It's no secret that prehistoric Indians in the Southwest killed, butchered, and cooked their enemies. But now a team has evidence for what many have suspected. A dried hunk of human excrement, or coprolite, proves that the Anasazi ate human bodies as well, although a handful of critics are unswayed.
The 850-year-old coprolite comes from a site in southwestern Colorado. The Four Corners area (where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet) contains a number of sites offering strong evidence of cannibalism: human bones disarticulated, cut, burned, and cast about in exactly the same fashion as the bones of animals known to have been used for food. Investigating this small settlement of three half-buried "pit houses," scientists found two that contained mutilated remains of seven men, women, and adolescents--apparently massacre victims whose bodies were butchered. The coprolite was found in a fire pit in the third pit house.
To uncover whether the butchered humans made it into someone's dinner, a team led by biochemist Richard Marlar of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver looked for traces of myoglobin, an oxygen-transporting molecule that occurs in skeletal and heart muscles but not in the gut. They developed an assay that distinguishes between human myoglobin and that of nine food animals such as bison and rabbits. The assay found human myoglobin in the coprolite, but no traces of it in any of 25 control human fecal samples. The authors report finding more human myoglobin on shards of a cooking pot, they report in the 7 September issue of Nature.
Not everyone agrees. Debra Martin of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, says the fecal chunk could have been contaminated with human proteins during handling by scientists. And Peter Bullock of the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe questions whether the coprolite is even human. "It's most likely from a coyote," a common scavenger in these parts, he says. But Brian Billman of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, lead archaeologist at the site, says the coprolite lacks the bone chunks, hair from grooming, and fur that are almost always found in canine coprolites, and there were no canine tooth marks on the human remains.