Anasazi Cannibalism Theory Ignites Bitter Controversy


The remains of seven people littered the floor of the dusty home, victims of an unimaginable slaughter.

They had been scalped, their skulls roasted, cracked open like nuts and the contents eaten. The rib cages were torn open, the cracked bones boiled and the fat extracted. The tongue of one victim was cut out and the flesh stripped from the bones and apparently eaten.

That’s how Christy Turner reads the 800-year-old evidence amid the ruins of an Anasazi pueblo along the Puerco River near the Arizona-New Mexico border. It has been more than 30 years since he first came upon remains that he believes contain evidence the deceased were cannibalized.


Turner’s controversial conclusions have shaken long-held perceptions of the culture that blossomed in the Chaco Canyon area of northwest New Mexico in about 900 and spread in the next 250 years across a vast region encompassing the Four Corners area of the Southwest.

The basket-making culture was known for its system of enormous buildings known as Great Houses, an elaborate system of roads connecting them, advanced irrigation, astronomical observation and peaceful ways. Around 1150, for reasons unknown, the culture crumbled.

Hopis Descendants of the Anasazi

The term Anasazi is a Navajo word meaning ancient enemies, and many of the culture’s descendants resent the characterization. Hopis, for example, use the term Hisatsinom, meaning the people of long ago.

They also object to Turner’s conclusions, arguing that the claim of cannibalism is a slanderous stain on their ancestors.

Scientists have also criticized the Arizona State University anthropology professor for making broad generalizations without adequate supporting evidence.

Turner, a scholar who relishes controversy, takes the criticism in stride. “We’ve said, ‘Let’s open our eyes and look at the darker side of ourselves,’ ” he says of his claim of cannibalism among the Anasazi.

It is that dark side Turner explores in a new book, “Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest,” published by the University of Utah Press. The 547-page work was coauthored by Turner’s late wife, Jacqueline, who died of breast cancer in 1996.

The Turners hypothesize that cannibalism was brought from Mexico into the Anasazi territory, perhaps by religious cultists. Cannibalism was common in Mesoamerica, dating back 2,500 years, a1852055553Turner believes the cultists used it to terrorize and control the Anasazi.

There is a history of commerce between the Anasazi and Mexican tribes and some evidence--paintings and the like--indicating that the Anasazi incorporated some of the southerners’ religious traditions.

Remains at the Puerco River site are similar to remains of victims of ritual sacrifice in Mexico, Turner says.

“We choose to see it as a group of people coming in and taking over in a very gang-like behavior,” he said. "[Cannibalism] was their gimmick. This was their weapon.”

As evidence, Turner points to characteristics of some human remains that are identical to those on the bones of game animals the Anasazi slew for food.

For example, the long human bones were broken so the marrow could be removed; there was evidence of roasting on some bones, including the back of the skulls; marks on the bone where the flesh was cut from the bone; missing vertebrae; and “anvil abrasions,” created when the bone slips as it is pounded with a stone.

Another unique characteristic, discovered by Tim D. White, an anthropologist at UC Berkeley, is “pot polishing,” which occurs when bones boiled in a clay pot rub along the side of the pot and are buffed smooth.

In his book, Turner looked at 76 sites excavated since 1893 where archeologists have asserted there was violence and possibly cannibalism. Turner said that at 38 of those sites, mostly in a 90-mile radius around the Four Corners area, about 286 people were butchered and eaten.

Evidence Disputed

All this adds up to compelling evidence for some, but not for others.

“If it’s not cannibalism, I don’t know how you’d explain it,” said Doug Owsley, head of the physical anthropology division at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Owsley is compiling a database to assess 1,500 variables on bone pathology in 6,000 to 7,000 Native American skeletons so they can be returned to the tribes and buried.

He said he has seen evidence that considerable warfare and even massacres occurred along the border of the Anasazi and Fremont tribes. And in some cases--in the Great Plains and the Southwest--Turner’s telltale signs are evident, Owsley said.

“It’s not trying in any way to cast any aspersions,” he said. “It’s simply trying to look at it objectively and obtain what the reality was.”

Peter Bullock, an archeologist at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, strongly disagrees.

"[Turner’s] claims are somewhat preposterous. His methodology is somewhat questionable. His whole thing is constructed to prove a point. It’s not unbiased research,” Bullock said. “He’s become popular with a certain element because they see him as a champion against political correctness, but really it’s just pitiful.”

Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, said the Hopi tribe--among the Anasazi’s descendants--worries that Turner’s work pastes the Hopis with an unfair stigma.

“I’m willing to say that the history of the Southwest was not immune from violence. I’m not willing to say that Hopis themselves . . . did this to one another,” Kuwanwisiwma said.

Some of those who agree with Turner do so with notes of caution.

For example, Gwinn Vivian, curator of archeology at the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona, has worked extensively in the Chaco Canyon area where Turner’s work focused, and believes cannibalism occurred.

But he is troubled by Turner’s belief in a Mesoamerican insurgence, especially when he cites evidence from just 38 sites spread over roughly six centuries.

Given the relatively isolated nature of the evidence, Vivian said, aberrant, sociopathic behavior or famine could just as easily explain the phenomenon.

“My main concern is he’s using extremely limited evidence for drawing rather broad and significant conclusions on the social and political organization of a major area of the Southwest,” Vivian said.

Turner agrees the behavior is sociopathic. “The model we use is sort of a Charles Manson-type crowd. [The cultists] were very zealous people,” he said.

Yet another hypothesis is offered by Shane Baker, curator of collections for the Museum of Peoples and Cultures at Brigham Young University.

Baker says evidence of violence at an Anasazi dig was similar to patterns of violence among the Fremont Indians, Anasazi contemporaries in the Utah area who dismembered and scattered the bodies of those they believed to be witches to prevent their returning.

An Interesting Problem

Turner believes he has made converts in a scientific community that for decades, dating back to the work of Walter Hough in 1901, ignored or resisted evidence turned up by Turner and nearly 20 other archeologists that suggests cannibalism among the Anasazi.

“We’ve slugged away at this thing for 30 years, and I would say we’ve got more converts than opponents,” Turner says. “I have no interest in winning them over. I want to satisfy my own mind that this is what happened and put the evidence out for objective people to look at.”

Turner plans to spend next summer in Siberia looking at animal bones from a hyena cave, then turn his sights on Mexico to learn more about the cultures he believes brought cannibalism to the Anasazi.

“It’s one of the problems that I find interesting in the sense that it’s very hard to explain, and I think that’s the basis of good science,” Turner says. “This may sound egotistical, but if you’re not working on things that are controversial, then it’s not very interesting.”