Sun-Sentinel, South Florida
September 7, 2000
By Robert Cooke

Study: Indians killed, ate humans

Stark new evidence scraped from a ruined Indian pueblo shows an instance in which American Indians did, in fact, resort to cannibalism, scientists report in today's issue of the journal Nature.

After years of very bitter, protracted argument over the issue of cannibalism — did they, or didn't they? — the new findings make it clear that about 900 years ago humans were being killed, butchered, cooked and eaten by other humans.

"Now we can say that it did happen," said biochemist Richard Marlar. "We don't have to argue, 'if' anymore. The questions now are 'Why?' 'How?' and 'Who were the aggressors?'"

In a research report, Marlar and four colleagues "show consumption of human flesh did occur, as demonstrated in preserved human waste containing identifiable human tissue."

The site of cannibalism was an ancient "Puebloan habitation located along Cowboy Wash in southwestern Colorado," in the so-called Four Corners area near Mesa Verde National Park, they said. The ruins date from the Anasazi culture of 1150 A.D., and the three residences appear to have been abandoned abruptly, perhaps as the occupants were under attack.

The site was explored recently by an archaeological team from an Arizona company, Soil Systems Inc., which was surveying part of the Ute Reservation before opening up an area for agriculture. Marlar said there are many such pueblo sites, still unexplored, in that region.

The three dwellings studied by the archaeologists seem to have been abandoned hurriedly, with tools and implements left where they lay. The artifacts portray a scene of great violence including gruesome signs of butchery.

The evidence for cannibalism includes broken, scattered bones from seven people of both sexes, including two teenagers and one child. Also, Marlar and his co-workers found cutting tools with minute traces of human blood, a pot in which human meat was cooked, and one coprolite — a dried clump of human feces — that contained traces of the human meal.

"The existence of cannibalism is one of the most controversial issues in the archaeology of the American Southwest," Marlar and his colleagues wrote. And now, they have the first direct evidence of cannibalism.

Marlar is on the staff at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver. His co-workers were his daughter, Jennifer, with the Colorado Archaeological Society; Banks Leonard, at Soil Systems Inc. in Phoenix; Brian Billman at the University of North Carolina, and Patricia Lambert at the University of Utah.

According to physiologist Jared Diamond, what Marlar and his team have found "is compelling evidence" for at least one episode of cannibalism. As a result, Diamond said, trying to claim that cannibalism never occurred in ancient times is like trying to claim humans don't engage in sex. Although some people find the idea repugnant, the facts speak for themselves.