl viewed from above.
Another hiker arrives and, having been here before, explains the layout. We must climb to above the alcove to find the picture-perfect spot, the one that he stakes out with his tripod and camera for the next several hours. I’m using my small handheld camera until my dad drops and jams it, then I switch to my phone camera.
Even with our less technical approach to photo-taking we still get awesome and surreal pictures. The rock flows like water around us and the eye can hardly believe it’s authentic.
We find the Second Wave and Hamburger Rock (per the hiker’s directions) and snap more photos.
My dad wants to climb ever higher but I’m beginning to feel tired and cold so I hang back. I begin to worry that he might come rolling off that cliff after all but he soon returns in one piece.

There are dinosaur tracks in the area but we decide the GPS coordinates will likely send us on a wild goose chase clinging to the sides of the cliffs and we can’t muster enough enthusiasm to warrant the search. Instead we drop into the small canyon below, exploring the narrowing curves of the walls as they close in on us. We eat lunch here, somewhat sheltered from the wind, and decide to begin our return hike.

The way back isn’t difficult but the landmarks are not easily discernible, blending into one another in a blur of red rock upon red rock. We reference the map and GPS frequently. My dad attempts a few compass readings but the simple device is deceptive. In our weary state we realize neither of us really knows how to use a compass. Luckily my phone battery is still above fifty percent. We’re soon sitting in a warm car.

All day I faced my own insecurity about entering the wilderness, a nagging worry carried forward from childhood that I’m not the adventurous daughter, that my dad would be better off here with my sister, whose entire life is an ode to Mother Nature herself. But I’m pleased that I was able to put these doubts aside.
I embrace the challenges instead of complaining at their presence. The day unfolds in the only way it can, from one moment to the next, and within that is a happiness that sits with me now and into the days that follow. My dad and I had an immensely good time. And to honor his choice to invite me along, I now do what I do best—I write.