Hard Times in Dry Lands: Making Meaning of Violence in the Ancient Southwest
Examining the dimensional aspects of intentionality, motivation, symbolism, communication, and performance.
By Dr. Debra L. Martin
Barrick Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Anthropology
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
The scientific and systematic integration of data derived from human remains is offered as an important methodology with which to test hypotheses regarding violence in the Greater Southwest prior to European contact. The evidence suggests a continuum of violent activities that does not fit into broad classifications such as warfare. Osteological remains combined with site information illuminates how and why violence was performed and bones were processed at certain times and in certain places. This context-specific approach affords a more emic glimpse of how violence was experienced by victims, perpetrators, and witnesses. Persistent forms of violence included (1) disarticulated human remains, (2) witch killings, (3) massacres, (4) nonlethal head wounds, and (5) raiding for captives. A model that takes these politically and culturally motivated behaviors into consideration is offered. A more parsimonious explanation for violence is that it was a cultural practice that was integrated into other ritual and ceremonial activities.
Revisiting Interpretations of Violence
Violence is a slippery concept—nonlinear, productive, destructive, and reproductive…. Violence gives birth to itself. So we can rightly speak of chains, spirals, and mirrors of violence—or, as we prefer—a continuum of violence.Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois (2004:1)
The record of the ancient Southwest is an intellectual battleground in terms of models and ideas about the nature of human behaviors that are referred to routinely as violence, cannibalism, and warfare. Although the literature on human remains demonstrates a wide range of divergent characteristics relating to intentional causes of death and the calculated processing and manipulation of corpses and bones, the evidence is routinely reduced to gross common denominators. Yet, the site- and context-specific bioarchaeological data manifest dimensional aspects of intentionality, motivation, symbolism, communication, and performance. Of greatest interest have been human bone assemblages that are not articulated, intentional burials. These non-burial assemblages are composed of human bones that have been culturally modified using stone tools to disarticulate and dismember corpses, causing fractures, breaks, burning, cut marks, and other signs of fragmentation. These characteristics demonstrate undeniable manipulation of the corpses by human agents around the time of death.
All of these assemblages also demonstrate variability in how and the degree to which they were processed, the nature of the bones chosen for fragmentation, the demographic profiles they represent, and where and in what manner the bones were deposited. This variability, which crosses many axes of possible analysis and categorization, is commonly reduced to a single classification. For example, Cater (2007) combined these disarticulated assemblages into a category he called “trauma disarticulated” (TD) and then compared the time and location of TDs against “non-trauma-articulated” (NTA) assemblages (otherwise known as “regular burials”). Kuckelman and colleagues (2000) coined the term “extreme perimortem processing” (EP) to indicate that many of these disarticulated assemblages were broken into small fragments. Turner and Turner (1999) used two classifications in their analysis of a large number of disarticulated assemblages: cannibalism or violence.
Many more studies using disarticulated assemblages assign them all to one category, and one might question why there is such a strong tendency to focus on the common denominator (i.e., disarticulated and fragmentary) and not the variability (in types of processing, reduction of the body, number and placement of cut marks, morphology of cut marks by kerf walls, bones over- or underrepresented, bones missing, etc.). The variability is culturally significant and implies that specialists or group members processing the corpses may have been guided by complex rules or mandates about when, why, and how to process the bones. One of the biggest concerns with assigning all of these assemblages to a single category is that in addition to losing information on the processing of the bones, the site-specific context of the bones is also eliminated.
Context and nuance are both important in the interpretation of violence. Kohler and colleagues (2014) stripped bare the assemblages in their sample in order to use them as a single indicator of violence that, in turn, was used as a quantitative index amenable to statistical procedures that correlated this indicator of violence to broad temporal and spatial associations of violence with other factors, such as agriculture. The authors justify reducing the assemblages to a single index of violence by asserting it was better to contain the variability in order to look for large-scale trends.
Ignoring variability, nuance, and context creates the false notion that violence is a monolithic activity that can be understood by the presence or absence of a single category of data, such as the presence of disarticulated assemblages. Homogenizing the bone data and refusing to analyze manifest variability means that the studies end up saying very little about the nature of violence carried out by early non-state and non-Western peoples. Their violence is unlikely to fit within Western notions of violence. That is why understanding context is so important. It needs to be clear that what we are calling violence is something that the ancestral Puebloans would also likely have called violence.
Violence among Ancestral Puebloans
Researchers using disarticulated assemblages often editorialize, pointing out that these assemblages represent “badly treated bodies” (LeBlanc 1999:176), “spectacularly brutal” events (Lekson 2002:614), and “human suffering” (Kohler et al. 2014: 447). These leitmotifs have come to characterize how archaeologists and others think about indigenous violence, and this is problematic given the slippery nature of defining violence in cross-cultural perspectives. This has limited the potential for finding the poetics of violence (Whitehead 2004) embedded in ancestral Pueblo people’s cosmology and ideology. To the trained eye focused on linking skeletal remains to broader social constructs, arrangements of bones and marks on bones are products of human agency. This can only be revealed by utilizing theoretical frameworks that link direct violence and its underlying connections with other aspects of human behavior and social organization. Examples of this approach as applied to bioarchaeological data on violence in other cultural contexts include chapters in Martin et al. (2012) and Knüsel and Smith (2014).
Well-cited narratives regarding violence in the ancient Southwest adhere to some iteration of the model first proposed by LeBlanc (1999) and later revised by Lekson (2002; Figure 1). Although this particular interpretation of warfare in the ancient Southwest may be considered dated by some, the ideas are still referred to and embedded in recent studies on violence (Kohler et al. 2014). The Pueblo I period (PI, ad 700–950) has been considered a time fraught with hand-to-hand combat and skirmishes defined by raiding and light warfare. Following several hundred years of “peace” in the Pueblo II period (PII, ad 900–1150), a more pronounced and fearsome form of warfare is thought to have flourished in the Pueblo III period (PIII, ad 1150–1300). The “peaceful” period in the middle was punctuated by bone assemblages that show forms of bone processing and manipulation variously dubbed as “cannibalism” or “extreme processing” (EP) events. Although a number of interpretations have been advanced, in general they are considered to be evidence of violent outbursts of killing and then postmortem processing that left the victims badly dismembered and possibly eaten. Yet this is considered to be a “peaceful” time because there is no evidence of towers and fortified walls, and hence, warfare.
This model belies and discredits publications that flesh out individual case studies showing much more nuance, with subtleties and refinements in how death occurred and how bones were processed that suggest a number of possible interpretations, all vitally important to understanding the poetics of violence in this cultural context. For example, Ogilvie and Hilton (2000) present a context-specific analysis of a disarticulated assemblage from Ram Mesa in New Mexico (ca. ad 900–1100). Their conclusion, based on multiple lines of evidence, is that the disarticulated assemblage was due to violence associated with the execution of witches and not to cannibalism as reported by Turner and Turner (1999:296). This highlights the fact that violence carried out by indigenous people does not necessarily mimic violence in the historic or modern world. Indigenous violence has its own contours and meaning within particular localities at particular times, and this level of nuance must be preserved to make sense of violence writ large across the landscape.
Also, as others have pointed out, EP events actually occurred prior to ad 900 and into the late 1200s and 1300s. They do not fit neatly into the temporal, spatial, and binary categories used to construct the model. More importantly, interpretations of the culturally specific and locally enacted forms of violence have been ignored and discounted. For example, context-specific analyses have shown evidence of antemortem healed head wounds (Martin 1997), perimortem blunt force trauma to the head (Akins 1986), burnt houses with individuals in them (Morris 1939), partially dismembered bodies (Pepper 1920), bodies thrown into abandoned structures (Stodder 1987), and mass graves (Martin 1929). The contexts of these examples vary tremendously along spatial and temporal lines and do not conform to the model shown in Figure 1.
During the tenth through thirteenth centuries in particular, the Colorado Plateau was multiethnic and linguistically diverse (Keresan, Tewa, Uto-Aztecan, and Zuni), with Pueblo groups forming alliances, practicing risk-avoidance strategies, sharing resources, exchanging goods between regions, moving around the landscape, and trading for nonlocal items (Schachner 2015). In the broadest picture, institutionalization of cooperative ventures and formation of local and distant alliances were likely dominant political-economic activities solidified through complex kin, clan, locality, marriage, and trade relationships (Ware 2014).
As has been discussed in other venues (Martin et al. 2013:223), violence was likely tied to deeply held cosmological beliefs in addition to political, economic, and cultural practices that both endured over time but also likely changed in some aspects. Most scholars generally agree that the arid environment, and particularly the increasingly impoverished environmental conditions in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, served as a stimulus for a range of behaviors. These included not only use of violence, but migration, increased trade, and innovation in water retention. Yet, there is archaeological evidence for fortified sites, palisades, defensive architecture, aggregation of communities, and structures interpreted as watchtowers (Haas and Creamer 1997; LeBlanc 1999; Wilcox and Haas 1994). Warfare (which in the literature is described as raiding, ambush, intercommunity violence, and intra-ethnic or tribal clashes) and fear of attack are provided as the most likely reasons for the defensive architecture used in the time periods leading up to the tenth century (LeBlanc 1999:119). However, osteological indications of warfare are absent, and collections in general show little evidence of lethal injuries (Martin 2000:284).
After ad 900, an abundance of osteological material has been recovered from large and small sites across the Colorado Plateau, clustering especially within a relatively large radius around Chaco Canyon. Turner and Turner (1999) and LeBlanc (1999) see this period as one in which low-level warfare decreased, and public executions and intimidation tactics were used to support a stratified social order. To bolster this scenario, the focus is exclusively on disarticulated human remains. Disarticulated, fragmentary, unburied, cut, and burned human bones are linked by these researchers to group executions, mutilation of bodies (men, women, and children), and cannibalism.
From ad 1150 onward, LeBlanc (1999) and others (e.g., Lekson 2002) relate the collapse of the Chaco Canyon sphere of influence to growth in populations in the Mesa Verde and Northern San Juan regions. Based on the model in Figure 1, there was an apparent return to warfare, but on a larger scale than seen pre-ad 900. The bioarchaeological data do support large-scale village massacres in places such as Castle Rock (Kuckelman et al. 2002) and Cowboy Wash (Billman et al. 2000), both in southwestern Colorado. But large-scale massacres also occurred much earlier (ad 800s at Sacred Ridge) and much later (1700s at Awatovi Brooks 2016; Osterholtz 2012). And, the assemblages and burials found at these sites are not composed simply of dead bodies struck down while fighting. There is a remarkable range of variability in the kinds of corpse treatment (by both the perpetrators of the attack and possibly returning survivors), rituals for burial of the dead that may have been unique to this time period, and cases of violent deaths (Martin et al. 2013). In addition, skeletal evidence documents victims of violent interactions who escaped death. Healed (nonlethal) traumatic injuries and head wounds are present in the record throughout the entire occupation of the region (Martin et al. 2015).
The underlying causal relationships that are generally advanced to underscore the patterns seen in Figure 1 include violence and food shortage (Haas and Creamer 1996; White 1992), warfare and competition (Wilcox and Haas 1994), warfare and social stratification (LeBlanc 1999), and intimidation and dominance (Turner and Turner 1999). Many archaeologists and bioarchaeologists tend to generate their hypotheses about these kinds of violence in a dispassionate, clinical way because the events are spatially and temporally removed from us. However, this perspective is often alienating and prohibits understanding other cultures that have very different views regarding the appropriateness of viewing or displaying bodies or parts of bodies. Defleshing and dismembering a corpse is a difficult and time-consuming process that yields a great deal of blood. It would be a spectacle with powerful ideological and symbolic overtones. Whether or not the specialists cooked and consumed the disarticulated corpse is just a small part of the larger suite of possible actions associated with the processes of death and body reduction (Perez 2002).
Disarticulated human remains are not the only important data sets relevant to violence. Of the thousands of ancestral Puebloan burials with various mortuary styles that have been recovered, only some have been analyzed for pathologies and causes of death that reveal violence-related injuries (e.g., Akins 2001; Martin and Akins 2001; Neitzel 2000; Stodder 1987). For example, healed and unhealed fractures, dislocations and traumatic injuries, contusions and concussions, bones broken at the time of death, bodies flung or thrown into structures, bones with spear points embedded, spear points found near burials, and mass burials all need to be considered simultaneously with the disarticulated assemblages and archaeological evidence of violence. The situation is even more complex because, at any given site, both traditional, articulated burials and unusual or deviant burials and disarticulated assemblages may exist, such as at Chaco Canyon (Akins 1986), Aztec Ruins (Morris 1924), La Plata (Martin et al. 2001), and the greater Mesa Verde region (Billman et al. 2000; Kuckelman et al. 2000, 2002).
The following section suggests the different kinds of violence that probably existed across time. Considering all of these alternative hypotheses adheres more faithfully to the empirical data. With this more inclusive approach, information is retained about the survivors of violent interactions, those who did not survive direct violence (the corpses), treatment of corpses (by perpetrators or by community members), and activities at the time of death and death rituals (distinguishing between rituals and activities conducted by the enemy perpetrators versus those carried out by the victim’s kith and kin).
The Persistence of Violent Practices
This section briefly highlights alternative hypotheses regarding the use of violence by ancestral Puebloan people by providing case studies that complicate the premises upon which the model in Figure 1 is based. Case studies are drawn largely from the northern Southwest (Figure 2). The data suggest that different forms of violence were the embodiment of social relations and group identity. In the cases presented below, violence is interpreted not as a form of rupture, but rather as a form of cultural expression. The timing and nature of the examples suggest persistent cultural practices that were not bound within particular time frames or associated directly with climate change and crop failures. The following section provides short vignettes to set the stage for seeing different forms of violence as interconnected and along a continuum. Disarticulated human remains, witch killing, massacres, nonlethal fighting, and raiding for captives illustrate five traditions of violence that carried cultural meaning and conveyed cultural norms.
Disarticulated Human Remains as Persistent Cultural Practice
Turner and Turner (1999) conducted a study of 76 disarticulated bone assemblages seemingly analyzed with the goal of declaring them the result of either cannibalism or unspecified violence. In order to be considered cannibalism, there had to be bone breakage, cut marks, anvil abrasions, burning, and missing vertebrae. Those without such evidence were ruled to be the product of violence. The Turners designated 38 assemblages as cannibalized, a majority of which were estimated to fall within the PII (38%) and PIII (49%) periods. From these data, the EP timeline was derived, as seen on Figure 1. Other researchers have found that although more cases of disarticulated assemblages are found in the PII/PIII period, there are also cases in PI (Cater 2007; Kohler et al. 2014; Kuckelman et al. 2000).
Thus, acceptance that the EP events on Figure 1 are (a) related to cannibalism and (b) only located in the PII/III time frame cannot be supported by the bioarchaeological data. The mortuary record of the ancestral Puebloans demonstrates a wide range of variability and ambiguities in the skeletal assemblages. Interpretations contrary to cannibalism include witch execution, ritualized treatment of the dead, movement and relocation of bones (secondary burial), and disarticulation due to carnivore and other taphonomic damage (Darling 1999; Dongoske et al. 2000).
It is important to reexamine disarticulated assemblages in a more context-specific manner. Turner and Turner (1999) cannot be the final word on those 78 disarticulated assemblages. A case in point is the La Plata area disarticulated remains. Turner and Turner have listed three sites (LA 65030, LA 37592, and LA 37593) as having all the signature criteria for cannibalism (1999:311–17). Martin and colleagues (2014) published a more thorough analysis of these remains, taking into consideration stratigraphy, spatial distributions, individual bone positioning vis-à-vis other bones found at the site, stages of thermal damage, microscopic examination of the cut marks, and a more detailed assessment of taphonomic processes than that used by the Turners. There is ample evidence that these three disarticulated assemblages are emphatically not due to cannibalism or even extreme processing. LA 65030 has clear indications of carnivore and recent trenching damage, and the disarticulation is undoubtedly due to that activity. LA 37592 has conclusive evidence that secondary movement of remains in ancient times disturbed a primary burial, and the disarticulated bones were part of a secondary burial process. For LA 37593, skeletal elements do meet some of the criteria the Turners say are indicative of cannibalism. And, the bones were not discarded; rather they were intentionally arranged in what appears to be a ceremonial or ritual placement, with fragmentary long bones lying parallel in a portion of a cranium.
Pérez (2006) reanalyzed the disarticulated remains from Peñasco Blanco at Chaco Canyon, a collection that the Turners claim demonstrates evidence for cannibalism (Turner and Turner 1999:95–111). Pérez found a number of factual errors, mistakes in identification, under-enumeration of bone elements, and more cut marks than indicated in the Turners’ report. Based on archival documents describing how these bones came to be in the American Museum of Natural History, Pérez documented that the original excavator (Richard Wetherill) noted that the disarticulated bones likely came from several different deposits, and that they were not a single assemblage, a point missed by the Turners, who analyzed them as a single disarticulated assemblage. The following discrepancies were noted: Age and sex could be determined for a number of the adult individuals. The Turners’ bone counts were off by more than 500. (They did not report all of the material present.) There is no evidence of fresh bone burning on any of the cranial fragments. Their vertebrae count was underrepresented by more than 200, as were their counts for the number of hand and foot bones. Given that these bones, now housed in a repository, were from several different (and unknown) locations at Peñasco Blanco, Pérez concluded that they were likely secondary burials with some processing and flesh removal but no sign of extreme processing or breakage.
Researchers also must move beyond simply recording the presence or absence of cut marks and tool marks. According to Guilday and colleagues (1962), in order for cut marks to qualify as butchering marks, two criteria must be met: (1) patterning or redundancy: the same type of marks occurring in the same region of the bone, within the same species; and (2) purposefulness—that is, there must be an anatomical necessity for the tool marks to occur in a given location. Lyman (1987), Yellen (1991), Raemsh (1993), among others, have indicated the need to consider the numerous fundamental factors that can account for the patterns seen in cut mark distributions on skeletal material. These include anatomical considerations, natural variables, and cultural and technological influences. Examples of cultural factors include ideological belief systems, the number of people involved in processing, the number of individuals processed, and the tool type (lithic [both bifacial and unretouched] versus metal) used in processing. Natural variables include the spatial relationships of the death scene, processing site, and habitation area; time of year; ambient temperature; precipitation; and amount of natural light available (Binford 1981; Cruze-Uribe and Klein 1994). Pérez (2006) argues that information regarding cut mark morphology should include both visual and metric assessments of the location, position, length, width, depth, shape, and direction of the cut marks. This would be the baseline from which a contextualized analysis of a disarticulated bone assemblage would be built.
There is much work to be done on analysis of the disarticulated assemblages. Broken, burned, cut, scraped, and disarticulated bone can result from cannibalism, but it also can result from witch executions, warfare, massacres, secondary burial, and disturbance from a number of sources. Here is another possibility: During an attack and massacre, victims were killed and hacked and some may have been burned or fell into fires. Carnivores later disturbed the bodies, and still later, surviving relatives returned to the site to mourn and place the remaining (broken, burned, disarticulated, crushed) body parts into pitstructures (habitations) for symbolic burial. Why not? We have only to look to the massacres in Rwanda and Kosovo in recent times to see just how likely such a scenario is. In these cases and for the ancestral Puebloans as well, in situ ethnic strife is also a viable hypothesis.
Sorcery and Witch Execution as Persistent Cultural Practice
Darling (1998) suggested that the disarticulated assemblages fit the ethnohistoric, archival and oral traditions on witchcraft accusation and witch execution. Historically, among Puebloan people the persecution and killing of witches was a way to ritually dispose of individuals and groups who were nonconformists or were practicing sorcery and bringing bad luck and droughts. The study of ritual in prehistory is marred by the relatively poor ability of archaeologists to study this realm of human behavior (Walker 1998). Walker suggests that the ethnographic literature on witchcraft execution is crucial for delineating what kinds of items may be indicative of a sorcerer’s presence (such as black corn and figurines). Also, certain artifacts in the archaeological record may indicate items used by Pueblo people to defeat sorcery, such as crystals, obsidian, animal paws, and red ochre.
The Puebloan belief in sorcery and witchcraft, the existence of witches, and the subsequent witch executions are well documented (Whiteley 2008). The ethnohistoric literature is replete with information on and examples of witchcraft accusations and witch executions (Simmons 1974). The frequency of witch executions led early anthropologists to assume that entire pueblos might go extinct from conspecific killing for supposed evil practices (Darling 1999:736).
The punishments for witchcraft varied but included “hanging, clubbing, and even execution” (Smith and Roberts 1973:122). One option was to tie the witch up and repeatedly drop him or her into a kiva (Hill and Lange 1982:150). Because witches are thought to have the ability to come back to life, their dead bodies were subjected to pounding, defleshing, and burning to render them useless (Darling 1999:744).
With selective use of data and wording, it becomes relatively easy to dislodge one theory (witch execution) for another (cannibalism). For example, Kuckelman and colleagues (2002:19) present information from the ethnographic and historical literature that discounts the hypotheses of Darling and Walker. Citing Simmons (1974), they explain that ideas about witches in Pueblo ideology became enhanced and more complex after European contact, and that there is no evidence to suggest that the precontact ideology and activities around witch executions is supportable. As the third co-author of this study, although I felt that this represented a misreading of Simmons, I could not sway my colleagues.
Turner and Turner likewise (1999:54) “see no way to tie the oral traditions of witch killing to the perimortem condition of prehistoric skeletal remains evidencing the taphonomic signature of cannibalism.” LeBlanc (1999:172) makes a similar critique: “there is no evidence showing that witches were ever dealt with so closely parallel to animal processing.”
It seems timely to bring sorcery and witchcraft back into the realm of possible explanations for bone assemblages because Darling (1999) and others (Ogilvie and Hilton 1993; Whiteley 2008) make a very compelling case for its deep persistence into the precontact past. Witch accusations are a global phenomenon in ancient and modern times, often in response to problems with crop production and fear of starving. For example, Oster (2004) shows that witch trials and weather were highly correlated in medieval Europe. Miguel (2005) makes a compelling case for the contemporary killing of witches in Tanzania by demonstrating that extremes in rainfall, whether drought or flooding, is significantly correlated with the execution of individuals deemed to be witches.
Massacres and Torture as Persistent Cultural Practice
In ad 1280, a small Pueblo farming community perched high on a fairly isolated mesa was ambushed and at least 41 individuals were killed, including infants, children, teenagers, and adult males and females (Kuckelman et al. 2002). Although only a small percentage of Castle Rock Pueblo has been excavated, the amount of human bone that was retrieved was clearly the end result of a massacre. Taphonomic analysis of the human remains revealed that individuals left on the ground may have been torn apart by carnivores. Other remains seem to represent secondary burials that occurred days after the massacre, possibly by returning family members. A small portion of the human remains found in a kiva showed cut marks and dismemberment that indicated trophy-taking, body reduction associated with witchcraft, or cannibalism. Thus, although this episode surely obliterated many of the local villagers, other symbolic activities seemed to be going on as well, such as trophy-taking.
An interesting but overlooked part of this study was the description of a small petroglyph along the stone access way to the pueblo (Figure 3). It shows two human-like figures with bows and arrows aimed in opposite directions, with one shooter pointing directly at a defenseless figure. Oral traditions associated with this site speaks of enemies from the north or northwest who attacked this village (Kuckelman 2000).
Sand Canyon Pueblo (ad 1250–1285) represents a more complex picture of interpersonal violence as well as a massacre event (Kuckelman and Martin 2007). At least eight individuals were killed. A male aged 45 was found sprawled on the floor of a room. At the time of death he had a healed cranial depression fracture from a previous blow to the head and a fatal perimortem fracture on the front of his head. A fifteen-year-old was found in the collapsed wall; he too had a perimortem blow to the base of his skull, in the nose and the mouth region (several teeth were broken off). An adolescent was found face down on the floor of a kiva with perimortem fractures to the head, cut marks on the elbow, and anvil abrasions on the shoulder. Other instances of violent death at the site include another young adult male and an infant. In addition, many fragmented bones with crushing and breakage were found as well as clear signs of scalping, dismembering, and reduction.
Malotki (1993) and Brooks (2016) present accounts of the destruction of Hopi villages by other Hopi in historic times. The best known is the demise of Awatovi in the late 1700s. The general theme of stories about the destruction of Awatovi and the other villages is that the inhabitants of the villages strayed from traditional practices and beliefs, an extremely serious transgression for the Hopi. The other Hopi initially refused to consider destroying Awatovi on the grounds that they were fellow Hopi (Malotki 193:393). Eventually, however, Awatovi was destroyed because they had strayed from Hopi ideals and so it was deemed that the entire community was consumed by witchcraft (Malotki 1993:275–95). In a sense the accused villages were ritually killed, just as the individuals, families, and clans living there were killed. The mass grave in Polacca Wash resulting from the Awatovi executions is one of the assemblages of disarticulated human remains that has been claimed to be the material correlate of cannibalism (Turner and Turner 1999:56). In this example, the claim of cannibalism is inconsistent with the ethnohistoric data. The processed human remains, based on the evidence cited above, are most likely the result of a longstanding Puebloan belief in witchcraft, and the subsequent execution of non-conformists (Brooks 2016).
These are only a few of the well-documented cases of massacres in the ancient Southwest. Others include early Pueblo sites such as Sacred Ridge (ad 800s; Potter and Chuipka 2010), where 33 individuals were systematically tortured by beating the bottoms and tops of the feet (Osterholtz 2012). This meant that they were kept alive but could not escape; subsequently they were hit on the side of the head with a large club. The bodies were defleshed, dismembered, and broken into small fragments. Cut mark analysis suggests that ears, lips, and other body parts may have been taken as trophies. Blood residue was found in vessels and on implements.
Klusemann (2012), has studied the nature of massacres as a process (versus a discrete event), and he suggests that all massacres are preceded by political-economic and cultural events that shape the ideas of the perpetrators that a massacre would solve a perceived problem. Local dynamics shape the how, why, when, and where of any given massacre, so context and history are crucial to examine when trying to understand the broader implications and effects of mass killing. Klusemann (2010:272) has also shown that the “sequential unfolding of micro-interactions and emotional dynamics” is important for understanding the symbolic and real meanings attached to massacres by the perpetrators and survivors. This is why each massacre has different mortality rates and demographic profiles, and why some include “extreme violence,” where the violence extends beyond killing people to desecrating the bodies as well (Nahoum-Grappe 2002).
Nonlethal Violence as Persistent Cultural Practice
Antemortem fractures, usually from blunt force trauma, involve partial or complete breakage of skeletal tissue. Although there are different varieties of fractures, they all have the same basic characteristics. If the blows are not lethal, fractures will eventually heal and bones will knit back together, although an indentation at the site of the original blow often remains (Figure 4).
Depression fractures of the cranium due to blunt force trauma are usually caused by blows to the head during violent encounters (Walker 1997). Individuals who survive the initial effect of a blow to the head may experience long-lasting neurological problems stemming from traumatic brain injury. Head injuries and concussions can produce neurological side effects such as antisocial behavior, migraine headaches, inability to focus, irritability, and vertigo, and these symptoms can reveal themselves months or years after the original trauma (Martin et al. 2008).
A review of the pathology reports that do provide healed fracture rates for human remains from the Southwest generally lack specificity regarding the age, sex, severity, stage of healing, and degree of involvement, but are intriguing for the information that they reveal regarding survivors of violent interactions. At Carter Ranch (ca. ad 1200), Danforth and colleagues (1994) report that one-fourth (of 24) adults had healed fractures, including fractures of the nose, jaw, clavicle, radius, and femur. They suggest the majority were from blows with blunt instruments. Stewart and Quade (1969) present a frequency chart on frontal bone fractures from North American skeletal populations. For individuals from Pueblo Bonito (Chaco Canyon) and Hawikku (together), 9% of the males and 6% of the females demonstrated healed lesions to the front of the head. They pointed out that one female from Pueblo Bonito had a massive healed cranial head wound. Stodder (1989) compiled a chart of percentages of healed fractures in bone assemblages showing ranges of 3% to 13% for a number of Southwest sites, with the highest frequencies occurring in later (fourteenth-century) burials (1989:187).
A study of nonlethal head wounds was carried out on remains from a number of ancestral Puebloan communities (Martin et al. 2015). Healed head wounds were present in adult males and females in every burial population that we examined. For example, healed depression fractures at Black Mesa (ad 900–1150) showed that 50% of the males and 34% of the females had encounters that left them with head wounds that eventually healed. At Mesa Verde (ad 800–1300), 37% of the males and 35% of the females had them. For the La Plata region (ad 1000–1300), 23% of the males and 60% of the females had healed depression fractures. For Aztec (ad 1150–1300), 35% of the males and 36% of the females had sustained nonlethal injuries. These findings across time and among different groups suggest that nonlethal violence was consistent and endemic, but it had different implications by age, sex, and site.
This brief review of violence that resulted in nonlethal cranial depression fractures and postcranial trauma indicates that both males and females exhibit healed wounds. This is intriguing because, cross-culturally, warfare most often involves males. The evidence for severe and multiple trauma on women indicates that diverse forms of violence that included both males and females were being practiced.
Raiding and Captivity of Women as Persistent Cultural Behaviors
Kohler and Kramer-Turner (2006) examined the possible interregional movement of captive females by comparing the age/sex profiles from a variety of burial populations. They found an unexpectedly high ratio of females to males at Chaco Canyon (ad 900–1150) as well as at Aztec (ad 1200s). Martin and colleagues (2010) have documented an unusual patterning of healed cranial depression fractures in a subgroup of adult females from the La Plata region (ad 1100s). When skeletal analysis, mortuary context, archaeological reconstruction, and neuropathology are integrated, the evidence pointed to the use of violence in the form of raiding, forced captivity, and enslavement of captive women.
Captured women had healed cranial depression fractures resulting from blunt force trauma received during raiding and abduction. These women also had a variety of healed fractures on the lower body, as well as localized trauma to the joints (e.g., dislocated hip joint; Figure 5), likely the result of punishment or harsh treatment. These women also had indicators of poor health (infections and malnutrition). They were recovered from burial contexts different from those of individuals who did not have bodies racked with trauma and pathology. In this case, the women were placed without any intentionality or grave offerings in abandoned pitstructures. Captives with healed cranial depression fractures have since been noted at the Chacoan outlier Kin Bineola, as well as within Chaco Canyon (Harrod and Martin 2015).
The Persistence of Distinctively Puebloan Violence
Ancestral Puebloan people sustained their social identities and their communities not only through many layers of cosmology and beliefs, but also through the use of violence that was both mundane and extraordinary for its endurance and creativity. For example, raiding and captivity could have linked communities and motivated trade, diffusion, and possibly marriages. Witch executions and ritual dismemberment communicated across natural and supernatural spheres of influence while emphasizing ancestral ties and delegating spiritual power to elites. Body parts placed in sacred places such as kivas likely had memory-making components. The endurance of distinctly Puebloan forms of violence suggests that it was part of the tool kit for negotiating social change and navigating environmental uncertainties. The complexity and symbolic force of violence speaks to its importance on an everyday level. The events that archaeologists think of as discrete historical moments, such as massacres or migration, are better realized as long-term processual events with a logic of their own.
Pérez (2013:16) developed a model based on theories about the ways that violence is culturally incorporated or avoided during times of increasing uncertainty (Figure 6). As he points out, most culturally sanctioned violence can be looked at through four lenses: Individual, Household, Community, and Intergroup.
Pérez uses ideas from Robben (2000) who developed a framework whereby violence is seen as a largely political act. The concept of the politicization of the dead is based on the idea that the corpse is a transitional object for both the perpetrators and the victims, centering on the passage from life to death (Robben 2000:85). A form of physical and psychological violence is waged via both political and sociocultural violence. The political violence is manifested by the “annihilation” of the dead. The complete destruction of the human remains symbolizes the power over those who were deemed to be causing problems. The disarticulation and mutilation of the bodies symbolizes the political dismemberment of the vanquished and emphasizes their total subjugation while reinforcing the power and dominant ideology of the victors. The absence/annihilation of the corpse creates the inability to perform burial rites, and this can produce anxiety and impaired mourning.
This politicization of the dead, through the use of violence, may explain why the disarticulated assemblages are so variable. Some of them may represent the execution of witches, but others may have been designed to create a “spectacle” or make a statement. Through the “display” of the remains, the victors can demonstrate their power and strength. By killing the young and old alike, and reducing them to an unrecognizable mass, the perpetrators create a substantial psychological impact on the regional interaction sphere in which they were operating.
This model helps integrate the bioarchaeological and ethnohistoric data on ancestral Puebloan cosmology and ideology. Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck (1961:298) state that “Pueblo culture and society are integrated to an unusual degree, all sectors being bound together by a consistent, harmonious set of values, which pervade and homogenize the categories of world view, ritual, art, social organization, economic activity and social control.” This integration makes it difficult to isolate any single aspect of Pueblo culture, including violence. The fact that Pueblo people live in extremely close proximity to each other explains the need to strictly adhere to community norms (Hawley 1950:153). Pueblo children are taught at an early age to conform to Puebloan beliefs (Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck 1961:298). Although there is individual autonomy, “the great emphasis on freedom of behavior is checked by a fear of non-conformity” (Titiev 1968:65). Any individual who strays from the norms or “thirsts for power” is subject to accusations of being a witch (Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck 1961:297), the ramifications of which already have been discussed.
The sense of community goes beyond the individual village to the entire cluster of villages. Although not engaging in warfare in the modern sense of standing armies, the ancient Pueblos clearly engaged in warlike behaviors that resulted in the decimation of entire villages. The definition of warfare used here is that of “organized, purposeful group action, directed against another group involving the actual or potential application of lethal force” (Ferguson 1984:5). Warfare and other forms of violence, integrated with the rest of Puebloan life, had economic, ritual, and political ramifications. An offensive against a village would need to be quite large, but ethnographic accounts suggest that 400 warriors from allied villages could be amassed for an attack (Hill and Lange 1982:69).
The study of violence in bioarchaeological contexts must go beyond the proximate causes of violence and seek the ultimate causes. To do so requires the use of a theoretical framework that is responsive to the locally constructed, historically contingent and culturally sanctioned behaviors that produce and reproduce violence over many generations. Identified in this review are at least five distinctive Puebloan forms of violence: (1) the processing of human remains through disarticulation and reduction; (2) the use of sorcery and the persecution and killing of witches; (3) massacres in a variety of forms, which included torture and hobbling; (4) nonlethal violence in the form of blunt force trauma; and (5) raiding and taking of captives.
In summary, violence is deeply symbolic and is performed through ritual or passed on in codes of conduct. Culturally sanctioned violence has many actors: perpetrators, witnesses, and victims. Violence is necessarily relational and dynamic. Killing a particular demographic (e.g., female newborns in India) or destroying a sacred place (e.g., the Taliban destruction of the giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan or the recent Islamic State bombing of the Tower of Bel at Palmyra) becomes all the more powerful because its symbolic nature is communicated. Study of the ancestral Puebloan groups during dynamic and tumultuous periods (ca. ad 700 to European contact) offers important insights into how humans knit together strategic responses to a perceived problem. How cultures use and react to violence and who is protected or at risk are global concerns with potentially dire consequences for the world’s populations today.
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