An Inclusive Litany


The New Yorker reports on controversial new research that may solve the mystery of the Anasazi, a complex pre-Columbian civilization that settled the Chaco Canyon area of New Mexico around 900 A.D. but mysteriously disappeared from the region around 1150 A.D. The Anasazi are revered not only as ancestors of the Hopi and other Pueblo Indians, but also for their astonishing advances in engineering, astronomy, art, and architecture. Many New Age adherents believe the Anasazi even had a superior civilization based on pacifism, consensus government, classless society, and refined spirituality. This enthusiasm has led one archeological site to close down because New Agers were burying crystals and illegally scattering each other's ashes there. During the "Harmonic Convergence" of 1987, thousands joined hands in Chaco Canyon to chant and pray. You can now even buy a 1999 Anasazi wall calendar.

The archeological record indicates the Anasazi abandoned their agriculturally advanced valley settlements in favor of remote caves along canyon walls and high, often fortified mesas. They soon disappeared altogether in a manner that suggested massive depopulation due to a prolonged siege. But ethnographers have failed to uncover the sorts of cultural legends one would expect in the wake of such a relatively recent and dramatic incursion. And while studies of pollen counts indicate there was a severe drought at the time, it did not appear to traumatize surrounding Indian groups. Instead, many local Navajo and Pueblo legends refer to Chaco Canyon as a place of almost unspeakable evil.

Studying Anasazi sites, archeologist Christy Turner concluded that the culture collapsed not from external forces, but from the widespread practice of cannibalism. Turner identified a large percentage of skeletal remains that showed signs of dismemberment, butchering, "defleshing," marrow extraction, and roasting. The skulls, in particular, displayed signs that they were split open at the time of death, decapitated, and roasted face-up in order to scoop out the cooked brains. Such skeletal deposits don't resemble burial grounds so much as loose heaps of trash. Paleoanthropologist Tim D. White also identified bones that showed signs they were used to scrape off the ring of fat that formed around the edge of boiling pots of human remains. And, countering the argument that people may have been simply cooked as part of a non-cannibalistic ritual to violently suppress the supposed magical powers of witchcraft, archeologist Brian Billman had a fecal sample from one site tested, successfully, for non-digestive human remains.

Summing up his years of research in a new book, Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest, Turner argues that since cannibalism was not practiced by any of the Anasazi's close neighbors, it probably came from Mesoamerica, where the Toltec empire (ca. 800-1100 A.D.) practiced cannibalism and human sacrifice as a form of social control as part of a "very powerful, dehumanizing sociopolitical and ideological complex." (The Aztecs, descendants of the Toltecs who also practiced cannibalism, were later easily conquered partly because surrounding Indian groups regarded them as a scourge and were eager to ally with the Spanish against them.) The Toltecs were known to have spread their imperial influence south "into the jungle world of the Mayas and the desert world of the Chichimeca" in northern Mexico, a relatively short distance from the American Southwest. Turner believes it likely that a small marauding band of heavily armed "Manson party types" came up from Mexico along well-established trade routes and, finding a pliant population, successfully reproduced their own culture of terror. Perhaps stimulated by the drought, the Anasazi culture finally collapsed in total anarchy over 200 years after its inception.

Turner's research flies in the face of long-held skepticism of cannibalistic accounts. In a 1979 book, The Man-Eating Myth, SUNY Stony Brook anthropologist William Arens persuasively questioned the very existence of cannibalism in human societies. Arens argued that accounts of cannibalism were mostly hearsay, and were either made by hostile neighboring groups as an extreme form of insult or by Westerners attempting to justify their conquest, conversion, and enslavement of native people. (One such account came from none other than Christopher Columbus, whose first inclination upon encountering the peaceful Taino culture in the West Indies was to assume he had stumbled on a Utopian state—that is, until he encountered the neighboring Carib tribe, who regularly feasted on the Tainos.) When asked about Turner's research twenty years later, Arens agrees that the findings probably represent instances of cannibalism, but cautions against the conclusion that all the Anasazi were cannibals, or by extension, all Native Americans. "There's a whole discipline in existence looking for 'savage' behavior among the people we have colonized, conquered, and eradicated. That point almost has to be made—that the people here before us were cannibals—to justify the genocide of Native Americans."

But Turner's revelations also come at a time of reassessment for many in the field, with assumptions concerning the peaceful and benign nature of primitive cultures coming under fire. Even Margaret Mead's classic account of the Samoan culture, in which she thought she found what amounted to a sexual paradise free of monogamic constraints and sexual conflict, was found to have been a misrepresentation, perhaps as the result of an unintended hoax.

Lawrence Keeley, anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, tells of the trouble he had getting a grant from the National Science Foundation to study evidence of warfare in early Neolithic Belgium, ca. 5000 B.C. Having discovered a fortification consisting of a nine-foot-deep ditch backed by a palisade, Keeley proposed that excavating nearby sites would yield similar features, which he figured represented a frontier line between early settled farmers and hostile, nomadic bands. But it was only when he rewrote the grant proposal a third time, referring to the function of the ditch-palisade neutrally as an "enclosure," that he got the grant. Even after discovering more defensive emplacements, Keeley says he was stunned at the discovery because he had accustomed himself to dismissing widespread physical evidence of primitive violence.

In his 1996 book, War Before Civilization, Keeley argues that far from being a stylized and seldom-practiced ritual as had been assumed, so-called primitive warfare was far more frequent, more ruthless, and proportionally more deadly than modern warfare. Documenting widespread instances of ambushes, massacres, looting, mutilation, trophy-taking, and cannibalism, Keeley attacks the peaceful image of primitives as Rousseau's idealized "noble savage," and the corresponding tendency to believe that modern civilization has somehow fallen from grace by engaging in a uniquely horrible form of warfare. Keeley also documents how surprisingly effective primitive guerrilla warriors have been against modern Western armies attempting to subdue them, offering a provocative answer for why this form of warfare has been so readily dismissed: "Citizens of modern states tend to believe that everything they do is more efficient and effective than the corresponding efforts of primitives or ancients."

While Keeley argues that warfare serves its practitioners well in expanding territory and resources, UCLA anthropologist Robert B. Edgerton cautions that attempts to explain such pathological behavior as a sort of evolutionary success strategy can easily become tautologous. In his 1992 book, Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony, Edgerton documents a wide range of behavior including homicide, suicide, infanticide, slavery, feuding, human sacrifice, cannibalism, torture, rape, genital mutilation, spousal and child abuse, substance abuse, malnutrition, and environmental destruction in various primitive folk cultures. Anthropologists, Edgerton says, often provide strained and culturally relativistic explanations that these practices necessarily occupy a useful and perhaps hidden function that ultimately strengthens societies, even those that clearly do not serve the long-term interests of their practitioners. Under this assumption, for example, cannibalism has been explained as a form of population control serving an adaptive evolutionary role to keep cultures from overextending their limited resources, thus achieving ecological harmony.

Edgerton calls for eradicating the distinction between "primitive" and "modern" cultures altogether, arguing instead for a uniform standard of judgment that, borrowing from psychology, distinguishes between cultures that are "healthy" and those that are "dysfunctional." Following up his work on Southwest American cannibalism, Christy Turner dwelled on some of the same themes in an unusual paper, titled "The Darker Side of Humanity," in which he calls for the abandonment of the time-honored "concept of culture." Anthropologists, he says, usually ask what was normally practiced in a given culture, without allowing for the possibility of abnormality or charismatic usurpers such as, in modern times, a Hitler or a Stalin. "In my thirty-five years of teaching I have never heard of a graduate student specializing in archeology who had taken a course in abnormal psychology," Turner writes. "Why should they? ... The very idea of abnormal behavior is alien to Southwest archeological thinking." Turner recommends replacing the cultural concept with a "Darwinian paradigm of evolutionary psychology" that "emphasizes identification of individuals and seeks to understand their actions wherever possible." Only then, he says, will any sense be made of his archeological findings, or of human nature itself.

[Ed.: A good example of an adaptivist argument was laid out in the February, 1999 issue of the journal Conservation Biology, in an article by Paul S. Martin, paleoecologist at the University of Arizona, and Christine R. Szuter, editor in chief of the University of Arizona Press. In one passage from the journals of early American explorers Lewis and Clark, William Clark wrote of eastern Montana, "I have observed that in the country between the [Indian] nations which are at war with each other the greatest number of wild beasts are to be found." Martin and Szuter elaborate on this point, arguing that these dangerous no-man's lands offered relatively safe habitat for many large land mammals and played a critical ecological role in preventing their extinction. Local Indians, in turn, benefited from the continued presence of game. In areas west of the Rockies in which warfare was not as constant, there was a relative scarcity of big game, despite plentiful habitat. The authors argue that Trans-Rockies Indians were able, given the opportunity, to hunt game to the point of depletion, forcing them to live on fish and roots. Many other species—mammoths, mastodons, camels, giant sloths, tapirs, and predators that depended on them—became extinct in North America following human migration to the continent approximately 15,000 years ago, though scientists disagree on what caused this.]

No comments: