Mass graves can lead to quite fantastic conclusions: they can be the remains of victims of a deadly disease, sacrifice, warfare or massacre. Looking at the broader contextual evidence, both historical and archaeological, can aid in determining what assemblages of human remains found deposited in a single moment mean. Its important to look for injuries, pathology, and any artifacts that might give some indication as to cause of death or reason for burial. The Basketmaker II Cave 7 assemblage was first discovered in the late 19th century. This first excavation found over 100 burials, many of which showed blunt force trauma. Others had projectile points embedded in their bones or were recovered in association with projectiles or weapons. The frequency of these injuries was determined to indicate that the assemblage was the result of a single-event massacre. A re-analysis of the remains in the early 1990’s supported this conclusion, arguing that the majority of remains were those of males which suggests this was a raid where females were captured and males were massacred. A new study by Coltrain et al. (2012) uses stable isotope analysis and radiometric dating to re-assess these conclusions.
Coltrain et al. (2012) conducted stable isotope analysis and radiometic dating on 98 of the 100 skeletons as part of a larger study to look at the agricultural patterns of the Basketmaker II peoples. The stable isotope analysis supported conclusions of a diet high in maize, however it was the radiometric dating assessment that was interesting. The Cave 7 burial assemblage dates from 1650 to 2086 in radiocarbon years, and forms a continuous sequence dates separated by no more than a decade. Comparison of individuals with clear trauma showed that the radiocarbon means were at least two generations apart, and there was no overlap in standard deviation.
In addition to the radiocarbon analysis, Coltrain et al. (2012) re-examined the trauma patterns that were identified by Hurst and Turner (1993). Coltrain et al. (2012) argue that 7 individuals identified as having peri-mortem trauma is questionable, making the percentage of trauma drop from 48% of the population to only 21%. Numerous other problems were found with the original data, including multiple individuals listed under a single accession number, missing individuals, and trauma listed in the notes which was note found on the skeletal remains. A re-analysis of the demography showed that 41%, not 66%, was made up of adult males, with 18 of the 39 individuals showing signs of trauma. Comparing the victims of trauma with radiocarbon dates showed that there was very little overlap in dates, suggesting the individuals were not killed at the same time, or even injured in the same period.
While the radiocarbon dates and evidence of trauma do not support the conclusion that the Basketmaker II Cave 7 site represents a single event massacre, there is other evidence that was cited that needs to be examined. The size of the burial assemblage and location of burials is not normal for the Basketmaker culture, and was therefore thought to represent an anomalous event. However, Coltrain et al. (2012) attribute this to the cave’s long term use as a burial site. The second cited evidence for massacre was the demography which was argued to be male dominated. While re-analysis of the demography did show less of a bias towards males, they are more present. However, there may be more females that have yet to be identified, since 19% of the individuals were not able to be placed in clear male or female categories. Next, a lack of non-weapon artifacts recovered from the site is thought to be evidence of their violent deaths. Coltrain et al. (2012) suggest instead that the preservation of perishable artifacts found at other Basketmaker sites would not have been possible in the cave site due to the moist conditions. Finally, a comparison of the trauma found at Crow Creek, a known massacre site, versus that at Cave 7 reveals that the latter does not seem to represent massacre in the same way and lacks the high frequency of trauma found at the former.
Coltrain et al. (2012) conclude “that rather than a single, anomalous massacre, violent deaths among Cave 7 burials are more reasonably attributed to episodic acts of violence between allied males perpetrated, perhaps less frequently, against opposition females and adolescents”. With the transition to agriculture they argue that there would have been increased competition among males. The re-analysis done by this research group is quite interesting, and does a good job of questioning previous conclusions and supporting evidence. My only critique is that we still don’t know why the cave would have been used, and why the violence at this one site is higher. It would have been beneficial to have more of an overview of Basketmaker mortuary patterns, and a fuller discussion of the cave site.
Coltrain, J., Janetski, J., & Lewis, M. (2012). A re-assessment of Basketmaker II cave 7: massacre site or cemetery context Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.02.018
Hurst, W.B., Turner II, C.G., 1993. Rediscovering the “Great Discovery:” Wetherill’s first Cave 7 and its record of Basketmaker violence. In: Atkins, V.M. (Ed.), Anasazi Basketmaker: Papers from the 1990 Wetherill-Grand Gulch Symposium, Cultural Series No. 24. Bureau of Land Management, Salt Lake City, pp. 143e191.