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

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, January 2, 1993 | Go to article overview

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


Bower, Bruce, Science News


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.