The Anasazi as Cannibals. (6/14/2000)

Just when you think it's safe to walk freely around in your own skin without fear of being consumed by your neighbors, another PBS special, this one under the general heading of "Secrets of the Dead," comes along to inform you that your ancestors, and by inference, of course, your own mother, made their living as cannibals. I did not watch the show. It ran on May 17, 2000 A. D. I saw the listing and thought I would take advantage of the opportunity to be exposed to yet another vital expose of the human, or in this case, the sub-human, condition that has come to define native Americans in the 21st Century; but, unaccountably, I forgot that it was scheduled to air and so missed the visual stimulation of being able to watch white people desecrate native burial sites for the sole purpose of proving once again that we were cannibals to the bottoms of our ancestral souls. I did, however, find the transcript of the show on the PBS web-site and so only lost the visual aspects of the latest attempt by Europeans to justify the 500 years of genocide they have practiced against native people in the Western hemisphere. The argument goes this way: "We had to kill them and steal their land because they were cannibals and would have eventually eaten us."

I love this latest attempt at overdeterming who native people are. The "author," and I use that term only in the loosest sense, of the most recent slander against the culture, calls himself "Christy Turner." I put that in quotation marks because it has to be a pseudonym. "Christy" is short, apparently, for Christian and everyone knows what a "turner" is. So, if you watch and listen to one named "Christian Turner," you will be turned from the false path of pagan cannibalism into the true one of Christian ideology. You know what I mean. Eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Savior and you will be blessed with financial prosperity in this life and granted eternal life in the next one. If you fail to do that, of course, you will be damned to eternal death by God. Hardly any meaningful choice there at all. You either become a cannibal in the name of Jesus Christ, or God, and your neighbors, will condemn you to eternal death. My question has always been: what's to stop your neighbors from doing that in a temporal frame so they can make a meal of you sooner rather than later?

What always astonishes me in this context is the desperate need Christians (even in this case someone named "Christian") seem to have to prove that someone else, other than themselves, also practice cannibalism. It is an article of faith after all that to be a Christian you must eat the human flesh and drink the human blood of the Savior. Symbolically, or not, ritualistically, or not, if that is not the definition of cannibalism, then I have no idea what the term means. One of my favorite moments in the transcript of the PBS special came when an archeologist named Bruce Bradley is brought before the cameras, apparently (I did not actual see this), to demonstrate how "ancient" people butchered wild game with stone tools. The narrator explains that Bradley is using a "butcher-shop sheep" in his demonstration. Does the irony of that strike you at all? Here is this white man, a University professor, and therefore reasonably civilized, using a stone knife to cut up a sheep. The Lamb of God, perhaps, or at the very least, symbolically just exactly that? What this clearly says to anyone who is half-listening-especially on an unconscious level where most overly religious people function anyway-is that this is what native Americans would have done to us, the true children of the Lamb of God, if we had not stopped them first by committing genocide against them. That is not even subtle.

The demonstration was conducted to show how stone knives produce cut-marks on the bones of wild game (and people) when they are processed for food. Turner comes back on camera at this point, with the bones of the people he refers to as "Anasazi," bones he removed from sacred burial sites on one of his grave-robbing expeditions, and make no mistake about it, that is what European archeologists are-grave-robbers-and if they cannot curb their need to handle the dead why not try Arlington National for a change-in order to show that the cut-marks produced on the bones of the Lamb of God are identical to the ones on the bones of the "Anasazi." This proves, of course, even scientifically, that these "Anasazi," or the people to whom the bones belonged, were the victims of cannibalism. I am perfectly willing, in the face of Turner's overwhelming evidence, to accept the fact that these people, whoever they were, were truly the victims of cannibals. My problem with this latest "Turner" theory, however, stems from the fact that he does not clearly establish, or even begin to prove, precisely who the cannibals were. He offers up a culprit of sorts, a kind of sacrificial lamb, as it were, to take the blame for all the perceived horror of his "history" of Chaco Canyon, but I'll come back to that point later.

Putting Turner's "history" into its proper perspective calls for the rather distasteful task of quoting his own words. The narrator begins the show by saying that most archeologists and historians have viewed the Anasazi as having had "a model society. . . . Peaceful, democratic. . . . A near utopia. . . ." As soon as the word "utopia" enters the discussion of anything, there is bound to be troubling problems ahead and there is, of course, a 500 year history of Europeans calling native American culture an Eden and a Utopia just before they begin to discuss the fact that native people were also horrific cannibalistic monsters. Sir George Peckham, in his exhortation to Elizabeth I for the colonization of the Americas, something not every European favored at the time, justifies the use of armed force against native Americans by dividing them into two very distinctive groups. On the one hand, there are calm, noble, peaceful, and democratic villagers who live in a near utopian state. These people, however, are so peaceful and noble that they cannot defend themselves from the second group, the ones who lurk in the forest just beyond the edge of the clearing where the village reposes in its Eden-like splendor. The people out in the forest are cannibals "with teeth like dogs" who descend on the village periodically to harvest their food crops and the Europeans must go among the peaceful villagers armed to the teeth, as it were, in order to protect them from the harm inflicted on them by their vicious, brutal, savage, monstrous, cannibalistic neighbors.

Turner, in response to the narrators opening description says: "The history indicates that people are screaming, the women are begging not to be killed, the men who tried to help them get mutilated, they mutilate the people while they are alive, they're cutting their arms off while they're alive, and some of these things are horrible." Two things bother me in this statement. The first goes without saying; that is, Turner's assertion that only "some" of the things he visualizes are "horrible" seems odd to me. I'm hard pressed to determine what part of that fanciful narrative can be labeled under a heading anything remotely like not-horrible. Furthermore, and secondly, calling this vision "history" is so absurd on its face that it does not even deserve comment. Archeology is not history. Archeology is speculating about the past on the basis of evidence that cannot be precisely dated. History is about what happened, according to documentary evidence, on March 17, 1519 A. D. Ask Turner what day and what year any of the so-called "cut-marks" on any of his pieces of bone were made and he will tell you some time between 200 and 1150 A. D. That is what archeologists do. The difference between history and archeology falls firmly on the statement Turner makes here claiming that people were "mutilated" while they were alive. Turner's evidence does not, and cannot, support that assertion in any way whatsoever but that does not stop him from making it. An historian would never make such a claim without documentary evidence, no matter how questionable it might be, to support such an assertion. To call this science, as the narrator does over and over again, is pure and absolute nonsense.

After granting the fact that Turner has proven his case for the existence of cannibalism among the Anasazi, "by most scientific standards," the question arises as to what conditions in the environment, either physical or social, could have come about in this near-Utopian paradise that could have caused these "peaceful farmers," as Turner refers to the Anasazi at one point, to turn to the horrific practice of cannibalism. There is no physical evidence of drought at the time, or of anything else for that matter, that might be a credible cause for producing the practice of eating human flesh, so Turner himself turns to a perfectly unverifiable surrogate for evidence, loosely classified as a social or political cause, for the sudden appearance of cannibals among these peaceful people. Citing evidence that "points to numerous cannibal cultures throughout the Americas," but not bothering to specify a single one of them, the narrator introduces the perfect ploy of the "outside influence." The narrator says: "Turner made a significant discovery. A single skull with filed teeth." Turner himself explains the significance of this :discovery": "I think we've got the direct link between Mesoamerica and the Southwest." Does any of this begin to sound vaguely familiar?

Going back to Sir George Peckham, there is this peaceful, productive village of noble, democratic people who are threatened by neighbors, "with teeth like dogs," who must be protected from harm by benevolent Europeans. Since no one ever saw a native American with teeth that were canine, except in Eurocentric fantasies about werewolves, Turner came up with the next best thing to that myth; that is, with the information that some Mesoamericans did practice the cultural custom of changing the shape of their teeth by filing them. Also true, of course, is the fact that some tribes in Mexico, perhaps all of them, did practice forms of human sacrifice. That fact, however, does not make them cannibals. Nor does it square with the notion that an invasion by Mesoamericans occurred at Chaco Canyon and that the Anasazi were then subjugated by vicious, cruel, brutal, monstrous foreigners, illegal immigrants from Mexico, as it were, who terrorized them into submission by having a few of them over for dinner every now and then.

I want to pause here for a moment to contemplate the irrefutable fact that the only invasion of any part of the Western hemisphere that has ever occurred was done by Europeans in the 16th Century and as a consequence of that fact native American culture has virtually disappeared from this whole land. No amount of pretending that Europeans are not the ones responsible for the destruction of native culture in this hemisphere will ever silence the voice that says otherwise. We have never engaged in cannibalism and those of us who have managed to escape the horrific taint of Christian ideology do not do so now.

Put differently, those who accuse us are only seeing themselves in the mirror of their own ancestral brutality.

How do I know that? Because I have read Cabeza de Vaca's Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America. From Chapter 50 of his account we have these words about his first encounter with his fellow Europeans after wandering for so many years in the wilds of the unknown continent:

"We hastened through a vast territory, which we found vacant, the inhabitants having fled to the mountains in fear of Christians. With heavy hearts we looked out over the lavishly watered, fertile, and beautiful land, now abandoned and burned and the people thin and weak, scattering or hiding in fright. Not having planted, they were reduced to eating roots and bark; and we shared their famine the whole way. Those who did receive us could provide hardly anything. They themselves looked as if they would willingly die. They brought us blankets they had concealed from the other Christians and told us how the latter had come through razing the towns and carrying off half the men and all the women and boys; those who had escaped were wandering about as fugitives. We found the survivors too alarmed to stay anywhere very long, unable or unwilling to till, preferring death to a repetition of their recent horror. While they seemed delighted with our company, we grew apprehensive that the Indians resisting farther on at the frontier would avenge themselves on us."

The fear de Vaca expresses here is similar to one he voices earlier (Chapter 21) when the tribes further to the east discovered that several of the Spaniards traveling together in a small group of five men had reverted to cannibalism, eating each other one by one until only a single unmutilated and unconsumed corpse remained. He says that he began to fear for his life because of the extreme shock the natives expressed when they discovered the outrageous behavior of the strangers who had appeared uninvited in their midst. Without ever connecting one thing to another, as a reader might do, de Vaca reports an ever-increasing degree of harsh treatment by the natives who were aware of the crime against nature that the Europeans had committed. What this suggests, of course, is that the natives had never imagined the possibility that people would appear among them who were capable of such atrocities. Clearly, these tribes, who were far less "civilized" than were the Anasazi and Mesoamericans, had never encountered nor heard of cannibals and cannibalism among any of their own kind. De Vaca's account firmly establishes that fact in all its simplistic innocence in reporting an act of Christian against Christian that outraged and scandalized the "barbaric" people who became aware of it.

Later, in Chapter 50, de Vaca notes that

"All along the way we could see the tracks of the Christians and traces of their camps. We met our messengers at noon. They had been unable to contact any Indians, who roved the woods out of sight, eluding the Christians. The night before, our heralds had spied on the Christians from behind trees and seen them marching many Indians in chains."

After de Vaca finally makes contact with the Christian "slavers," as he refers to them several times, they complain bitterly about the privation they have been suffering because they have not been able to find any natives from whom they can steal food. They complain that they are on the point of starvation and beg de Vaca to intervene on their behalf with the native people who are traveling with him. While there is no proof, no documentation of which I am aware, perhaps "Christy Turner" should examine some of his bones to see if there are any marks on them that might be consistent with the bones being cut at the ankles and wrists by metal chains gladly supplied by Christian "slavers" prior to the time when the captives became lunch. The "slavers" were conducting their business in New Mexico when de Vaca encountered them, and not so far from Chaco Canyon either. Given the fact that archeologists are not overly concerned with temporal accuracy, where plus or minus hundreds of years is close enough for most of them, the bones in Chaco Canyon may well have gotten there after 1520 rather than at any time before that year.

The point I'm making here, of course, is that the only historically documented case of cannibalism from the first 50 years of the European invasion of the Western hemisphere was committed by Europeans against other Europeans. That act so shocked and outraged the native population that the European who reported its occurrence began to fear for his own life because he believed that the natives would not tolerate his existence among them for fear of their own safety. Finding another group of Christian "slavers" later, who are complaining about their severe, even life-threatening, lack of food, a group of men who have burned and pillaged an entire country-side in pursuit of the chained victims, one cannot help but wonder yet again precisely who the cannibals of Chaco Canyon might have been. My money always will be on the Christian "slavers," who are never seen except in the physical act of dehumanizing their captives by the account of one of their own kind. When you have "animals" in chains, when you practice ritual cannibalism as a necessary article of faith in your religion, what precisely is it that will prevent you from eating a few of your "cattle" along the road? I can't think of anything that would. "Christy Turner" should turn away from the mirror when he begins to fashion his fanciful descriptions of the other. Native America cannot be found in the reflection of Eurocentric ideology. It has never been there. It will never be there.