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Did cannibals exist?


(September 2000)


As previously indicated, a lot of people get very upset at the suggestion that humans were ever cannibals, and some scientists will use all sorts of arguments to deny that cannibalism ever occurred. It is, they say, a brutal and racist attempt to denigrate fine and upstanding primitive humans. Other scientists see such people as starry-eyed idealists who have fallen prey to the 'Noble Savage' myth.


In science, the truth is indicated by evidence, not by rhetoric or firmly held beliefs, or wishes, or hopes, or disdain for the other side. A report in Nature (September 7) indicates that undeniable evidence of human cannibalism has been found at a prehistoric Puebloan (Anasazi) site in the 'Four Corners' region of the southwestern United States.


Many of the bones show clear signs of processing that is "consistent with food preparation." In the past, opponents have suggested that this is no evidence that the bodies were eaten, but may only indicate a form of preparation of bodies for disposal after death. The evidence from this site, however, would appear to get around those objections.


The site, which dates to around 1150 AD, contains the remains of seven bodies of both sexes and various ages which had been disarticulated, defleshed and cooked, in apparent preparation for eating. The site, which was abandoned in a hurry, shows incomplete remains lying on the floor of the site in what the finders interpret as "non-burial contexts."


The remains of the pithouses on the site had decayed slowly, rather than being either destroyed by fire or scavenged for reuse, as normally happens at such sites. Stone tools on the site tested positive for human blood, a cooking pot abandoned on the site showed traces of human myoglobin, a protein found in human muscle, and, rather unusually, fossilised human feces were found in the ashes of a hearth. These had not been burned, indicating that they were deposited after the last fire on the hearth, and these also contained traces of human myoglobin, indicating that whoever left them there had eaten human flesh, as human feces do not normally contain any human myoglobin. In other words, there is very little room here for any hypothesis relating to funerary practices.


The myoglobin showed signs of being broken down by digestive processes, and tests on 39 modern human fecal samples returned no human myoglobin, not even in patients with positive blood in their stool samples. About the only fallback left open to the 'deniers' is that cannibalism has been recorded at times of stress (shipwrecks, the case of the Donner party) and in certain ceremonial situations. They could still deny that cannibalism was a normal human practice by arguing that the abandonment of the site suggests something was wrong there, but it does not appear possible to deny any more that human flesh was in fact eaten.


That is where the problem begins for those who deny cannibalism as a human norm, because many other Puebloan sites show collections of both human and animal bones with the characteristic cuts and scratch marks that indicate that they have passed through a food preparation process. So, even if they claim that this was an aberrant case, they have to accept that human flesh was eaten on the site and, if it happened there, it becomes much harder to explain away similar finds at other sites.


An accompanying 'News and Views' article in the same issue of Nature, written by Jared Diamond, suggests that the problem for those who deny cannibalism is that they see the practice as horrible, and so they assume others must see it likewise. Diamond, an experienced bird researcher in Papua-New Guinea since the 1960s, comments that PNG people find many western practices equally abhorrent and unbelievable, while indicating no discomfort in dicussing cannibalism.


As well, he argues, missionaries stamp out cannibalism at the earliest possible opportunity, making it unlikely that people would report openly if they did eat human flesh, and the descendants of cannibals, having absorbed western values, are equally willing to deny that their ancestors were ever cannibals.