From time to time I hear people talk about this claim that prehistoric Native Americans were cannibals. I want to put forward this context for that statement because without context it’s like saying, “bread comes from bread boxes”. While it may be true that your bread comes to the table from a bread box, your understanding of the larger context of bread informs you that bread does not come from bread boxes, it comes from a process of baking, and is only sometimes stored in bread boxes. This analogy applies to native cannibalism.
Cannibalism seems to be associated with the Chaco imperial elite, not the extensive reach of ancestral puebloans in general. Chaco was a phenomenon of imperialism in which there was a highly stratified society accompanied by the horrors that come with those kinds of political structures. Similar comparisons could be drawn to the Aztecs at Tenochtitlán with their human sacrifice, and to some extent to the Maya. But those imperial systems cannot be compared to the far more prevalent hunter/gatherer/agrarian lifestyles that most of the population practiced throughout the long and geographically vast history of Native Americans in general.
This one, unique, very short episode of Chaco was extremely limited in scope of time and geography. It is only within that context that anybody describes cannibalism in the southwest. It is not described as a common practice outside of Chaco. I hope this comment give some shape to the scientific evidence for cannibalism at Chaco and helps one think about it in its proper perspective.
I’ve attached an old documentary about the topic below. Perhaps you will watch it with this informed perspective in mind and see how if framed properly the politics of it wouldn’t be so controversial. Cannibalism was a snapshot of a particular time and a particular people in a particular kind of unusual cultural construct.
Chaco did not represent “the height of civilization” in the ancestral puebloan southwest. It represented only itself … a stand-alone phenomenon created by an idealistic group of self proclaimed elite who wanted to establish an empire. It was not widely popular or desired by common people. It was, of necessity, founded on poor quality land that nobody else wanted. It was poorly planned, lead to malnutrition and early death by most peasants in its sphere, was unsustainable, short lived, and failed. Those guys were your cannibals, not “the Anasazi” in general.
ON RED-HEADED CANNIBAL GIANTS
Following on from the topic of cannibals, I would like to extend some ideas from that into the topic of cannibalistic redheaded giants in Paiute territory. Rather than me summarize the roots of the redheaded giant oral history, I have attached a video that does a good job of it. To start, there was never any mention of those people being giants, so we can take that off the table right now. What they were called was “redheaded“ and “cannibals”, “brave” and “outsiders”.
I’ve come to interpret the “redheaded” part as people who wore the red bandanna as was culturally prominent at least amongst the Mexica culture group. Wearing the red bandanna around your forehead was customary (still is for some) and symbolizes that you speak the truth. It is kind of a cultural identifier as well. We know that after Chaco fell and during a great period of drought around that time, people from all over the southwest spread out and became absorbed into the wider landscape of people. I think it is possible that some of the people from elsewhere in the southwest found themselves as landless, unwelcome intruders in Paiute territory. And it is possible that they used some scare tactics, a.k.a. cannibalism, to try to terrorize and establish dominance over the extant group.