Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Anasazi Cannibalism? Volume 50 Number 5, September/October 1997
by Amélie A. Walker

Human remains found at a twelfth-century A.D. site near Cowboy Wash in southwestern Colorado provide further evidence of cannibalism among the Anasazi (see "A Case for Cannibalism," ARCHAEOLOGY, January/February 1994). The remains of 12 people were discovered at the site, designated 5MT10010, but only five were from burials. The other seven appear to have been systematically dismembered, defleshed, their bones battered, and in some cases burned or stewed, leaving them in the same condition as bones of animals used for food. Cut marks, fractures, and other stone-tool scars were present on the bones, and the light color of some suggests stewing. Patterns of burning indicate that many were exposed to flame while still covered with flesh, which is what would be expected after cooking over a fire.

Human remains from other sites in the area were similarly treated, and three explanations have been proposed: hunger-induced cannibalism, ritual cannibalism adopted from Mesoamerica, or something else altogether. Patricia Lambert of Utah State University and Brian Billman and Banks Leonard of Soil Systems, the contract archaeology firm that excavated 5MT10010, propose that cannibalism was associated with violent conflict between Anasazi communities in the mid-1100s, contemporary with a period of drought and the collapse of the Chaco system. They note a sharp increase in evidence of cannibalism between 1130 and 1150, followed in each case by the abandonment of the site, then a decrease in the early 1200s as the climate improved.

A religious leader from a Ute tribe, on whose reservation the remains were found, supervised the archaeological work and will rebury the bones.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America