This is a report on two stories that have appeared over the past few days, and although they don’t refer to each other directly, there are one or two striking coincidences that are notable in themselves – but first a little background. The first report is from National Geographic, and discusses the recent discovery of skeletons belonging to people of the vanished Gallina culture, with particular reference to the shattered and disarticulated bones found buried in the ground, and the dark deeds which seem to have accompanied the deaths of their mortal owners.
Seven skeletons discovered in a remote New Mexico canyon were victims of a brutal massacre that may have been part of an ancient campaign of genocide, archaeologists say.
The victims—five adults, one child, and one infant—were members of an obscure native culture known as the Gallina, which occupied a small region of northwestern New Mexico around A.D. 1100 (see New Mexico map).
The culture suddenly vanished around 1275, as the last of its members either left the region or were “wiped out,” archaeologists say.
“Almost all of [the Gallina ever found] were murdered,” he said. “[Someone] was just killing them, case after case, every single time.”
I’ll come back to the enigmatic Gallina people later, but first, and to set their demise in context, the next stop is Chaco Canyon, erstwhile home to the Anasazi – here’s an excerpt from this NPR transcript of a recent broadcast they ran…
I’m walking across bare rock where the desert unfolds. Waves of sandstone reveal a deeply carved canyon below.
This is where the Anasazi lived. Their ruins are everywhere out here, the remains of a great Neolithic civilization. Single buildings the size of the base of the Sears Tower. Huge, round ceremonial chambers with 90-ton ceilings. This was a landscape of monuments.
The canyon opening is the size of a ballroom. Its walls are decorated with rock art: petroglyphs of animals and people and pre-Columbian symbols.
The Anasazi lived here for more than 1,000 years. Then, within a single generation, they were gone. Between 1275 and 1300 A.D., they stopped building entirely, and the land was left empty.
Looking for rain, the Anasazi headed south, leaving trails of pottery and architecture showing the way. Their descendants are the modern tribes of Tewa, Acoma, Zuni, Hopi. Others kept going into Mexico and haven’t been heard from since.
As I follow in their footsteps, I find they left the Southwest with their belongings in place, ladles left in ceramic bowls, granaries sealed full of supplies. It is as if they intended to return. But they never had a chance to come back.
So we can immediately see, (assuming that the dates in both articles are accurate), that both the Gallina and Anasazi people ceased to exist as ongoing residential populations in or near to the year AD 1275. At first glance, it could be argued that the prolonged drought which was at the time affecting the area, so depleted water resources that fighting for access and control of what little remained, resulted in warfare that saw various communities wiped out. However it appears only the minority Gallina were massacred, as evidenced by similar grisly finds at other sites, which is odd because if there were so few of them, it’s unlikely that they had resources in sufficient quantity to warrant others coming along to wrest control of them – indeed, it’s hard to imagine the Gallina exercised control over anything of importance, so it’s unlikely that whoever massacred them was doing so for material gain, in the guise of food, water, livestock, grain or land.
For instance, it might be suggested that the Anasazi, who were significantly more numerous than the Gallina, could have attacked them for one or other reason mentioned above, but the Anasazi did not occupy the lands of those they putatively vanquished, but instead departed the South West in such a hurry that they left valuable food and possessions in their dwellings, rather in the manner of a terrestrial Marie Celeste, never to return.
If it was proposed that the Anasazi were responsible for a genocidal act against the Gallina, the vexing question of why they departed from their own lands immediately afterwards would need to be addressed – for example, if they had massacred the Gallina and didn’t want their land or resources, why should they feel the need to wipe them out? One idea might be that the Anasazi were planning on leaving the area, and did not wish to be followed or accompanied by a Gallina people, who might have instilled fear or posed some other kind of unknown threat. Alternatively, the Anasazi might have been so distraught at reports coming in of Gallina people being massacred, that they took it upon themselves to flee from who or whatever was killing their neighbours, before they too began to fall victim.
An interesting observation regarding the Gallina, apart from the scarcity of information about them, concerns the shape of the skulls of at least two of the recovered specimens – flattened heads are more normally associated with distant South American cultures, such as the Moche people of Peru, who prevailed between 200 BC and 700 AD. Could it be possible that the Gallina represented some last vestigious outpost of the Moche, as either their genetic descendants, or a small tribe of people who had some centuries earlier copied the head-flattening practice of the Moche.
One other indirect link between the Gallina and Moche skeletons is that both are frequently found to have suffered horrific injuries (immediately) prior to death – here’s some detail regarding the Gallina remains…
One skeleton was found with a fractured skull, forearm, jaw, thighbone, pelvis, and several broken ribs, Nelson said. Another bore cut marks on the upper arm that suggest blows from an axe. The child, about two years old, had had its skull crushed (see photos of the massacre scene).
The findings are grimly consistent with previous reports from other Gallina sites, the pair said. But the new skeletons offer tantalizing signs of how unique the culture may have been.
In particular, the skulls of two of the victims have an “unusual” flattened shape that has never been seen before in the South West, the experts said.
For a possible comparison of damaged skeletons, I found this 2002 article, ‘Grim Rites Of The Moche‘ at Archaeology.org, which offers an insight into the lurid lives of the Moche…
Excavations of the last decade at the Pyramid of the Moon and the urban area between the two platforms have provided Moche specialists with an abundance of information about the ritual and everyday lives of those they study. Before now, the best evidence for ritual came from extraordinary and often gruesome artwork, primarily depicted on ceramics.
Vessels in the form of stirrup-spouted bottles with moulded figures and intricate fine-line painting show warrior-priests bedecked in imposing ornate garb orchestrating ritual warfare; slitting captives’ throats, drinking their blood, and hanging their defleshed bones from ropes; and participating in acts of sodomy and fellatio, all in a context of structured ceremony. In the absence of archaeological evidence, most scholars found many of the scenes too horrific to take literally, often suggesting they were simply artistic hyperbole, imagery the priestly class used to underscore its coercive power.
It’s unlikely that the depicted scenes were entirely imaginary, as many skeletal remains unearthed elsewhere at the site told a grim story of their own…
(Steve) Bourget and his team uncovered a sacrificial plaza with the remains of at least 70 individuals–representing several sacrifice events–embedded in the mud of the plaza, accompanied by almost as many ceramic statuettes of captives. It is the first archaeological evidence of large-scale sacrifice found at a Moche site and just one of many discoveries made in the last decade at the site.
In 1999, Verano began his own excavations of a plaza near that investigated by Bourget. He found two layers of human remains, one dating to A.D. 150 to 250 and the other to A.D. 500. In both deposits, as with Bourget’s, the individuals were young men at the time of death. They had multiple healed fractures to their ribs, shoulder blades, and arms suggesting regular participation in combat.
They also had cut marks on their neck vertebrae indicating their throats had been slit. The remains Verano found differed from those in the sacrificial plaza found by Bourget in one important aspect: they appeared to have been deliberately defleshed, a ritual act possibly conducted so the cleaned bones could be hung from the pyramid as trophies–a familiar theme depicted in Moche art.
By way of a little speculation, here are some thoughts; the Moche culture itself disappeared around 700AD, so maybe there’s an outside possibility that a very small fragment of that population wended its way north into New Mexico, maybe over the course of a few generations, living in virtual seclusion from the outside world, possibly in the hope that they had left the blood-soaked rituals of their ancestors far away to the south, and several hundred years in the past. But sooner or later, violence was to catch up with them, and it may in fact have been perpetrated by one or more of their own number – in an ex-Moche society so traditionally steeped in endemic violence, it’s possible that certain behavioural traits manifested themselves in the surviving population, or an unrelated population who had adopted some of the Moche rites and beliefs, resulting in its own eventual extermination.
Alternatively, outside groups of other meso-Americans might have been so horrified to discover that there were strangers living in their midst with such a violent and troubled history, that they killed them out of fear that the perceived madness would spread into their own cultures, but that still wouldn’t explain the sudden abandonment of so many settlements by the Anasazi.
Pure conjecture, and my above comments paint a very simplistic picture of life and culture over the centuries in the Four Corners territories; it’s likely that the idea of a lack of resources plunging the region into sudden and disastrous decline will prevail for the foreseeable future, at least until other conclusive evidence comes to light, should any exist. Moreover, it seems that there were many blurred boundaries between peoples, territories and cultures, making it difficult for modern researchers to clearly differentiate one group from another. It seems unlikely that the Anasazi wrought such destruction on their neighbours, and there were probably all sorts of disparate groups of humans passing through areas such as these, who could just as easily have been responsible for the slaughter.
But when large groups of comparatively advanced people seemingly disappear off the face of the Earth in the dart of a lizard’s tongue, it reminds us that we too, despite our supposed vastly superior civilisation, could one day go the same way – leaving the few fragments of a future society to sit and wonder where it all went so quickly and badly wrong for their own vanished ancestors. (TJ)
see also: Ancient Pueblo Peoples