Ancient Human Feces Points to Cannibalism

Sept. 7, 2001 -- A dried clump of human feces and the traces of human muscle protein on a cooking pot are proof of prehistoric cannibalism in the American Southwest about 850 years ago, according to a team of scientists.

The findings are the latest analysis of a site near Cowboy Wash in southwestern Colorado, a Pueblo village that was suddenly abandoned around A.D. 1150. It is one of several dozen ancient village sites in the region that archaeologists say show signs of violent death and human consumption of human flesh.

Prepared as Food

Until recently, the evidence for cannibalism had been circumstantial, but significant by archaeological standards. Previous excavations revealed seven bodies at the site had been dismembered, broken apart and scattered directly on the household floor at a time when the dead were normally buried outside the house in a fetal position.

The skeletons also showed signs that they had been prepared as food. Archaeologists found cut marks from tools used to butcher meat from bone, scorching on bones where they had been exposed to open flame and “pot polish” — the tell-tale burnish at the ends of bones that have been worn from rubbing against the inside of a cooking pot.

But it is the biochemical analysis of dried human excrement — known as a coprolite in archaeologist parlance — found in one of three pithouses at the site that is most convincing, say the authors of a study published this week in Nature. In the excrement, researchers found a protein that could only come from the consumption of human flesh.

“The evidence clearly demonstrates that in the past, someone consumed human flesh at the Cowboy Wash site,” says Richard Marlar, a biochemist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and an author of the study.

“Eight to 16 hours later,” he says, “the person that ate that food defecated into the central fireplace. It may have been the final desecration of the site, or the degrading of the people that lived there.”

Marlar and his colleagues found a human protein called myoglobin in the unburned human feces, which had been deposited in the fireplace after its final use. Myoglobin is protein that transports oxygen from the membrane of muscle cells to the energy-producing parts of cells. It is only found in heart muscle and muscles that attach to bone, says Marlar.

The scientists chose the protein myoglobin because it is not found in human stool material, even from the natural shedding of cells in the digestive tract, says Marlar. The team also used a technique that could distinguish human myoglobin from that of other animals in the area — such as deer, rabbit and bison — that would have been routinely consumed by Puebloan people.

Along with the fecal material, pieces of a recovered Cowboy Wash cooking pot tested positive for myoglobin. This finding was consistent with the smoothed ends of some bones that had most likely rubbed against the inside of the pot as they stewed.

Violent and Hungry

Many scholars have been skeptical of evidence that points to cannibalism because there are no historic accounts that Southwestern Indian people engaged in the practice, says Brian Billman, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and project director at the excavation in the mid-1990s. Other experts have suggested that what appears to be cannibalism may have been the ritual killing of individuals thought to be witches or enemies, or the mutilation of corpses.

But Billman argues the cannibals may have encountered a desperate situation and were raiding the Pueblo villages at least partly out of dire hunger. A lack of plant pollen and unusually thin tree rings at the site suggest the people were experiencing a severe drought.

“It might have been sort of like a Dust Bowl situation,” he says.

The site also shows little evidence of any left-over food, says Banks Leonard of Soil Systems Inc., which excavated the site so that an irrigation system could be built for local farmers.

“We believe these events happened in the spring when food was scarce,” he says, explaining the teams found no sign of stored food — no corn, beans or squash that would have been staples in the area.

“It’s as if they passed the whole winter and had eaten their seed crop,” says Leonard. “There’s even evidence they were eating weeds and other things they wouldn’t normally eat.”

While the cannibals were most likely hungry, evidence also suggests they killed their victims with extreme brutality and may have harbored additional, more violent motives, says Billman.

“There was evidence of trauma in excess of what you’d need to process a body,” he says. “One child was hit so hard in the mouth — probably with a stone or a club — that teeth had been broken off. Something more than simple starvation was going on. This was more along the lines of raiding.”

Evidence of cannibalism hasn’t been well-received by many archaeologists that specialize in the American Southwest, or by some modern Pueblo Indian groups, says Billman. The Anasazi lived in the Four Corners region until about A.D. 1300, when they inexplicably abandoned their settlements. Modern Indian communities like the Hopi and Zuni are believed to be the descendents of the Anasazi, although those lineages are uncertain.

“There is a cherished belief among archaeologists and anthropologists that Puebloan people were peaceful farmers,” says Billman. “It was closely related to the view of American Indians as noble savages. It’s not what archaeologists wanted to believe at the time.”

An Ancient and Isolated Practice

Archaeologists say that although several other villages from the Four Corners also have evidence that human bodies were processed for food, it was probably isolated to the same time period.

“Cannibalism probably stopped around the 13th century,” says Billman. “We figure somewhere along the line, Puebloan people found a way to stop it.”