Walking the path between light and dark

  • Arrow points to cut marks on skull found at Canyon del Muerto, Ariz.

    From Man Corn
 

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 villain.

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.

A physical 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 Arizona.

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).

Lots of 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.

And for 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 gun.

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."

Later lab 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 "ancient enemies."

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.

No 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 it.

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.

And 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.

A poet 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, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.