Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/December 1892/Prehistoric Cannibalism in America


By Rev. A. N. SOMERS.

IN the summer of 1888 I took a club of young people belonging to my church, to the famous ruins of the mound-builders at Aztalan, Wis., for a day's outing, and exploration of the mounds of that once great village. A superficial survey soon convinced me that it had been a very populous village, as it covered at different times as much as two hundred acres, down to an area of a little more than seventeen acres, which was skillfully and strongly fortified, representing the increased intelligence and caution of several generations constantly shrinking under the ravages of war and possibly cannibalistic devastations.

A first effort located the communal refuse-heap, where had been thrown the refuse and garbage of the village, when it covered an extent of nearly one hundred acres for a very long period of time.

In these heaps one generally learns more of the manner and means of subsistence of the prehistoric people than from all other sources of conjecture combined, for in them are thrown the bones and refuse of their meat-supply, and the broken cooking and other utensils. Broken weapons and ornaments likewise find their way to the garbage-heap, just as with us. But when the mound-builder broke his tools, weapons, and ornaments, they could not be reduced back to raw material, to enter into the construction of something else, as do many of our worn-out or broken implements, for they were made of material, in the main, that would not permit of such transformations. Those, then, no longer useful were thrown, along with the bones and other insoluble and almost imperishable refuse, into a common heap in some convenient place where they would afford the least annoyance.

A few hours' work in this heap was rewarded by over five hundred valuable relics, including broken pots, arrows, ornaments, hoes, and bones—no less than one hundred of which were human bones, in about equal proportion with the bones of beasts, birds, and fishes.

A subsequent trip to the same place, in company with Prof. J. Q. Emery, Principal of the High School at Fort Atkinson, added nearly one thousand more bones to the collection. Another trip to the place, in company with an amateur collector of relics, added about six hundred more bones to the collection; I now have nearly two thousand bones from the refuse-heap, forty per cent of which are human, while the remainder are evenly divided between birds, beasts, and fishes.

This refuse-heap covered a space about one hundred feet long by forty wide, in a low place where a ravine envied a surplus of surface water into the river at wet seasons of the year. The accumulations were often covered by clay from the hillside, so as to have stratified it to a depth of eight feet in the lower part of the original ravine, making it later almost level with the surrounding river bottoms.

The bones other than human are bear, raccoon, buffalo, moose, deer, squirrel, woodchuck, rabbit, wolf, pigeon, quail, ducks, reedbird, turtles, pickerel, pike, perch, bull-head, and suckers.

The crushed shells of land snail, periwinkle, and the fresh-water clams were in great abundance.

Several of the strata show the action of fire on their surface, as if the attempt had been made to burn them over, to destroy the refuse.

The human bones in this heap were subject to the same treatment as those of the beast, and lay often in actual contact with them, and in every one of the strata.

The bones containing marrow were all either broken into short pieces or split open. The mark of the stone knife and axe is to be seen on most of them, where they were hit to break or split them, or in severing the joints. The ribs were cut into short bits, seldom over three inches in length; and always the knife-marks are seen on the inside, except where they were severed from the vertebral connection. This treatment is the same in both those of the beasts and men.

Among the number of human bones thus found one can identify many different skeletons. Some of the skulls were very thin and compact, showing a large and uniform curvature, while others were thick, spongy, and of irregular curvature.

The largest and coarsest bones, and those lying in the topmost strata, bear a striking resemblance to the bones of the Fox and Winnebago Indians slain in the Black Hawk war, many of which I have examined and compared with these.

In contact with one of the skeletons of the highest type, I found beads cut from the shell of Busycon perversum, a marine shell-fish, an inhabitant of the Gulf of Mexico. In another garbage-heap similar to this one, twelve miles distant, on the same stream, two whole shells of the Busycon were found by another man some years previous.

A beautiful paint-dish, or mortar, was found by another party in the same locality.

I found broken bone awls, stone drill-points, and half-finished arrow-heads, as well as thousands of pieces of broken pottery. Many weapons of war and implements of agriculture have been found scattered over the entire surface of the village site, and the hundreds of acres of garden-beds adjoining it.

The only implements of a warlike nature found in the garbage-heap were in the topmost strata, from which fact I would infer that their early occupation of this place had been a peaceful one, with the introduction of wars with rival tribes at a later date, forcing them to learn warfare as an art of defense.

The shrinking of the village site from so large an area to so small a one as the last walled in for more sure defense indicates the rapid depopulation of the village and increased danger of assault.

In one quarter of what I regard as the second epoch of the community I estimated as many as two thousand foundations of tepees. In that same portion of the village site, Dr. Lapham, in 1853, or about that time, took out of a grave in one of their temple foundations fragments of cloth made from vegetable fiber. They seem to have been a comparatively civilized people, among whom agriculture and manufacturing were carried on, and great order displayed in laying out their village and defending it with walls and other devices.

Of their cannibalism there can be no doubt after these discoveries. Had they been slain and eaten by their enemies, or by other tribes conquering them, their bones would not have been mingled with those of beasts, birds, and fishes taken in the same locality, and evenly distributed through eight feet of accumulating silt carried from the hills by a stream that only had water in it at extremely wet and short periods of the year, where the accumulation is not over three inches in a century, since the timber has all disappeared, and the plow has turned the soil every year for about forty years.

That the flesh of those bodies was eaten there can be no doubt, for no savage would go to the trouble to mutilate the dead bodies of friend or foe, to the extent of separating all the joints with a knife, chopping the bones three or four inches long, and splitting all those and only those containing marrow, and then finally mixing them with the bones of the animals he undoubtedly used as food, and throwing them into one common heap.

The diversity of the skeletons as indicated in their texture and physiological configurations would suggest to my mind that the persons eaten were probably taken prisoners in battles, with possibly some of their own number eaten as a sacrifice in their festivals and orgies, of which they must have had many, as indicated by the temple-like structures that existed among the variety of structures built by them. Their social life must have been highly developed, to hold them together in one village, and to create such strong defenses as its walls indicate, and to carry their industries to so high a degree of perfection as is indicated by the relics referred to above.

The government of so large a body of primitive people would call for an elaborate mythology to invest its rulers with the necessary civil power to hold the society together, and wield its combined strength against its foes from behind the walls that protected its women and children, and to till the soil and make its wares. The pottery, of which there must have been great quantities, from cooking-pots over twenty inches in diameter down to drinking-pots not over three inches in diameter, seems to have all been made from clay taken from three or four pits, and all baked in a single kiln.

There was probably some division of labor among them; some making pots, others tilling the fields, while still others made tools of various sorts, and still others may have followed the chase for meat-supplies. All the birds of which I found bones are migratory, and are found in that locality only during the period of the year in which the crops would need attention. The same is true of some of the fish upon which they fed.

"Whatever led to cannibalism among them fixed the habit so permanently in their lives as to lead them to relish human flesh. Every part of the body seems to have been eaten, which would not be true of those cannibals that eat their enemies for revenge or in religious sacrifices. In those cases they seldom eat more than small portions selected according to the demand of some superstition that does not apply to all of the body, even to the marrow.

The fact that such ornaments as the shell beads, which must have been highly prized by their owners, were thrown with the bones into the common garbage-heap of the village would seem to indicate that the person eaten, and whose bones and ornaments found a common fate among the bones of food-animals, was alien to the eaters.

Then, too, very wide differences of anatomical conformations exist between the bones in the garbage-heap and those buried in the burial mounds adjacent to the village. This confirms the notion that the victims eaten must have been taken by the chase, or as prisoners of war. The bones indicate all ages, from children of tender years to aged men and women. There seems to have been no discrimination as to the age and sex of the victim, as is generally the case when a human body is eaten in religious or social orgies. Such are the facts in confirmation of this habit having existed among a people of a high order of barbarism.

The manner in which, and the length of time it was practiced by them, would indicate as its cause the development of a relish for human flesh through a scarcity of food. The very fact that they were populous, and subsisting in a latitude that has hard and long winters, together with the uncertainties of the returns from their primitive agriculture, would confirm the notion that hunger was its cause, and that its pressure never was unfelt until the relish for human flesh, had been fully acquired, after which it would continue its hold upon them, even if the need of it was slight.

The Indians of the Northwest have been known to eat their enemies slain in battle, yet the practice never extended to the consumption of the entire body, down to the particular habit of cracking the bones to get the marrow.