Evidence of Hobbling, Torture Discovered at Ancient Massacre Site in Colorado

sacred ridge foot bones

The site of a gruesome massacre some 1,200 years ago in southwestern Colorado is yielding new evidence of the severity, and the grisly intensity, of the violence that took place there.

First excavated in 2005 near the town of Durango, the site known as Sacred Ridge was in some ways a typical early Pueblo settlement, a collection of pithouses situated not far from similar communities, dated to around the year 800.

But digs at Sacred Ridge soon revealed a scene of visceral conflict that archaeologists are still trying to piece together.

Two of the settlement’s pithouses, it turned out, were filled with nearly 15,000 fragments of human bone — having been intentionally crushed to pieces — along with ceramic vessels and stone tools that retained residues of human blood and muscle tissue.

It was the largest assemblage of processed and mutilated human bones ever found in the Southwest.

(Learn more about prehistoric violence in the Southwest: “Grisly Mass Grave in Utah Cave Is Evidence of ‘Prehistoric Warfare,’ Study Says“)

More than a massacre, the scene at Sacred Ridge betrayed evidence of at least 33 people, men and women alike, having been not only butchered and burned, but, according to new research — also tortured.

Anna Osterholtz, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was part of the team that  investigated Sacred Ridge and has been analyzing and interpreting its grim remains.

Her latest research has focused a part of the anatomy that’s often overlooked — the feet — but her findings have uncovered evidence of apparently brutal torture.

The fragments of foot bones she studied bore the hallmarks of hobbling — the practice of immobilizing a victim’s feet, in this case by breaking the ankles — as well as severe beating on the soles, an act whose only purpose could have been to cause pain.

sacred ridge foot bones
Analysis of foot bones from Sacred Ridge revealed severe trauma on both the top (left) and bottom (right) of victims’ feet, including evidence of having been cut, chopped, crushed, and in some cases, beaten so severely that the outer layer of bone tissue peeled off. (Courtesy A. Osterholtz/Kiva)

While this does little to explain the assailants’ motivations, Osterholtz said, the evidence does suggest that widespread torture may have been used as a demonstration — a kind of performance meant to terrorize, warn, or otherwise subdue those at Sacred Ridge.

“I actually analyzed trauma on every portion of the body, ultimately examining almost 15,000 fragments,” she said.

Describing her findings recently in the journal Kiva, she wrote that she found evidence of violence “from the top of the head to the tips of the toes.”

“But the feet were really my introduction to this concept of performance,” she said in an interview, “because I couldn’t see a reason for the damage I was seeing in the foot bones other than torture.”

Her analysis began with the painstaking process of piecing together fragments of bone to reconstruct portions of the skeletal remains.

Of the 14,882 fragments recovered from the two structures at Sacred Ridge, Osterholtz identified 190 that were of foot bones. And of those, 49 fragments came together to form conjoins, or refitted segments of bones.

“All of the conjoins showed evidence of some sort of trauma, regardless of sex,” she said.

“Most of that trauma was in the form of crushing, cut marks, and chop marks.”

Pieces of the talus, or ankle bone, for example, showed signs of blunt-force trauma, suggesting repeated blows to the side of the ankle, while bones on the top of the foot revealed evidence of having been scraped, crushed and smashed.

Even more striking was the condition of bones from the sole of the foot, which appeared to have been beaten so severely that the outer layer of bone had peeled away in layers.

“Tool marks and fractures to the rest of the body’s elements had other explanations, including processing or perimortem trauma, but the tool marks and peeling on the foot elements would serve no such purpose, and would only have been useful in causing pain,” Osterholtz said.

Signs of such vicious treatment in such a specific sample suggests that the victims in the pithouses were singled out by their attackers, she said, perhaps as cautionary examples to others in the community.

“This type of trauma was not widespread outside of the commingled and fragmentary assemblage,” she said. “It was restricted to the pit structures with the fragmentary remains.

“This is one reason I think that hobbling and torture was used as a way of controlling the population before and during the massacre.”

In this way, the torture of the victims at Sacred Ridge might have functioned as a macabre kind of spectacle, intended to control the rest of the community, Osterholtz explained.

“Performance necessitates an audience, but who those witnesses are is an interesting question,” she said.

Understandably, the morbid scene at Sacred Ridge has been the subject of speculation among anthropologists and historians. Some have posited, based on the cut marks on the bones and the human residue found in cooking pottery, that the remains were evidence of cannibalism.

But Osterholtz and others point out that the sheer size of the bone assemblage is far greater than any ever associated with  humans having been eaten.

Similarly, some have theorized that the victims may have been executed as “witches,” a theory that has been used to explain evidence of human butchering at some other Puebloan sites.

But again, no such killings on this scale or with this degree of trauma have ever been recorded in the American Southwest, Osterholtz noted.

Animas La Plata dig
Sacred Ridge was excavated as part of the Animas-La Plata archaeological project, which investigated sites that would be affected by the creation of Colorado’s Lake Nighthorse.

However, earlier research of the victims’ teeth, by anthropologists James Potter and Jason Chuipka, analyzed ratios of the element strontium in their enamel to determine where the dead had come from.

(Learn more about how strontium can reveal secrets of the dead: “Mass Grave of ‘Prodigal Sons’ in California Poses Prehistoric Mystery“)

The results showed that the victims had lived most of their lives in the region right around Sacred Ridge, and thus were not likely killed as invaders.

Instead, it may have been the interlopers themselves who killed the people of Sacred Ridge, Osterholtz said, having used torture as a means of subduing the local population.

“I started to think about what the purpose of causing pain would be, which led me to the idea of social control and the use of torture in modern conflict,” she said.

“I think that the witnesses were possibly other community members who may have simply heard the massacre going on.

“The witnesses may also have been future victims or initiate members of the aggressor’s social group.”

(Learn more about patterns of ancient violence: “From Stone Darts to Dismembered Bodies, New Study Reveals 5,000 Years of Violence in Central California“)

Whatever their intentions were, the assailants didn’t seem to have Sacred Ridge itself in mind as their prize.

“The radiocarbon dates from these assemblages have the latest dates from the site, so the massacre was likely one of the final activities at the site,” Osterholtz said.

Sacred Ridge was abandoned around 810, soon after the massacre.

“Assemblages such as Sacred Ridge are incredibly rare in the archaeological record, and the identification of possible hobbling and torture are even rarer,” Osterholtz concluded in her Kiva study.

“Given the massive social changes occurring during the Pueblo I period (including aggregation and architectural changes, the solidification of matrilineal descent groups, and possible ritual changes), the increase of social stresses would be a natural byproduct. This stress could have been mitigated through the use of performative violence.”


OSTERHOLTZ, A. (2013). HOBBLING AND TORTURE AS PERFORMATIVE VIOLENCE KIVA, 78 (2), 123-144 DOI: 10.1179/kiv.2013.78.2.002

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  1. John

    Sounds like the modern day Guantanamo Bay detention camp techniques used today.

    1. Joe K

      Really? At Guantanamo Bary, is the “sole of the foot” is “beaten so severely that the outer layer of bone . . .peeled away in layers?” Really? Silly off-topic comments like yours add nothing to the discussion.

  2. […] via Evidence of Hobbling, Torture Discovered at Ancient Massacre Site in Colorado | Western Digs. […]

  3. Dan Kimble

    Yes, more evidence of the Noble Savage.

    Oh, the horrors of the European settlement of the North American continent. (sarcasm)

    The politically correct seem to have covered up the evidence of the favorite pastime of the aboriginal Americans….torture. But, they didn’t have TV…..so, this is understandable, right?

    The aboriginal Americans were known by the earliest Europeans to have practiced brutal torture of their enemies. They would torture their captives for hours…..for the fun of it.

    Torture has been a part of human culture through history. It was the Europeans who put a stop to it.

    1. manapp99

      But Europeans did a lot of torture on their own. Look at the inquisitions and the Spanish treatment of the people down south for evidence. Massacres in North America of indigenous people were chronicled and who can forget the slave years.

      Europeans did not stop torture. They were among the most prolific at it.

    2. Chad Justice

      @Dan – That is one of the most racist little tantrums I’ve seen on an archaeology site recently. There were terrible horrors caused by the expansion of Europeans into both continents. There was also a lot of violence within the indiginous cultures of the Americas but you’re assertion that Europeans put a stop to torture and violence and that all indiginous cultures were violent is spurious and rediculous. I don’t know where you get your idea that there is some secret “political correct” group covering up evidence. That is conspiritorial idiocy! All human cultures have violent characteristics and justifying European genocide (small pox blankets was just one strategy employed by Europeans) by saying those people were horrible and we did them a favor is so incredibly and maliciously racist I don’t know what else to say but, “Stop It.” Keep your bigoted nonsense to yourself.

      1. Larry K

        Please read your history and don’t fall for that noble savage drivel. Read the original writings of first contact histories which give plenty of evidence of violence Indian cultures perpetrated on each other.
        Europeans did not give small pox infected blankets to anyone. That is a myth. Anyway small pox does not live outside the human body for more than a few hours.

    3. Doug

      Well said.

      1. Anthony

        Well said but completely wrong. Strive harder.

        1. Doug

          How am I completely wrong? How is “well said” wrong?
          Strive harder? OK- Very well said. Said well. You did a good job with what you said. I think the way you phrased things was quite well done.
          Is that better?

          1. Doug

            And Anthony, what input have you had? Just a little internet warrior jab? Or did I miss your bequeathment of knowledge?

  4. Greg789

    @Larry K Good comment. President Jefferson, who was inoculated against smallpox, made it the U.S. policy to inoculate the Indians in 1803 and ordered Lewis and Clark to carry a supply with them to introduce to the Indians.

  5. […] Evidence of Hobbling, Torture Discovered at Ancient Massacre Site in Colorado | Western Digs […]

  6. Rory Tyler

    San Juan Basketmaker, and I assume Durango as well, went to full time agriculture c. 1300 b.p. This was about the time of the Teotehuacan collapse on the Mexican Plateau. A diaspora, possibly militant, may have made its way north. The speculation re: an violent invasive element is worth consideration. “Do it our way, or we’ll torture and murder you.” A compelling argument. Subsequently, we see the rise in this region of the Anasazi culture which included such Mexican-sourced refinements as buildings, roads, and cannibalism. Ahh, the peaceful Anasazi.

  7. Kelvin

    If nothing else our country should stop using the formally thought of Noble Red mans names in honor for military vehicles and also for sport teams now that we found the Indians were far more violent than what was pushed on us from the start.

  8. Steve Brooks

    Wow, that’s all i’m going to say to Kelvin and Dan, simply ‘WOW’. That is some ignorance you have their, you must be in pure bliss! In Europe at that time, we were breaking people on the wheel, dislocating peoples joints on the rack and don’t even get me started on the Norse Blood Eagle or other inventive ways thought up in the Dark Ages (yes, 800AD was the Dark Ages) The seemingly endless war throughout Europe in this age, would have made this look a picnic in comparison. Do not think for a second that we were any different than them in this period. As for the small pox blankets, that was after Lewis and Clarke and was aimed at the Cheyenne and other later tribes to reduce their number and make it easier to seize their lands ahead of the gold rush in the black hills. It is a historical fact and is recorded in hundreds of history books. They were even used on the reservations, and you were lucky if your blanket just had smallpox, most blankets hadnt even been washed before they were sent to the “Animal Pens” sorry, reservations. I’m going to stop now, but as an American, you should open your eyes to history and what your ancestors done, not live in ignorance and just say it was all lies.

    1. Larry K

      You are wrong about the blankets and small pox. Ward Churchill is responsible for perpetuating this myth. He has been thoroughly discredited. A good example of how tenured professors get away with shoddy research – http://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/plag/5240451.0001.009/–did-the-us-army-distribute-smallpox-blankets-to-indians?rgn=main;view=fulltext

  9. bryan

    All of these comments refer to the damage done to the victims feet as torture as does
    The article itself. Is it not more plausible that it was caused to keep their food supply from running away? Had they just killed the victims the meat would have spoiled quickly.

    1. Nick Carter

      If you have so little food that you need to start eating human beings, but you also have too many humans to eat before their meat spoils, the most efficient way to proceed would be to kill them all at once and jerk the meat – a technique with which the killers here would presumably have been familiar. Otherwise, whether or not you hobble your victims, their metabolisms are going to keep on keeping on up to the moment of death. That means that either you’ll have to feed them (but you already don’t have enough food) or let them starve slowly (breaking down their muscle tissue and tasty fat). This really seems more like a nasty display of power.

  10. Dave Olson

    Two wrongs don’t make a right, but both sides must acknowledge their own wrongdoing(s). We can all agree that torture is evil, bad, and wrong, but as long as one (pre-Enlightenment Europe) is constantly made an example of while another (pre-Columbian Aboriginal America) is ignored or whitewashed, your argument is invalid.

    Whitewashed….get it?

  11. Chris Amon

    Ok not entirely sure if smallpox blankets were real, but it certainly sounds plausible because we Americans did a lot worse than that. To say “oh there goes the myth of the noble red man! They had cannibals, they had massacres, we did the world a favor by exterminating them” is both ignorant and evil. This is an archeology website, go peddle hate over at MSNBC.
    Ok! Got that off my chest. So I’ve read in the spanish accounts of the DeSoto expedition that the Mississippians hobbled slaves who they captured in war. Since the site was abandoned shortly after, could these people represent recently captured slaves?

  12. Robert

    Is there anyway to determine the sex of these bones?
    Was this torture done to both male and female?

  13. Beth

    I am appalled by some of the comments, but unfortunately not at all surprised. As an enrolled tribal member from Montana, I can say without a doubt that there were fighting and war amongst the tribes. There is no disputing that. As a people we were a force to be reckoned with, when the playing field was level. We as tribal people have never said we were completely pacifists nor that we lived a life of non violence. Every human being no matter what their ethnicity has exhibited a level of violence whether it was warranted, rationalized, provoked or any for other reason the human mind can conjure.

    I will now return to my statement of a level playing field…when the Europeans came to the Americas, they came to take and they used every power available to them to do so. They felt Native Americans were savages, a people who were beneath them. Native Americans did not have the same weapons available to them. And yes we did acquire guns, but never the heavier artillery as the armies. We were protecting our own people and land.

    History is written by the winner. Our history books do not tell the whole story. What’s portrayed as battles won by the US Army, was usually a massacre on the Native people. Yes we did retaliate, but in the end, we lost.

    As far as blankets with small pox, that is absolutely true. This was a form of germ warefare. You may “read” in the history books or other documents that it was not, but those accounts are wrong or used to cover up a wrong. We have stories passed down that account for this. You may scoff, but our history is an oral history. And in the grand scheme of things, this history was not that long ago.

    Our stories tell us of thousands of lodges (teepees) being decimated by small pox. Eight to 10 people per lodge, that adds up to a big number! On our reservation we have a ridge, where those people who died of small pox are buried & remembered.

    On a last note, the genocide of the Native American people has not stopped, it is just quiet and slow. As I stated above that I am an “enrolled” member of a tribe; that means that I am recognized by the federal government as a tribal member. I have a number and an I.D. card that says so. How many of you have to carry one of those?

    The federal government has used the blood quantum as a form of genocide. The “rule” is a person has to be 1/4 of the tribe they are born to and be able to trace ancestry back two generations. We are now in the 21st century, so of course there is a mixing of blood, both European and other tribes. In the end if a Native American person cannot prove blood quantum for one tribe, but have more than a 1/4 blood quantum if they have of let’s just say 3 tribes put together, they are not recognized as a Native American by the government.

    So at the end of the day, no one is denying that many the tribes weren’t warrior societies. We are not even saying that we didn’t need to adopt a new way of life or to modernize. We are saying that what happened to us, in the way it happened to us is the atrocity. Denying what was done is the atrocity. Whether you have read or believe the latter to be truth or not. As modern native people we feel the generational pain of the American Holocaust, and gerations to come will feel the pain of it also.

    1. Larry

      I disagree about the blankets and your comment about “germ warfare” but I agree that smallpox and other diseases from the Europeans devastated the native American populations. However, all of this was really inevitable once the Europeans landed in the Americas. There was no way to stop it until it reached every tribe just as there was no way to stop the spread of syphilis around the world which originated in the Americas. What really annoys me is the way people tend to choose sides in these discussions. Unless you come from royalty there are stories that almost every family can tell about hardships and unfairness. My family comes from immigrant Germans who came to America from the Volga region of Russia where they had settled since the 1700’s. They were severely persecuted both before and after the Russian revolution. Their homes and farms and property were stolen and they were killed and starved and eventually exiled to Siberia with nothing, not even their tools. I don’t expect people to consider me a victim of those atrocities. If native americans continue to consider themselves victims instead of taking advantage of what this country has to offer then you will never prosper .

      1. Beth

        Larry, I can appreciate your point of view. My comment was in response to one of the previous comments, that was completely in bad taste. I in no way consider myself a victim and not every Native American does. I simply was sharing what I know to be true of my culture. I am educated, live off of the reservation, although I still call it home, its where my roots are. Feeling a generational hurt is not about playing the victim, its about remembrance. I agree that just about every culture has experienced persecution, but where I’m coming from is I have heard first hand from family members & friends who experienced the assimilation. It wasn’t that long ago in history. Hearing directly from a grandparent about the pain they suffered in many forms is not easily forgotten. There is such a misconception of native people past and present, such as you comment about us never prospering. That is just not true, many people are leading a disadvantaged life, and they are from ALL walks of life. I have family members who are educated, who are business owners, lawyers, doctors, politicians, you name it…they are prosperous, successful members of society. But they too feel the generational hurt. It is something that I don’t think a person can understand until you’ve felt it. It has nothing to do with playing the victim card.

        1. Larry

          Of course there are many examples of prosperous native americans. I am truly impressed by those of any disadvantaged culture that overcome these disadvantages and succeed beyond all expectations. One cannot generalize but what I see is that the culture that someone comes from does matter – a lot. My sister in-law is an Ojibwa. She has succeeded in life in so many ways, in her career, in her care for her family and she would tell you it is all due to Jesus Christ and her faith in Him.
          I know that native american culture is not all corrupt and there are some very admirable things about it to be appreciated and remembered but in many cases it has been corrupted by activists and troublemakers. She would also tell you that her other family members that still live on the reservation are poisoned by that culture. They for the most part think they are “owed” by every white person they meet. They do consider themselves victims and warriors against not just the government but every white man. They do not work and have large tribal stipends (from casinos). Although they have considerable financial means I do not consider them successful. They have scorned education and have embraced the drug culture. They have reverted to spiritualism and animism as their “religion”. Their families are a mess and the children are growing up in this same kind of disaster. This is what has become of native American culture in too many communities. Until this culture changes there will be no change.

        2. Treva


  14. Amber

    What in the world do most of these comments have to do with the article? Bringing up European history is irrelevant. The only thing remotely on topic is the myth of the noble savage, and even that’s about modern perspective than anything else (when you get down to it, we’re either all noble savages or none of us are, and the same goes for our ancestors).

    People suck. That’s it. The same goes for everyone, every culture and race and nationality. Trying to compare them and justify some against the other is not only really bizarre but also handwaves the suffering of real people.

  15. Philip Rabito

    Actually, I have never read such revised history in my life. And as both a historian and ethno-historian, all I could say that the supposed “myth” of the small pox blankets is not a myth. But most of you decided to put what happened in the 19th century. It didn’t happen then. It happened right after the French and Indian Wars, and during the Pontiac Rebellion of 1762-63. The British Army did it.
    Now as for the article is was a well documented and precise article which has given its readers a lot of information which would not have have been known, except for the work which was being undertaken. I enjoyed and helped me to understand further what was happening during this period. Thank you very much for publishing it!

  16. Tim Lohrentz

    Massacre of a Purepecha remnant, who had been hiding by Durango for 100 years from central Mexico, by the Toltec. The reason was that these Purepecha had stopped development at Teotihuacan. And in 800 CE other Purepecha scientists stopped development at Maya sites in general due to fears of desertification. As revenge the Toltec carried out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing, including those in Durango. The survivors became the Kiowa.

  17. Tara Wheeldon

    I am curious to know if any bone spurs were recovered. Bone spurs usually grow in the medial portion of missing heel areas. This may have been nearly podiatry- remove the spur and reshape the foot versus make an orthotic. Anyone who has had severe plantar fasciitis and requires custom orthotic, knows a deformed foot is extremely crippling. I would endure the pain if it had a good result.