Good guys. Bad guys. It used to be pretty clear which side was which. When I was a kid back in the straight-arrow "50s, I knew that the Lone Ranger wore the white hat. He was on the side of justice, law and order.
In the topsy-turvy "60s,
as I learned how the West was really won, Tonto traded places with
his masked compatriot. And Columbus became the black-hat
Now, after reading Christy Turner's new
book, Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric
American Southwest (University of Utah Press, 1998), I'm not so
sure who's good and who's bad.
Man Corn is a
translation of the Nahuatl (Aztec) word tlacatlaolli, which refers
to a "sacred meal of sacrificed human meat, cooked with corn." And
what Turner is proposing is that the great Chacoan culture we've
long celebrated for its architectural, agricultural and cultural
sophistication may also have been a society riddled with terror,
violence and even cannibalism.
anthropologist specializing in dental morphology, Turner first
stumbled into the skeletal record of a Hopi massacre while he was
examining Anasazi teeth at Flagstaff's Museum of Northern
This initial discovery prompted Turner
to re-examine some 72 Anasazi sites where cannibalism might have
been involved. And of those, 38 show clear evidence of cannibalism,
while most of the rest suggest extreme violence and mutilation. He
also examined a collection of 870 Anasazi skeletons at the Museum
of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff and found that 8 percent, or one
in every 12, showed the tell-tale marks of cannibalism - burn
patterns on the skull, perimortem breaks, anvil abrasions,
sucked-out bone marrow, polished and beveled bone tips (from having
been stirred in a rough ceramic pot).
Turner's detractors have proposed alternate interpretations of the
bone record, and many have criticized Turner for not working with
the Puebloan peoples, and for being insensitive to the negative
political ramifications of his findings.
years it seemed as though Turner's thesis was built as much on
conjecture as irrefutable evidence.
Then in the
early 1990s, a contract archaeology firm excavated a group of
prehistoric sites at the base of Sleeping Ute Mountain on the
Colorado/New Mexico border and came up with a smoking
At an otherwise unremarkable site along
Cowboy Wash, known as 5MT 10010, the archaeologists found three
kivas. The first contained a pile of chopped-up human bones that
appeared to have been tossed down into the room from outside. The
second contained the bones from five individuals who'd been roasted
and eaten, along with a butchering tool kit - ax, hammerstones, and
two large flakes with razor-thin cutting edges. These, when
analyzed, tested positive for human blood. The third kiva contained
a coprolite, or desiccated human excrement, directly atop the dead
ashes of the central hearth. As archaeologist Brian Billman
theorized, "After the fire had gone cold, someone had squatted over
this hearth and defecated into it."
analyses proved conclusively that the coprolite showed the presence
of human myoglobin protein. No mistake. This was human cannibalism,
and a kind of terrorism calculated to inspire fear in all of who
came near this site.
Still, I can't quite accept
this changed picture of the master builders of Casa Rinconada and
the paleo-astronomers of Fajada Butte. For years I'd insisted on
calling them "Hisatsinom," the Hopi word for "ancient ones," and
disdained the common term "Anasazi," a Navajo or Diné word for
But now I'm not so sure
"ancient enemies' isn't the best term, after all, to describe these
mysterious ancestors. Maybe the Diné had good reason for their
aversion to Anasazi sites, their deep-rooted fear of what, it turns
out, may have been a culture gone quite awry.
longer can I put Chaco Canyon on some kind of ancient
Parthenon-like pedestal and see in it an ideal society lost, a
primitive utopian vision that we need to work back towards as we
step into the future. Instead, I am left with the haunting
realization that good and evil, human achievement and human
tragedy, cultural marvels and cultural misdeeds are inseparable
parts of the circle of life as we know it. And as the Anasazi knew
Even today, to walk the beauty way, as the
Puebloan peoples and the Diné still believe, is not to stand
in the light or revel in the dark, but to walk the path between
light and dark, the one balancing the other.
it's sobering to realize that, at certain times in the history of
all peoples, that balance can be lost and a society - even one
revered like the Anasazi - can be plunged into the terror of a
Hitler, a Pol Pot. n
and county commissioner, Art Goodtimes is also a contributor to
Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in
Paonia, Colo. (www.hcn.org). He lives in Norwood,