Athena Review  Vol.2, no.2:     Book Reviews

Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest

by Christy G. Turner and Jacqueline A. Turner

 reviewed by Rebecca Hill

Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest by Christy G. Turner II and Jacqueline A. Turner. Salt Lake City, The University of Utah Press.  1999. 547 pp. with b/w illustrations. ISBN 0-87480-566-X. $60 (hardcover).

Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest is attracting attention from more than just Southwestern archaeologists. Claims for archaeological evidence of violence at 4 sites were made in 1893 by Southwestern archaeology pioneers Richard Wetherill, Gustaf von Nordenskiöld, and Jesse Walter Fewkes. Of the 4 sites, the one known as Cave 7 yielded the most impressive skeletal assemblage with signs of violence. At this site in southeastern Utah, Richard Wetherill found the remains of 92 individuals displaying fractures to skulls and limb bones, stone points imbedded in vertebrae, and cranial cut marks suggesting that scalps, ears, and sometimes entire heads were taken as trophies. The first claim for cannibalism was made in 1902 by Walter Hough for the Canyon Butte Ruin 3 site near Petrified Forest National Park. Christy and Jacqueline Turner confirmed that the remains of the 4 individuals recovered show damage consistent with cannibalism. The idea that cannibalism was practiced prehistorically in the American Southwest has not been a popular one with many Native Americans and anthropologists alike. The Turners’ claims of cannibalism certainly do not mesh well with what they refer to as “...the model of the environmentally harmonious and peaceful farmer that has evolved since the 1950s, becoming firmly entrenched during the ‘Age of Aquarius’.” (p.412). Another new book also tears away at the dearly held belief that the prehistoric Puebloans were peaceful farmers living in an egalitarian society. That book is Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest by University of Southern California Professor  Steven LeBlanc (1999). Although some of his colleagues have recently voiced their opinions about Christy Turner in the popular press, such as the one quoted in The New Yorker (Preston 1998) as saying “He’s not nice. He’s a pain in the ass.” One opponent of the cannibalism theory is Peter Bullock, a Museum of New Mexico anthropologist. He has referred to Tumer’s research as “a joke” and stated that cannibalism is an issue not worth studying (Kiefer1999).  Bullock is the editor of a recently published volume on Anasazi violence (Bullock  1999). Given Bullock’s comments in the popular press, it is unlikely that the new book gives any credence to the cannibalism theory.

The Turners do not stand alone in their cannibalism argument. In 1992, University of California-Berkeley Professor Tim White published Prehistoric Cannibalism at Mancos, a detailed account of how human remains revere processed at a Colorado site known as 5MTUMR-2346. White devotes 336 of 462 pages to describing how to detect evidence of cannibalism in the archaeological record, with 6 of 13 chapters detailing how each element of the human skeleton was processed at this one site. In contrast, Man Corn uses the standards developed by Christy Turner and Tim White to re-evaluate case by case the 76 sites with possible evidence of cannibalism. For many anthropologists the most controversial part of Man Corn is the Turners’ explanation for why cannibalism existed in the Four Corners area from AD 900 to 1300. The Turners hypothesize that Southwestern cannibalism diffused from Mesoamerica, where it was a common practice dating back at least 2,500 years. Ethnohistoric and archaeological evidence demonstrate that human sacrifice and cannibalism were wide spread in Mexico. Although not all Mexican sites reported to show signs of cannibalism were re-evaluated, the Turners did personally examine some of Mexican skeletal assemblages for the cannibalism signature and were satisfied by their findings. As one line of evidence for Mesoamerican warrior-cultists infiltrating the region, the Turners note parallels between Hopi and Mesoamerican gods, with the strongest similarity between Xipe Totec and the Hopi god Maasaw, who is not depicted in Anasazi rock art until around AD 1000. Xipe Totec and Maasaw are similar in form according to the Turners and both require human sacrifice to maintain the working order of the universe.

The Turners think that some of these warrior-cultists dedicated to Tezcatlipoca and Xipe Totec took advantage of the natural resources and relatively large, but uncentralized population of the Chacoan Anasazi area. They speculate that the warrior-cultists did not find the Mogollon or the Hohokam easy targets for conquest. According to the Turners, the Mogollon were too scattered and their natural resources insufficiently concentrated to make them desirable subjects. Conversely, the Hohokam were already so centrally controlled that a small, outside force would not be able to conquer them. Banks Leonard, a colleague of Turner’s in the cannibalism debate, refers to this as the “Goldilocks Theory.” The Mogollon were too dispersed, the Hohokam were too centralized, but the Chacoan Anasazi were just right. Christy Turner has a fun personality that appeals to journalists; Christy Turner has a fun theory that sparks lively arguments; but Man Corn is not a fun book. The Turners treated cannibalism as an academic problem that merited lengthy and painstaking research. Man Corn will be an important reference tool for Southwestern archaeologists and physical anthropologists. For many other people, cannibalism has an allure of a different nature - the allure of a forbidden fruit. Man Corn is a scholarly tome and has little to offer those seeking a vicarious thrill from the knowledge of a taboo behavior. Those interested in cannibalism certainly have no shortage of reading material available to them. Two other relatively recent scholarly works on the subject are Cannibalism: From Sacrifice to Survival (Askenasy 1994) and Cannibalism and the Colonial World (Barker, Hulme, and Iverson 1998). reviewed by Rebecca J. Hill

[For the complete, illustrated article, see the printed edition of Athena Review, Vol.2, no.2.]

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