A Theory of Anasazi Savagery


It has been called one of the great prehistoric anthropological puzzles: What caused the Anasazi people--who over centuries had developed one of the most sophisticated civilizations in North America--to abandon their beautiful stone cities? What event transpired in the mid-12th century that caused families to walk away, seemingly in great haste, leaving behind food cooking over fires and sandals hanging on pegs?

Here, in a stark desert landscape presided over by brooding red mesas, some clues lie buried within a nest of hundreds of rooms, strewn among the remnants of distinctive Cibola pottery and exquisite jewelry fashioned from turquoise and jet.

Bones. Chopped up human bones with curious marks suggesting systematic cutting and scraping. Signs that indicate groups of people were killed, butchered, then the flesh cleaned from their bones. Tendons carefully cut away and the meat roasted. Long bones halved, stirred in pots and boiled, with the marrow extracted. Skulls with the top cut out, placed on hearths and cooked. Brains removed.

Scientists have long puzzled over the meaning of these artifacts. Now, at least one chilling explanation has come forth. With the publication this spring of “Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest,” which he wrote with his late wife, anthropologist Jacqueline Turner, physical anthropologist Christy Turner has managed to anger Native Americans, rile scientists, horrify New Agers and provide a fascinating theoretical glimpse into the collapse of a great civilization.

“I’m the guy who brought down the Anasazi,” Turner says wryly.


The book, published by the University of Utah Press, debunks the traditional view of the Anasazi as peaceful agriculturalists, whose modern-day descendants are the highly spiritual Hopi, Zuni and Pueblo people. Previously, the bone heaps have been variously explained as the handiwork of warring clans, remnants of the killing of witches and/or as part of ritual mortuary practice.

But Turner contends that a “band of thugs"--Toltecs, for whom cannibalism was part of religious practice--made their way to Chaco Canyon from central Mexico. These invaders used cannibalism to overwhelm the unsuspecting Anasazi and terrorize the populace into submission over a period of 200 years.

Turner says the culture’s carefully constructed social fabric began to tear. Finally, the Anasazi fled the oppressive cultists and sought safe haven deep in remote canyons. The next time any part of the culture appeared, these Pueblo people were found to have constructed elaborate dwellings adhered to the sheer sides of cliffs.

Generations of scientists have postulated that such suspended villages--located far from water--represented a fear of a great foe. Turner now suggests the Anasazi took up these defensive positions against a horrible enemy--the evil that had infiltrated their own people.

Turner’s theory has been attacked by Native Americans and by scientists who say he’s shoe-horned a disparate collection of findings into one convenient theory. While respected in his field, Turner’s explanation for the cannibalism has been met mostly with skepticism. But even with his provocative hypothesis, Turner admits he hasn’t solved all of the Chaco puzzle: Who built these grand edifices, what were they used for, and where did all the people go?

Sifting Through Box of Remains

Turner, a professor of anthropology at Arizona State University, had established an international reputation in forensic dentation long before taking up the cannibalism issue.

He was sifting through a box of human remains in 1967 taken from Polacca Wash, on what is now the Hopi Reservation, when something struck him as odd. He thought they resembled the remains of a meal. The unassuming box led to a paper, written with Nancy Morris, titled “A Massacre at Hopi.” Turner’s presentation and the reaction were harbingers of 30 years of controversy and scorn.

In presenting his original paper, Turner said that the box contained the remains of 30 people who had been “violently mutilated” and whose heads showed signs of defleshing and roasting. The response from his peers, Turner said, “wasn’t so much a reaction as silence.”

He concluded that Polacca Wash could be shown to be the site of what Hopi legend called the Death Mound. According to anthropologists, the people in a particular village were known to practice forbidden witchcraft. Nearby villages attacked the renegade group, burning most of the men and capturing the women and children. In the chaos that followed, the women and children were tortured and dismembered.

Apart from the scientific doubts about Turner’s conclusions, the notion that the Hopi--revered in scholarship as wise and gentle astronomers who lived in an enlightened society--would be capable of killing and eating members of their own clan stunned the scientists.

Anthropologists acknowledge that any theory that seems to portray Pueblo Indians--known as peaceful agriculturalists--in a negative light would be hard to sell.

“Our understanding of the Anasazi is exactly parallel to what was thought of the Maya years ago--this advanced society responsible for beautiful things, that now we realize was not a peaceful place,” said David Wilcox, curator of the Museum of Northern Arizona.

“We are in a period where everything Native American is [seen as] spiritual, sensitive and wonderful. We would like to believe that all of the nasty stuff was introduced by the Europeans, and before that it was all truth, beauty and love. Sorry, that’s just not so. These were complex societies. We are all capable of doing those things.”

Turner has refined his cannibalism theory over the years, even pointing to seven identifying characteristics that must be present in bone assemblages before cannibalism can be established. These include: cut marks that indicate flesh was meticulously cleaned from bones and bones broken into smaller pieces that show signs of “pot polish"--bone ends that have been worn smooth by being stirred in a pot.

In his book, he claims to have identified at least 38 Anasazi sites where cannibalism took place. The cannibalism was, he says, a means of political control within Chaco and a scare tactic to ward off potential attackers. The book’s title, “Man Corn,” is a translation of an Aztec word meaning a sacred meal of human meat cooked with corn.

His detractors, he says, are guided by a climate of political correctness that won’t allow Native Americans to be associated with violence.

“The people who say I’m insensitive to the implications of what I’m saying don’t know me,” he said. “I’m a person who looks at bones and sees people. I can feel the pain of what happened to these people. I can hear the women and children screaming. It’s rough stuff, but to deny it happened is not being logical.”

Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Cultural Preservation Office for the Hopi, or Hisatsinom people, does not dispute there was a massacre at Polacca Wash, but wonders how Turner can conclude it was the result of Hopi-on-Hopi violence.

“As humans, we are not immune to violence,” he said. “But I have yet to run into any oral history or stories that would have associated us with that type of behavior.”

Turner counters with his own question: How is it that the Hopi, scientists and others are willing to accept that extreme violence occurred at Polacca Wash and Chaco Canyon, including the mutilation and roasting of humans, but draw the line at cannibalism as being too awful to contemplate?

Debra L. Martin, a professor of biological anthropology at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, agrees that there were horrifically violent episodes in the prehistoric Southwest, but she argues that Turner’s conclusions are flawed.

“Why does Christy think that if bones are cut and flesh cooked that it means cannibalism?” she said. “Why can’t it also indicate the killing of witches? Why can’t it be ritual mortuary practice?

“I’ve worked on the same site with him and his wife. It took us, a team of five, six months to collect and catalog the bone assemblages. Christy and Jacqueline cataloged the cut marks in one day and concluded it was cannibalism. It’s what you keep coming back to: The simple solutions all have holes in them.”

The crux of any debate about cannibalism is how to prove, absent first-person testimony, that human flesh was ingested.

Now, there may be a method. Seven years ago a team of archeologists working at Sleeping Ute Mountain in Colorado excavated an Anasazi site. Led by Brian Billman, the scientists discovered several of Turner’s cannibalism signs. Near the remains of five people whose bodies appeared to have been cooked was a stone tool kit, of the kind used to butcher game animals. Later, laboratory tests would find human blood on the implements.

Billman discovered one other significant item, a coprolite--a pile of dried human fecal matter--in the center of a fireplace. He concluded that after the fire had died, a human had squatted over the hearth and defecated. The coprolite has become a key part of the cannibalism puzzle. It has been analyzed for the presence of human protein, which would prove the ingestion of human flesh. The results are expected to be published later this year.

Tall, robust and witty, Turner is a man for whom conversation inevitably drifts to lecture. He appears consumed by thoughts of his critics, whom he variously refers to as those who are “politically correct” or part of a “Santa Fe clique,” where many Southwest anthropologists reside.

“I am being worn down by the detractors,” he said with resignation. “My department ignores me. Not a single colleague talks to me about it. I don’t think a single person has said, ‘You’ve made a big discovery.’ I perceive the general attitude is, ‘Turner is crazy.’ ”

This is at the core of what Turner believes is driving his critics: that he dared to sully the lofty reputation of the Pueblo Indians.

“There is tremendous social pressure not to study certain things, even among scientists,” said Robert Pickering, curator of anthropology for the Denver Museum of Natural History. “Cannibalism is one of those things. There are taboos.”

It is true that there are academicians who reject Turner’s theories without examining them. Steven A. LeBlanc, a research associate at UCLA’s Institute of Archeology, said: “I was just at an archeological conference. There were tenured professors there who said they were not going to read Christy’s book. They don’t want to think about it.”

The Chaco Phenomenon

Chaco Culture National Historic Park, snuggled into rugged, undulating terrain, contains 4,000 archeological sites. The society of the canyon was unremarkable until the mid-9th century, when a stunning transformation that archeologists refer to as the Chaco Phenomenon occurred: The small pueblos were enlarged and became dozens of great houses, some with as many as hundreds of rooms, multiple stories, scores of sunken circular kivas, used for religious observances.

About 200,000 wooden beams were carried--not dragged or pulled by animals--from forests two days’ march away. The masonry work is all the more remarkable when considering no metal tools were used to construct the thick, soaring walls. The settlement was, until the mid-18th century, the site of the largest structures in North America.

Perfectly straight roads radiated from the canyon to a network of about 100 Great Houses. The largest and oldest is Pueblo Bonito, which contains more than 600 rooms and 40 kivas. Pueblo Bonito was built in a distinctive D shape and backs up to the canyon walls. In some places vertical stairs were carved into the walls of the canyon, leading to the mesas above.

Although the Great Houses were huge, they contained few hearths, suggesting few people actually lived there. Some believe that Pueblo Bonito was a public building and that its vast rooms were used for storing tributes of pottery and corn. Visitors came, in transit, and a small, elite group lived there full-time, directing the study of astronomy, religion and politics.

There is evidence of brisk trade between the Anasazi and the thriving cities in Mesoamerica.

At about 1130, something significant happened that caused the Chaco society to come apart. Since the disappearance of the Anasazi, Chaco has remained curiously uninhabited. The Navajo, whose reservation lies nearby, shun Chaco, referring to it as chindi, a place of ghosts. In their language, Anasazi means “enemy,” itself a tantalizing warning.

Where others see Great Houses as symbols of cultural advancement, LeBlanc sees fortresses.

“There was violence everywhere,” said LeBlanc, an expert in prehistoric Southwest warfare. “From 900 to 1150, when Turner finds his butchered individuals, it was a time when things seemed good. But there were also a lot of people being treated badly--we’ve found bodies crammed down a garbage hole or thrown in an onion pit.

“Great Houses are sited so that you could easily signal among them, there are hundreds of miles of straight roads--all of which you ascribe to military. Someday it’s all going to be obvious to us and we are going to look back and discover what fools we have been.”

As for the big question--Why did the Anasazi in Chaco Canyon disappear?--scientists seem to have rejected at least one explanation, found in Hopi belief.

During certain periods, Kuwanwisiwma said, clans would congregate. This gathering would make a pilgrimage to the center of Anasazi culture, Chaco Canyon. There, over time, the pilgrims would prepare themselves spiritually in the kivas to uphold their covenant with the creator.

From here, Kuwanwisiwma said, when they were ready, Anasazi would travel to their destiny. This might explain why structures such as Pueblo Bonito had huge storage capacity and little home-grown food to sustain anyone.

In this explanation, there is no mystery to the abandoning of Chaco: Like Christians who believe they will be whisked away in the Rapture, Hopi believe that when the spirit called, the Anasazi simply left this world.

Ask Turner point blank if his theory has solved the mystery of the Anasazi, and he betrays the first sign of ambivalence. “The Anasazi puzzle, in my mind, is as far along as I can take it,” he said, sighing.