October 02, 2008

Anasazi Cannibal Woman for sale

It was a bad week for the "Anazasi" (Ancestral Puebloans) but a good week for people profiting from them. To be specific, for people profiting from stolen Anasazi rock art and naked Anasazi female art.

Anasazi back in the newsIt’s not often that the Anasazi break into the news anymore—the ancient people disappeared from their ancient homelands in the Great Basin and other western regions, including what is now southern Nevada, in the 12th or 13th centuries. But they hit the news twice last week.

A federal land management plan drew fire for exposing Anasazi ruins in southeastern Utah to hikers, cyclists and off-roaders by changing their Bureau of Land Management designation from “areas of critical environmental concern” to “special recreation-management areas.” Protests can be lodged with the BLM.

And Ebay has posted a sale of a painting purportedly of an Anasazi woman by painter Thomas Baker. The accompanying text emphasizes a cannibalism theory about the Anasazi. The painting portrays a svelte and shapely woman and could be an airbrushed Playboy image if it weren’t for the two human skulls between her legs. Shayne del Cohen of Reno, an activist on Native American issues, calls it “a disturbing image.”
Here's more on the painting from its eBay listing:History and art combine in this original, museum-quality print of an oil painting by the noted artist and archaeologist Thomas Baker (the painting may be seen at his website thomasbakerpaintings.com. where it and other original oil paintings may be purchased, and portraits commissioned). This print is 11 X 14 inches, unframed, print #14 of an edition of 500. It is direct from the artist and cannot be bought anywhere else. Entitled "Anasazi Kitchen," it shows an Anasazi Indian cannibal woman stewing skulls by firelight in an underground pithouse (the Anasazi were prehistoric Native Americans living in what is now the southwestern United States). The composition contrasts the beauty of the human female form with the horror of violent death and cannibalism, and is historically accurate in every detail (the artist also holds a Master's Degree in archaeology).

Apparently a favorite Anasazi method of cooking a human body was to chop it into small pieces which could fit into a pot of boiling water. As the lumps of meat containing bone tumbled around in the boiling water, the bone rubbed against the insides of the pot, and thereby acquired a characteristic type of abrasion that archaeologists call “pot polish.” Pot-polished human bone fragments are a common find at Anasazi dig sites.
Comment:  I believe the painting in question is below. If it's not clear this painting is promoting the cannibalism theory, the title makes it clear: "Anasazi Cannibal Woman (nude) limited edition print."

Unfortunately for Baker, the evidence isn't as clearcut as he thinks:

Researchers Divided Over Whether Anasazi Were CannibalsArchaeologists argue bitterly over whether the ancient Anasazi, the ancestors of today's Pueblo Indians, routinely killed and ate each other. From one point of view, the evidence seems overwhelming: piles of butchered human bones, some of which were apparently roasted or boiled. In one instance, ancient human feces even seem to contain traces of digested human tissue.

But from another standpoint, Anasazi cannibalism doesn't make sense. Eating people obviously isn't part of modern Pueblo culture, and local tribes are deeply offended by the suggestion that their Anasazi ancestors may have been cannibals. Many researchers argue that the marks attributed to flesh-eating could instead be created during slightly less gruesome activities, such as the public execution of suspected witches.
Dying for dinner?

A debate rages over desert cannibalismSome archaeologists and Indians accuse Turner of recklessly ignoring native beliefs. "One of the worst things you can do in Pueblo society is to eat flesh," says Andrew Darling, an archaeologist with the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona. "That's how you become a witch, and the penalty for witches is death." Suspected Pueblo witches were killed and their corpses ravaged to find the so-called evil heart. Darling believes those actions could leave the same bone signature as cannibalism. He says Turner's theory revives racist stereotypes of savage Indians.

Other archaeologists point out that little is known about how the Anasazi normally treated their dead. Standard burial practices could have caused the skeletal damage ascribed to cannibalism. Ventura Perez, a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, found faint marks around the jaws of some of Turner's skulls. Perez suspects the marks are light because the skulls had been stripped long after the flesh had begun to decompose–suggesting that meat removal was a burial practice.

Peabody's LeBlanc thinks a more likely explanation is that the Chaco Anasazi brutalized a subclass of their own people. Healed bone fractures suggest that many Anasazi were beaten repeatedly. Others were dumped on garbage heaps after they died. And still others may be Turner's cannibal victims, butchered like game animals but not necessarily served for dinner.
So Baker went for the worst interpretation of the data in his painting. And he portrayed the woman's breasts because, well, sex and controversy sell. Nice.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ancient Dine' (Navajo) stories of the Anaii' sazi' (ancient enemies) come from the Tsegi area of Navajo National Monument and Pueblo Bonito/ Chaco Canyon having been controlled by strange people. At Tsegi they practiced a severe form of witchcraft that involved cannabilism. At Chaco Canyon the Great Gambler lived taking the wealth of all surrounding tribes in games of chance he couldn't lose from his insastiable appetite of flesh and strange powers.
In most stories there exists a kernel of truth.

Rob said...

This sounds like a Russell Bates comment.

Did you actually read the posting, including the expert comments about the cannibalism claim? The summary view wasn't "archaeologists believe the 'Anasazi' at Tsegi practiced a severe form of witchcraft that involved cannabilism [sic]." It was "a debate rages over desert cannibalism." That means no one knows for sure.

As for the Great Gambler, he's a figure from Navajo myth. If the Diné associated him with Chaco Canyon, they did so when they arrived 300-500 years after the previous inhabitants left. The only way they could've known what happened there was if the "Anasazi's" Pueblo descendants told them.

Rob Gay said...

I think the painting sucks. However, I think that actually looking at the evidence directly, as opposed to secondhand media comments provides a better picture. The quote that "not much is known about how the Anasazi treated their dead" is ridiculous; hundreds upon hundreds of Anasazi burials have been excavated. The bodies are either flexed on their sides or laying flat on their backs, surrounded by grave goods.
The statement that "they were tossed on the trash heap after they died" is rubbish too. Most burials from the Anasazi are found within the midden, a trash heap treated with great respect where things were ceremonially retired. It wasn't a mark of disrespect.
The fact is that Christy Turner distinguishes between violent death (which might be associated with witch killings, blood feuds, infidelity, etc.) versus cannibalized remains. They were processed in exactly the same way as antelope and prairie dogs used for food. What sort of mortuary practice would account for that, that would be so different from other known mortuary practices from the Anasazi, but be so similar to food items?
In addition, the fecal myoglobin findings are pretty hard to refute.
I'm not saying that every Anasazi went around eating every dead person they could find, but if you actually examine the evidence it is pretty convincing that cannibalism occurred on some occasions in certain places. In addition to Christy Turner's "Man Corn," I also recommend reading Tim White's "Prehistoric Cannibalism at Mancos 5MTUMR-2346." They apply pretty strict criteria to make a decision of cannibalism or violence or nothing abnormal in type of death.

Anonymous said...

That is one UGLY woman! From the description in the article I was expecting something completely different.And I doubt the "artist" is any archeologist at all.

Dumuzid said...

I have yet to hear about peoples (amerindian or not) who eat dead humans for love of good food.

The proven cannibalistic ones did so, to harness power of their ennemies. Thus, eating a witch or an antagonist tribe chief was not only a mean to neutralize their vengeful spirits but also channel their power for wellness of community. It's more part of an exceptional ritual than anything...

I don't think anasazi were cannibalistic. I keep in mind that unusual meat consumption requires more water for digestive process. This element being extremely precious in their environment. Anasazi most likely survived thanks to an ascetic and yet nutritive diet.


... I love your blog, Rob. I have learned a lot thanks to your insight on native american culture. It's sad that even outside America, everything people know is often a bunch of clichés. Well, unfortunately, this one saying is right: "Winners always write History at the expense of losers".