Eating humans "crucial" to spiritual life of the Xiximes people.
Workers excavate houses at Cueva del Maguey in Mexico, a site that revealed cannibalized bones.
Published September 30, 2011
It's long been rumored that an ancient, isolated people in what's now northern Mexico ate their own kind, in the hopes that they'd be able to eat corn later.
Now an analysis of more than three dozen bones bearing evidence of boiling and defleshing confirms that the Xiximes people were in fact cannibals, archaeologists say.
The Xiximes believed that ingesting the bodies and souls of their enemies and using the cleaned bones in rituals would guarantee the fertility of the grain harvest, according to historical accounts by Jesuit missionaries.
The newfound bones prove that cannibalism, "was a crucial aspect of their worldview, their identity," said José Luis Punzo, an archaeologist behind the new research.
(Related: "Cannibalism Normal For Early Humans?")
Eating Only Their Own
The mountains of what's now Durango state (map) were once home to some 5,000 Xiximes, as well as other indigenous groups.
It was only the Xiximes and the like-minded Acaxées who are said to have been cannibals, though no archaeological evidence for the practice has been found for the Acaxées, said Punzo, of the Durango office of the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).
"Through their rituals, cannibalism, and bone hoarding, they marked a clear boundary between an 'us' and 'them,'" Punzo said—"us" being the Acaxées and Xiximes, and "them" being everybody else.
The two groups fought and killed members of other groups, he said. But the Acaxées and Xiximes ate only their own kind, specifically men. Other native groups and Spanish colonizers were apparently ritually worthless, according to historical studies.
Cave Cache of Boiled Bones
Some historians had derided the missionaries' reports of cannibalism as exaggerations. But the bones found in Cueva del Maguey—a hamlet built inside a huge, cliffside cave—should erase any doubts, Punzo said.
(Related: "Neandertals Turned to Cannibalism, Bone Cave Suggests.")
Tests showed that 80 percent of four dozen bones—found in houses dated to around 1425—bear marks and other evidence of being boiled and cut with blades of stone, Punzo added.
The bones had been relatively untouched for centuries—a godsend for scientists made possible by the isolation of Cueva del Maguey, deep in a pine forest and 8,530 feet (2,600 meters) above sea level.