Colorado Discovery Seen as Proof of Early Cannibalism


The most compelling evidence yet that some Native Americans practiced cannibalism has been discovered by researchers studying a small Anasazi settlement in southwestern Colorado that was mysteriously abandoned about AD 1150.

As many as 40 sites scattered across the Southwest contain human bones that show distinctive evidence of having been butchered and cooked--signs consistent with cannibalism.

Until now, however, most archeologists have shied away from conceding that the evidence proves cannibalism--favoring alternative explanations for the butchering, such as ritual burial or the execution of people believed to be witches.

The new, conclusive evidence comes from preserved pieces of human excrement found at the site. The pieces contain human proteins that could be present only if the subjects had eaten human flesh, the researchers said.


Researchers believe that if cannibalism has been definitively proved at this one Southwestern site, it is overwhelmingly likely that the practice was common enough to have taken place at the other sites where butchered bones have been found. Whether cannibalism occurred only under unusual circumstances--and which Native American groups were involved--remains unclear.

The report in today’s issue of the journal Nature seems sure to heap kindling on a controversy that has been simmering for many years, in part because it contradicts the view of Native Americans as spiritual and peace-loving that many have favored.

“Fur is going to fly over this,” said anthropologist Tim White of UC Berkeley.

“We’re just now learning how to recognize things like [cannibalism] from studies of human bones,” said anthropologist William Lipe of Washington State University. Many archeologists have been reluctant to accept the existence of cannibalism “because it carries a lot of negative implications.”

But, he said, “there are certainly plenty of other cases from history where humans have engaged in cannibalism for whatever reason. The next challenge is to understand what those reasons were.”

Archeologists have long suspected the existence of cannibalism in the Southwest, but the modern descendants of the Anasazi, the Hopi and Zuni, have a firmly entrenched moral code that forbids the practice. The tribes have insisted that their ancestors were not cannibals, and archeologists have largely bowed to their beliefs.

Controversy erupted last year when physical anthropologist Christy Turner of Arizona State University published a book called “Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest.”

Turner argued that a “band of thugs"--Toltecs from Central Mexico--used both cannibalism and violence to terrorize the Anasazi over a period of perhaps 200 years. He viewed cannibalism as a political tool that was employed to expand an empire. Turner is out of the country and could not be reached for comment.


But the new study, Lipe said, suggests the opposite--that there was a breakdown of social order, probably induced by drought and famine.

Why did they turn to cannibalism? “They were hungry,” White said.

The new evidence was found in Cowboy Wash near Ute Mountain. It had been preserved for 850 years because the site lies in a flood plain and was buried under sediment, said archeologist Banks Leonard of Soil Sciences Inc. in Phoenix.

“Unless you knew what you were looking for, you would never know it was there,” he said.


Soil Sciences was hired by the Ute Mountain Ute tribe to excavate the site before it was converted into irrigated fields for agriculture. What the researchers found paints a detailed and grisly picture.

Nine centuries ago, the little village was home to three families with possibly as many as 15 people total. They had dwelt there about 25 years, eking out a hardscrabble living growing corn, squash, beans and other crops.

But times were tough. The region was in the midst of a long drought that had sharply reduced food supplies. Evidence found at the site shows that it was early spring and that the three families’ own food supplies were running low when a small group of unknown raiders surprised and killed them.

The bodies of four adults, one child about 11 years old and two younger children were taken into two pit houses on the site, the evidence shows. There, some bodies were smashed and chopped into pieces small enough to fit into a cooking pot. Others were roasted. After the flesh was eaten, most of the bones were tossed into a small room in the house. Many of them were simply scattered on the floor.


After they had eaten their fill, one of the marauders went into the third pit house and defecated on its cold hearth. That was “the final insult,” said archeologist Brian Billman, formerly of Soil Sciences and now at the University of North Carolina.

It was also the final evidence. The scattered bones were highly suggestive of cannibalism, but the fecal remains, called coprolites by archeologists, clinched the case.

After learning of the discovery of a coprolite, which he heard about at a scientific meeting in 1997, Dr. Richard Marlar of the Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of Colorado School of Medicine offered his assistance. An amateur archeologist, he told the researchers that he could devise a test to determine if human tissue was present in the coprolite.

The test focused on myoglobin, a protein that is used by the heart and other muscles to transport oxygen. Marlar was able to show that the coprolite contained human myoglobin, but not myoglobin from animal tissue. Tests on living subjects showed that myoglobin is not normally present in feces, even in people with bleeding in their colons.


“This proves they put the meat in their mouths,” Marlar said. “If you didn’t eat human beings, this protein would not show up.”

“The coprolite takes it that last step” toward firm proof of cannibalism, said archeologist David Wilcox of the Northern Arizona Museum.

A variety of evidence supports this scenario. The site was abandoned virtually intact--did not happen when residents simply moved away.

“There were cutting tools, grinding stones, pottery, jewelry, ornaments and other artifacts,” Leonard said. There were also reusable building materials, including stone slabs for doorways and lintels and wooden beams for the roof, that were normally taken away when a village was abandoned.


The cooking pot in the first pit house contained traces of human myoglobin, indicating that it had been used to process the bodies. Mauls and axes found in the second hut had human blood on them.

Other teams have found three similar hastily abandoned villages within a five-mile radius of the Cowboy Wash site, he said, all with their belongings intact and butchered bones littered everywhere.

The artifacts from the site have been placed in the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores, Colo., and the bones have all been reburied at a site where they will not be disturbed.