THEORY SEEN AS HALF-BAKED
Did cannibalism kill Anasazi civilization?
CHACO CANYON, N.M. - It is one of the great prehistoric puzzles: What caused the Anasazi people, who had one of the most sophisticated civilizations in North America, to abandon their beautiful stone dwellings in the mid-12th century? What made families walk away, seemingly in great haste, leaving behind food cooking over fires and sandals hanging on pegs?
In Chaco Canyon, a stark landscape in northwest New Mexico presided over by brooding red mesas, clues lie buried within a nest of hundreds of rooms strewn among the remnants of distinctive Cibola pottery and exquisite jewelry.
Bones. Chopped-up human bones with marks indicating systematic cutting and scraping, suggesting that groups of people were killed and butchered, the meat carefully cut away at the tendons and roasted. Long bones halved and boiled to extract the marrow. Skulls, their tops removed like lids, placed on hearths and cooked. Brains removed.
Scientists have long puzzled over the meaning of these artifacts. Now, at least one chilling explanation has come forth from physical anthropologist Christy Turner. With the publication this spring of "Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest," which he wrote with his late wife, anthropologist Jacqueline Turner, he has managed to anger Native Americans, rile scientists, horrify New Agers and provide a fascinating theoretical glimpse into the collapse of a great civilization.
"I'm the guy who brought down the Anasazi," Turner said wryly.
The book debunks the traditional view of the Anasazi as peaceful agriculturists, whose modern-day descendants are the highly spiritual Hopi, Zuni and Pueblo peoples. Previously, the bone heaps have been variously explained as the handiwork of warring clans, remnants of the killing of witches and/or part of ritual mortuary practices.
But Turner contends that a "band of thugs" - Toltecs, for whom cannibalism was part of religious practice - made their way to Chaco Canyon from central Mexico. These invaders used cannibalism to overwhelm the unsuspecting Anasazi and terrorize the populace into submission over a period of 200 years.
Turner says the culture's carefully constructed social fabric began to tear. Finally, the Anasazi fled the oppressive cultists and sought haven deep in remote canyons. The next time any part of the culture appeared, these Pueblo people were found to have constructed elaborate dwellings adhered to the sheer sides of cliffs.
Generations of scientists have postulated that such suspended villages - located far from water - represented a fear of a great foe. Turner suggests the Anasazi took up these defensive positions against a horrible enemy - the evil that had infiltrated their own people.
Turner's theory has been attacked by American Indians and by scientists who say he has shoehorned a disparate collection of findings into one convenient theory. While respected in his field, Turner's explanation for the cannibalism has been met mostly with skepticism. But even with his provocative hypothesis, Turner admits he hasn't solved all of the Chaco puzzle: Who built these grand edifices, what were they used for, and where did all the people go?
Turner, a professor of anthropology at Arizona State University, had established an international reputation in forensic dentation long before taking up the cannibalism issue.
He was sifting through a box of human remains in 1967 taken from Polacca Wash, on what is now the Hopi Indian Reservation in northeast Arizona, when something struck him as odd. He thought they resembled the remains of a meal. The unassuming box led to a paper, "A Massacre at Hopi," written with Nancy Morris. Turner's presentation and the reaction were harbingers of 30 years of controversy and scorn.
In presenting his original paper, Turner said that the box contained the remains of 30 people who had been "violently mutilated" and whose heads showed signs of defleshing and roasting. The response from his peers, Turner said, "wasn't so much a reaction as silence."
He concluded that Polacca Wash could be shown to be the site of what Hopi legend called the Death Mound. According to anthropologists, the people in a particular village were known to practice forbidden witchcraft. Nearby villages attacked the renegade group, burning most of the men and capturing the women and children. In the chaos that followed, the women and children were tortured and dismembered.
Apart from the scientific doubts about Turner's conclusions, the notion that the Hopi - revered in scholarship as wise and gentle astronomers who lived in an enlightened society - would be capable of killing and eating members of their own clan stunned the scientists.
Anthropologists acknowledge than any theory that seems to portray Pueblo Indians in a negative light would be hard to sell.
"Our understanding of the Anasazi is exactly parallel to what was thought of the Maya years ago - this advanced society responsible for beautiful things, that now we realize was not a peaceful place," said David Wilcox, curator of the Museum of Northern Arizona.
"We are in a period where everything Native American is (seen as) spiritual, sensitive and wonderful. We would like to believe that all of the nasty stuff was introduced by the Europeans, and before that it was all truth, beauty and love. Sorry, that's just not so. These were complex societies. We are all capable of doing those things."
Turner has refined his cannibalism theory over the years, even pointing to seven identifying characteristics that must be present in bone assemblages before cannibalism can be established. These include cut marks that indicate flesh was meticulously cleaned from bones, and bones broken into smaller pieces that show signs of "pot polish," with the ends worn smooth by being stirred in a pot.
In his book, he claims to have identified at least 38 Anasazi sites where cannibalism took place. The cannibalism was, he says, a means of political control within Chaco and a scare tactic to ward off potential attackers. The book's title "Man Corn," is a translation of an Aztec word meaning a sacred meal of human meat cooked with corn.
Debra Martin, a professor of biological anthropology at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, agrees that there were horrifically violent episodes in the prehistoric Southwest, but argues that Turner's conclusions are flawed.
"Why does Christy think that if bones are cut and flesh cooked that it means cannibalism?" she said. "Why can't it also indicate the killing of witches? Why can't it be ritual mortuary practice?
The crux of any debate about cannibalism is how to prove, absent first-person testimony, that human flesh was ingested.
Now, there may be a method. Seven years ago a team of archaeologists working at Sleeping Ute Mountain in Colorado excavated an Anasazi site. Led by Brian Billman, the scientists discovered several of Turner's cannibalism signs. Near the remains of five people whose bodies appeared to have been cooked was a stone tool kit, of the kind used to butcher game animals. Later, laboratory tests found human blood on the implements.
Billman discovered one other significant item, a coprolite - a pile of preserved human fecal matter - in the center of a fireplace. He concluded that after the fire had died, someone had squatted over the hearth and defecated. The coprolite has become a key part of the cannibalism puzzle. It has been analyzed for the presence of human protein, which would prove the ingestion of human flesh. The results are expected to be published this year.
As for the big question - why the Anasazi in Chaco Canyon disappeared - scientists seem to have rejected at least one explanation, found in Hopi belief.
In this explanation, there is no mystery to the abandoning of Chaco: Like Christians who believe they will be whisked away in the Rapture, Hopi believe that when the spirit called, the Anasazi simply left this world.
Turner, asked point-blank if his theory has solved the mystery of the Anasazi, betrayed the first sign of ambivalence. "The Anasazi puzzle, in my mind, is as far along as I can take it," he said.
ANTHROPOLOGIST CHRISTY TURNER, shown at an Anasazi dwelling in New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, dishes the notion of peaceful southwest American Indians with his thesis that a cult of cannibalism introduced from Mexico terrorized the Anasazi and eventually destroyed their civilization. LOS ANGELES TIMES PHOTO