Scientific inquiry meets soul-searching in the Southwestern U.S.

By Andy Walton
CNN Interactive

The Four Corners region of the U.S. Southwest is where the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet. It is also the crossroads of a historical debate that challenges the traditional view of life in ancient North America.

In popular American mythology, the Anasazi who lived in the region were a peaceful people, living in harmony with nature and each other, uncorrupted until their first contact with Europeans.

In the 10th through 12th centuries, they built structures in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, that rivaled any on Earth in size and architectural sophistication.

But now archaeologists are beginning to believe that the Anasazi were no strangers to man-made environmental catastrophe, astonishing brutality and even, in some extreme cases, anthropophagy -- an academic term for cannibalism.

Not surprisingly, the last of these claims has been the most controversial. In his book "Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest," published in 1999 by the University of Utah Press, archaeologist Christy Turner of Arizona State University argues that the fossil record offers abundant evidence of people eating people in the Four Corners area.

"I have identified a signature of bone damage that goes way beyond anything known from violence," Turner says. "It goes way beyond any known mortuary practices, and even beyond any mortuary practices that we can speculate on."

The damage, Turner says, is nearly identical to the markings on bones of animals butchered for food.

Turner says his signature is a checklist of signs that bones may have been cannibalized:

  • Cut marks suggesting that the body was dismembered and stripped of flesh.

  • Long bones of the arms and legs broken and vertebrae crushed to get to the marrow inside.

  • Faint parallel marks, called "anvil abrasions," indicating that the bones were placed against a stone surface and smashed with a hard object.

  • Burns on the back of the skull, a sign that the head was placed face-up on hot coals to roast the brain.

  • Microscopic smoothing of the tips of bones -- a phenomenon that anthropologist Tim D. White of the University of California at Berkeley calls "pot polish" and has reproduced by boiling broken mule deer bones in a clay pot.

Death rituals?

Other anthropologists take issue with Turner and White's conclusions. Kurt Dongoske, the archaeologist for the Hopi tribe, said in a January 1999 press release that "Christy Turner has been bashing us around for 20 years."

Peter Bullock of the Museum of New Mexico says Turner strung together unrelated phenomena to draw a pattern. The mutilated bones, Bullock says, "are actually the result of a number of different activities."

Bullock points to "mortuary practices" -- archaeological shorthand for how the living treat the remains of the dead -- for an explanation of some of the remains. The Anasazi may have had rituals similar to those of tribes in the Mississippi Valley that "defleshed" bones before burying or scattering them, Bullock says.

Bullock would not reject the possibility of cannibalism out of hand but says he remains "leery" of accepting Turner's conclusions and methods.

Turner is quick to dismiss his critics, suggesting they haven't read his book and haven't "done their homework."

Ancient rivalries, academic animosity

The conflict between anthropologists falls against a backdrop of ancient rivalries between neighboring tribes in the Southwest. The Hopi, who along with other Pueblo tribes claim the Anasazi as ancestors, have a long-standing dispute with the neighboring Navaho. The name "Anasazi," in fact, is a Navaho word meaning "ancient enemies."

This rivalry complicates the study of history in the region; cannibalism is a common accusation among rival cultures. Another complication is that Native American tribes are wary of outsiders who seek to define their culture.

"Identities of many descendants of the Anasazi are tied up in perceptions of what the Anasazi were like," says anthropologist John Kantner of Georgia State University. "There was certainly a trend during the '60s and '70s and into the '80s to perceive Native Americans as having been in tune with the Earth and to have been relatively peaceful and egalitarian.

"Now, we're beginning to look at evidence that perhaps they were just like any other human beings," Kantner says.

Kantner also takes issue with the notion that Southwestern tribes had any special rapport with the land. "Just like anyone else, the Anasazi overfarmed and overhunted and they cut down too much wood, and sometimes they'd have to abandon their areas."

'Proof depends on who you are'

The questions surrounding the brutal end of the Chaco Canyon civilization are unlikely to be solved to everyone's satisfaction.

"Proof depends on who you are," Kantner says. "We're looking for a preponderance of evidence, and some people need more of a preponderance than other people."

Some people, in fact, demand compelling physical evidence; the Hopi press release points out that "there is still no human flesh to be found in human waste remains."

That high threshold may have been met: A sample of human waste from the Four Corners area has been tested for a protein that scientists say would prove cannibalism. But the experts involved, under an agreement with the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, say they can't talk about the results until they've been published in a scientific journal.

Even if physical evidence proves cannibalism beyond a doubt, that still leaves thornier questions: Who? Why?

Turner is far less certain of answers to those questions than he is that cannibalism occurred. "Man Corn" offers what Turner calls a "light hypothesis" -- that the wrecked bones are the work of a cult from further south, where Turner says evidence of cannibalism is abundant.

His hypothesis is that "somebody came up from Mexico around 900 and established themselves as a colony, a colony that had a cult ... using cannibalism as part of their cult practice."

While cannibalism in the Four Corners area may have served a ritual purpose, Turner believes it was primarily a means of terrorism, a way for the newcomers to quickly dominate the area.

"It wouldn't take many cases of coming into a small farming community and terrorizing the community ... (to) get everyone to do what you wanted," he says.

Kantner disagrees with Turner's Mexican hypothesis, arguing that the brutality began closer to home.

"You don't have to look elsewhere in order to explain this kind of violence," he says. "It's something that humans do when they're pushed against the wall."

A relatively mild downturn in the climate, Kantner believes, hit the Anasazi economy and fed discontent and class envy. His theory is that a revolt that began in the 12th century plunged the Anasazi world into chaos, and a long civil war became startlingly brutal.

"You see this happening throughout the world," he says. "When things are really violent and people hate one another ... [they begin] to mutilate, and to torture, and to go into the next level of uniquely human violence."

'Everything basically went to hell'

Anthropologists who seek signs of cannibalism emphasize that it is not typical of Anasazi culture, any more than an anthropologist in the distant future could gain a broad understanding of European history by studying, say, Auschwitz.

In the late 12th century, as the Chaco Canyon civilization collapsed, "everything basically went to hell," Kantner says.

When that crisis passed in about 1200, says anthropologist Brian Billman of the University of North Carolina, the instances of extreme violence all but ceased. Even when a more severe drought hit in the late 1200s, there are few signs that cannibalism may have resurfaced.

"It's almost as though Puebloan peoples found some means of stopping this form of violence," says Billman, one of the scientists involved in the human waste protein study. "They're maybe being painted as cannibals when in fact this is an isolated sort of event."

Kantner also stresses that finding instances of cannibalism among the Anasazi is not a broad indictment of their society.

"Almost every society has, at one time or another ... engaged in cannibalism," he says. "There were good times and bad times, and they did good things and bad things, just like anyone else does."

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