Halloween Horrors: Evidence of Torture in the Prehistoric Southwest US

Haunted lego versions of our favorite archaeological horrors- witches, zombies and vampires oh my! via Flickr user Pascal

Haunted lego versions of our favorite archaeological horrors- witches, zombies and vampires oh my! via Flickr user Pascal

With Halloween coming up right around the corner, there have been an increase in the attention paid to the spookier aspects of archaeology. We are increasingly able to find evidence of a real fear of vampires, witches and zombies. That’s right, evidence of fear- not evidence of actual vampires witches and zombies because they don’t exist. But fear is an important emotion to consider when viewing the past. While we watch movies about these horrors from the safety of our living rooms, people throughout history have had true fear that these forms of supernatural beings actually did exist. Without scientific explanation, bad events like children falling sick, cattle mysteriously dying off,  environmental shifts, plagues, or those who were thought dead returning to life were blamed on creatures such as witches, vampires and zombies. By putting stakes through their hearts, filling their mouths with rocks or nails, weighing them down with rocks, or placing them face-down in the grave, past populations truly believed they would be able to prevent further evil from these supposed supernatural creatures.

But there aren’t just supernatural fears of the unknown, there were real threats of torture, cannibalism, and warfare. These threats couldn’t be pacified with simple shifts in burial practices- they were acts committed against real people, by real people.

Osterholtz (2012) examines the role that torture played as a form of social communication in the prehistoric Southwest US. She begins by arguing that violence has the potential to increase group cohesion between victims, aggressors, and witnesses through destruction of the ‘other’. Basically, personalized torture can cause members of a group to become closer to one another. She examines the human remains found at the prehistoric site of Sacred Ridge in Colorado, which dates between 710 and 825 CE. During excavations of two mass grave pit burials, they found 15,000 fragments of human bone. By carefully refitting and comparing, they were able to determine that at least 33 individuals had been buried at this site. Demographic analysis found 10 males, 7 females, and the rest were unable to have sex determined, and there were both adults and children present.

What was unique about this burial, was that there was evidence of perimortem trauma on almost every body part (perimortem trauma means it occurred around the time of death). There are tool marks consistent with scalping, defleshing, dismembering, disemboweling, and mutilation. The assemblage seems to represent a family or clan grouping- meaning that there were a variety of ages and both sexes present, no specific age/sex group was targeted. Given the presence of all ages and both sexes, the haphazard pit burial, and extensive perimortem trauma, it is highly likely that this group was massacred. While this may represent cannibalism or execution of witches, there is a third more likely purpose.

The specific patterning of injuries leads Osterholtz (2012) to argue that this is evidence of torture and hobbling. Hobbling is the act of physically limiting mobility through trauma or binding. Both hobbling and torture are performative acts meant to influence either the victim or the witnesses- it is a highly effective form of social control that reveals the strength and capabilities of the aggressor. Osterholtz (2012) examines the foot bones specifically to see if hobbling was used as a method of social control for this sample. The sample included 190 bones from the foot, and they were examined for signs of perimortem crushing, cut-marks, chop-marks and scraping. She found a number of examples of damage to the top and outside edge of the calcaneus, which suggests crushing and cutting of ligaments to impair movement. Ligaments in these two areas are used to control the big toe- an important structure for walking, and also stabilize the ankle. Without these, the person couldn’t walk on their own. Evidence of crushing and peeling of the bottom of the foot bones suggests that these individuals were also tortured by having the soles of their feet exposed and beaten.


Plantar view of one individual's foot with white arrows indicating lateral crushing, via Osterholtz 2012

Plantar view of one individual’s foot with white arrows indicating lateral crushing, via Osterholtz 2012

Osterholtz (2012) concludes that based on the evidence of hobbling and torture, victims would have been physically unable to escape- leaving them totally physically and psychologically under the control of the aggressors. This provides us with an in-depth look at not only what the victims experienced, but what the witnesses saw, and possibly the motive of the aggressor to promote social control over the victims and witnesses. She argues that it is important that we view the assemblage from this perspective- as victim, witness and aggressor- not just from the victim whose body is examined. Torture is unnecessary, therefore, the broader purpose of social control must be examined. This type of evidence changes how we look at group interaction in the past. During this period in the US Southwest, there was increased agriculture and communities were growing large- this would put stress onto the people, and competition for the most fertile land and resources may have led to this type of structural violence, whereby one group exerts social control over another. It will be interesting to see how this changes interpretations in this period.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgOsterholtz, A. (2012). The social role of hobbling and torture: Violence in the prehistoric Southwest International Journal of Paleopathology, 2 (2-3), 148-155 DOI: 10.1016/j.ijpp.2012.09.011

3 responses to “Halloween Horrors: Evidence of Torture in the Prehistoric Southwest US

  1. Pingback: Happy Halloween! / ‘Memento mori’ rings | Electric Puppet·

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