Thursday, April 5, 2012

Human Remains - The Southwest

Nickens, Paul R., Alan D. Reed, Todd R. Metzger
1988 Investigations at Rock Creek Alcove: An Early Basketmaker II Burial Site in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah. Kiva. 53.3:235-252

This article examines human remains and artifacts found in a small alcove on Rock Creek, due to high waters on Lake Powell making the alcove accessible to boaters, which is exactly how this site was found. Lake Powell, which is located in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, experienced a very high water level during the summer of 1983, and because of this, new areas became open for exploration; due to this exploration by a group of recreational boaters, this site was found, and all of the materials were reported and given to the National Park Service. If it were not for these boaters exploring a new area, these remains may have been lost from the archaeological record forever.
There were three burials at this site, all of which seem to date back to the Basketmaker II time period. Burial 1 contained the remains of a 18 or 19 year old male, Burial 2 contained the remains of a 15-18 month old infant, and Burial 3 contained the remains of another infant most likely under a year old, and possibly died shortly after birth. Very little information was gained from Burial 3, but Burial 2 provided some useful information, and Burial 1 provided a lot of very interesting data.
Three different skeletal pathologies were observed from the remains in Burial 1. The first of these pathologies noted was the fact that this skeleton had six lumbar vertebrae rather than the normal five, as well as a corresponding four-segment sacrum. The sixth lumbar vertebrae normally would have been the first sacral segment. This trait is a very uncommon one, but has been noted before in other prehistoric Southwestern skeletal materials.
The second pathological condition observed was spina bifida, which is the non-closure of the neural tube. This pathology is present throughout the entire sacral dorsal surface and the spinous process of the sixth lumbar vertebrae, the remainder of the spinal column is normal. “Among small, reproductively isolated human groups, inbreeding is believed to have raised this genetic defect to unusually high frequencies.” Basketmaker II groups of “the northern Southwest occupied regionally-defined, localized areas and, as a consequence, spina bifida might be expected to have high frequencies in early Basketmaker skeletal series. This seems to be the case for the Durango Basketmaker II people.”
The third pathological condition observed was the presence of numerous Harris lines of the long bones. These lines can be used to identify periodic or episodic stress during the time of a person’s long bone growth. The skeletal remains from Burial 1 had two in the radii, 9 in the proximal end of a fibula, and twelve in the proximal end of a tibia. This is important, because the number of Harris lines seems to relate to different ways of life. For instance, the Anasazi from southwestern Colorado had an average of usually less than five Harris lines per individual, whereas hunter and gatherer groups tended to have higher frequencies of these lines. The number of lines found on the skeletal remains of Burial 1 suggests that these people were non-agriculturalists, which helps to solidify the original time period placement of Basketmaker II, because at that time the people were just at the very beginning of their transition to agriculture.
In addition to these pathologies, there were also two anomalous conditions noted for Burial 1: double transverse foramina on the right side of the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae, and bilaterally-expressed squatting facets on the distal tibias; the linea aspera of the femora are only slightly developed.
The skeletal remains in Burial 2 also displayed numerous Harris lines on the infant’s long bones. There were four lines in the distal femora, five in a proximal fibula, and eight in the proximal tibia. Due to the fact that this child was so young at death, this supports further, the case of very stressful conditions during this individual’s lifetime, possibly related to fluctuations in the annual subsistence base. This was the only pathological condition observed for this individual. The other interesting thing noted about these remains is the fact that the deciduous incisors are shovel-shaped.
While this sample size is small, the information discovered here is still very important to understanding Basketmaker II traits, as well as burial style. The fact that there was a possibility of incest is very interesting, and the presence of Harris lines provide us with more information regarding their possible dietary stresses, having not yet converted to agriculture. This site just goes to show that no site is too small to gather beneficial information from.

Nickens, Paul R.
1975 Prehistoric Cannibalism in the Mancos Canyon, Southwestern Colorado. Kiva. 40.4:283-293

This article analyzes the remains of 33 individuals, mostly consisting of young adults, whose bones were nearly all completely fragmented. These remains were found at a site in Mancos Canyon in southwestern Colorado during a salvage excavation of an early Pueblo III village ruin. All 33 of the individuals analyzed all display indicators of cannibalism. This site is not uncommon in the fact that it displays remains that appear to have been the victims of cannibalism, in fact, there are nearly a dozen sites discovered in the Southwest that all show evidence for cannibalism.
All of the fragmented bones display evidence for intentional and patterned human actions responsible for the dismemberment and fracturing of the bones. All of the long bones were splintered, showing primarily a spiral type fracture which is caused by a twisting or prying apart of the bones. In addition to this, there is also evidence indicating that some of the shafts were prepared for fracture, presumably for the extraction of the bone marrow. There are butchering cut-marks visible on many of the bone fragments, as well as most of the bones showing evidence of having direct contact with fire, mostly only displaying small scorched areas. All of the skulls are broken, but there is no evidence violent deaths among any of the individuals. Finally, there is no apparent magico-religious significance visible for these remains.
There are three main reasons for why a group of people will choose to practice cannibalism. These reasons are: “(1) dietary, in which human flesh is relished and is considered as an additional source of meat; (2) ceremonial, either in the form of trophy cannibalism or sympathetic magic; and (3) obligatory or emergency ration cannibalism." Due to the fact that there appears to be no magico-religious significance seen in these specific remains, in addition to the fact that it does not seem to be a regular practice for this society, it can therefore be concluded that the main reason for this specific group of Pueblo III people to practice cannibalism is for use as emergency rations in a time of short food supply. Now while we cannot say for certain that there were no magico-religious reasons for the cannibalism in this area, we can say for certain that there is no visible evidence.
This article is very important for understanding not only how to distinguish whether bones have been cannibalized or not, but also for understanding the many different reasons for why societies will turn to cannibalism.

1 comment:

  1. I found your article on cannibalism an interesting contrast with the one that I read. It makes me wonder a bit if the reason behind the conclusions the authors of the two articles behind why cannibalism seems to have been practiced in these areas is because they were different areas within the South West region. Perhaps the area my article looked at did not have as much of a need for emergency cannibalism, but for whatever reason, still found the need to practice it and accomplished it by using magico-religious reasons instead. I find it interesting that there even are reasons beyond emergency food supply for such a practice, and yet, as you said, there are societies all around the world that will turn to cannibalism for a variety of reasons.