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A Coprological View of Ancestral Pueblo Cannibalism

Debate over a single fecal fossil offers a cautionary tale of the interplay between science and culture

Karl Reinhard

Figure 6. Horsetail sections from Antelope House...Click to Enlarge Image

Was Ancestral Pueblo culture peaceful or violent? The prevailing view among archaeologists has swung back and forth over the past 60 years. In the late 1980s, characterizations of the Ancestral Pueblo swung toward the violent with the discovery of remains showing evidence of cannibalism. Then, in 1992, Karl Reinhard found the strongest evidence yet in a coprolite (preserved fecal sample) from Cowboy Wash, Utah. Yet the stool contained none of the other residues he had found in hundreds of other samples of the hunter-gatherers' leavings. The question is more than just academic: The Ancestral Pueblo are the ancestors of the modern Pueblo people, whose heritage hangs in the balance. Reviewing the science, Reinhard ruminates on the capricious nature of public opinion.

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