Riddles of the Anasazi

Toward the end of the 13th century, something went terribly wrong among the Anasazi. What awful event forced the people to flee their homeland, never to return?

In 1874, an earlier traveler, photographer William Henry Jackson, captured an image of an Anasazi cliff dwelling. (Corbis)
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Predictably, Turner’s claims aroused controversy. Many of today’s Pueblo Indians were deeply offended by the allegations, as were a number of Anglo archaeologists and anthropologists who saw the assertions as exaggerated and part of a pattern of condescension toward Native Americans. Even in the face of Turner’s evidence, some experts clung to the notion that the “extreme processing” of the remains could have instead resulted from, say, the post-mortem destruction of the bodies of social outcasts, such as witches and deviants. Kurt Dongoske, an Anglo archaeologist who works for the Hopi, told me in 1994, “As far as I’m concerned, you can’t prove cannibalism until you actually find human remains in human coprolite [fossilized excrement].”

A few years later, University of Colorado biochemist Richard Marlar and his team did just that. At an Anasazi site in southwestern Colorado called CowboyWash, excavators found three pit houses—semi-subterranean dwellings—whose floors were littered with the disarticulated skeletons of seven victims. The bones seemed to bear most of Christy Turner’s hallmarks of cannibalism. The team also found coprolite in one of the pit houses. In a study published in Nature in 2000, Marlar and his colleagues reported the presence in the coprolite of a human protein called myoglobin, which occurs only in human muscle tissue. Its presence could have resulted only from the consumption of human flesh. The excavators also noted evidence of violence that went beyond what was needed to kill: one child, for instance, was smashed in the mouth so hard with a club or a stone that the teeth were broken off. As Marlar speculated to ABC News, defecation next to the dead bodies 8 to 16 hours after the act of cannibalism “may have been the final desecration of the site, or the degrading of the people who lived there.”

When the Castle Rock scholars submitted some of their artifacts to Marlar in 2001, his analysis detected myoglobin on the inside surfaces of two cooking vessels and one serving vessel, as well as on four hammerstones and two stone axes. Kuckelman cannot say whether the Castle Rock cannibalism was in response to starvation, but she says it was clearly related to warfare. “I feel differently about this place now than when we were working here,” a pensive Kuckelman told me at the site. “We didn’t have the whole picture then. Now I feel the full tragedy of the place.”

That the Anasazi may have resorted to violence and cannibalism under stress is not entirely surprising. “Studies indicate that at least a third of the world’s cultures have practiced cannibalism associated with warfare or ritual or both,” says WashingtonStateUniversity researcher Lipe. “Occasional incidents of ‘starvation cannibalism’ have probably occurred at some time in history in all cultures.”

From Colorado, I traveled south with Vaughn Hadenfeldt to the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. We spent four more days searching among remote Anasazi sites occupied until the great migration. Because hiking on the reservation requires a permit from the Navajo Nation, these areas are even less visited than the Utah canyons. Three sites we explored sat atop mesas that rose 500 to 1,000 feet, and each had just one reasonable route to the summit. Although these aeries are now within view of a highway, they seem so improbable as habitation sites (none has water) that no archaeologists investigated them until the late 1980s, when husband-and-wife team Jonathan Haas of Chicago’s Field Museum and Winifred Creamer of Northern Illinois University made extensive surveys and dated the sites by using the known ages of different styles of pottery found there.

Haas and Creamer advance a theory that the inhabitants of these settlements developed a unique defense strategy. As we stood atop the northernmost mesa, I could see the second mesa just southeast of us, though not the third, which was farther to the east; yet when we got on top of the third, we could see the second. In the KayentaValley, which surrounded us, Haas and Creamer identified ten major villages that were occupied after 1250 and linked by lines of sight. It was not difficulty of access that protected the settlements (none of the scrambles we performed here began to compare with the climbs we made in the Utah canyons), but an alliance based on visibility. If one village was under attack, it could send signals to its allies on the other mesas.

Now, as I sat among the tumbled ruins of the northernmost mesa, I pondered what life must have been like here during that dangerous time. Around me lay sherds of pottery in a style called Kayenta black on white, decorated in an endlessly baroque elaboration of tiny grids, squares and hatchings—evidence, once again, that the inhabitants had taken time for artistry. And no doubt the pot makers had found the view from their mesa-top home lordly, as I did. But what made the view most valuable to them was that they could see the enemy coming.

Archaeologists now generally agree about what they call the “push” that prompted the Anasazi to flee the Four Corners region at the end of the 13th century. It seems to have originated with environmental catastrophes, which in turn may have given birth to violence and internecine warfare after 1250. Yet hard times alone do not account for the mass abandonment—nor is it clear how resettling in another location would have solved the problem. During the past 15 years, some experts have increasingly insisted that there must also have been a “pull” drawing the Anasazi to the south and east, something so appealing that it lured them from their ancestral homeland. Several archaeologists have argued that the pull was the Kachina Cult. Kachinas are not simply the dolls sold today to tourists in Pueblo gift shops. They are a pantheon of at least 400 deities who intercede with the gods to ensure rain and fertility. Even today, Puebloan life often revolves around Kachina beliefs, which promise protection and procreation.

The Kachina Cult, possibly of Mesoamerican origin, may have taken hold among the relatively few Anasazi who lived in the Rio Grande and Little Colorado River areas about the time of the exodus. Evidence of the cult’s presence is found in the representations of Kachinas that appear on ancient kiva murals, pottery and rock art panels near the Rio Grande and in south-central Arizona. Such an evolution in religious thinking among the Anasazi farther south and east might have caught the attention of the farmers and hunters eking out an increasingly desperate existence in the Four Corners region. They could have learned of the cult from traders who traveled throughout the area.

Unfortunately, no one can be sure of the age of the Rio Grande and southern Arizona Kachina imagery. Some archaeologists, including Lipe and Lekson, argue that the Kachina Cult arose too late to have triggered the 13th-century migration. So far, they insist, there is no firm evidence of Kachina iconography anywhere in the Southwest before A.D. 1350. In any case, the cult became the spiritual center of Anasazi life soon after the great migration. And in the 14th century, the Anasazi began to aggregate in even larger groups—erecting huge pueblos, some with upwards of 2,500 rooms. Says Stephen Lekson, “You need some sort of social glue to hold together such large pueblos.”

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