A coprological view of ancestral pueblo cannibalism
TL;DR: As the object of my scientific study, I've hosen coprolites, a sample of ancient feces preserved by mineralization or simple drying, which can shed light on both the nutrition of and parasites found in prehistoric cultures.
Abstract: As the object of my scientific study, I've hosen coprolites. It's not a common choice, but to a paleonutri tionist and archaeoparasitologist, a coprolite?a sample of ancient feces preserved by mineralization or simple drying?is a scientific bonanza. Analy sis of coprolites can shed light on both the nutrition of and parasites found in prehistoric cultures. Dietary reconstruc tions from the analysis of coprolites can inform us about, for example, the ori gins of modern Native American diabe tes. With regard to parasitology, copro lites hold information about the ancient
Summary (2 min read)
- Most Americans know the people who lived on the Colorado Plateau from 1200 B.C. onward as the Anasazi, a Navajo (or Dine) word.
- I have analyzed hundreds of Ancestral and pre-Ancestral Pueblo coprolites that were more interesting.
Cannibalism, Without Question
- In the arid environment of the U.S. Southwest, feces dried in ancient throes provide a 9,000-year record of gastronomic traditions.
- (I say “thick-skinned,” because analysts generally don’t last long in this specialty.
- From the mid-1980s to the mid-’90s, I had characterized the Ancestral Pueblo lifestyle as a combination of hunting and gathering mixed with agriculture based on the analysis of about 500 coprolites from half a dozen sites.
- The evidence for cannibalism at Cowboy Wash has been widely published.
- Debate over a single fecal fossil offers a cautionary tale of the interplay between science and culture Karl J. Reinhard Karl J. Reinhard is a professor in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska and a Fulbright Commission Senior Specialist in Archaeology for 2004-2009.
- The main focus of his career since earning his Ph.D. from Texas A&M has been to find explanations for modern patterns of disease in the archaeological and historic record.
- Commonly known by the Navajo term Anasazi, the Ancestral Pueblo were considered the “peaceful people” until they were accused of cannibalism in 1990s.
- The feces was preserved as a coprolite and would turn out to be the conclusive evidence of cannibalism.
- My original report suggesting the coprolite was not of Ancestral Pueblo origin went largely unnoticed.
What Did the Ancestral Pueblo Eat?
- To me, a specialist in Ancestral Pueblo diet, neither Turner’s nor Billman’s explanation made sense.
- From Washington State University, to Northern Arizona University to Texas A & M and many more, Ancestral Pueblo coprolites were rehydrated, screened, centrifuged and analyzed.
- In their conscientious and rigorous research, the same general theme emerged.
- The pre-Ancestral Pueblo people adapted to starvation from seasonal food shortages by eating yucca leaf bases and prickly pear pads and the few other plants that were available in such lean times.
- They actually ate more species of wild plants—more than 50—than their ancestors who were totally dependent on wild species.
Adapting to the Environment
- Later, Mark Stiger of Western State College and I went to work on the problem using a statistical method that he devised.
- Denny and I analyzed coprolites from the last occupation of Antelope House in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona.
- Archaeological surveys show that the mesas around the canyon were abandoned as people moved into the canyon to have access to water.
- As for meat, my colleagues Mark Sutton, with California State University, Bakersfield, and Richard Marlar have found chemical signals in Ancestral Pueblo coprolites of bighorn sheep, rabbits, dogs and rodents.
Life on the Edge
- Compared with other agricultural traditions I have studied in other parts of the world, the Ancestral Pueblo were rarely far from agricultural failure.
- My students and I have examined coprolites from the most primitive and advanced cultures in the Andes, from the earliest Chinchorros to the latest Incas.
- Therefore, they maintained the hunter-gatherer dietary traditions to supplement, or replace if necessary, cultivated plants.
- Complete caloric dependence on cultivated plants, as took place in the Andes, was simply impossible for the Ancestral Pueblo.
- The drought did not disrupt the standard burial traditions for this three-to-four-year-old, yet X-rays showed that this child survived seven episodes of starvation.
Was the Cannibal Ancestral Pueblo?
- Work by numerous investigators thus shows that the Ancestral Pueblo possessed remarkable ecological adaptability; if they resorted to cannibalism because of environmental stress, it was a highly atypical response.
- Besides, beyond a single sample, hundreds of coprolite analyses find not even a hint of cannibalism.
- Overwhelmingly, the Ancestral Pueblo were primarily herbivorous.
- A number of researchers were incredulous at the hysteria created by the Cowboy Wash cannibal coprolite.
- Both coprolite and skeletal evidence examined by Utah State University bioarchaeologist Patricia Lambert do show that Ancestral Pueblo of Cowboy Wash were victims of violence and cannibalism—there’s little question about it.
The Peaceful People Concept
- Christy Turner’s quote in the popular media puzzled me.
- Earlier work had shown that violence, and perhaps even cannibalism, had taken place among the Ancestral Pueblo.
- But in the ‘60s and ‘70s—a time of social volatility, seemingly suffused in the violence of combat and revolt—modern American culture was searching for examples of nonviolent social systems.
- This seemed like pretty good evidence that all was not tranquil with the peaceful people, but such fires were explained as accidental.
Cannibalism at Other Sites?
- In Man Corn, Turner carefully stated that he thought the Ancestral Pueblo were victims of terrorism imposed on them by a more violent and cannibalistic culture.
- Initially it was thought that the bodies of two adults and 35 children were burned in the tower kiva.
- I conclude that when analyzing the remains of the Ancestral Pueblo, it is important to consider that recent work shows that their mortuary practices were more complicated than the authors previously thought—and that complex mortuary practices should come as no surprise and constitute ambiguous evidence.
- The Ancestral Pueblo, once thought to be peaceful, have now become, especially in the lay mind, violent cannibals.
- The authors findings must be qualified in the context of alternative explanations.
Did you find this useful? Give us your feedback
Cites background from "A coprological view of ancestral pu..."
...A number of coprolite studies reported that the breadth of Ancestral Pueblo diets was generally nutritionally sound (Cummings 1994; Fry 1980; Minnis 1989)....
...…trichura (whipworms), Ascaris lumbricoides (giant intestinal roundworms), Ancylostomidae (hookworms), Acanthocephala (thorny headed worms), Strongyloides stercoralis (threadworm), taeniid tapeworms, hymenolepidid tapeworms, Enterobius vermicularis (pinworm), ticks, lice, and possibly flukes....
...Parasite 6:201-208 Iñiguez, A. M., K. J. Reinhard, A. Araújo, L. F. Ferreira, and A. C. P. Vicente 2003 Enterobius vermicularis Ancient DNA from North and South American Human Coprolites....
...The molars of these people tended to have smooth, polished occlusal surfaces and rounded occlusal margins from chewing tough fibers and grit in their foods....
...Chaves, S. M., and K. Reinhard 2006 Critical Analysis of Prehistoric Evidence of Medicinal Plant Use, Piauí, Brazil....