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Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

It’s quite clear that, in a general sense, the modern Pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona are the cultural descendants of the ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) groups of Chaco Canyon and other parts of the northern Southwest no longer occupied by people of Puebloan culture. Indeed, as the previous post explains, the descendants of the Chacoans are much easier to identify than those of pretty much any other prehistoric society in the Southwest. Nevertheless, the modern Pueblos are quite diverse in many ways. While they all have similar material culture, which is what most clearly shows their relationship to prehistoric sites like Chaco, the Pueblos speak six different languages belonging to four completely unrelated language families, and the linguistic divisions correspond generally (but not perfectly) to differences in other aspects of culture, such as kinship systems, sociopolitical structures, and religious practices.

With so much diversity, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that some modern Pueblo groups have closer connections to particular ancient sites than others. Demonstrating any specific connections has been frustratingly difficult for scholars so far, however. The immense upheavals of the Spanish colonial period led to significant changes in many Pueblos that make it difficult to trace their histories back into the prehistoric period, and archaeology has demonstrated considerable evidence for prehistoric upheavals that similarly obscure continuities of culture and population. Adding to the difficulty are the facts that the Pueblos have long had very similar material culture to each other, which makes it difficult to tell different ethnolinguistic groups apart archaeologically, and that the extensive migrations of the late prehistoric period seem to have involved rapid change in material culture as well, obscure whatever small differences had existed among different Pueblo groups.

On account of these difficulties, for a long time Southwestern archaeologists and anthropologists were often reluctant to try to reconstruct culture history in enough detail to connect specific ancient sites with specific modern Pueblos. In recent years this reluctance has decreased, however, and there is now a fair amount of interest in these questions, spurred in part by the requirements under NAGPRA for demonstrating cultural affiliation of modern groups in ancient sites. It’s interesting to compare this trend to the last period of considerable interest in this topic, which was similarly spurred by the effort in the 1950s to settle Indian land claims. In any case, archaeologists today have proposed various models of Southwestern prehistory to account for the distribution of modern Pueblo peoples.

With this context, and inspired in part by some interesting questions asked by commenter J. R. Barnett, I’ve decided to do a series of posts addressing this issue and the types of evidence available to address it. I’ll be focusing heavily on linguistic evidence, which is of particular interest to me personally as well as being of considerable importance in defining cultural differences among the Pueblos. I will, however, also discuss the evidence from archaeology, physical anthropology (including DNA studies), sociocultural anthropology, and oral traditions. In doing some reading on these topics recently, it’s been apparent that there really is quite a lot of relevant evidence out there. While we will surely never be able to recover every detail of the story, it’s worth taking a serious look at the available evidence to see what we can find out.

Apparent Kiva at Abo Pueblo, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Apparent Kiva at Abo Pueblo, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

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Fremont River, Utah

Fremont River, Utah

Today is Cannibal Christmas (for previous installments see here and here), and this time I’d like to discuss some instances of alleged cannibalism well beyond the boundaries of the Chaco system or even the Anasazi culture area. These assemblages are in sites belonging to the poorly defined Fremont Complex of Utah, which is roughly contemporary with Chaco and included people practicing a range of lifestyles including varying amounts of maize agriculture. Beyond those two features, however, the various groups included under the label “Fremont” display so much internal diversity that it has been very difficult for archaeologists to determine what, if anything, the “Fremont Complex” corresponds to in social reality. One widespread characteristic of Fremont groups, however, is evidence of contact with and influence from Anasazi groups to the south, most notably in the adoption of agriculture and pottery but to some extent in other phenomena as well.

It’s possible that whatever practices are behind the mysterious assemblages of extensively mutilated and burned human bones known from Anasazi sites such as Cowboy Wash in Colorado were among the Anasazi influences on the Fremont as well. A paper reporting on assemblages like this at Fremont sites in central Utah was published by Shannon Novak and Dana Kollmann in 2000, around the same time that the Cowboy Wash papers and Christy Turner’s Man Corn were also published and drew considerable attention to the issue of Anasazi cannibalism. That context is important for understanding Novak and Kollmann’s interpretation of the Fremont sites, which explicitly takes Turner’s interpretations as a starting point and presents the Fremont evidence as incompatible with them.

To recap, Turner argues that the cannibalism assemblages in the Anasazi are are associated specifically with the rise of Chaco as a regional system, and further that the driving force behind all of this was Toltecs from central Mexico coming up to Chaco and establishing a violent, hegemonic tributary system involving extensive warfare and cannibalism. (I should note that I have not read Man Corn myself, and this interpretation of Turner’s ideas is based primarily on summaries by other authors who are critical of them, so it’s possible that this is a misrepresentation of Turner; in any case, this is certainly what Novak and Kollmann take Turner to be saying.) This theory is problematic for a whole bunch of reasons, and Novak and Kollmann present some more.

According to Novak and Kollmann, there are three Fremont sites with evidence of cannibalism: Backhoe Village, Nawthis Village, and Snake Rock Village. They are all in close proximity to each other in central Utah (near modern Richfield), and were occupied around the cultural peak of the Fremont period, around AD 1000. This makes them roughly contemporary with the florescence of the Chaco Phenomenon to the south, although it’s important to note that Fremont chronology is mostly based on radiocarbon dates and is less precise than the tree-ring based Anasazi chronology so it’s hard to demonstrate very close correspondences between events in Fremont and Anasazi sites. This will be important in interpreting these cannibalism assemblages, as discussed below.

Although Novak and Kollmann mention three sites with evidence of cannibalism, their paper contains a detailed discussion of only one, Backhoe Village. This is the site with the largest number of cannibalized individuals, eight, compared to three from Nawthis and two from Snake Rock. Backhoe also has a fairly secure context and was carefully excavated, as opposed to Snake Rock, where looting had disturbed the remains and rendered their context unclear.

The assemblage at Backhoe was clustered in a single pithouse and was initially interpreted by the excavators as a secondary burial (otherwise unknown for the Fremont) burned at some point by the same fire that burned the roof timbers found above it. Novak and Kollmann question this interpretation and argue instead that this assemblage instead shows the same signs of cannibalism found at Anasazi sites to the south, including cutmarks and burning. Methodologically they focused on reconstructing the processing sequence applied to the remains, which is an interesting approach that I haven’t seen applied in other analyses of cannibalism assemblages (though it’s possible I just haven’t noticed it). The patterns they found, especially for skulls and long bones, were consistent with the people having been killed (in some cases with “a series of heavy blows to the face”), scalped, dismembered, and roasted. Four men, two women, and two children were represented in the assemblage. This evidence looks convincing to me, and I’m quite prepared to accept the interpretation that this is an instance of cannibalism much like those documented at Cowboy Wash and elsewhere.

Novak and Kollmann then go on to situate their results in the context of Turner’s Chaco-based theory of Anasazi cannibalism. They argue that these sites were well beyond the Anasazi culture area, which is true (there are Fremont sites in close proximity to the Anasazi frontier, but these sites are considerably further north), and that as small agricultural hamlets, they would have little to offer the Chacoan tribute system, which is more questionable. After all, many of the Anasazi communities within the Chacoan sphere of influence were also pretty small and wouldn’t necessarily have had much to offer in tribute. All these communities were growing at least some amount of corn, and at a minimum could have contributed that. The sheer distance from Chaco to central Utah is a better argument against simply extending Turner’s theory to include these assemblages, I think.

Fremont Shield-Bearing Warrior Petroglyph, Moab, Utah

Fremont Shield-Bearing Warrior Petroglyph, Moab, Utah

In contrast to Turner’s theory, Novak and Kollmann tentatively propose that this is perhaps an example of a behavior diffusing from the Anasazi to the Fremont and perhaps acquiring new meanings along the way. This would certainly not be a surprise, given all the other behaviors that appear to have undergone the same process. They note the prominence of warrior motifs in Fremont rock art as context for violence within Fremont society. Finally, they situate the evidence for violence among the Fremont within a pattern of rising violence in the Southwest in general:

Escalated violence within the American Southwest around AD 1000 is apparent, and this violence appears to have reached further north than previously identified. What we may be seeing in the Anasazi Culture Area is perhaps merely the culmination of widespread and endemic warfare. Fortification of Anasazi villages, evidence of numerous trauma deaths, and the butchering of men, women, and children imply more than simply accusations of witchcraft. Violence between neighbours can be vicious, and real and imagined atrocities often accompany this conflict.

Fair enough in terms of explaining these specific assemblages, but from a broader southwestern perspective this looks a little odd. Escalated violence around AD 1000? In most of the Southwest the period from about 1000 to 1150 is actually considered remarkably peaceful, and in the Chaco area this is sometimes explained as some sort of “Pax Chaco” in which the influence of Chaco led to a period of widespread peace. (It is hard to say which way the causation goes, however; maybe the peace was instead a necessary condition for the rise of Chaco in the first place.) Obviously this is in contrast to Turner’s interpretation of the rise of Chaco as involving widespread war and cannibalism in a Mesoamerican fashion, but that interpretation has basically no support in the archaeological record. Almost all of the well-dated and firmly established cannibalism assemblages date to AD 1150 or later, and the earlier ones are generally earlier than AD 900 and date to an earlier period of extensive evidence for warfare and violence.

So what’s going on here? One possibility is that we’re seeing the consequences of the mismatch in chronological precision I mentioned above. “Around AD 1000″ may mean very different things at Fremont and Anasazi sites. At the Fremont sites, dated primarily by radiocarbon, this could refer to a period of a couple hundred years, in which case it might extend as late as the post-Chaco period of cannibalism and violence (0r as early as the pre-Chaco one). At Anasazi sites, on the other hand, with their very precise tree-ring dates, “around AD 1000″ would generally mean very close to the actual calendar date of AD 1000, maybe within twenty or twenty-five years. This is a considerable difference in precision! It’s also noteworthy that “around AD 1000″ is also more or less the conventional date for the “peak” of Fremont settlement and cultural development from roughly 1000 to 1300, so its being applied here could just mean that these sites date to that period, within which the level of violence rose throughout the Southwest (which is certainly true).

Linear Roomblock at Coombs Village (Anasazi State Park), Boulder, Utah

Linear Roomblock at Coombs Village (Anasazi State Park), Boulder, Utah

That said, however, there does actually appear to be a fair amount of evidence that there was in fact a considerably higher level of violence in the Fremont region than elsewhere in the Southwest even in the “Pax Chaco” era. A general summary of Fremont archaeology by David Madsen and Steven Simms discusses some of this evidence. Madsen and Simms describe the period of 1000 to 1300 as one of “demographic fluidity” involving the apparent abandonment of certain parts of the Fremont region and intensified settlement with defensive features in others. This appears to have begun at least in some areas as early as AD 900 and is most noteworthy in the eastern Fremont area on the northern Colorado Plateau, where there also seems to have been a breakdown in the traditional boundary between Fremont and Anasazi along the Colorado River and the expansion of sites with Anasazi features north of the river. It is not clear to what extent this reflects a migration of Anasazi people as opposed to increased Anasazi influence on local Fremont people, but it’s clear that something was going on along the Anasazi-Fremont boundary during the height of the Chacoan era. It’s noteworthy that one site Madsen and Simms mention as having granaries built in a characteristically Anasazi form is Snake Rock, one of the same sites that has a cannibalism assemblage. The puzzling Coombs Village site (now Anasazi State Park in Boulder, Utah), which is clearly Kayenta Anasazi in culture but located very far north in traditionally Fremont country, also dates to around this time. In fact, as Joel Janetski notes in a paper on Fremont long-distance trade, there is some evidence of pottery exchange between Coombs and Snake Rock, about 50 miles to the north.

The upshot of all this is that there was clearly extensive contact between the Anasazi and the Fremont during the Chacoan era, and there is some evidence that it was not nearly as peaceful in this area as it was in the Anasazi heartland at the same time. The much “blurrier” chronology of the Fremont sites makes it frustratingly difficult to pin down exactly what was going on in Utah at the same time as the various important events in the history of Chaco, but these indications that Utah was “out-of-phase” with areas to the south in some ways is, I think, potentially significant for understanding the history of both.

It’s also worth noting that while the actual Anasazi interacting with the Fremont were from the Kayenta and Mesa Verde cultural “branches” rather than the Chacoan, there is reason to think that at least some people at Chaco would have had a keen interest in events in Utah. For one thing, the Janetski paper on Fremont trade notes that while long-distance trade goods like turquoise and shell are much rarer in Fremont than in Anasazi sites, they are present among the Fremont to some extent, and there is some evidence that the turquoise found at some Fremont sites came from the same sources as that at some Anasazi sites, including Chaco. Janetski interpreted this as indicating that the Fremont turquoise came from the Anasazi, which is certain one reasonable interpretation, but he also mentions evidence that some of the Fremont turquoise came from sources in Nevada, which more recent sourcing has confirmed for some of the Chacoan turquoise as well. Maybe, instead of getting turquoise from the Anasazi, the Fremont were giving it to them as part of a wide-ranging trade network. This might even explain why so little turquoise is found at Fremont sites, if they didn’t actually have much interest in it but used it to trade for Anasazi goods that they did want. Interestingly, Janetski also notes that most of the turquoise in Fremont sites appears to date to after the period of its most common appearance in Anasazi sites from 900 to 1100 (which is driven mostly by the vast amounts found at Chaco), which could be explained if the Fremont, having relatively easy access to turquoise from trading partners in the Great Basin, began holding on to it once Anasazi demand weakened with the decline of Chaco.

Edge of the Cedars Great House, Utah

Edge of the Cedars Great House, Blanding, Utah

Much of that is speculative, but if the Great Basin was in fact one of Chaco’s main sources for turquoise, and if some of the trade routes for that turquoise went through the Fremont, Chaco would have a clear interest in the Fremont area. It would certainly have had contact with some Anasazi groups near the Fremont frontier, as there are communities showing Chacoan influence in Utah north of the San Juan River (though not as far north as the Colorado, as far as we know), with Edge of the Cedars in modern Blanding being a clear example. This area would presumably have been the source of whatever migration or influence extended north of the Colorado in this area after AD 1000, so a Chacoan connection is not as implausible as it might seem at first glance. Further west Chacoan influence is harder to see among the Kayenta Anasazi, but some level of contact is at least possible.

It’s not clear what implications this possibility of Chacoan involvement in Utah would have for the cannibalism assemblages Novak and Kollmann discuss, however. For one thing, I think Turner is just wrong that cannibalism in the Southwest is associated with the rise of Chaco; it seems to correlate more closely with its fall. Also, the specific sites in question seem to be beyond the reach of any plausible Chacoan direct influence, although at least one clearly had some contact with the Kayenta Anasazi at Coombs. They could also have been involved in the turquoise trade, of course, and according to Janetski small amounts of turquoise were found at Snake Rock and Backhoe. The lack of any known cannibalism sites between these and the better-known Anasazi examples also limits the extent to which we can figure out what was going on. Interestingly, Novak and Kollmann note that one other site, Turner-Look, which is near the Colorado-Utah border and hence much further east than the other sites and much closer to the Anasazi cannibalism assemblages, has been suspected in the past of having evidence for cannibalism, but they say a recent reanalysis has found no such evidence, although there is some evidence for violence. If more Fremont sites with assemblages like this begin to emerge, especially further east, it might be possible to get a better sense of how this all fits together.
ResearchBlogging.org
Janetski, J. (2002). Trade in Fremont society: contexts and contrasts Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 21 (3), 344-370 DOI: 10.1016/S0278-4165(02)00003-X

Novak, S. A., & Kollmann, D. D. (2000). Perimortem Processing Of Human Remains Among The Great Basin
Fremont International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 10, 65-75

 

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Plaque atop Monks Mound Showing the Locations of Mounds to the East, Cahokia

One of the distinctive characteristics of Cahokia and its area of strong influence is the prevalence of filed teeth in many human burials. Filing of teeth as a cultural practice was common in Mexico for thousands of years before the Spanish conquest, but further north it is very rare and found mostly at Cahokia and sites in the immediately surrounding area. Gregory Perino published an article in 1967 summarizing the data as of that date on filed teeth at Cahokian sites. He notes that most of the burials with this characteristic were excavated non-professionally and that many of the early excavations were not reported in sufficient detail to know whether tooth-filing was present in the burials they uncovered. Nevertheless, Perino’s article is a useful summary of the evidence at the time.

Interestingly, Perino notes that while most of the reports of filed teeth in North America are from the Cahokia area, there are some scattered early mentions in other regions, including Georgia and the Southwest (!). The Southwestern mention is interesting, as Christy Turner has claimed that some of the remains at Chaco Canyon show filed teeth. None of the other physical anthropologists who have analyzed the relevant remains have noted the same, but that’s not very many people and in general the published physical analyses of the Chaco burials are woefully inadequate. Perino’s reference to a Southwestern example of filed teeth is unclear, but he appears to be citing a previous study of the practice in Illinois which I have not been able to track down.

Setting the comparative question aside, Perino finds three types of tooth filing at Cahokia:

  1. V-shaped notches in the cutting edge of the upper medial and (more rarely) lateral incisors. The number of notches varies from 1 to 4 in the medial incisors and 1 to 2 in the lateral incisors. One example has a single notch in each of the lower medial incisors; this is the only example of filing of any of the lower teeth.
  2. Shallow horizontal grooves along the upper medial incisors above the cutting edge. There can be either one or two grooves, and the grooves can be either parallel to the cutting edge or slightly oblique.
  3. A combination of both of the above types on the same teeth.

Of these, the first category is the most common. The number of notches varies, and they are found more often in the teeth of younger than older individuals, although Perino notes that this is probably because the relevant parts of the teeth have worn away in older individuals. The second and third category are less common, though still somewhat widespread.

Remains of Mounds East of Monks Mound, Cahokia

Perino finds examples of tooth filing both at the Cahokia site itself, particularly in the area of Mounds 19 and 20 east of Monks Mound, and at various locations showing Cahokian influence both to the north in the lower Illinois River valley and to the south in the southern American Bottom. All of the sites he discusses are in the modern state of Illinois. Tooth filing is generally found in only a few individuals in any given burial population, indicating that while it was fairly widespread around Cahokia it was far from universal and generally limited to a small number of people within the society, possibly an elite class. Most of the examples are from men, but there are a few women as well. The chronology of Cahokia was not very well developed at the time, but it appears that the examples of filed teeth mostly date to the height of Cahokia’s power and influence, now dated to approximately AD 1050 to 1200.

Near the end of the paper Perino proposes some suggestions for other areas where similar practices might be identified through further research:

It would not be unreasonable to expect filed teeth to occur in the Tennessee-Cumberland area, in southeast Missouri, and in earlier parts of the Caddoan area, especially at Spiro. Relationships in these areas are noted through trade objects and a  similarity in their religious practices.

These are certainly among the areas showing extensive contact with the American Bottom during the Mississippian period, but they are not the only such areas. What additionally distinguishes them is that they all lie south of Cahokia, and it seems likely that what Perino has in mind here (although he doesn’t say so explicitly) is that these areas may have served as conduits for the transmittal of tooth-filing from Mexico to Cahokia. Be that as it may, as far as I know this practice has not in fact been identified in any of these other areas, which would cast doubt on the idea that it diffused from Mexico to Cahokia, unless Cahokian elites actually went directly there themselves and brought back this (and other?) ideas.

The question of the extent of Mesoamerican influence on Mississippian culture has been hotly debated over the years; the current trend seems to be to downplay the possibility of direct connections and focus on in situ explanations of the Mississippian Emergence. I’m not sure what to think about this, myself. There are a lot of things about Mississippian societies that certainly look very Mesoamerican, at least at first glance, but it’s not clear how many of these are specifically Mesoamerican developments rather than things that typically happen at a certain level of sociopolitical complexity cross-culturally and that are therefore likely to have emerged in the Mississippian context from underlying trends the same way they did in Mexico much earlier. Tooth-filing seems a lot more specific than that sort of thing, though, and I can see it as a strong piece of evidence for direct influence, but the lack of it in the intervening area (if that does in fact turn out to be the case) would be problematic for that interpretation. It seems like a weird thing to do, but it’s not totally unique to Mexico in a global context, so it’s certainly possible that the Cahokians came up with it on their own as well.
ResearchBlogging.org
Perino, G. (1967). Additional Discoveries of Filed Teeth in the Cahokia Area American Antiquity, 32 (4) DOI: 10.2307/2694083

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Looking South from Kin Ya'a

One of the most notable examples of an assemblage of highly mutilated human remains from the Southwest being attributed to witchcraft execution rather than cannibalism, in accordance with J. Andrew Darling’s theory discussed in the previous post, is Ram Mesa, southwest of Chaco Canyon near Gallup, NM.  This site was excavated by the University of New Mexico as a salvage project, and the relevant assemblage was reported by Marsha Ogilvie and Charles Hilton in 2000.

The Ram Mesa assemblage, consisting of 13 individuals, is pretty similar to many other assemblages in the Southwest attributed to cannibalism, but Ogilvie and Hilton make a plausible case that while the remains are clearly highly “processed” there isn’t a whole lot tying this dismemberment and mutilation to actual consumption of the remains.  Few of the bones showed any evidence of burning, a condition which applies to several other cases of alleged cannibalism as well.  The few cut marks, which were mostly found on children’s skulls and lower jaws, weren’t particularly indicative of the removal of large muscles that might be expected if consumption were the object.  On the other hand, however, relatively few of the bone fragments were sufficiently large to be identified to body part, and any diagnostic evidence from these tiny fragments was clearly destroyed by the thoroughness of the processing.  It’s not clear, therefore, how representative the larger fragments with surviving evidence of burning and cutting are of the entire assemblage.  The most I would say about this site is that the evidence is not sufficient to make a positive diagnosis of cannibalism, and other explanations are therefore plausible.

However, as I noted before in discussing Darling’s arguments, witchcraft execution and cannibalism are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  Indeed, the execution of suspected witches may well have involved some level of cannibalism among some Southwestern groups in prehistoric times, thought there is certainly no evidence that it did in historic times as documented by ethnographers.  There are some other oddities about the Ram Mesa site that suggest that it might not be expected to pattern with the majority of the suspected cannibalism assemblages, so it is certainly possible that it represents a variation on the same behavior that may not have included cannibalism.

For one thing, this is an odd place for one of these assemblages.  Although some early excavations at Chaco Canyon and in northern Arizona have been proposed as showing evidence of cannibalism, the vast majority of the well-documented cases are in southwestern Colorado, especially around the modern town of Cortez.  This includes the Cowboy Wash site, the site with the best evidence for cannibalism of any of them.  Given the known cultural differences between prehistoric populations at the northern and southern edges of the San Juan Basin (the San Juan and Cibola Anasazi, respectively), it’s quite possible that the cultural activities resulting in similar assemblages in these two areas may have been somewhat different, with the San Juan groups practicing cannibalism and the Cibola groups not.

Furthermore, there may be differences in the dating of the sites.  Most of the well-documented Cortez-area sites date to right around AD 1150, and they may all represent part of a single event at that time, which was in the midst of a severe drought when social structures were likely under extreme stress.  The Ram Mesa site is dated by six radiocarbon dates to a period that Ogilvie and Hilton describe as “AD 978 to 1161.”  They do clarify that these are calibrated dates, which is helpful, but it would have been better if they had shown the ranges for the individual dates, as well as the materials that were dated, which would give a better idea of the most likely dating for the human remains.  On the assumption that the remains date to the latest period of occupation, which seems plausible based on comparison to similar assemblages elsewhere, this puts the latest date at 1161, which is interestingly close to the dates for the similar Cortez sites.  Due to the lack of information of the dates, however, it’s not clear is this is an intercept (i.e., most likely) date or the late end of a range; if the latter, it’s possible that the assemblage dates to somewhat earlier than the Cortez sites.  In that case it would not be part of the same phenomenon, whatever that was, and the postulated lack of cannibalism may be related to that.

In any case, this site definitely seems to have been within the Chacoan sphere of influence, which makes the interpretation of the remains there important for understanding the relationship of alleged cannibalistic events to the rise and fall of Chaco.  Christy Turner has famously argued that they represent the expansion of the Chacoan system and the use of brutal force by the rulers of Chaco (hypothesized on very dubious evidence to be Toltec immigrants from central Mexico) to ensure that outlying communities were incorporated into the system and supplied tribute to the canyon.  This idea is pretty implausible based on the evidence from the Cortez area, where most of the assemblages date to the period of Chaco’s decline rather than its rise.  If Ram Mesa dates to the same period it would support that evidence, whereas if it dates to earlier it could conceivably either support Turner’s ideas or point to a different interpretation, perhaps having something to do with the well-known fact that the outlying Chacoan communities to the south of Chaco seem to have been abandoned beginning much earlier than those in other directions.  There are a lot of outlying Chacoan great houses in this area, including Casamero and Kin Ya’a, but they seem to have rather different histories than those to the north, such as Aztec Ruins and Yellow Jacket.

Like most research related to Chaco, this paper ultimately raises more questions than it answers.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, especially when it comes to a topic as controversial and poorly understood as these assemblages suggesting cannibalism.
ResearchBlogging.org
Ogilvie, M., & Hilton, C. (2000). Ritualized violence in the prehistoric American Southwest International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 10 (1), 27-48 DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1099-1212(200001/02)10:13.0.CO;2-M

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Aw, Thanks

Signs at Brookside Park Pool, Farmington, New Mexico

It seems my post on syphilis at Chaco has been selected for the current installation of Four Stone Hearth, the venerable anthropology blog carnival, hosted this time by Sam Wise at Sorting out Science.  I’ve had posts selected for FSH before, but it’s been a while.  Anyway, I’m honored, and I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in anthropology to take a look at the other selected posts.  There’s a lot of interesting stuff there.

Brookside Park Pool, Farmington, New Mexico

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Western Burial Rooms in Old Bonito

There’s a persistent archaeological meme about there being a “lack of burials” at Chaco Canyon.  The idea is that not nearly enough burials have been found there to account for the size and magnificence of the architecture, so something odd is going on.  This has been interpreted in various ways and used as support for a variety of theories seeking to explain the Chaco Phenomenon.  As Nancy Akins pointed out 25 years ago, however, the idea of a “lack of burials” is not very well founded.  It’s true that the extensive excavations at Pueblo Bonito produced relatively few burials for such a large site, but excavations at small houses have found plenty of burials, and there are historical sources indicating that many more were looted, especially from small-house trash mounds, in the late nineteenth century.  Add to this the fact that preservation conditions at Chaco are often fairly poor for human bone, and the mystery becomes a lot less pronounced.

And, to reiterate, there were in fact quite a few burials at Pueblo Bonito.  Over a hundred individuals were found, almost all of them clustered in two small sets of rooms in the oldest part of the site.  One of these clusters, in the north-central part of the site, contained the richest collections of burial goods known from the prehistoric Southwest, especially in Room 33.  The other cluster, in the western part of the site, had less lavish burial assemblages but contained more individuals.  Both clusters contained many disturbed burials, which the excavators found hard to understand given the good preservation of the remains and the numerous grave goods.  Akins suggested that secondary burial might account for the disturbance, and this seems like a reasonable theory.  Secondary burial is not known to have been practiced by any Pueblos in historic times, but there’s a lot about Chaco that hasn’t been maintained by the modern Pueblos (perhaps deliberately).

Room 326, Pueblo Bonito

One of the disturbed burials from the western burial group is the subject of an interesting recent paper by Don Ortner and Kerriann Marden.  The individual in question is a woman who was between 35 and 45 years old at death and was buried in Room 326, which happens to be one of the more visible rooms at Pueblo Bonito today.  It’s probably best known among visitors and staff for its particularly well-preserved plaster on the south wall.  Room 326 contained at least 10 adults, but the burials were quite disturbed and the collections of bones cataloged in the National Museum of Natural History from the excavations don’t correspond to separate individuals.  This woman’s bones ended up being catalogued under four separate numbers, some of which also contained bones from other individuals.  One contribution Marden and Ortner make in this article is to show that this skeleton is actually mostly complete, once the matching bones from the various cataloged specimens are reassembled.  This jumbling of individuals is a common feature of burials excavated from Chaco, so seeing that distinguishable skeletons can be defined at least in some cases is a significant development.

Perhaps more significant, however, is that, when reassembled, the woman’s bones showed clear evidence that she had suffered from infection by the treponema bacteria.  This type of infection is known generically as “treponematosis,” a cover term for a variety of diseases caused by specific treponema species.  These diseases include pinta, yaws, bejel, and syphilis.  Pinta is a skin disease that doesn’t affect the skeleton, but the other three all leave similar lesions on certain bones that can make them visible in archaeological populations.  These include most importantly a certain type of depression on the exterior of the skull which is associated with peculiar “stellate grooves” and lesions on the tibia and, much less often, on other long bones on both sides of the body.

South Wall of Room 326, Pueblo Bonito

The skull of this woman from Pueblo Bonito has lesions that have been tentatively suggested by previous analysts as possible evidence for treponematosis, but this remained speculative as long as the skull was thought to be isolated without other associated bones.  It turned out that those bones were just classified under other catalog numbers, however, and Marden and Ortner show clearly that they all go together and that lesions on one tibia and a few other bones confirm the diagnosis of treponematosis.  Some of the lesions seem to have been active at the time of death, which is important in assessing the type of treponematosis involved.  Marden and Ortner carefully assess other possible explanations but conclude that none is as plausible as treponematosis in explaining the observed lesions.

But what type of treponematosis is this?  Surely not pinta, which wouldn’t leave any sign in the skeleton.  The other three leave similar lesions, and Marden and Ortner reject claims by some other physical anthropologists that it’s possible to distinguish them based on the physical evidence, so they instead look at environmental and demographic factors.

Chuska Mountains from Peñasco Blanco

Yaws is only found in hot, humid regions and is typically found in children, so it is very unlikely that it would afflict a grown woman in an arid location like Chaco.  Bejel is found in arid regions, but is again primarily a childhood disease, so it is unlikely that this woman had it.  It’s not impossible, however; while the active state of the lesions suggests that she did not contract this disease in childhood, she could possibly have contracted it in adulthood through travel to a place where it was endemic or contact with someone who came to Chaco from such a place.  Given the far-flung trading networks in which Chaco was involved, this is certainly possible, although not particularly likely.  Like pinta and yaws, bejel is not sexually transmitted.  It generally spreads through mouth-to-mouth contact or by sharing domestic utensils.  Marden and Ortner also suggest that it’s possible that the nature of bejel has changed over time and that it was once more common among adults than it is now or that the skeletal lesions developed after a longer incubation period, but in the absence of any other evidence for this (and they don’t cite any) I don’t see any reason to find this probable.  While bejel is a more plausible source for the observed lesions than pinta or yaws, it’s still not very likely given the circumstances.

That leaves syphilis.  Unlike the other types of treponematosis, syphilis infection would make sense in an adult woman, given its sexually transmitted nature.  Oddly, Marden and Ortner seem to downplay this conclusion.  Although they do argue that syphilis is the most likely explanation, they bend over backwards to accommodate other possible explanations, mostly focusing on ways this woman could have been infected with bejel as an adult.  It’s not really clear why they do this (perhaps a response to comments during the peer review process?), since a diagnosis of syphilis is plausible given the known epidemiology of that disease and the known characteristics of the other types of treponematosis.  It’s almost as if they are trying to sidestep the implications for this woman’s sexual history of a syphilis diagnosis, but that seems rather silly to me.  The woman’s been dead for a thousand years.  Who cares how slutty she was?

Pueblo del Arroyo from the Southwest Corner of Pueblo Bonito

Because I clearly can’t leave a pithy-enough quip alone, I hasten to add that “how slutty she was” is of course not at all the best way to think about this.  While a diagnosis of syphilis does imply sexual transmission, and thus that this woman was not a life-long virgin, it doesn’t even necessarily imply that she had more than one partner.  Even saying that, however, probably brings too much of our own modern, Western sexual mores into the matter.  Chacoan sexual mores were probably different, perhaps to a significant degree.  The Christian heritage of European societies has tended to leave them a legacy of attitudes toward sexuality that are quite unlike those of many other societies, and while we can never know exactly how the Chacoans felt about sex, there’s no reason to assume that they felt the same way we do.  There are few hints in the archaeological record of what Chacoan sexual attitudes actually were, and the ethnographic record of the modern Pueblos doesn’t contain a whole lot of detail on the matter either, probably due to a combination of Pueblo reticence and Victorian modesty.  One interesting clue, however, is the very detailed and accurate rendering of the female genitalia on an effigy vessel from Pueblo Bonito, especially in contrast to the equally obvious but much less detailed penises on other effigy vessels.  The implications of this for Chacoan social mores and sexual practices are unclear, but the contrast to, say, ancient Greek sculpture is interesting.

The Marden and Ortner paper is very interesting along numerous dimensions, and it’s an example of the kinds of information that can be obtained by careful study of human remains.  I’m still a bit dubious about the ethics of all this, but there’s no denying that important information can come out of it.
ResearchBlogging.org
Marden, K., & Ortner, D. (2011). A case of treponematosis from pre-Columbian Chaco Canyon, New Mexico International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 21 (1), 19-31 DOI: 10.1002/oa.1103

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Durango, Colorado

The best-known of the various instances of alleged cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest are a set of several that occurred around AD 1150 in the area around the modern town of Cortez, Colorado.  There are also scattered examples of similar assemblages dating to both before and after this and located both in southwestern Colorado and elsewhere, but most of them are not as well documented and they are therefore not easily comparable to the well-known assemblages.  One exception, so far the only known example of possible cannibalism dating to the period in the late thirteenth century when the Four Corners region was abandoned, is Castle Rock Pueblo at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument west of Cortez.  Earlier assemblages, in particular, are very rare, and the few known are generally not very well documented at all.  Cannibalism has thus generally been discussed in the literature as something that appears rather suddenly in the Southwestern archaeological record around 1150, perhaps indicating Mesoamerican influence that may or may not have had something to do with the rise and fall of the regional system centered on Chaco Canyon between about AD 1030 and 1130.  There have been some scattered references in the literature to earlier instances, but without good documentation they have not gotten much attention compared to the later ones.

That may now change, however.  An article published very recently reports on an astonishing assemblage recently documented in detail at Sacred Ridge, part of Ridges Basin south of Durango, Colorado (east of Cortez).  This site dates to around AD 700 to 800, during the Pueblo I period.  As part of salvage excavations in preparation for a reservoir project in the basin, archaeologists discovered one of the largest assemblages of intensively processed human remains known from the Southwest.  At least 35 people were represented in the assemblage, although the actual number present is exceptionally difficult to determine because the remains were fragmented to an enormous degree even compared to other heavily processed assemblages.   The ages of identifiable individuals ranged from infancy to adulthood.  The conditions of the deposition of the remains indicates that most were processed, possibly in connection with cannibalism, then dumped into one of the residential pithouses at the site.  Several artifacts found associated with the remains tested positive for human hemoglobin and/or myoglobin, indicating that they had come into contact with human blood and/or muscle tissue.

Francisco's Restaurante y Cantina, Durango, Colorado

This is a very large assemblage.  The well-documented assemblage at site 5MT10010 at Cowboy Wash, for example, consisted of only 7 individuals, and the other three sites in the Cowboy Wash community that have been excavated (all of which also showed evidence of cannibalism) ranged from 2 to 13 individuals.  Castle Rock had at least 41 individuals, but that was a large, aggregated community from a later period when the regional population was both larger and more concentrated in aggregated sites.  Finding 35 people killed at a Pueblo I village is extraordinary.

So who were these people?  The circumstances of the assemblage suggest that they were probably the inhabitants of the Sacred Ridge site, which contained several residential pithouses and constituted a relatively large portion of the overall Ridges Basin community.  Biometric analyses of the remains suggested that the individuals in the assemblage were both related to each other and distinct from the other people in the community.  This raises the possibility that they were recent immigrants who had attempted to move into the area, perhaps at a time when environmental conditions were difficult and some parts of the region had become less suitable for habitation, forcing their inhabitants to move into already-occupied areas where the local residents may not have been friendly.  This is similar to what some have proposed for Cowboy Wash, where ceramics indicate that the residents had strong ties to the Chuska Mountain region to the south and may have been recent immigrants into an area where they were not welcome.  The early AD 800s, when the Sacred Ridge massacre apparently occurred, does indeed seem to have been a time of difficult environmental conditions, as was the mid-1100s when the well-known cannibalism events such as the one at Cowboy Wash occurred.  The migration hypothesis thus seems fairly plausible to explain Sacred Ridge.

Railroad Station, Durango, Colorado

Not so fast, however.  In addition to doing the biometric analyses, the researchers in this case also did strontium analyses of the tooth enamel found in the assemblage.  Strontium isotope analyses can be used to determine where a person (or a tree) lived, which makes this type of analysis a useful way to directly test migration hypotheses.  Tooth enamel has a strontium ratio that reflects where a person lived as a child, since enamel is preserved throughout life after initially forming in childhood.  The strontium ratio of bone, on the other hand, reflects where a person lived shortly before death, since bone cells are continually being replaced throughout life.  In this case only tooth enamel was tested, but I’ve seen other studies comparing tooth and bone enamel to determine if a person lived in the same place at the beginning and end of life, which is just about the best way to test a migration hypothesis that I can imagine.  In the case of Sacred Ridge only tooth enamel was analyzed for some reason, but it still provides a way to determine if the individuals at Sacred Ridge had grown up in the Ridges Basin area or had moved at some point in their lives from somewhere else.

What the analysis showed was that all the analyzed individuals had likely grown up either in the immediate Ridges Basin area or nearby.  None could be conclusively identified as having grown up anywhere else.  This effectively falsifies the immigration hypothesis and requires a different explanation for the massacre.  It appears that the people who lived at Sacred Ridge were both local to Ridges Basin and distinct from the other inhabitants of the area, which the authors interpret as an “ethnic” difference.  They point to a variety of other indications in architecture and material culture suggesting that the area was quite diverse ethnically during this period, and they argue that the massacre represents ethnic violence within the community during a period of environmental deterioration likely leading to social stress.  The inhabitants of Sacred Ridge appear to have had greater access to large game animals than other members of the community, which may indicate that they were relatively well-off compared to others, who may have become resentful when times turned bad and taken out their frustrations through intensive violence, possibly involving cannibalism, which may have been so intense in part as an attempt to erase the identity of the victimized group.  The authors run through and discount a number of other explanations that have been offered for cannibalism assemblages, including warfare, social control, starvation, and witchcraft execution.  They reject these based on specific criteria they identify as the plausible archaeological correlates of each theory.  The specific correlates they offer strike me as dubious, and they do acknowledge that their “ethnic violence” theory is not necessarily incompatible with some of the others, but the approach is interesting.

Gaslight Theater, Durango, Colorado

There has been a recent trend in Southwestern archaeology toward trying to reconstruct ethnicity in the archaeological record, and there is an increasing sense that the Southwestern past may have been much more diverse ethnically than archaeologists have often assumed.  This paper takes that trend in an interesting direction by combining it with the contemporaneous trend toward greater interest in violence and warfare in the prehistoric Southwest.  The authors suggest that some of the later cannibalism assemblages might be profitably reexamined with the ethnic violence idea in mind, which is a good idea.  That said, “ethnicity” is a problematic concept when it comes to archaeological data, which is necessarily material in nature and not necessarily reflective of such an abstract concept.  It would be unreasonable to expect a short paper like this to address the issue at length, of course, and it appears that other publications from this project deal with it in more detail.  The innovative use of biodistance and strontium analyses to address these issues is a worthwhile development regardless of whether the trends identified correspond to ethnicity, however, and this paper makes for a very interesting contribution to the literature on violence and cannibalism in the Southwest that may require some adjustments to existing theories.
ResearchBlogging.org
Potter, J., & Chuipka, J. (2010). Perimortem mutilation of human remains in an early village in the American Southwest: A case for ethnic violence Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 29 (4), 507-523 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2010.08.001

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Sleeping Ute Mountain and Surrounding Landscape from Four Corners

If you stand at the Four Corners monument and look in the direction of Colorado you will see Sleeping Ute Mountain dominating the view.  From this direction you are looking at the southwest side of the mountain, and in front of it you see the southern piedmont.  On the right side of the piedmont, though not visible from this distance, is Cowboy Wash.  It’s one of several ephemeral streams running from the mountain itself across the piedmont to the San Juan River.

One thing that might strike you about the view from this perspective is that it looks like an awfully dry, desolate, uninhabitable wasteland.  And you would be correct to think that.  The southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain is an extremely arid and inhospitable environment even by the standards of the Southwest, which is saying something.  It’s only a few miles from Mesa Verde to the east and the Great Sage Plain to the north, both areas that get relatively abundant rainfall and supported large and prosperous prehistoric communities, but it is worlds away from them environmentally.  While those areas get sufficient rainfall to support dry farming, and the Great Sage Plain is commercially farmed even today, the southern piedmont does not, and any type of agriculture there would have to rely on some sort of irrigation.  Today the Ute Mountain Ute tribe has a large irrigation project in the area, using water brought in from McPhee Reservoir, 45 miles to the north, via the Towaoc Canal.  The construction of the reservoir and the canal was part of the Dolores Project, which involved substantial archaeological excavation of the inundated area that significantly improved archaeological understanding of the prehistory of the region.  This work took place from 1978 to 1985 and was known as the Dolores Archaeological Project, the largest salvage archaeology project in US history.

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

The creation of the irrigated fields on the piedmont resulted in further salvage excavations in the 1990s.  Among the sites excavated was 5MT10010, which contained considerable evidence of a gruesome incident of probable cannibalism around AD 1150.  It is not the only site in the area to show evidence of cannibalism during this period; in fact, three other sites in the same community, excavated slightly earlier in connection with the construction of the canal, also showed evidence of having been destroyed in an incident involving extensive processing of human remains in a way suggesting cannibalism, and there are several other sites in the area showing similar assemblages, most from the same period but at least one from a later period.  It is at 5MT10010 that the most solid evidence for actual cannibalism, as opposed to processing of bones in a way that may or may not indicate actual consumption of human flesh, in the form of a coprolite that tested positive for the presence of human muscle tissue.

There are many questions that arise from these findings, but one of the most puzzling is also one of the simplest: what were people doing living at Cowboy Wash in the first place, and how did they manage it?  After all, they weren’t building giant dams and canals of the sort involved in the Dolores Project.  In many parts of the Southwest, especially upland areas like Mesa Verde, dry farming using only rainfall was standard during this period, and water control techniques were generally used only for domestic water if a nearby spring or other reliable source was not available.  There are a few springs on the southern piedmont that probably would have supplied sufficient domestic water for the small number of people living there, but the rainfall would definitely not have been sufficient to farm with.  The only source of water at all sufficient for agriculture would have been the occasional floods, from spring snowmelt and summer thunderstorms, that would flow through Cowboy Wash itself and the other drainages on the piedmont.  None of these flows permanently today, and there is no evidence that they ever did.  As at Chaco Canyon, then, which is similarly dry, farming would have to have been based on some sort of technique for capturing the floodwater.

Flowing Chaco Wash and Cliffs below Peñasco Blanco

There are a variety of ways this might be done, including diverting the rainwater from cliffs, as was done at Chaco, planting along the sides of the drainage where the floods would regularly overflow the banks, and what is known as “ak-chin” farming, as practiced by the O’odham of southern Arizona, which involves planting right in the path of the runoff at places where the velocity of the water is relatively low, as at the mouths of tributaries to main arroyos.  There are no sheer cliffs on the southern piedmont like the ones at Chaco, so probably a mix of overbank and ak-chin farming would have been practiced at Cowboy Wash.

A paper by Gary Huckleberry and Brian Billman addresses the nature of farming at Cowboy Wash, and also addresses a related issue, which is whether periodic entrenchment of arroyos due to drought played a role in the patterns of abandonment and migration that characterize Southwestern prehistory.  It is pretty clear by now that the paleoclimatological record shows periods of drought corresponding to periods of abandonment of certain parts of the Southwest, and one proposed mechanism for how this would have worked is that drought would have led to increased erosion and/or hydrological changes in the water table that led to the entrenchment of arroyos, which would have been disastrous for populations dependent on certain types of floodwater farming (especially overbank), as the broad floodplains of the local drainages would have been replaced by deep channels that took the water away quickly instead of letting it overflow to water the crops.  Ak-chin farmers would not necessarily have been affected to the same degree, but if the side drainages they used became entrenched as well they would not have been able to use their techniques either.  Thus, drought would lead to arroyo-cutting, which would lead people to leave formerly productive areas for others that were less affected.  This theory has been proposed as an explanation for certain events at Chaco, with the idea being that some of the social changes late in the Chacoan occupation were due to degradation of the Chaco Wash and the need to change agricultural strategies.  The phenomenon of arroyo-cutting in general is richly illustrated in historic times at Chaco.  The early reports of the Chaco Wash from the nineteenth century indicate that it was a shallow, meandering drainage, much like the current condition of the Escavada Wash to the north and the “Chaco River” that is formed by the confluence of the two at the western end of the canyon and flows north to the San Juan.  By the early twentieth century, and accelerating since then, however, the Chaco Wash through the canyon has cut down significantly and there is a very deep arroyo channel apparent today.

Entrenched Arroyo at Chaco

The drought-downcutting-abandonment theory makes sense as far as it goes, but as Huckleberry and Billman point out there are some problems.  For one thing, the extent to which arroyo-cutting is actually linked to drought, rather than other factors including the specific geology of the area, is hotly debated and there is no consensus.  The idea that while drought may be one factor causing arroyo-cutting there are other factors involved as well is supported by the fact that in different drainages in the Southwest that have been studied in depth the periods of arroyo-cutting do not necessarily correspond to region-wide droughts or other climatic changes.  In some areas they do, but in other areas they don’t.  At Cowboy Wash specifically, the available evidence indicates that the wash began to entrench sometime before AD 950, and that it began to refill with sediment sometime between AD 1265 and 1400.  If abandonment does in fact correspond to arroyo-cutting, then presumably the Cowboy Wash area should have been abandoned between 950 and 1265, and possibly occupied before and after this.  If downcutting results from drought, there should also be evidence of drought during the 950 to 1265 period.

The basic upshot of the Huckleberry and Billman paper is that neither of these expectations is met.  The evidence for drought conditions at Cowboy Wash generally matches that for the rest of the region, with the major droughts in the mid-twelfth century and late thirteenth century AD and several smaller droughts at irregular intervals before then.  This doesn’t show any particular relationship to the stratigraphic evidence for arroyo-cutting, which seems to have been going on to some degree throughout the period from AD 950 to at least AD 1265.  Furthermore, the evidence for settlement doesn’t line up either.  The marginal nature of the Cowboy Wash area implies that it would probably not have been occupied for most of prehistory, and this was indeed the case.  There were a few ultimately unsuccessful attempts to colonize the southern piedmont, however, and they don’t show any particular relationship to the periods of arroyo-cutting (although they do perhaps relate to periods of drought).  The first agricultural occupation of the area came during the Basketmaker III period, when a few pithouses were apparently used seasonally as summer fieldhouses, presumably associated with nearby fields, from about AD 600 to 725.  After these were abandoned, at a time which may correspond to a drought, the area does not seem to have been occupied again for more than three hundred years.  Then, around AD 1050, a few permanent, year-round sites were built.  These seem to have been occupied for only a few years, however, as there was no significant buildup of trash associated with them.  After they were abandoned, three larger villages, including one at Cowboy Wash, were established around AD 1075.  These had extensive trash deposits and seem to have been occupied for one or two generations.  These communities were apparently abandoned, however, when the next occupation began in the 1120s by a population with apparent links to the Chuska Mountain area to the south.  This occupation at Cowboy Wash is the community that was apparently destroyed around AD 1150 (again coincident with a major drought) when its inhabitants were mutilated and cannibalized.  After this event, the area was once again abandoned until about AD 1225, when two new communities were founded, including one again at Cowboy Wash.  Within a few decades the population at Cowboy Wash appears to have aggregated at Cowboy Wash Pueblo, following a typical pattern for the region.  Also typical of the region, the whole southern piedmont seems to have been abandoned by AD 1280, at the time of the “Great Drought” that coincides with major changes throughout the Southwest.

Entrenched Chaco Wash from Cliff Top near Pueblo Bonito

So basically, all of the attempts at year-round occupation of the southern piedmont seem to have occurred during the period that Cowboy Wash was being downcut.  While these were all ultimately unsuccessful, some lasted for a few decades, so clearly they were able to grow some food at some times.  This strongly implies that at least in this case, arroyo-cutting was not particularly linked to abandoned, although drought probably was.  Huckleberry address the issue of how farming could have been done during periods of downcutting by looking at Cowboy Wash and its tributaries today.  They find that while some portions of the main wash, especially, are indeed heavily downcut, other portions are not, and they label this type of drainage a “discontinuous ephemeral stream,” which is to say, a normally dry wash with some portions that are severely downcut and others that are not.  On the uncut portions, which include much of the length of the tributaries, overbank or ak-chin farming could easily be done today, and this was presumably the case in antiquity as well.  The hydrology of the area is such that the areas of downcutting would not have been stable, and would have tended to migrate upstream, but the complexity of the system is also such that this would not have made the entire system unusable; while some parts were being newly cut, others would be filling in, and prehistoric farmers would merely have to move their fields around a bit rather than abandoning the area entirely.

All that being said, however, the question of why people were trying to settle this quite harsh and difficult area in the first place.  It is interesting to note that the attempts at settlement generally came during periods of relatively favorable environmental conditions, which would have made this area a bit less forbidding than usual, as well as during times of increased regional population, when all the good land may well have been taken and some people were forced to seek out the more marginal areas.  The violence that appears to have accompanied the drought of the twelfth century, especially, suggests that when the good times came to an end social relations got very bad very fast.  Huckleberry and Billman suggest that the reason people did end up abandoning Cowboy Wash, the times when they were not attacked, was merely drought itself, which they were unable to cope with as well as other populations, even those who also used floodwater farming techniques, because the size of the watershed was relatively small and the amount of rainfall feeding the washes was also small, so the total amount of water they had to work with was much smaller even in good times than at place like Chaco with large watersheds.  In that context, even a small decrease in annual precipitation could be devastating, leading to failed harvests and the need to move away.

Non-Entrenched Escavada Wash from New Mexico Highway 57

Indeed, there is evidence that the time of the massacre at Cowboy Wash was very difficult for the people there.  Archaeobotanical studies of pollen and other plant remains showed that there was apparently little or no maize in or around 5MT10010 at the time of abandonment, which is quite surprising for a Pueblo site.  The plant remains that were there were mostly from wild plants such as chenopod, amaranth, and tansy mustard, all of which would have been available in the spring and likely would have been intensively collected if there were no stored corn available due to a failed harvest the previous fall.  In addition to pinpointing the season in which the incident occurred, this implies that times were very tough for the inhabitants of 5MT10010, and perhaps for their attackers too.  The coprolite showed no sign of having plant material in it, which suggests that whoever left it had not just eaten some corn at home before setting out to attack 5MT10010.

Another paper associated with the project, by Patricia Lambert, suggests another problem the Cowboy Wash inhabitants apparently had: disease.  In this paper Lambert reports on analyses of ribs of individuals at 5MT10010 and other sites in the Cowboy Wash area dating to various periods of occupation that had lesions on them suggestive of those seen in modern collections of individuals known to have died of tuberculosis and (to a lesser extent) other respiratory diseases.  These lesions were found in 11 of 32 individuals from Cowboy Wash that had enough of their ribs left to examine.  One of the individuals with lesions was from 5MT10010.  This was an adult woman who was not one of the victims of the attack at site abandonment but who had instead died earlier and been formally buried.  Lambert also examined comparative collections of remains from Pueblo Bonito at Chaco and Elden Pueblo near Flagstaff Arizona.  Only 3 of the 45 individuals from Pueblo Bonito and 2 of the 20 from Eldon Pueblo had similar lesions, suggesting that this disease was much more prevalent at Cowboy Wash than at these other sites, even though it was not absent at them.  Lambert notes that tuberculosis is an opportunistic disease that tends to strike people whose systems are compromised by other problems such as hunger and stress.  The evidence for physical violence in the Cowboy Wash sample, even setting aside the cannibalism assemblages, was much greater than in the other two samples as well.  Combined with the harsh environment, this suggests strongly that Cowboy Wash was a difficult place to live for several reasons.  Farming was possible but risky, and when conditions turned bad both hunger and violence from other hungry people were constant threats.

Given this context, the occurrence of extreme events such as cannibalism incidents at Cowboy Wash starts to make some sense.  Cowboy Wash is a place of extremes.
ResearchBlogging.org
Huckleberry, G., & Billman, B. (1998). Floodwater Farming, Discontinuous Ephemeral Streams, and Puebloan Abandonment in Southwestern Colorado American Antiquity, 63 (4) DOI: 10.2307/2694110

Lambert, P. (2002). Rib lesions in a prehistoric Puebloan sample from southwestern Colorado American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 117 (4), 281-292 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.10036

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Pueblo Mural at Cortez Cultural Center, Cortez, Colorado

The best-known examples of probable cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest all cluster in a very short period of time and in a relatively small geographic area: around AD 1150 in the area surrounding the modern town of Cortez, Colorado.  Perhaps the most solidly documented of these assemblages is the one at Cowboy Wash on the southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain, which has been reported in several publications.  There are sites with reputed evidence of cannibalism that fall outside of these narrow temporal and spatial boundaries, but most of them that have been adequately dated seem to fall earlier rather than later.  In addition to sites like Cowboy Wash where cannibal incidents occurred during the long drought of the mid-twelfth century AD, there are some sites that seem to date to the tenth century, and perhaps the ninth and eleventh as well.

What has not been as well documented is any evidence of cannibalism later, especially during the major drought in the late thirteenth century that coincided with the total abandonment of the Mesa Verde region.  Indeed, the authors of the Cowboy Wash articles note that there is no evidence for cannibalism in the Mesa Verde region after AD 1200.  This is actually rather odd, since environmental conditions during the “Great Drought” of AD 1276 to 1299 were surely at least as bad as those during the twelfth-century drought, and the area had a significantly larger population as well.  If, as many have argued, assemblages like Cowboy Wash were the result of warfare between communities in the region spurred by dwindling resources, it seems logical that there might be similar assemblages from the later drought period.  There is certainly plenty of evidence of warfare and concern for defense.  It could be that whatever it was that inspired some communities in the twelfth century to cannibalize others when attacking them failed to inspire later communities to do the same, even when faced with similar conditions.

Entrance Sign at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

There is evidence from at least one site, however, indicating that there may actually have been some cannibalism accompanying the warfare of the late thirteenth century.  An article by Kristin Kuckelman, Ricky Lightfoot, and Debra Martin published in 2002 reported on evidence for violence at two sites in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument partially excavated by Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.  One of these, Sand Canyon Pueblo, we have encountered before; it had an enclosing wall that seemed to indicate concern for defense, and as this article relates there were also eight individuals found there who seemed to have died violently, perhaps defending the community from attack.  There was no evidence of cannibalism at Sand Canyon, however, and since very little of this large site was excavated it is hard to tell what the handful of violent deaths signify or whether the attack that apparently killed them led to the abandonment of the community.  It does seem to have occurred around the time of abandonment, which was also the time that the whole region was abandoned, so it would make sense if the end of Sand Canyon Pueblo came violently.

The other site, however, was rather different.  This was Castle Rock Pueblo, a smaller site a few miles from Sand Canyon.  Here at least 41 individuals who died violently were found, at a site that probably only held about 15 households total with a total population of maybe 75.  Since only a small portion of the site was excavated and yet remains representing at least half of the probable number of site residents were found, it is very likely that the entire site was destroyed, and all its residents killed or captured, in a raid at the end of site occupation, sometime around AD 1280 or 1285.  In addition, many of the bones found showed clear evidence of processing similar to that found at Cowboy Wash and other twelfth-century cannibalism assemblages.  This implies that at least some of the victims of the raid were eaten, although the lower number of processed bones relative to the total number of bones suggests that this was only done with some portion of the dead, which may mean that starvation would not have been the main motivation behind the cannibalism in this case.  Several tools and pottery vessels at the site also tested positive for human myoglobin, using similar methods to those used to identify the contents of the coprolite at Cowboy Wash, again strongly suggesting that they were used to process and cook human muscle.  All this suggests that cannibalism was in fact practiced after AD 1200 in the Mesa Verde region, at least at this one site.  Since no other site from this period has shown evidence of cannibalism, however, even though evidence of warfare is common, it seems to have been an unusual occurrence, which does still leave the difference between the numerous incidents of cannibalism during the twelfth century and this isolated one during the thirteenth as an open question.

Debra Martin was one of the authors of the critique of the initial Cowboy Wash article, and she seems to have been responsible for the parts of the critique that addressed the analytical methods and data reporting in the article.  Since she was also a coauthor on the Castle Rock article, it serves as a useful glimpse of what she meant in the critique.  The tone and structure of this article are very different from the Cowboy Wash one.  The tone is restrained, with the word “cannibalism” used sparingly and often replaced by “anthropophagy” (which means the exact same thing but sounds more technical and scientific), and a footnote discusses Crow Canyon’s consultation with its Native American advisory group and notes the objections some members of the group had to the publication of the article.  The reporting of the data and analysis is very careful and thorough, and the text pointedly mentions that this is for the benefit of other scholars, to allow them to evaluate the information for themselves.  The article never explicitly contrasts this with the approach of the Cowboy Wash team, but the implicit reproach is obvious.

Sleeping Ute Mountain from Yellow Jacket Pueblo

This article also includes a useful discussion of who the attackers might have been.  It is generally thought that other Puebloan groups rather than other cultural groups, such as nomadic hunter-gatherers, were responsible for attacks like this, and the authors of this study generally agree, although they do note the presence of a projectile point of a non-local type from east-central Utah as one possible piece of evidence for a cultural difference between attackers and victims.  They then discuss which communities in the Mesa Verde region would still have been populous in the 1280s to defeat Castle Rock, which was a relatively small pueblo but was in a pretty defensible location and would have taken a fairly large force to overrun.  They conclude that Sand Canyon, Yellow Jacket, Mesa Verde proper, and possibly Hovenweep were still occupied at the time, and that any of them could conceivably have been the attackers.  They also note that groups from outside the region, especially in the Kayenta area to the southwest and the Totah area to the south, could have been involved, either on their own or in alliance with local groups.  Figuring out which of these groups was actually to blame is tricky, however.  With the twelfth-century cannibalism sites there is a division between “victim sites” like Cowboy Wash, where people were apparently cooked and eaten at the location that had been attacked, and “perpetrator sites” where bodies were brought from sites that had been raided and eaten at the attackers’ home base.  Castle Rock is clearly a victim site, but since it is the only known cannibalism site dating to this period no known perpetrator sites that might reflect the attackers have been identified.

One of the major contributions of this paper, in addition to documenting thirteenth-century cannibalism in the Mesa Verde region, is in specifically tying cannibalism to warfare.  In most documented cannibalism assemblages, including at Cowboy Wash, the bones have been so heavily processed that any evidence of the cause of death is obliterated, so it can be impossible to tell if the victims died violently or died some other way and were then eaten, perhaps by starving members of their own communities.  Since the Castle Rock assemblage contains many instances of violent death without apparent cannibalism, in addition to some examples of cannibalism, all of this having happened at the same time, it makes a strong case that cannibalism was in fact associated with warfare during this period, which in turn implies that it probably was during the twelfth century as well.  This is an important finding in the attempt to figure out what these gruesomely enigmatic sites mean for the prehistory of the Southwest.
ResearchBlogging.org
Kuckelman, K., Lightfoot, R., & Martin, D. (2002). The Bioarchaeology and Taphonomy of Violence at Castle Rock and Sand Canyon Pueblos, Southwestern Colorado American Antiquity, 67 (3) DOI: 10.2307/1593823

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Sleeping Ute Mountain from Mule Canyon, Utah

In their critique of the article reporting evidence for alleged cannibalism at site 5MT10100 near Cowboy Wash on the southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain, Kurt Dongoske, Debra Martin, and T. J. Ferguson challenged many of the conclusions and lines of evidence presented in the article.  Among these was the evidence of consumption of human flesh from a coprolite found in a hearth at the site, which could potentially serve as the “smoking gun” offering physical proof of cannibalism, if the analysis is correct.  The authors of the critique found the presentation of this evidence in the initial article unconvincing, however, describing the data as “sketchy” and implying a lack of scientific rigor in the analysis.  They concluded this section of the critique by saying:

We are not microbiologists, and therefore before accepting the claim that the coprolite contains human myoglobin, we await peer review and publication of the fecal study by Science or another scientific journal specializing in biomolecular research.  As presented in the Cowboy Wash study, the fecal evidence is suggestive but not convincing. More work pursuing this line of evidence is warranted in future studies.

In their response to the critique, the authors of the original paper added more detailed information on the coprolite analysis, but they also did as the critique authors recommended and published a short article in Nature (Science‘s main competitor) giving more specific details on the analytical techniques used to detect human myoglobin both in the coprolite and on some potsherds from a cooking vessel found in the same pitstructure.  There isn’t actually much in this paper that wasn’t in the response to the critique, aside from the laboratory procedures, which I am not in a position to evaluate.  It’s not actually clear to me if this article was peer-reviewed; it doesn’t explicitly mention any reviewers or any details of the review process, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t reviewed.  It’s also not clear to me if the authors submitted it in response to the critique or if they had already intended to.  Both the original article and the critique were published in January 2000, and this article was received by Nature on March 7,  accepted on June 6 (which does seem to imply some sort of review process), and published on September 7.  Meanwhile, the response to the critique was published in April.  In any case, whether or not the authors of the initial paper were spurred by the critique to submit additional publications (and this is not the only one to appear after the critique was published), they certainly can’t be accused of shrinking from the challenges it set for them.

Mentioning this paper also allows me to go into a bit more detail about the myoglobin analysis, which I didn’t in the previous post.  Basically, to determine if the coprolite resulted from the consumption of human flesh the researchers needed to find something to test for that would be present in parts of a human body likely to be consumed but not in parts of the consumers body likely to end up in the coprolite during the digestion process  (e.g., blood or intestinal lining).  They decided on myoglobin, which is a protein molecule in the skeletal and cardiac muscles that transports oxygen from the outer membrane of muscle cells to the interior parts of the cells where it is used to generate energy.  Importantly, this protein is not found in the smooth muscles of the digestive system or in the blood, so it is unlikely to end up in fecal matter as part of the digestive process.  The researchers used a variety of controls to establish this, including coprolites from Salmon Ruin and modern fecal samples from “normal individuals,” people with blood in their stool, and people who had recently eaten beef.  None of these ancient or modern samples tested positive for human myoglobin, but the beef ones did test positive for bovine myoglobin, establishing that myoglobin can indeed be found and identified to species in fecal material.  These controls were mentioned in the original article, and when I read it I had wondered where they had gotten the modern samples.  The Nature article explains that they came from leftover material from clinical samples that was turned over for research use, which makes sense.  For the sherd testing, the controls were other sherds from the same site, sherds from another site in Southwestern Colorado dating from the same period but without evidence of cannibalism, and sherds from a Plains site near Denver also dating to roughly the same period.  None of these control sherds tested positive for human myoglobin either, although some tested positive for deer or rabbit myoglobin.  Thus, since the coprolite from Cowboy Wash and the sherds found near it were the only samples to test positive for human myoglobin, the hypothesis that they were associated with ingestion of human flesh was not disproven, and it remains the most plausible explanation of the Cowboy Wash assemblage.

It’s certainly possible that problems may be found with this analysis that cast doubt on the result, but I haven’t seen any, and until I do I’ll provisionally accept it as indicating very strongly that broken and burned bone assemblages like the one at Cowboy Wash most likely result from cannibalism.  What that might mean culturally and historically, of course, is a different and more difficult question.
ResearchBlogging.org
Marlar RA, Leonard BL, Billman BR, Lambert PM, & Marlar JE (2000). Biochemical evidence of cannibalism at a prehistoric Puebloan site in southwestern Colorado. Nature, 407 (6800), 74-8 PMID: 10993075

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