This is one of the first books to inspire me to write about the Anasazi because it offered an explanation that made the puzzle come together in my head. You can’t visit the likes of Chaco Canyon, Chimney Rock Archaeological Area, and Mesa Verde without the feeling that something powerful motivated these people … and, especially in Mesa Verde, that something frightened them very badly.
Christy Turner is a professor in the department of anthropology at Arizona State University. Before he began studying the bones of ancient peoples of the American Southwest, he was a forensic anthropologist consulting to law enforcement agencies, primarily in California. The book is co-authored by his wife, the late Jacqueline Turner.
The single most profound element of this highly technical book is found in Chapter 5: Conclusion:
They [radicals radiating from the collapse of the hyper-violent Toltec culture in Mexico] entered the San Juan basin around A.D. 900 and found a suspicious but pliant population whom they terrorized into reproducing the theocratic lifestyle they had previously known in Mesoamerica. This involved heavy payments of tribute, constructing the Chaco system of great houses and roads, and providing victims for ceremonial sacrifice. The Mexicans achieved their objectives through the use of warfare, violent example, and terrifying cult ceremonies that included human sacrifice and cannibalism. –p. 483
Among Southwestern archaeologists and anthropologists, the influence of cultures from the south is undeniable but debatable as to degree. Turner ratchets that influence up to the level of primary cause for the Anasazi architectural remains we revere today. His primary evidence? That of cannibalism, which makes most Southwestern archaeologists so apoplectic they ignore Turner and his evidence.
The bulk of this book is a technical and painstaking review of how to examine human remains for evidence of cannibalism, comparative evidence from Mexico, and 360 pages examining seventy-six sites that Turner believes conclusively prove cannibalism. Warning: This is rather gruesome stuff. The bones are ancient, but if you let yourself view the photos and conclusions as anything but cold, hard evidence, you’ll likely have nightmares or run screaming from the room.
Turner’s evidence is compelling. And focuses attention with a burning laser specifically on the Anasazi.
Evidence for cannibalism in the U.S. Southwest is, with one or two possible exceptions, concentrated in the Anasazi culture area. … It is within the Chacoan sphere of influence that cannibalized human remains occur most often …. –p. 459
If you have visited Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico, you most likely visited Pueblo Bonito, the most famous of Anasazi great houses. If so, you have witnessed a site where Turner claims two cases of cannibalism almost certainly occurred.
This changes what most have been told were a peaceful, egalitarian, agrarian society into one more akin to slaves leading miserable lives for a small handful of rulers who did not hesitate to use the most extreme forms of torture and violence against the populace to make them perform their duties. It’s no small wonder then that when Chaco declined, the people fled into the defensive caves of Mesa Verde. And that subsequent generations of the native inhabitants of the Southwest eschewed hierarchical power concentrated into theocratic political leaders. Among most Native American cultures of the region, Chaco is regarded as a place where very bad, very dark things happened, and it is to be avoided.
Where did these violent rulers come from? It helps tofirst understand a simple timeline:
200 B.C. The centralized and stratified Teotihuacan culture developed in Mexico, with human sacrifice associated with the Pyramid of the Sun
300 A.D. Teotihuacan dominated much of central Mexico
650 A.D. Teotihuacan was looted and violently destroyed, after which the tribute-demanding, militaristic theocracy Toltec culture emerged
800 A.D. to 1,000 A.D The Toltecs experienced severe culture strife and internal warfare
900 A.D. The first construction of great houses in Chaco Canyon, as well as the first evidence for cannibalism
1175 A.D. Tula, the capital of the Toltecs, collapsed.
1200 A.D. The collapse of Chacoan culture
–Gleaned from Chapter 8, primarily page 463.
I’ll use Turner’s words to explain what happened in this context:
… During this protracted period of Toltec cultural strife, between roughly A.D. 800 and 1000, waves of diverse Mexican traits were carried into the American Southwest by cultists, priests, warriors, pilgrims, traders, miners, farmers, and others fleeing or displaced by the widespread unrest and civil war in central Mexico.
… We think some of the immigrants might have been warrior-cultists dedicated to gods of the Tzcatlipoca-Xipe Totec complex, with its human sacrifice and cannibalism. We propose that in the Chaco area, some such group of Mexicans was able to use these practices for social control, terrorizing the local populace into submission and developing the hierarchical social system we see reflected in the region’s architecture.–p. 463
Those are strong words. Fighting words to many Southwest archaeologists.
Other important concepts contained in this book:
- The existence of a ruling elite who filed their teeth to points
- Traveling traders, or pochtecas, who were a combination peripatetic department store and newspaper (via stories told)
- The rough equivalence of the god Xipe Totec with Maasaw, both influential in ritual death and cannibalism
Perhaps you can see why, as a fiction writer, I find all this so very interesting. It’s an alternative interpretation of the Anasazi to that expounded by the National Park Service, potentially descendant Native Americans, and most university scientists. It’s a culture ripe for storytelling. See my Hot Water Press page for stories that have burned out of my head from my deep and long research into this fascinating, if tortured, culture. And be sure to sign up for my Hot Water Press Newsletter if you want to be among the first to know when I have new titles released (and an occasional special deal as well).
What is your reaction to this? Does it change the way you think about the Anasazi?