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.
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).
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.
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.
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