Since southeast Utah's “Cave 7” was first discovered in 1893, the grisly assemblage of approximately 90 skeletons, some with bludgeoned skulls and others with stone-point projectiles and obsidian blades still embedded in the bones pointed to a massacre nearly 2,000 years old. In 2012, researchers using radio-carbon dating argued that the remains were not from a single violent episode but were the result of multiple burials spread across the centuries.
But new research, however, shows that the truth lies somewhere in between, and that, indeed, there was one particularly brutal episode responsible for as many as 58 deaths at once, sometime between A.D. 20-80.
In the June 2013 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, Utah archaeologist Winston Hurst and Dr. Phil Geib of the University of New Mexico combine the science of radio-carbon dating as well as contextual evidence—or an archaeologist's detective work -- to firm up the thesis that Cave 7 was, indeed, the site of a singular episode of mass violence between ancient Indians of the Southwest.
Cave 7, located inside the Grand Gulch of southeastern Utah, was first discovered in 1893 by archaeologist Richard Weatherill and provided seminal knowledge on a group of Anasazi Indians who would later be dubbed “basket makers” because their culture predated Indians who had mastered ceramics.
Weatherill had collected samples and brought them out of the site (pictured) to the American Museum in New York City. Utah archaeologist Winston Hurst got involved in the early 1990s, practicing “reverse archaeology” in what was dubbed the Grand Gulch Research Project. Their aim was to try and track down museum pieces across the country and learn more about the locations where the collections had been taken from before 1900. That's where Hurst first became acquainted with the infamous Cave 7, the site that seemed to indicate a violent massacre of some kind that occurred within the communities of ancient Anasazi of the time.
In 2012, a group of researchers used radio-carbon dating to examine the remains interred at the cave, and would claim that the deaths were spread across several centuries in an article challenging the notion of a massacre.
Hurst and his colleague Geib, using contextual evidence of clusters of remains as well more advanced radio-carbon dating methods, showed that instead of the cave being the site of one epic massacre, as Weatherill had first thought and contrary to the idea of many smaller interments as the 2012 researchers had posited, there was likely one major event and a number of smaller events, as well.
“As usual, the truth falls somewhere in between,” Hurst says.
According to their research, perimortem damage, or evidence of wounds at or very near to the time of death, indicate a single-event massacre of 58 individuals, most of them males -- a massacre that would have been a huge event in the small Anasazi culture of the time.
In the article, Hurst and Geib write that the massacre “doubtless had a significant social impact at the time because of its scale, reverberating throughout the early farming communities of the Southwest.”
Hurst says that while it's tempting to draw further conclusions out of this ancient crime scene, the lack of evidence makes it hard to say why such a massacre happened.
“There's no clear evidence of foreign involvement; we don't see anything in the weapons preserved to indicate that it was two very different people fighting against each other,” Hurst says. “Our best guess is that people it was people in the basket-making culture that were fighting one another; beside that, it's impossible to know.”
Hurst also laments that it's hard even to say if massacres like those of Cave 7 were uncommon or not, since other burial sites have been ransacked by looters or have been excavated for museums without proper documentation.
“Richard Weatherill, to his credit, kept the collection together. It went to a museum, it was well-preserved and had a fair amount of information with it,” Hurst says. “But there are many alcoves out there that have been absolutely obliterated.”
To access the article on Hurst and Geib's findings, click here.
*Photo courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum