Ancient Site Holds Cannibalism Clues

Excavations of three 850-year-old pit dwellings strewn with butchered human skeletons have yielded evidence of cannibalism in the prehistoric U.S. Southwest, according to a new report. The discoveries include the first example ever of what some scientists regard as a crucial sign of past cannibalism: a fossilized piece of human feces, also known as a coprolite, that contains the chemical residue of human flesh.

During a period of intense warfare throughout the region from A.D. 1150 to 1200, residents of the dwellings fell prey to attackers who killed and ate them, theorizes anthropologist Brian R. Billman of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. At least a few hours later, one of the attackers must have defecated in the victims’ fireplace, he contends.

“We see that as an act of contempt,” he says. “There was probably a brief outbreak of cannibalism that was used as a political or military strategy at prehistoric Anasazi sites.”

The new finds come from a site called Cowboy Wash in southwestern Colorado. The report by Billman and his colleagues appears in the Sept. 7 Nature.

Reports of cannibalism at other Anasazi sites dating to between 800 and 1,600 years old have been controversial (SN: 1/2/93, p. 12), and the Cowboy Wash claim is no exception. Critics suspect that Billman’s group has mistaken a coyote coprolite for that of a person. Either warfare, reburial rituals, or the organized killing of people deemed to be witches—none of which included cannibalism—might have yielded the other signs of apparent cannibalism reported at Cowboy Wash, they argue.

The new evidence confirms that cannibalism occurred at the Anasazi site, Billman responds. His group recovered the remains of seven people of both sexes and various ages on the floors of two pit houses. The bones exhibit incisions typical of butchery and have polished ends produced by cooking in pots, the researchers say.

Household items and other material in the structures indicate that the homes were suddenly abandoned, they add.

Chemical analyses of pieces of a cooking pot, directed by biochemist Richard A. Marlar of the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, detected the residue of human myoglobin. Occurring solely in muscle, this protein indicates that human tissue was cooked in the pot, the scientists contend.

Further tests failed to find human myoglobin in storage vessels at Cowboy Wash or in cooking pots from several Anasazi sites occupied before A.D. 1150.

The coprolite, found in the ashes of a hearth, is shaped like that of a human, Billman holds. Also, it contains human myoglobin but no signs of canine origin, such as dog hairs or fragments of chewed bones. Surprisingly, no plant remains were detected.

Coprolites previously recovered from a latrine area at another Anasazi site, as well as samples of modern human feces, bore no traces of human myoglobin.

Cowboy Wash consists of nine sites, each with one to three pit houses. All four sites excavated so far contain butchered human skeletons, Billman says. He estimates that at least 35 people were killed and eaten in the same attack.

Severe drought and political upheaval in the region may have temporarily sparked cannibalistic practices, Billman proposes. For about 50 years, such forces overrode a strict Anasazi taboo against cannibalism, he adds.

In a commentary in the same journal, physiologist Jared M. Diamond of the University of California Medical School in Los Angeles calls the new report “compelling evidence” of cannibalism in the prehistoric U.S. Southwest.

Peter Y. Bullock, an archaeologist at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, disagrees, however. Coyotes are common scavengers in this part of the country and could easily have deposited the Cowboy Wash coprolite, Bullock asserts.

Further Cowboy Wash excavations may yield more data, but neither Billman nor Bullock expects them to resolve the cannibalism debate.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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