James was watching “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” then wandered off. I find Gene Wilder creepy, so I changed it to a show about cannibalism.

Possibly this says something about me.

It was actually really interesting stuff, though–my knowledge of anthropology stopped being updated, except sporadically, about the time I graduated from college, at which point the pendulumn had swung to the denial side on cannibalism (and I went to a pretty PC college, which didn’t help.) These days, it’s swinging back, although it’s a balancing act between our fascination with the taboo and our revulsion, and it’s one of those things where racism has a kind of ugly presence, which is unfortunate. It’s gone between “Everybody was a cannibal!” to “Nobody’s ever been a cannibal, except maybe the Donner Party!” (Seriously.) The pendulumn swings.

The big one has always been the Anasazi, who should probably go down in history as the most projected-upon culture in recent memory. Back in the seventies, people wanted them to be happy flower-children living in peace with nature. This largely ignored the fact that happy flower children generally don’t live in cliff-side fortresses or control sweeping empires, but hey, again, seventies.

Various people have pointed out a few times that there’s a lot of mass graves of smashed bones for flower-children, and hey, some of these look really, y’know, kinda butchered–in the carving up meat sense, not just the general killamajig sense–but they tend to get shouted down, because people are understandably very touchy these days about saying Native Americans ever did anything bad. (I cannot blame them for this knee jerk guilt reaction, granted past propagandas, but there comes a point where facts must out.) Nobody much cared if the Neanderthals ate people (they probably did–there’s some very compelling evidence of butchery with stone tools on bones, although it’s at least as likely to be the rather polite endocannibalism practiced as funerary rites by a fair number of cultures since time began.) but when you talk Anasazi, that’s somebody’s relatives, and people get iffy. I wouldn’t particularly care if my distant grandparents had occasionally practiced cannibalism, but I’m a godless libertine in that regard, and not everyone’s quite that calm about it.

When I was out of school, this was about the state of current affairs. But apparently, having watched this show and then puttered around on-line looking for info, there was a very interesting theory advanced in 1999 that the various mass graves of dismembered bones were the result of good ‘ol fashioned witch trials. In order to kill a witch in the Pueblo tradition, according to this anthropologist, you have to dismember them, joint by joint (providing evidence of butchery) burn the bones (evidence of cooking) and crush, pummel, fold, spindle, and mutilate the heart. This was known as “corpse-pounding” and hey, let’s give ’em credit for a fantastic name, huh?

This was a nice theory because it neatly explained the mass graves and the smashed bones–it was suggested that there had been a kind of “witch-society” who had been executed on these spots. Probably it says something about humans that we’re generally fine with our ancestors executing and disemembering people en masse, as long as they didn’t nosh while doing it, but then again, maybe it doesn’t.

Unfortunately for this theory, which would have made a really wonderful plot for a book anyway, somebody actually found a coprolith (a preserved turd) in one of the sites and tested it for the presence of digested human muscle. It was present. So somebody ate somebody, at least in one place, and perhaps I’m a cynic, but I figure the odds of just happening to get the crap of the one cannibal in the empire are slim. So much for corpse-pounding. (Or maybe not–the greatest crime witches were accused of was supposedly cannibalism. Thank goodness, too good a phrase to ditch. I gotta work corpse-pounding into “Digger” somehow.)

And now, of course, it’s back to the grindstone for archaeologists looking for evidence of how it all went down. There are theories. Many of them would also make interesting plots for stories, although I question the science behind some of them–theories about cultures tend to resemble the cultures that make them more than a little, and I think that a theory that the Ansazi were ruled by a cannibal elite ensuring obedience by acts of terrorism is pretty much of the same ilk as the one about flower children.

Still, it’s all interesting stuff. This was what I wanted to be doing when I got into anthropology, and it was only much later that I realize how much undying tedium went into the process before you got to sit up and go “Eureka! Corpse-pounding!”

So that was how I spent my time while determinedly not watching “Willy Wonka,” and thank goodness, huh? Those freaky Oompa-Loopas, brrr.

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