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Wednesday, 6 September, 2000, 18:01 GMT 19:01 UK
Pot gives up cannibalism secret
Marlar AP
Professor Richard Marlar: No doubt about it
Researchers claim to have found "incontrovertible evidence" of human cannibalism at a 900-year-old archaeological site in the United States.

The butchered, cooked bones of seven people were found at a 12th Century Pueblo village in what is now Colorado.

Traces of human myoglobin, a protein found in human heart and skeletal muscle, were detected in a cooking pot found in one of the houses.

US scientists who carried out the biochemical analysis say the human protein was also found in preserved human faeces, and this is unlikely to have come from anything other than the ingestion of human flesh.

Archaeological evidence suggests that about AD 1150, the village, which contained three dwellings, called pithouses, was suddenly abandoned.

Although the presence of human remains pointed to some violent event, archaeologists have been unable to establish exactly what happened.

Grisly evidence

Some scholars have interpreted cuts and marks on human bones found scattered around as evidence of cannibalism, but others say there are alternative explanations. These range from the slaughter of enemies to reburials or the execution of witches.

Now, a team of US researchers says it has biochemical evidence that proves the village was the site of a cannibal feast.

Professor Richard Marlar of the department of Pathology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Denver, said there were a number of indications that cannibalism had occurred at the site. Broken human bones were found scattered in the housing structures at the site.

The bones had cut marks on them, consistent with the tissue being removed for human consumption. And a cooking pot found in one of the houses showed traces of human myoglobin.

Professor Marlar said a further clue left behind by the ancient settlers yielded direct evidence of cannibalism.

"There was a human coprolite, meaning human faecal material, which was left at the site at the time of this abandonment," Professor Marlar told BBC News Online. "In that human coprolite was human myoglobin. Human myoglobin never appears in the intestinal tract, it is only found in skeletal muscle and heart muscle.

"All this evidence of the abandonment, the bones and the cooking pot says something happened, but we couldn't prove that it was somebody eating a person," he added. "The human faecal material, the coprolite, says that somebody consumed human muscle tissue."

Unknown aggressor

The new findings, reported in the journal Nature, is the furthest that anyone has gone to establish cannibalism in the Old West, even though it had been strongly suspected. Cannibalism has been suspected in many societies but is very hard to prove.

Professor Marlar said the Pueblo site is still shrouded in mystery: "We know what happened, that there was this incident of cannibalism that occurred there.

"We know who the victims were - they were the people that lived in that village - but we don't know who the aggressor was."

"Now we have to find out why, and how, it happened."

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01 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
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