Burning

The dark and damaged areas on these four mastoid regions—that is, the hard bump behind each ear—indicate that these human skulls were roasted. Because the mastoid region is not covered by much muscle or other tissue, damage from burning was often more intense in this area than on other parts of cranial bone. Burning patterns therefore provide clues about culinary practices.

Historical Accounts

ETHNOHISTORICAL REPORTS of cannibalism have been recorded for centuries in many corners of the globe. Although some involve well-documented accounts by eyewitnesses—such as the Donner Party expedition—other accounts by explorers, missionaries, travelers and soldiers often lack credibility. For example, these two artists' portraits depict cannibalism catalyzed by starvation in China in the late 1800s and a European view of cannibalism in the New World (based on a woodcut from 1497). Such ethno-historical accounts do not carry the weight of archaeological and forensic evidence. They may, however, serve as rich sources of testable hypotheses, guiding future archaeological excavations.

Arizona State University conducted pioneering work on unusual sets of broken and burned human skeletal remains from Anasazi sites in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado in the 1960s and 1970s. He saw a pattern suggestive of cannibalism: site after site containing human remains with the telltale signs. Yet little in the history of the area's more recent Puebloan peoples suggested that cannibalism was a widespread practice, and some modern tribes who claim descent from the Anasazi have found the idea disturbing.

The vast majority of Anasazi burials involve whole, articulated skeletons frequently accompanied by decorated ceramic vessels that have become a favorite target of pot hunters in this area. But, as Turner recorded, several dozen sites had fragmented, often burned human remains, and a larger pattern began to emerge. Over the past three decades the total number of human bone specimens from these sites has grown to tens of thousands, representing dozens of individuals spread across 800 years of prehistory and tens of thousands of square kilometers of the American Southwest. The assemblage that I analyzed in 1992 from an Anasazi site in the Mancos Canyon of southwestern Colorado, for instance, contained 2,106 pieces of bone from at least 29 Native American men, women and children.

These assemblages have been found in settlements ranging from small pueblos to large towns and were often contemporaneous with the abandonment of the dwellings. The bones frequently show evidence of roasting before the flesh was removed. They invariably indicate that people extracted the brain and cracked the limb bones for marrow after removing the muscle tissue. And some of the long bone splinters even show end polishing, a phenomenon associated with cooking in ceramic vessels. The bone fragments from Mancos revealed modifications that matched the marks left by Anasazi processing of game animals such as deer and bighorn sheep. The osteological evidence clearly demonstrated that humans were skinned and roasted, their muscles cut away, their joints severed, their long bones broken on anvils with hammerstones, their spongy bones crushed and the fragments circulated in ceramic vessels. But articles outlining the results have proved controversial. Opposition has sometimes seemed motivated more by politics than by science. Many practicing anthropologists believe that scientific findings should defer to social sensitivities. For such anthropologists, cannibalism is so culturally delicate, so politically incorrect, that they find any evidence for it impossible to swallow.

The most compelling evidence in support of human cannibalism at the various Anasazi sites was published in 2000 by Richard A. Marlar of the University of Colorado School of Medicine and his colleagues. The workers excavated three Anasazi pit dwellings dating to approximately A.D. 1150 at a site called Cowboy Wash near Mesa Verde

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