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Evidence proves ancient cannibal activity

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DENVER, Colo. - It took a few years, but speculation turned to hard evidence that residents of an ancient village performed acts of cannibalism before abandoning the site.

At about the year 1150 A.D., people who lived in a Puebloan site now called Cowboy Wash located on the southern slopes of Sleeping Ute Mountain in the four corners region of Colorado, quickly left their dwellings and left behind evidence that proves human flesh was eaten.

Archaeologists uncovered thousands of human bones that contained specific markings attributed to tools used to clean them and human blood was found in the lining of a clay cooking pot.

Dr. Richard A. Marlar, Department of Pathology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Denver, said the most telling evidence of cannibalism was human feces left in a fire pit after it cooled which revealed the presence of myoglobin.

"Myoglobin is found only in skeletal and cardiac muscle cells, and not found in cells of the blood, skin, nor in the smooth muscles of the digestive system. If you didn't eat human beings, this protein wouldn't show up," Marlar said.

Chemical inspection of the myoblobin is possible to determine what type of animal species the protein came from, human, deer or other animals. The evidence in this case was proven to be human, he said.

"Direct evidence for the consumption of human tissue by humans is necessary to demonstrate definitively that human cannibalism occurred at an archaeological site. Previous archaeological and osteological studies have strongly indicated that cannibalistic episodes took place among the ancient Puebloans, but the evidence has been essentially circumstantial," Marlar said.

Evidence that human tissue had been cooked was found in cooking vessels. Two cutting tools were tested and found to have human blood on the cutting edges.

The Hopi and Zuni, descendants of the Anasazi, the people who occupied the region, strongly disagree that cannibalism was a widespread activity of their ancestors. Marlar does not present evidence that the practice of eating human flesh was widespread, whether for nourishment or for ceremonial purposes.

Marlar's study was published in the journal "Nature."

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The human feces of coprolite was deposited in a cooled ash-filled fire pit just before the site was abandoned. Other artifacts were found in three pit houses. At one location, thousands of bones and fragments from four adults and one adolescent were piled in a side chamber. Some found on the floor were obviously left there since no sediment was found underneath them, Marlar stated. At another location, whole bones and fragments were left directly on the floor of the dwelling.

Terry Knight, Ute Mountain tribal representative who witnessed the excavation, said that what was discovered was like most civilizations that had good people who were productive and bad people also resided within the culture.

The Ute Mountain Tribe asked for the survey of the area before an irrigation system was installed.

Marlar said in his report that typically a site that was abandoned would have artifacts removed, wooden structures burned or salvaged for re-use, and tools, whole pots and other reusable items would have been removed.

The Cowboy Wash site indicated abandonment was swift because all materials were left behind. No sediment was found beneath pots, tools and other items found on shelves or floors, indicating they were left where they were last deposited.

The site is 40 miles west of Mesa Verde, one of the most studied cliff cities in the region.

"With the presentation of the first direct evidence of cannibalism in the American Southwest in the prehistoric era, we hope that the debate will shift from the question of whether or not cannibalism occurred to questions concerning the social context, causes and consequences of these events," Marlar said.

Jared M. Diamond, Department of Physiology, University of California Medical School, takes a cynical look at the study done by Marlar. "OK, you've proved one case of cannibalism, but it's still a rare aberration. Instead of denigrating Indians by looking for proof of bad behavior, why don't you look for proof of good behavior?"

He refers to the fact that cannibalism may have been widespread at one time, but is "desperately denied" today. Diamond said one reason could be that Westerners "abhor" cannibalism. "Some of them cannot believe that other societies practiced it. But many behaviors accepted by one society are abhorred by another."

Because missionaries who visited the Southwest forbid it, few first-hand accounts passed down through oral history provide evidence of the practice. Western scientists who discover evidence of cannibalism are many times condemned as slandering the culture that practiced it by anthropologists who study the cultures and by the descendants of the cannibals who have adopted or absorbed western culture, Diamond said.

University of North Carolina archaeologist Brian Billman, who coordinated the excavation, said drought overcame the region in 1150 A.D., causing the social order to crumble. He speculated that raiders from other tribes or clans may have terrorized, then cannibalized those that remained at Cowboy Wash.