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