The Cannibal's Signature: Clues on Prehistoric Bones May Flesh out Cannibalism

Article excerpt

Excavations at a nearly 900-year-old pueblo in Colorado's Mancos Canyon in 1973 uncovered a mass of human bones bearing stark signs of violent death. Investigators noted crushed skulls, broken leg and arm bones, burned patches on some bones, and deep incisions made by sharpened stones. One team member raised the hackles of some antropologists and American Indian groups by reporting that the victims had probably been cannibalized.

A new analysis of the 2,106 pieces of bone retrieved from the Mancos site affirms that grisly conclusion. In the process, the author of the exhaustive study has reignited debate not only regarding whether prehistoric cannibalism existed, but whether scientists can, in essence, read the cannibal's "signature" in a pile of bones.

Someone -- apparently Anasazi Indians who inhabited the Mancos Canyon and other parts of the southwestern United States from A.D. 400 to A.D. 1300 -- cut up the recently deceased bodies of at least 17 adults and 12 children, cooked the pieces, and ate them, asserts anthropologist Tim D. White of the University of California, Berkeley. Damage to the skulls and neck bones indicates that decapitated heads were roasted on coals before diners cracked open the crania and removed the brains, White contends. Boiling in pots produced polished edges along some bones, and limb bones were split apart to obtain marrow, he maintains.

The Mancos bones do not represent an isolated instance of prehistoric cannibalism in the southwest, White adds. A similar pattern of damage characterizes human bones found at 18 other Anasazi sites, White concludes in Prehistoric Cannibalism at Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 (1992, Princeton University Press).

Perhaps most important, the findings demonstrate that physical anthropologists, who study and classify bones, and archaeologists, who study the material remnants of human groups, can begin to examine other prehistoric remains for evidence of cannibalism, according to White. In fact, White--best known as a co-discoverer in 1974 of "Lucy" and other fossils belonging to the earliest known species in the human evolutionary family -- plans to track the cannibal's signature throughout the human fossil record.

Some investigators maintain that Anasazi warfare or burial practices more likely produced the skeletal damage at Mancos and contend that cannibals, if they ever existed, did not leave a legible signature on the bones of their victims. But other scientists, including critics of previous claims of prehistoric cannibalism, accept White's argument for Anasazi cannibalism and laud his research technique.

Speculation about prehistoric cannibalism practiced by Neandertals and other ancient members of the human evolutionary family has circulated for several centuries, often meeting little scientific skepticism. Mark Twain -- no scientist, but a confirmed skeptic -- tartly rejected such claims in an 1871 essay in which he decried "the savage ways and atrocious appetites attributed to the dead and helpless Primeval Man."

Reports of cannibalism collected by ethnographers (who study daily life in existing groups), explorers, and historians have also accumulated for numerous societies around the world. In a pivotal 1979 book titled The Man-Eating Myth (Oxford University Press), anthropologist William Arens of the State University of New York at Stony Brook argued that no researcher had ever actually witnessed an instance of cannibalism, and the practice probably did not exist except as a last resort to stave off starvation. The infamous settlers in the stranded Donner Party, who ate their comrades in 1846, exemplify the "emergency" cannibalism Arens deemed genuine.

Two years after the publication of Arens' book, anthropologist Lewis R. Binford of Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas asserted that researchers had created a myth of cannibalistic Neandertals out of inconclusive fossils and sloppy studies. …