Last year around Christmas I did a series of posts on the evidence for cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest. I didn’t cover nearly all that there is to say about this important but controversial issue then, so I figured it would be a good idea to discuss it a bit more this year. In this post I would like to take a look at what has become the main alternative explanation for the assemblages of human remains that are often seen as evidence of cannibalism: witchcraft execution.
The idea that the assemblages of broken, burned, and otherwise heavily “processed” human bones found in various parts of the Southwest represent the remains of the execution of alleged witches originates mainly in an article by J. Andrew Darling published in 1998. In it, Darling notes that most of the evidence for cannibalism in these assemblages has come from osteological analyses of the bones conducted by physical anthropologists, with little contextual analysis by archaeologists or ethnographers that would allow better understandings of what the assemblages mean in cultural terms. This is more or less true as of when he was writing, although more recent analyses have been much more thorough (perhaps in part as a response to critiques like Darling’s). Importantly, Darling does not contest the osteological evidence. He accepts the conclusions of physical anthropologists that it represents substantial “processing” of human remains around the time of death or shortly afterward, and he even agrees that the specific actions indicated are strongly reminiscent of the evidence for butchering found on animal bones.
Where Darling parts ways with the physical anthropologists, however, is in inferring from this evidence for butchering that the intent of this processing was to prepare human flesh for consumption. He points out, again rightly, that little is known about the butchering of animals for purposes other than consumption, and that it cannot therefore be assumed that any processing of remains, human or animal, necessarily indicates consumption of those remains. In other words, Darling agrees that people were butchering and mutilating the bodies of other people, but he does not agree that this means they were eating them.
At this point I think it is worth pointing out that Darling’s acceptance of this much of the physical anthropological evidence indicates how much the cannibalism side had already won the debate at this point. Indeed, the objections of Darling and those who cite him may reveal more about the societal mores of modern anthropologists than those of ancient Puebloans. “Yes, okay, they did gruesomely butcher and dismember people, but that doesn’t mean they ate them” is a rather odd line of defense to offer against accusations of cannibalism.
Note also that Darling was writing before the publication of the data on the Cowboy Wash assemblage, including the infamous coprolite that tested positive for human muscle tissue. His arguments that the evidence of butchery on the bones doesn’t necessarily indicate consumption of the flesh therefore stand on their own, but they don’t apply at all to the coprolite evidence, which is just about the most solid evidence for actual consumption of human flesh imaginable.
Leaving all that aside for the moment, Darling’s alternative explanation for the heavily processed assemblages is that they represent the remains of executions of suspected witches. His evidence for this draws mostly from modern Pueblo ethnography, especially records of witchcraft trials at Zuni in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well as ceremonies conducted at several Pueblos to cure ailments attributed to witchcraft. He notes, importantly, that this does not mean he is merely projecting the ethnographic present into the past; indeed, the modern activities he describes would likely not account for anything like the prehistoric assemblages. The Zuni trials, many of which were subject to intensive interference by Anglo anthropologists and government agents, provide interesting data on Zuni attitudes toward witches, but they resulted in very few executions, and there is little to no data on the way those few executions were carried out.
For data that could possibly account for the intensive processing of the remains of executed witches, Darling points to the ceremonies, which in modern times largely consist of the symbolic hunting, capture, dismemberment, and burning of the witches in the form of effigy dolls. Combining this with the evidence from the Zuni trials, the idea seems to be that at some point in the past similar “trials” often ended up with executions carried out similarly to the ritual destruction of the dolls. This is a bit speculative, but it’s not a hugely implausible theory.
It’s not totally clear, however, that this is actually an alternative to the cannibalism theory. I think it could just as easily be seen as a supplement to it, with the intensive processing of executed witches at some times in the past also involving consumption of their flesh. Darling doesn’t address this objection specifically, but it seems like it has occurred to him, as he makes a big deal about how cannibalism itself is strongly associated with witchcraft in Pueblo thought. Indeed, one of the reasons he argues the cannibalism theory is wrong is that this association is so strong that Pueblos would never engage in cannibalism, even under conditions of severe subsistence stress, for fear of either being thought of as witches or even actually becoming them. This is fair enough, as far as it goes, but Darling doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that some of these attitudes toward witchcraft and cannibalism may have developed relatively recently, perhaps even in reaction to prehistoric incidents of cannibalism. Whether or not the people who dismembered and perhaps cannibalized others in the twelfth century interpreted what they were doing as punishing witches, it seems pretty plausible to me that later Puebloans reinterpreted those events as the actions of witches themselves, and incorporated cannibalism into their cultural ideas of witchcraft.
Overall, Darling’s article raises some important points, and presents some interesting data on Pueblo witchcraft ideas, but it is highly unconvincing in presenting an alternative to the cannibalism theory. As noted above, it is totally inadequate as a response to cannibalism evidence that comes directly from coprolites rather than indirectly from bones, and the alternative theory it proposes is actually not necessarily incompatible with cannibalism at least in some instances. The fact that some archaeologists continue to rely on it as the basis for arguing against cannibalism as an explanation for certain assemblages just goes to show how few other interpretations are really plausible at this point.
Darling, J. Andrew (1998). Mass Inhumation and the Execution of Witches in the American Southwest American Anthropologist, 100 (3), 732-752 DOI: 10.1525/aa.19220.127.116.112