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The Land Before Time—PART 27: The Beginning of the End

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Returning our attention to Chaco Canyon, it would also appear that the original Anasazi who inhabited the Chaco area in the beginning were probably indeed those idealized by their claimed descendants; the “peaceful, happy, hunter-gatherer, basket-weaving, agrarian people” mentioned above. These people, according to the surmising of anthropologist Christy Turner II in his work Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest, had abundant resources at the time they had settled at Chaco. They had a fairly large population (possibly as many as thirty thousand at its peak) with a small internal government system (seemingly all they had needed up to this point in time), leaving them sitting ducks for Mesoamerican invasion and influence.

In A.D. 650, when Teotihuacan, the pre-Aztec city that had ruled most of central Mexico, collapsed, Turner theorizes that displaced warrior-cultists, priests, and others of all trades and economic stature and that they may have begun to migrate north, coming into the area that is now the American Southwest by as early as A.D. 800.

If one is operating by Turner’s theory, then Mesoamerican occupants would have been nearby when Chaco was being constructed, and would have made contact within the Chaco Anasazi region at or around A.D. 900. It stands to reason that they may have been a little earlier than that, being that much of Chaco’s construction—the “T” shaped doors, for example—reflects Mesoamerican design. They would have approached the Anasazi to trade items such as maize, beans, corn, cacao, copper items, ceramics, rare stones, jewelry, carved seashell items, tools, live goods such as birds whose feathers were used for rituals, and possibly even slaves. As trade became more regular within this region, so did the Mesoamerican impact at Chaco Canyon.

Mesoamerican Infiltration of Chaco Canyon

While, despite an onslaught of documented evidence, some do not support the theory of Mesoamerican trade at Chaco Canyon, there is indication of commerce and influence at this location as far back as A.D. 900. Its repertoire became so progressive that according to Craig Childs’ House of Rain, there were even those who called it the “Ancient Las Vegas.”[i]

Chaco is said to have bones and feathers of nearly every species of bird within a thousand miles,[ii] and although there is ample evidence that they had cacao beans, there isn’t a cacao tree for  twelve hundred miles.[iii]

Interestingly, the pottery jars that were found at Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito, which were examined by Ms. Crown, anthropologist of University of New Mexico, were found to have traces of cacao, a Mesoamerican caffeinated drink, in them. These cylinders show pottery properties of having been actually crafted at Chaco Canyon, but display Mayan style art, further illustrating the blending of Chacoan and Mesoamerican cultures.[iv]

But some of the most fascinating proof of the Mesoamerican connection are the scarlet macaw bones that were found in what may have been an ancient aviary for keeping the birds in. These were uncovered in a small room to the side of a great kiva at the Pueblo Bonito, and were said to have died fairly young. It would appear that they were attempting to import and raise the birds for the use of their feathers in rituals. The climate at Chaco, however, was prohibitive, and the size of the bones indicate that the birds died before growing to full size.

Around A.D. 900, a very dark change began to take place at Chaco Canyon. Rituals seemed to shift from merely the use of items like bird feathers, and take on a much more sinister tone, which brings us to the heart of our study, and possibly even to the crux of events that took place.

According to archaeologist Richard E. W. Adams in 1991:

The Toltec expanded into the northern frontier zone, or Gran Chichimeca, about A.D. 900 [making contact] with the cultures of what is now the southwestern United States…[and] trading copper bells and other items for turquoise, slaves, peyote, salt, and other commodities that the northerners provided. Cultural influences followed commerce, and it is believed that many traits in ethnographic religions of the U.S. Southwest derive from the Mesoamerican influence. Murals from Awatowi [sic] in the Hopi area seem to show regional versions of Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl appears in several areas, and Chaco Canyon in far-off northwestern New Mexico shows impressive architectural parallels with Toltec building.[v]

Likewise, archaeologist Erik K. Reed reported in 1964:

In the time between about A.D. 1150, or shortly after, and A.D. 1275 or 1300…in the eastern San Juan region…we find triple walled “towers” and other structures of bizarre ground plan. A number of detailed architectural features that appeared in the San Juan after A.D. 1050 seem to be of Mexican derivation and may well represent the arrival in the northern Southwest of the cult of Quezalcoatl.[vi]




Knowing about the timeline that Mexican influence began to trickle northward, reaching the Chaco region, we can gather from the information above that initial contact could have been made as early as A.D. 800, with trade beginning near A.D. 850, and by A.D. 900, trade, contact, and cultural mingling was in full swing. By A.D. 1275, however, triple-walled towers, cliff dwellings, and other defensive buildings had become a part of the landscape.

Within just a few hundred years, a culture that had lived peaceably, built the thriving hub of economic trade called Chaco Canyon together, and who, on their own, had previously had little need for internal government, had split, become guarded toward each other, and eventually just disappeared. What happened?

According to Turner, in Man Corn, mentioned earlier, the answer is Mesoamerican, and particularly Mexican influence. As refugees from the fallen Teotihuacan worked their way northward, seeking new places to settle and bringing their religious and cultural influences with them, the flourishing Chaco Canyon provided a safe haven for these wanderers. Chaco, being a diversified center of exchange, religion, and increasingly differentiated peoples, slowly grew to be a place where many came to practice ceremonies, trade, or even attain certain supplies. See it as the National Parks Service describes below:

By 1050, Chaco had become the ceremonial, administrative, and economic center of the San Juan Basin. Its sphere of influence was extensive. Dozens of great houses in Chaco Canyon were connected by roads to more than 150 great houses throughout the region. It is thought that the great houses were not traditional farming villages occupied by large populations. They may instead have been impressive examples of “public architecture” that were used periodically during times of ceremony, commerce, and trading when temporary populations came to the canyon for these events.

What was at the heart of this great social experiment? Pueblo descendants say that Chaco was a special gathering place where many peoples and clans converged to share their ceremonies, traditions, and knowledge.… Chaco is also an enduring enigma for researchers. Was Chaco the hub of a turquoise-trading network established to acquire macaws, copper bells, shells, and other commodities from distant lands? Did Chaco distribute food and resources to growing populations when the climate failed them? Was Chaco “the center place,” binding a region together by a shared vision? We may never fully understand Chaco.

But the dark side to this arrangement, as Turner also speculates, is that Mesoamerican nomads came not only seeking to influence their new comrades, but to infiltrate and gain control. He even goes so far as to suggest that human sacrifice to their gods, Xipe Totec and Quetzalcoatl, and cannibalism both for rituals’ sake and for psychological terrorism, became the means for all the blood shed at what was once the peaceful Chaco Canyon.

And Then There Were None

Anyone who begins to research the reasons for migration away from this area will quickly find many accounts similar to what Ricky R. Lightfoot states below of the Duckfoot Pit houses near Mesa Verde:

In all three burned pit structures, human skeletons covered or overlapped the hearths, yet the bones were burned only on the top, where they were exposed to the heat of the burning roof or of fires set inside the structure to ignite the roof. Although it is not clear why so many bodies were deposited in structures at abandonment, it appears that abandonment was rapid, with no intent to return. Structures were destroyed with usable tools and containers left inside. These details of abandonment suggest that the site may have been abandoned rapidly as the result of some catastrophe that caused the death of six or more individuals, including men, women, and children, and that the structures were destroyed as part of a funerary and abandonment ritual.[vii]

Likewise, a person can quickly find evidence stating that the migration was not due to lack of food or other necessities. For example, in regards to food availability in Chaco Canyon, Turner stated that judging from the size of the animal bones that had accumulated at just one trash mound in Chaco, twenty-six people could have eaten almost half a cottontail rabbit every day for seventy years.[viii]

Something Wicked This Way Comes

In the title to the book, Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest, the phrase “man corn” was chosen as the direct translation from the ancient Aztec word, tlacatlaolli, which, literally translated, means “sacred meal of sacrificed human meat cooked with corn.”[ix] In this work, anthropologist Turner, along with his wife and partner Jacqueline Turner, actually reviewed many cases of cannibalism and violence in the Southwest (over seventy sites), and created clear, definable criteria (which are now considered standard by many experts) for proving when a case does or does not include cannibalism, and the circumstances of the act, when possible.

Something to help determine the circumstances of death and dismemberment during an archaeological excavation, especially when cannibalism is suspected, is to study the condition in which bones are found. “Considerate burials,” those done in respect and care toward the deceased, are different than those Turner calls “non-burial pit or floor deposits,” also known as charnel deposits. This will usually contain fragments of many individuals, literally piled together haphazardly, dismembered and disregarded, often showing evidence of telltale signs that the bones were processed in the same way as local food animals. Some (but not all) of these indicators are: processing marks on the human bones, such as cutting marks or chopping indentations that match the locally found bones known to be from food animals; damage pattern on human bones does not match local environmental damage patterns, deposits of human cannibalized bone does not match the considerate burials or even violent but non-cannibalized burials; “pot polishing” is found, which is caused when perimortem (occurring at the time of death) human bones are boiled in ceramic; and the observation of bone that has aged differently due to soft tissue being removed before burial or discarding.

When faced with the evidence, there is little doubt that cannibalism indeed happened not only at Chaco Canyon, but at many other sites throughout the same region. Accounts seem to become trend around A.D. 900 and continue until nearly A.D 1300, when the trend seems to taper off considerably. Throughout Turner’s studies in just the Four Corners area alone, he was able to confirm the consuming of 286 individuals at thirty-eight sites.[x] This doesn’t even begin to touch on the suspected cases wherein evidence was inconclusive, mishandled, or (conveniently?) simply missing.

Considering the proof of cannibalism in Chaco Canyon, the reader’s next question may be: Why? In light of the above statements made by Lightfoot and Turner, we know that there was access to food, and that there was also violence in the region. We also know that Mesoamericans had by this time moved northward, and were bringing their gods, Xipe Totec and Quetzalcoatl, among others, along with them. It is also well documented that in years before this, in Mesoamerica, human sacrifice to these deities, along with cannibalism, torture, genital mutilation, and even activities like flaying and orgies were commonplace in their ritual and religious activities. Knowing that they were in a refugee state and looking to lay roots down in a new area, it seems logical that they would bring these activities with them, especially if they were looking to attain good will from these deities in their new homeland.

In their studies of alleged cannibalism and human sacrifice at Chaco Canyon, Turner and Turner found that this activity was not due to starvation, but was actually ritual in nature. Consequently, it should be noted that Turner was not the only expert claiming cannibalism, either. In 1902, anthropologist Walter Hough wrote of his excavation at Canyon Butte Ruin:

In the cemetery, among other orderly burials, was uncovered a heap of broken human bones belonging to three individuals. It was evident that the shattered bones had been clean when they were placed in the ground, and some fragments showed scorching by fire. The marks of the implements used in cracking the bones were still traceable. Without doubt, this ossuary is the record of a cannibal feast, and its discovery is interesting to science as being the first material proof of cannibalism among our North American Indians.[xi]




Farther Down the Rabbit Hole

Interestingly, within the vicinity of Walter Hough’s discovery, a petroglyph clearly portrays a horned serpent, possibly resembling Quetzalcoatl, coming out from behind a warrior who is pointing a bow and arrow at an unarmed figure, whose hands are held up, defenselessly.

In 1920, ethnologist, anthropologist and archaeologist George H. Pepper came across cannibalized human bones accompanied by a probable case of human sacrifice at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon. Pepper had previously excavated Peñasco Blanco, another site not far from Chaco where he documented human cannibalism. But when he surrendered the bones from the Pueblo Bonito, they were misplaced and further investigation was not possible. Because of his other credible work, experts accept his findings. Remarkably, another point can be made by this particular dig site: The killing that took place here was not that of warfare. Left behind was, as Turner explained, thirty thousand turquoise, shell, and jet beads; various ornaments; many carvings; thirty or more bowls; and many jars and pitchers.[xii]

He goes on to say of the human sacrifice that took place there:

“…wealth of grave goods and had received…cranial trauma and cutting, as well as cutting of his neck—…looks more like Mesoamerican sacrificial burials evidencing mutilation…than like any other known rich burial in the Southwest.[xiii]

Of the 175 rooms and kivas excavated at this site, only four had skeletons in them. Being that intramural burial was fairly commonplace, this becomes an unusual ratio. Another detail that points to human sacrifice is the gender ratios within the rooms. In one room, the skeletons of ten individuals were found, nine of which were females and one of which was a fetus. Bones were carelessly scattered across the floor. In another room, at least nine of the ten or eleven individuals found were female as well. In another room, twenty-four skeletons were found, seventeen of which were female and six were children. It is also interesting to note that knives, presumably imported, found in this location are said to be similar to those used in Mesoamerican human sacrifice:

They far excel in skill and execution all other blades known to me from the main Pueblo area.… I doubt that their better has been found elsewhere in the Unites States.… The materials used are foreign to Chaco Canyon.[xiv]

Turner, when speaking of these knives, goes on to compare them to those used in the human sacrifices at the great Aztec Templo Mayor, called tecpatl, to the warrior god Huitzilopochtli.

Another fascinating element of this particular dig site is that among the skulls found, an adult male, along with one other individual in a separate room, displayed “chipping” on their teeth. “Chipping” was a Mexican and Mesoamerican dental modification culturally followed closer to the Teotihuacan region. It is reasonable to believe that these were migrants from further south, not native to the Chaco area. To find two individuals within this proximity suggests that there could have been a genetic relationship between the two. Their presence, along with the activities that took place propose that Mesoamerican connection influence, and possibly particularly Xipe Totec and Quetzalcoatl influence, had a hand in the direction that the culture was beginning to flow. Allow me as well to remind you that this is the very site where the cacao drinks were consumed from Mayan-looking jars, near the makeshift aviary filled with the bones of scarlet macaws, at the hub of what was becoming the “Ancient Las Vegas.”

Turner sums this idea up very well as follows:

[A] hypothesis of human sacrifice can be entertained because…unusual sex ratios.… Where else in the Southwest does a large ruin have…very little intramural burial, possible cannibalism…unequal sexual representation, perimortem trauma, disarticulated bodies…few subfloor infant burials…skeletal remains of a possible Mexican, and evidence of direct trade and ideological contact with Mesoamerica?[xv]

This is only one of multiple reports of such type of accounts during this time, throughout this region. We can rule out cannibalism for the sake of warfare; exocannibalism wherein a people consume the enemy for the sake of gaining their attributes. If this were the case, they would not be eating women and children; they would center this action on the strongest of their opponents’ peoples, such as warriors, chiefs, etc.

UP NEXT: Undeniable Onslaught of Evidence

[i] Craig Childs, “Tracking a Vanished Civilization in the Southwest,” July 12, 2007, NPR, last accessed December 12, 2016,

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Michael Haederle, “Mystery of Ancient Pueblo Jars is Solved,” February 3, 2009, New York Times, last accessed December 12, 2016,

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Richard E. W. Adams, Prehistoric Mesoamerica, Third Edition (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005), 310.

[vi] J.D. Jennings and E. Norbeck, The Greater Southwest, Prehistoric Man in the New World (Chicago, IL: 1964), 183­184.

[vii] Ricky R. Lightfoot, The Duckfoot Site, Vol. 1: Descriptive Archaeology (Cortez, CO: Crow Canyon Archaeological Center Occasional Paper 3, 1993), 297–302.

[viii] Christy Turner II and Jacqueline Turner, Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1999), 461.

[ix] Douglas Preston, “Cannibals of the Canyon,” November 30, 1998, The New Yorker; as quoted by Preston & Child Online, last accessed December 12, 2016,;art46,62.

[x] Christy and Jacqueline Turner, Man Corn, 55.

[xi] Walter Hough, “Ancient Peoples of the Petrified Forest of Arizona,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Vol. 105 (New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1902), 897–901.

[xii] Christy and Jacqueline Turner, Man Corn, 127.

[xiii] Ibid., 128.

[xiv] Neil M. Judd, “The Material Culture of Pueblo Bonito,” 1954, Smithsonian Collections, (Publication 4172), Washington D.C., 1954.

[xv] Christy and Jacqueline Turner, Man Corn, 129.

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