The Japan Times
September 8, 2000
The Washington Post


Evidence of cannibalism found at Colorado site

WASHINGTON - Archeologists have found the most conclusive evidence yet that the Anasazi people of North America's pre-Columbian southwest practiced cannibalism.

Three "pit houses" excavated in what is now southwest Colorado contained more than a thousand bones and bone fragments with marks showing that the bodies of at least four adults, two adolescents and a child had been dismembered and systematically butchered.

Moreover, the archaeological team at the so-called Cowboy Wash site also recovered ancient human feces, known as copralite, that contained human myoglobin, a protein found only in skeletal and heart muscles: "Consumption of human flesh did occur," the researchers concluded in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, because myoglobin would not be in the desiccated feces unless someone had eaten human muscle tissue.

The findings are certain to add fuel to a bitter argument among scholars and Native Americans over cannibalism among the Anasazi, regarded as the ancestors of the modern Hopi, Zuni and other Puebloan peoples in the North American southwest.

"The debate has always been about 'if' the cannibalism occurred," said lead researcher Richard Marlar, the University of Colorado biochemist who developed the myoglobin test. "We've addressed that — yes, it has occurred. Now we have to determine why and who and how."

But J. Andrew Darling, a research associate with the National Museum of Natural History and archaeologist for the Gila River Indian Community at Sacaton, Ariz., said that despite the new findings, "I still have my doubts."

Darling and others have argued that Cowboy Wash, like nearly 40 other Anasazi ruins in the Southwest that show evidence of dismembered humans, is a ceremonial site used for the execution of witches.

"Witches are the ultimate evil — they harm people and steal souls," Darling said. "In Pueblo society they are interrogated, killed and dismembered, taking the flesh off and burning the body piece-by-piece to destroy the witch's evil heart."

Furthermore, Darling continued, Pueblo tradition embraces "a complete rejection of cannibalism." Instead, like incest, disease and other human misfortunes and taboos, the Puebloans attribute cannibalism to witches, regarded as the epitome of "everything that is opposite."

The Anasazi, known for the distinctive cliff dwellings that mark national monuments like Mesa Verde, built complex settlements and societies that spread throughout the Southwest beginning about A.D. 700 and endured for hundreds of years before inexplicably disappearing about A.D. 1300.

Cowboy Wash was one of several Ute Indian reservation sites excavated in 1994 by a team of professional archaeologists hired by the Ute Mountain Ute tribe of southern Colorado.

Archaeologist Banks Leonard, one of the dig's supervisors, said all the Cowboy Wash sites were abandoned suddenly about A.D. 1150, apparently immediately after "whatever happened happened." All the sites contained bones from dismembered humans, he said.

The site reported in Nature consisted of three "pit houses," circular dwellings 3 to 5 meters in diameter and 2 meters deep, with doors in the roof. Leonard described the site as the Anasazi equivalent of a rural homestead.

Marlar said publication of the findings was delayed for several years until he could first find a protein that existed in muscle tissue and nowhere else in the human body and then isolate an antibody that would identify only that protein and nothing else.