A Generous Quantity of Fat

Paul Henley

  • Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American South-West by Christy Turner and Jacqueline Turner
    Utah, 512 pp, US $60.00, January 1999, ISBN 0 87480 566 X
  • Cannibalism and the Colonial World edited by Francis Barker and Peter Hulme
    Cambridge, 309 pp, £13.95, August 1998, ISBN 0 521 62118 6
  • Cannibals: The Discovery and Representation of the Cannibal from Columbus to Jules Verne by Frank Lestringant, translated by Rosemary Morris
    Polity, 256 pp, £39.50, April 1997, ISBN 0 7456 1697 6
  • Chronicles of the Guayakí Indians by Pierre Clastres, translated by Paul Auster
    Faber, 256 pp, £9.99, June 1998, ISBN 0 571 19398 6

Even before it was published, Christy and the late Jacqueline Turner’s Man Corn provoked media hubbub. Last November, the New Yorker published a long profile of Christy Turner, and soon afterwards the story was picked up in Britain. The Times dedicated half a page to a discussion of the book’s findings, and even reflected on them in a leader. Turner, a biological anthropologist from Arizona with a reputation for being something of a loner, has become such a media celebrity that he now has an agent. Recently, he declined to give an interview to a British television company on the grounds that he was already contractually obliged to a US company making a programme for Channel 4.

On the face of it, this degree of interest in a work of academic anthropology is extraordinary, for Man Corn is a scholarly text, drily descriptive, without literary pretensions. It wouldn’t sell in an airport bookstore – for a start, it is far too heavy, being somewhat bulkier than a portable PC. More significantly, most of its five hundred pages are dedicated to a review, with many supporting photographs, of skeletal collections excavated from 76 sites in and around Chaco Canyon, a remote gulch in the sagebrush desert of New Mexico. It is an extremely detailed review and under normal circumstances would engage the interest only of the most dedicated specialist.

These are not normal circumstances, however. The skeletal collections in question were made at various points over the last hundred years and pertain to a people known in the archaeological literature as the Anasazi. Their way of life reached its peak between the 10th and 12th centuries, as reckoned by the Christian calendar. From the ruins they left behind, it is clear that they were remarkable architects and engineers. Among their most celebrated achievements are the so-called Great Houses, large edifices erected from blocks of sandstone and sometimes reaching four storeys in height. The largest of them, Pueblo Bonito, contains 650 rooms and required more than thirty thousand carved blocks to build.

These Houses were connected by a network of roads built in dead straight lines over difficult terrain, with the benefit neither of draught animals nor of the wheel. The Anasazi also produced beautiful pottery decorated with white and black geometric designs, built sophisticated irrigation systems and erected astronomical and solar observatories. Man Corn, however, makes no attempt to deal in detail with any of these aspects of Anasazi society. Instead, it concentrates uncompromisingly on the bones, and attempts to read the society exclusively through them.

For reasons that remain obscure, the social system based in the Chaco Canyon came to a sudden end. Sometime around 1150 AD, the inhabitants of the Great Houses appear to have abandoned them, leaving behind granaries full of corn, sandals hanging on pegs, and vast quantities of pottery, grinding stones and baskets littered over the windswept landscape. The romantic trope of the Lost City, whose inhabitants seem suddenly to have vanished into thin air, has a powerful hold over the Euro-American imagination: Machu Picchu and Chichén Itzá are just two actual examples from the Americas that have inspired any number of imaginary ones. The Chaco ‘phenomenon’, as it was called in the title of an exhibition in New York, seemed to be another.

It was not this, however, that accounted for the media interest in Man Corn. What excited them was the Turners’ claim that half the skeletal collections they review provide evidence, not merely of violence and murder, but of a particularly brutal form of cannibalism. They note that ‘the vast majority’ of the remains show ‘abundant evidence of consideration and concern for the dead’, but they point this out only in passing; and the fact that cannibalism, if it was practised at all, was the exception rather than the rule tends to recede into the background.

The evidence for Anasazi cannibalism lies in what the Turners call the ‘taphonomic signature’ on the bones. The science of taphonomy, first developed by a Russian palaeontologist in the Forties, is the study of the post-mortem transformations of bone material, whether as the result of natural processes or of human agency. As the Turners suggest, it concerns the death history as opposed to the life history of an individual. In the case of the Chaco bones, this death history indicates that many of the individuals whose skeletons they examined had been murdered. (Christy Turner had been a forensic consultant to the local police department and was reminded of some of the more gruesome cases he had dealt with there.)

Even more sensationally, some of the Anasazi had been butchered in ways very similar to the faunal remains found at the same sites. The bones had been sawn into pieces and had had the meat scraped off them, or they had been smashed open, apparently to extract the marrow. Some even show evidence of having been cooked: either a tell-tale polish left on the bones from knocking on the rough inside of the Anasazi’s ceramic cooking pots indicates that they’d been boiled, or the bones (typically skulls) appear to have been roasted directly over a fire.

What has given this soberly scientific account added resonance is the belief that the Anasazi did not become extinct, but gave rise to the present-day Pueblo peoples of the region. This view is held not only by many South-West scholars, but also by the Native peoples themselves. Among the Hopi in particular, the Anasazi are revered as ancestors, though they reject the archaeologists’ name for them because it is derived from the language of their traditional enemies, the Navajo, for whom it means ‘ancestors of the enemy’. The Hopi’s own term, Hisatsinom, means simply ‘ancestors’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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