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Biochemical evidence of cannibalism at a prehistoric Puebloan site in southwestern Colorado

Abstract

The existence of cannibalism is one of the most controversial issues in the archaeology of the American Southwest. Disarticulated, cut-marked and heat-altered human remains from non-burial contexts at prehistoric Puebloan (Anasazi) archaeological sites in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest have been interpreted by some scholars as evidence of cannibalism1. Osteological studies indicate that many of the disarticulated bodies found at these sites were processed in a manner consistent with food preparation2. Opponents of this interpretation point out that non-cannibalistic practices such as secondary interment, corpse mutilation and ritualized witch executions might account for the assemblages3,4,5,6,7. Osteological evidence alone does not document the actual ingestion of human flesh. Here we show consumption of human flesh did occur as demonstrated in preserved human waste containing identifiable human tissue remains from a site with osteological evidence of cannibalism.

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Figure 1: Site map of 5MT10010, showing the three residential pithouses (Features 3, 13 and 15; F3, F13 and F15) with the associated surface structures and trash middens that were in use when the site was abandoned.
Figure 2
Figure 3: Specificity and sensitivity of the myoglobin assay.

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Acknowledgements

We thank T. G. Knight (Ute Mountain Ute Tribe), W. Hurley (Bureau of Reclamation), B. Harrill (Bureau of Indian Affairs), C. D. Breternitz (President of Soil Systems, Inc. and Principal Investigator) and C. K. Robinson (Projects Manager of Soil Systems, Inc.) for support of the excavation of 5MT10010; D. C. Kressin, A. Marlar and A. Schultz for help with the human myoglobin assay; the field crew at 5MT10010; and J. Merewether and M. Martin (Laboratory Directors for Soil Systems, Inc.). C. Murphy originally encountered the coprolite and E. Hansen first identified it as a human faecal deposit. R.M. thanks W. Hammond for encouraging the establishment of a biomolecular archaeology laboratory.

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Correspondence to Richard A. Marlar.

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Marlar, R., Leonard, B., Billman, B. et al. Biochemical evidence of cannibalism at a prehistoric Puebloan site in southwestern Colorado. Nature 407, 74–78 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1038/35024064

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