Nearly a hundred skeletons buried in a cave in southeast Utah offer grisly evidence that ancient Americans waged war on each other as much as 2,000 years ago, according to new research.
Dozens of bodies, dating from the first century CE, bear clear signs of hand-to-hand combat: skulls crushed as if by cudgels; limbs broken at the time of death; and, most damning, weapons still lodged in the back, breast and pelvic bones of some victims — including stone points, bone awls, and knives made of obsidian glass.
Signs of violence were evident in 58 of the approximately 90 bodies found in the cave. Most of the victims were men, but at least 16 women were also found among the dead, as well as nearly 20 children, some as young as three months old.
Since the discovery of this prehistoric charnel house — known to archaeologists as Cave 7 — more than a hundred years ago, there has been little doubt about the violence visited upon those interred there.
But anthropologists continue to debate what that violence meant — specifically, whether Cave 7 was simply a burial ground for casualties of individual conflicts and small skirmishes over centuries, or whether it was more like a war cemetery, where victims were put to rest after a single, catastrophic conflict between cultures.
The site was first excavated in 1893 by Richard Wetherill — the self-taught archaeologist who also led digs at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon — and it was a historic discovery in many regards. Judging by the artifacts and other clues found around them, the mutilated bodies were the first evidence of a new people: a pre-ceramic culture that predated the Ancestral Pueblo. From the handiwork they left behind, Wetherill called them “Basket People,” later to be known as Basketmakers, a culture that thrived in the Southwest from about 500 BCE until 750 CE or later.
But the significance of this find was almost overshadowed by the circumstances surrounding the Basketmakers’ deaths. The carnage found in Cave 7 could only be explained, Wetherill concluded, by the “sudden and violent destruction of a community by battle or massacre.”
And this interpretation held for more than a century, until 2012, when radiocarbon dating of some of the bones from the cave showed that the burials actually spanned many centuries — from the first century CE to the early 300s — suggesting that the dead represented several, smaller conflicts over time.
Now, a new analysis of the Cave 7 remains finds that, while the dates do cover a range, the victims of violence in particular appear to date from the same period, intimating that they’re evidence of a “single-event mass killing.”
In a recent study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Dr. Phil Geib of the University of New Mexico and Utah archaeologist Winston Hurst obtained new radiocarbon dates for some of the remains, but they also relied heavily on a traditional standard of archaeology: context.
Drawing on Wetherill’s original field notes, as well as photographs and other documentation, they determined the positions of the bodies within layers of sediment, and also in relation to each other, to assess which were buried together.
In doing this, they identified four sets of remains that were clearly buried in tandem — each from slightly different parts of the cave, some bearing obvious signs of violence, others not — to serve as samples for the new radiocarbon dating.
The first group consisted of eight adult men, their bodies flexed and their faces turned toward the mouth of the cave, all but one of whom exhibited signs of what the scientists call “extreme cranial trauma.”
The second featured the body of a young woman with three children positioned on her breast, ranging in age from one to three years, none of which showed any skeletal damage.
The third included seven skeletons seemingly stacked in a haphazard pile, four of them males that had clearly suffered yet more “cephalic brutalization.”
The fourth burial was that of four adult women, one of whom may have been injured at the time of death, and another young child.
Analysis of collagen, a protein, extracted from 11 bone samples among these four groups showed that three of the groups dated to around the same time — from about 1,915 to 1,950 years ago, within the dating process’s margins of error.
Only the remains in the second group, the undamaged female skeleton with the three children, were slightly more recent, dating to about 1,880 years ago.
An aging American Indian with rotting teeth and arthritic joints sat down and died in the Utah desert outside Escalante with a musket, ammunition and a bucket. Blowing sand covered his corpse for more than a century before a hiker stumbled across it last year.
This is the likely scenario of how a nearly complete skeleton, dubbed “Escalante Man” in BLM documents, came to be buried a few hundred paces off Highway 12 in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. What remains a mystery is why a dozen FBI agents excluded archaeologists from its April 16 excavation, treating the site as a crime scene rather than the historic site many believe it clearly was. “It’s an ongoing investigation. Our policy is we cannot comment on it,” FBI spokesman Juan Becerra said. Agents stress they had legitimate reasons for excluding the monument’s own archaeologist from the dig, even though they invited a TV news crew to document it, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office signed off on the investigation. While the BLM and FBI acted in partnership on the dig, the episode has attracted criticism from state officials charged with protecting cultural resources and triggered dissension within the BLM.
“It seems the FBI is running roughshod over the BLM, scientific procedures and legal requirements in their unexplained zeal to excavate an historic site,” Matt Zweifel, the BLM’s excluded Kanab-based archaeologist, wrote in a four-page memo documenting a litany of concerns two days before the agents descended on the site with shovels and screens.
“I have seen other burials ‘excavated’ by law enforcement personnel with disastrous results as far as archaeology is concerned,” he wrote. “I don’t doubt that the FBI forensics personnel are the best in their field, but they are not trained archaeologists.”
No one has accused the feds of botching the dig, but some wonder whether they ran afoul of cultural resource protection laws, particularly requirements to obtain permits before excavating historic sites and to consult with tribes in a timely manner. And the secrecy with which it was handled mystified and frustrated state archaeologist Kevin Jones and Forrest Cuch, Utah’s director of Indian affairs.
“We try to work with law enforcement. If there is a possibility that there is a crime involved, we would want the police there, and vice versa if it’s an historic site. Neither of us benefit working in isolation,” Jones said. “It’s regrettable that a professional archaeologist wasn’t there.”
The case of Escalante Man began in winter when an “informant” discovered what appeared to be a pipe sticking out of the ground and reported it to authorities, according to internal BLM documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Federal officers checked the site and returned to Salt Lake City with metal objects and bone fragments, which BLM experts determined to be human. The FBI and BLM law enforcement personnel organized an “evidence recovery” effort, but did not inform monument officials or Jones’ agency, the Utah Division of State History.
Zweifel got wind of the dig on April 14, but his inquiries went unanswered and monument director Rene Berkhoudt ordered Zweifel to stay away from the April 16 excavation. BLM officer Larry Shackelford initially invited Zweifel, but wound up tapping a planner out of the Salt Lake City office, Jeanette Matovich, who is trained in bioanthropology, to be the only scientist to participate.
“He wasn’t picked. That’s all I can say about it,” Shackelford said.
During the dig, agents extracted 80 percussion caps, parts of a firearm, lead straps, polished stones, a horn, and human molars from a young adult. Then they found the skull, which Matovich quickly recognized as American Indian because of its distinctive cranial features. A large brass bucket fitted with a handle and chain, which an evaluator considered to be a rare antique in excellent condition, bore an 1865 patent date.
These items roughly date the man’s demise to the mid-to-late 19th century. The FBI transferred custody of the “evidence” to the BLM, which took the items to Utah Museum of Natural History on April 18 for “observational analysis” and “curation,” as well as storage for up to one year while the bones go through a tribal repatriation process, according to internal documents.
University of Utah scientists and museum officials examined the bones and Derinna Kopp, a doctoral candidate in anthropology, submitted a written report, supporting BLM’s conclusions that the dead man was not deliberately interred.
The bones were those of a stocky man, 55 to 65 years old, with active abscesses eating his badly worn teeth. Osteoarthritis had fused his lumbar spine and cranial lesions were consistent with iron deficiency that was common among tribal communities in the 19th century.
The bones showed signs of rodent damage, but no ochre, a yellowish pigment applied to the dead in Indian burials, according to Matovich’s report. These clues suggest the person was not deliberately buried, but rather exposed for a period while mice chewed his ribs. The position of the bones was also important.
“The skeleton was completely collapsed in on itself, with the feet tucked under the pelvis, indicating the individual was sitting in an upright squatting or kneeling position at the time of death,” Matovich wrote. Her report does not determine the cause of death, although no traumatic injury was noted other than minor breaks that could have occurred postmortem.
Jones said these clues are not conclusive on the key question of burial because Indians were not always interred with ochre and post-burial rodent damage can happen.
“Without good stratigraphic work and a soil profile, you can’t say how the body got to where it is now. A lot of things can happen to a body after it’s buried,” Jones said.
“He is entitled to his professional opinion,” responded BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall, herself an archaeologist. “We have here a marriage of law enforcement and science. . . . We were able to accomplish disparate goals. This is a situation that should be held up as a positive example. It’s frustrating that it’s being spun in a negative light.”
Meanwhile, the FBI probe continues, although agents won’t reveal what they are investigating, and the BLM is attempting to identify Escalante Man’s cultural affiliation. The agency’s goal is getting the remains to his tribe or descendants who most likely will return them to the earth.