Grisly human remains litter the American Southwest. Broken, burned skulls and shattered bones with crude cut marks--as if the flesh had been scraped away--have been found at sites inhabited by Pueblo Indians centuries ago. Last month, anthropologist Christy Turner published a book* claiming that the gruesome scenes were best explained by one behavior: cannibalism. But in the latest issue of the American Anthropologist, archaeologist Andrew Darling comes up with an alternative--although no less macabre--interpretation: that the butchery is the result of mass executions of witches.
Darling builds his case on the bones and folk tales of Puebloans like the Anasazi, who vanished about A.D. 1300, and their successors the Zuni and the Hopi. At some 30 sites scattered across Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, anthropologists have found skulls with their tops smashed in and brains apparently removed; some are scorched with burn marks. Other broken bones bearing cut marks were found with stone blades that may have done the job. "Turner's great leap is that this is preparing food for consumption," Darling says. "You have to consider alternate explanations, like 'witch curing.' "
According to Pueblo folklore, witches were evil spirits that hijacked people's bodies and created scourge and famine. It was up to the local priests to find and execute them. Accounts of witch trials come from early Spanish explorers in the 16th century, as well as folk tales recorded by anthropologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A common theme was the need to destroy the body, so the witch could not return to it. That entailed "corpse pounding" with large rocks, Darling says, coupled with mutilation and chopping up the body. Some of these events took place at "kivas," or ritual houses, which fits much better with a curing ceremony than with cooking, says Darling, who directs the Mexico-North Research Network in Chihuahua, Mexico. What's more, he says, "there's actually a great fear of cannibalism throughout Pueblo society."
Turner, however, thinks that Darling has brewed up a false interpretation. "We can't trust the ethnographic record," he says. "When the Spanish arrived, they dictated to the Puebloans what they should and shouldn't do." He believes tales of cannibalism were sanitized by the tellers and turned into more palatable accounts of witchcraft. What's more, 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." University of California, Berkeley, anthropologist Tim White, working independently, has arrived at similar conclusions.
But bone damage could have appeared in a prey animal for vastly different reasons than in humans, says Debra Martin, a physical anthropologist and southwestern specialist at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Moreover, she says, "it's hard to believe that if [witchcraft lore] is so pervasive throughout such a vast region, there isn't some truth to it."