For reasons still debated among scientists today, Anasazi culture in the Southwest had collapsed by 1300, creating what is known to academics as "The Great Abandonment."
According to Navajo oral histories, the Anasazi
were dispersed by a whirlwind because they had abandoned the ways
of their ancestors. Whatever the causes, the eastern part of the
Four Corners region became uninhabited in a flicker of geologic
time. Yet the legacy left behind, observed David Ortiz, staff
anthropologist for Navajo archaeology at Northern Arizona
University in Flagstaff, "is the image of supreme beings, skilled
at astrology, peaceful, cooperative and wise."
People from all over the world have made much of the Anasazi, a
Navajo word for "ancient ones' or, some say, "ancient enemies,"
believing them to have been deeply spiritual. But what if that
peaceful image is wrong? Few ever raised the question. Those who
did were rewarded with blank stares, angry letters and canceled
meetings. One who persisted was Christy G. Turner II, the regents'
professor of anthropology at Arizona State University at Tempe
(HCN, 5/24/99). And now, the mainstream panjandrums of Southwestern
archaeology and anthropology can no longer ignore
The Pollyanna image of a peaceful people
has been cracked - some say shattered forever. The reason is the
publication of Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the
Prehistoric American Southwest, by Turner and his late wife,
Jacqueline. It is the first detailed account of cannibalism and
violence on a regional scale in the prehistoric American Southwest,
especially in the Chaco Canyon area.
of the book comes from the Aztec word tlacatlaolli, a "sacred meal
of sacrificed human meat, cooked with corn." The book itself is a
prodigiously descriptive 547-page tome, many years in the making
and now destined for more printings and a PBS television special.
It's a shocker.
"The land of
the Anasazi was not a pleasant place to be, after all," Turner
says. "It was just as violent as any place else in the world. Mean
Turner's conclusion, Ortiz
predicts, will take "Southwestern archaeology in a new direction
and it will take a long time for the dust to settle."
Some 20 centuries ago, the Anasazi began to
wander into the steep escarpments, open desert and high mesas of
northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, southeastern Utah
and southwestern Colorado. There, the culture they arrived with
underwent a transformation.
gatherers became farmers and artists, who made sophisticated
basketry, built pueblos the size of the Roman Colosseum and
fashioned intricate cliff dwellings, the remnants of which are
tourist favorites in parks and canyons in the Four Corners region
Of all the intriguing Indian cultures in
the Southwest, these enigmatic people are the most romanticized. In
the prose of tourist brochures, in the verbiage of academic
journals, in cyberspace and on videos about life and culture at
Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly and hundreds of other
sites, their civilization is recognized as the great hearth of
The Anasazi conducted
sophisticated trading activities with Mesoamerica, the Hohokam in
Arizona's Salt River Valley, the Mogollon in Central Arizona and
with the natives in California, exchanging beans, corn and
turquoise for parrot feathers and abalone shells. By 1200, the most
famous site, Chaco Canyon, had become the center of an economic,
ritual and social system spread out over an estimated 100,000
square miles. One hundred years later, it
Was it drought, famine, enemy
raiders? Was it disease? Sudden climate change? Overpopulation? A
curtain fell on their Golden Age and the people departed swiftly,
in some cases leaving pet birds behind to die on their roosts. They
bequeathed a ghost world for future explorers to
Despite the romantic aura of the
Anasazi, many famous scientists down through the years have
suspected them of cannibalism - Fewkes, Hodge, Pepper, the
Weatherills, the Listers, Pilles, White and Danson, among others -
and Turner presents Man Corn as a tribute to
"The vast majority saw
it correctly," he says, "but their work was never acknowledged in
the profession's mainstream because it flew in the face of
Turner says cannibalism
was practiced for almost four centuries, starting around 900. It
was most common in the Four Corners area, especially among people
living in Chaco Canyon and outlying Chacoan great houses, and it
increased dramatically shortly before the Anasazi abandoned their
This assertion took a long time for
Turner and his late wife to construct. Years of research were
required under auspices including the Museum of Northern Arizona at
Flagstaff and the National Geographic Society, before Turner felt
he was on sufficiently firm ground to challenge prevailing thought
on the Anasazi.
Explains Turner: "Like others in
the field, we had to work our way through the conventional wisdom
that the people who created the beautiful pottery and architecture
could not possibly have done these things. I mean, the ruins are
terribly romantic. It is beautiful country, a fantasy world, and
that is a great influence on lots of archaeologists. Down through
the years, countless people visited the ruins. They came away with
everything but the truth."
Not for the
fainthearted, Man Corn analyzes in excruciating detail 76 Anasazi
sites at which Turner says he can confirm that violence or
cannibalism occurred: 11 in Arizona, the rest in Utah, Colorado and
Amazingly, the first site was
discovered by Walter Hough in May 1901 on a large butte
east-southeast of Holbrook, Ariz., dated to the period 1200-1300.
His discovery never made it into the textbooks. Within a year after
the excavation, however, Hough wrote of his findings in Harper's
cemetery, among other orderly burials, was uncovered a heap of
broken bones belonging to three individuals. It was evident that
the shattered bones had been clean when they were placed in the
ground, and some fragments showed scorching by fire. The marks of
the implements used in cracking the bones were still traceable.
Without doubt this ossuary is the record of a cannibal feast, and
its discovery is interesting to science as being the first material
proof of cannibalism among our North American
The charge of
cannibalism raises obvious questions. First, how can scientists
distinguish between violence and cannibalism?
Turner answers: "It comes directly from bone evidence. Bone damage
is able to be classified, inventoried, identified and pigeonholed.
It turns out that in factoring out different kinds of damage,
cannibalism far exceeds anything that we can refer to as
"That is because the
key component in violence is simply violent death, torture,
mutilation. It stops there. There is none of this breaking up of
the people, whole skeletons reduced to little tiny pieces. We can
make a powerful inference that all those little pieces have been
processed for cooking.
cases of violence, they didn't go to the next step of sitting down
and peeling the people, defleshing them, breaking the bones open
for marrow and showing us every sign of cooking - heads roasted,
bodies boiled, bones pot-polished."
Southwest, voices have risen in angry protest against Turner's
thesis. "He has not proven a thing," charges Kurt Dongoske, tribal
archaeologist of the Hopi Tribe. "What he has demonstrated is that
people were hacked apart, their bones dismembered. He presents no
evidence of human ingestion."
swells as the conversation in Flagstaff continues. "Cannibalism is
a pretty terrible thing. Look at the rock art in the Southwest.
Don't you think that someone would have depicted the consumption of
human flesh in the petroglyphs and pictographs? They depict
everything else - Spaniards arriving, clan migration routes,
ceremonies. If human flesh had been consumed, it would have been
depicted on the rock walls. Turner's work is part of a long legacy
to denigrate Indians, to dehumanize them."
in Santa Fe, Peter Bullock, an anthropologist at the Museum of New
Mexico, dismisses Turner's work entirely. "We don't accept it over
here. In fact, we consider it pretty much of a joke."
To these gibes, Turner responds: "People say,
"You cannot prove cannibalism." Basically, this is a misconception
about how science works. Science works based on footprints and very
powerful inferences. You can only prove something with
Later in the interview, he muses:
"What did I do to catch these people off guard? Why are they so
defensive? Why are they so paranoid? What did we uncover?"
Warren Cremer, a veteran Southwestern
anthropologist based in Arizona's Verde Valley, is persuaded that
the controversial book is solid science. "Turner has gathered,
examined and presented his evidence with great care and precise
measurements. Other scientists can independently test his claims.
So far, none of his critics have challenged his methodology."
Another scientist who thinks Man Corn should be
taken seriously is David R. Wilcox, senior research archaeologist
at the Museum of Northern Arizona and sometime colleague of Turner
through the years.
Sitting in his small office
overflowing with books, coffee cups and telephone messages in the
museum's research wing, Wilcox explains, "Turner presents a very
reasonable scientific argument for cannibalism ... but to say that
all Anasazis were cannibals is not the correct inference. It is a
vast generalization. It is not as though everybody did it, even if
he is right.
"But that there
were individuals at certain times and places who, for reasons still
controversial, may have conducted massacres of multiple people,
then butchered and cooked and quite possibly ate them, is very
difficult to deny. As for his theories as to why they did it, we
concerning some ancient bones in the Museum of Northern Arizona
archives in 1967 led to what Arizona State University
paleoanthropologist William Kimbel terms Turner's "legitimate
inference" about Anasazi cannibalism.
by prehistoric bones and teeth, Turner asked a museum curator to
let him examine an odd-looking cardboard box resting on a top
The box contained human bone shards
excavated three years earlier from a remote site in northern
Arizona called Polacca Wash. The bones had been defleshed, cut up
and roasted, and they looked, Turner recalls, like "food trash."
In 1969, Turner presented his findings of
cannibalism, co-written with colleague Nancy Morris. The work was
not welcomed, either by his peers or by Native Americans - the
Hopi, in particular. Unperturbed, Turner went to work gathering
older bone assemblages from many Anasazi sites excavated by his
scientific predecessors. He examined more than 15,000
Turner experienced an even greater
rejection of his research at the 51st Pecos Conference - the World
Series of archaeology conferences - at Dolores, Colo., in 1988.
According to the program, there was to be a mini-symposium on
cannibalism, given the amount of "supposedly cannibalized bone that
had been found in recent years."
was canceled at the last minute because of angry phone calls and
threats of disruption. This was the first time a session had ever
been canceled, according to Richard Woodbury's 60 Years of
Southwestern Archaeology - A History of the Pecos Conference.
Ironically, meeting planners had feared sensational accounts in the
press. The cancellation, perhaps, drew even wider
Turner never wavered. Just the
opposite; his research intensified and came to fruition in 1993,
during a long meeting with Wilcox, who'd laboriously created a map
displaying the location and distribution of the great pueblos at
Chaco Canyon. Turner placed his suspected cannibal sites on
Wilcox's layout of the pueblos.
"It was a "Eureka!" moment,"
Turner recalls. "All the research came together. David's map
coincided with the location of the cannibalized bone deposits. It
was then I knew that the civilization centered in Chaco Canyon was
likely the locus of Anasazi cannibalism."
word cannibal, Turner writes, comes from the Carib Indian tribal
name, referring to a person who eats human flesh. Though
everywhere, cultures have denounced it - -cannibalism is bad, and
bad people are cannibals' - Turner provides details of the practice
going back thousands of years as reported in worldwide folklore,
oral traditions, sacred writings, anthropological narratives, war
stories, urban police records and tales from lost wanderers about
cannibal peoples and cannibal
"Truth to tell,"
Turner declares, "cannibalism has occurred everywhere at one time
reasons vary from place to place. They range from starvation
cannibalism in the Arctic to cannibalism as a ritual element of
social control in Mesoamerica. In China, it was an
institutionalized way of showing love and respect. In pre-Columbian
Brazil, it was a way for obtaining the power and strength of a
sacrificial victim. Finally, cannibalism is associated with social
pathology the world over.
Turner favors a
combination of three reasons for cannibalism among the Anasazi:
ritual human sacrifice, social control and abnormal, criminal
But Turner concedes that after many
attempts to unlock that mystery, "There is no way at this time to
determine who did the eating or who was eaten - friends, relatives,
slaves, strangers." He reached that conclusion after searching for
similar sites in California, in the Rocky Mountains, on the Great
Plains and among the Anasazis' neighbors.
by the process of elimination that he decided that Southwestern
cannibalism "appears to have originated in Mexico, where the
practice was common and dates back 2,500 years ..." Turner wrote,
"We speculate that this force consisted of cultists and warriors of
the Quetzalcoatl - Xipe Totec - Tezcatlipoca deity complex who
overwhelmed the local residents, much the way the soldiers led by
Cortez fell upon Mexico."
"Terrorism is what we are
talking about," he says. "Cannibalism was the weapon that forced
Chaco Canyon to be built." He rests his case in part on the great
wooden beams supporting the roofs of the large pueblos. It is
believed that the beams were cut at least 50 miles
"You don't haul 200,000
beams of wood voluntarily; people were coerced into producing
Chaco," Turner theorizes. "The only way you coerce people is
through terror and power." Turner also speculates that workers may
have been drugged.
It is over this assertion
that colleagues such as David Wilcox at the Museum of Northern
Arizona part company with Turner. "Christy has got a very
reasonable scientific argument for cannibalism. However, he is way
out on a limb on the Mesoamerican connection."
Wilcox agrees that some sort of "organized terrorism occurred in
and around Chaco Canyon. But then one runs into the Chinese Box
syndrome - lots of meat was being generated. Why? Whatever they
were doing was not acceptable in human terms. When Chaco was
abandoned, evidence of cannibalism
"Was it evil that
caused the Great Abandonment?" Wilcox wonders.
The controversies Turner has stirred up may boil for decades. When
asked if he thought the publication of his book would discourage
tourism in the Four Corners region, Turner smiled. "Too much money
is involved in commercial tourism," he says. "Everybody has been in
denial about horrors amongst Indians in ancient times. I suspect
that, despite Man Corn, that denial will
"I am certain that
I've found the answer," he concludes. "Let others test it. This is
no longer an interesting challenge."
mystery has been solved for Turner, and maybe the opposition got to
him. When told that Turner was leaving the country for a while,
Kurt Dongoske said, "Good. The sooner the better."
David Ortiz summarizes the frustration. "We
will never know for sure whether Turner is correct unless we can
find a way to go back in time," he says. "But he is very well
respected and I am urging my Indian students at Northern Arizona
University to leave concerns of racism aside and look at the
"The late Carl Sagan
called science "a candle in the dark." Turner has lighted a big
candle for the rest of us."
James Bishop Jr. is an amateur archaeologist and freelance writer
in Sedona, Arizona, and the author of the Edward Abbey biography
Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist. A version of this story appeared in