Sep. 14, 2000 CHAPEL HILL -- The first evidence of human tissue in prehistoric human waste dating back about 850 years shows that people of southwestern Colorado engaged in cannibalism during a long drought, according to a new study.
"Cannibalism is one of the most controversial issues in the archaeology of the American Southwest," said Dr. Brian R. Billman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Previous archaeological and osteological (bone) studies have strongly indicated that cannibalistic episodes took place in the prehistoric Southwest, but the evidence has been essentially circumstantial. "Now, we've identified biochemical remains of human tissue in a coprolite, which is the term used for prehistoric human feces," Billman said. "Analysis of the coprolite, and associated remains, at last provides definitive evidence for sporadic cannibalism in the Southwest."
A report on the findings-certain to be controversial-appears in the Sept. 7 issue of Nature, a top scientific journal. Besides Billman, authors are Dr. Richard A. Marlar of the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Banks L. Leonard of Soil Systems, Inc. of Phoenix, Dr. Patricia M. Lambert of Utah State University and Jennifer E. Marlar of the Colorado Archaeological Society.
The article draws on a multidisciplinary study of a small Anasazi site-known as 5MT10010-located in Southwest Colorado. Results of the study of artifacts, bones and architecture at that site were published in the January, 2000 issue of American Antiquity. Results indicated that three families occupied the site for approximately 20 to 30 years. When the residents abandoned their homes sometime around 1150, at least seven people-men, women and children-were systematically cut up and consumed. One of the people involved in the consumption of flesh defecated into a hearth. Researchers recovered human feces from the hearth and tested it for biochemical evidence of human tissue.
Extensive analysis of the three prehistoric dwellings known as pithouses at the site, and the human bones and tools found inside, along with laboratory tests, showed:
* human blood residue on two stone tools used in butchering
* human myoglobin, which could only come from human muscle, in the human excrement and on a cooking pot.
* cutmarks and charring on human bones, including skulls, entirely consistent with food preparation.
* no evidence of other mammals, corn or other vegetable matter in the coprolite, which suggested that other food was unavailable.
One unusual finding at the excavation was that in the pithouses, almost all roofing material, tools and other valuables remained. When people abandon a home, they almost always take with them anything that can be used again unless they are somehow prevented from doing so. Indications are that the victims had no time to leave peaceably or to flee in panic.
Soil Systems, Inc., a private archaeological consulting company for which Billman worked before moving to UNC-Chapel Hill, conducted the excavations. The Ute Mountain Ute tribe contracted with the company to excavate 60 archaeological sites before newly irrigated agricultural fields destroyed them. Results of the investigations indicated that people colonized and abandoned that part of Southwest Colorado several times between 700 and 1300.
"During periods of good climate, farmers would establish small communities consisting of clusters of homesteads," Billman said, "Eventually each colonization failed, probably because of drought." Farmers who periodically occupied the area likely were ancestors of such tribes as the Hopi and Zuni. The 5MT10010 site was part of a small community that attempted to colonize the areas between 1130 and 1150. The community consisted of a cluster of 10 small sites with a total population of 70 to 125 people. Previous excavations of three other sites in the community revealed the same pattern of cannibalism at abandonment. In total, at least 35 adults and children were butchered when the settlement was abandoned. "We believe the entire community was extinguished in a single episode of violence and terroristic cannibalism during a period of social chaos brought on by the drought," Billman said.
Scientists could pinpoint dates almost exactly because of designs on pottery they found and tree ring analysis. Along with other researchers, they have identified 18 occurrences of cannibalism, nine of which occurred between about AD 1150 and 1200 in the Mesa Verde area. Once environmental conditions improved after 1200, there is little indication of cannibalism in the Southwest.
"Unlike cultures in New Guinea and Fiji, historic Puebloan people and other Native Americans in the Southwest did not practice cannibalism," Billman said. "Somehow or other, they figured out a way of stopping this form of terroristic violence. One of the reasons modern Puebloan people object so strenuously to our talking about this is that they have extreme taboos against cannibalism, and it's about the worst thing you can do in their society." Cannibalism has occurred in a wide range of societies for a wide variety of reasons, including starvation, ancestor worship and political terrorism, the scientist wrote.
"With presentation of the first direct evidence of cannibalism in the American Southwest in the prehistoric era, we hope that the debate will shift from the question of whether or not cannibalism occurred to questions concerning the social context, causes and consequences of these events."
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