Witches or Cannibals

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Science  29 Jan 1999:
Vol. 283, Issue 5402, pp. 629a
DOI: 10.1126/science.283.5402.629a

Grisly human remains—broken, burned skulls and shattered bones with crude cut marks—have been found at sites inhabited by Pueblo Indians in the U.S. Southwest 1000 years ago. Last month, anthropologist Christy Turner published a book claiming that they were best explained by one behavior: cannibalism. But in the latest issue of the American Anthropologist, archaeologist Andrew Darling argues that the butchery is from witch executions.

Old drawing of “corpse pounding” by Native American Joe Lente contains lettering that reads: “Block knocking the teeth off first then all over the body.” AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY

Darling bases his case on bones and on folk tales of the Anasazi, Zuni, and Hopi cultures. The bones come from about 30 sites where skulls have been smashed in and brains removed, while other bones have been broken and the marrow removed. That evidence, he says, comports with 16th century accounts of witch trials by Spanish explorers, as well as folk tales later recorded by anthropologists. The body had to be completely destroyed so the witch could not return to it. This entailed “corpse pounding” with large rocks, mutilation, and cutting up the body, says Darling, who directs the Mexico-North Research Network in Chihuahua. Some of these events took place at “kivas,” or ritual houses. Adds Darling, “There's actually a great fear of cannibalism throughout Pueblo society.”

Turner counters that “we can't trust the ethnographic record. When the Spanish arrived, they dictated to the Puebloans what they should and shouldn't do.” Besides, he says, “there's just overwhelming evidence of cooking. We've looked at the butchered remains of hundreds of small animals, and the bones show the same kinds of damage that we see at the Pueblo sites.”

Debra Martin, a physical anthropologist and southwestern specialist at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, is inclined to side with Darling. “It's hard to believe that if [witchcraft lore] is so pervasive throughout such a vast region, there isn't some truth to it,” she says.

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