Grisly Mass Grave in Utah Cave Is Evidence of ‘Prehistoric Warfare,’ Study Says

Basketmaker II projectile point

Nearly a hundred skeletons buried in a cave in southeast Utah offer grisly evidence that ancient Americans waged war on each other as much as 2,000 years ago, according to new research.

Dozens of bodies, dating from the first century CE, bear clear signs of hand-to-hand combat: skulls crushed as if by cudgels; limbs broken at the time of death; and, most damning, weapons still lodged in the back, breast and pelvic bones of some victims — including stone points, bone awls, and knives made of obsidian glass.

Signs of violence were evident in 58 of the approximately 90 bodies found in the cave. Most of the victims were men, but at least 16 women were also found among the dead, as well as nearly 20 children, some as young as three months old.

Since the discovery of this prehistoric charnel house — known to archaeologists as Cave 7 — more than a hundred years ago, there has been little doubt about the violence visited upon those interred there.

But anthropologists continue to debate what that violence meant — specifically, whether Cave 7 was simply a burial ground for casualties of individual conflicts and small skirmishes over centuries, or whether it was more like a war cemetery, where victims were put to rest after a single, catastrophic conflict between cultures.

Cave 7 Utah
Cave 7 in southeastern Utah as it appears today

The site was first excavated in 1893 by Richard Wetherill — the self-taught archaeologist who also led digs at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon — and it was a historic discovery in many regards. Judging by the artifacts and other clues found around them, the mutilated bodies were the first evidence of a new people: a pre-ceramic culture that predated the Ancestral Pueblo. From the handiwork they left behind, Wetherill called them “Basket People,” later to be known as Basketmakers, a culture that thrived in the Southwest from about 500 BCE until 750 CE or later.

But the significance of this find was almost overshadowed by the circumstances surrounding the Basketmakers’ deaths. The carnage found in Cave 7 could only be explained, Wetherill concluded, by the “sudden and violent destruction of a community by battle or massacre.”

And this interpretation held for more than a century, until 2012, when radiocarbon dating of some of the bones from the cave showed that the burials actually spanned many centuries — from the first century CE to the early 300s — suggesting that the dead represented several, smaller conflicts over time.

Now, a new analysis of the Cave 7 remains finds that, while the dates do cover a range, the victims of violence in particular appear to date from the same period, intimating that they’re evidence of a “single-event mass killing.”

In a recent study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Dr. Phil Geib of the University of New Mexico and Utah archaeologist Winston Hurst obtained new radiocarbon dates for some of the remains, but they also relied heavily on a traditional standard of archaeology: context.

Drawing on Wetherill’s original field notes, as well as photographs and other documentation, they determined the positions of the bodies within layers of sediment, and also in relation to each other, to assess which were buried together.

In doing this, they identified four sets of remains that were clearly buried in tandem — each from slightly  different parts of the cave, some bearing obvious signs of violence, others not — to serve as samples for the new radiocarbon dating.

Cave 7 Utah excavation
Members of Richard Wetherill’s Hyde Exploring Expedition Crew excavating Cave 7 in the 1890s (University of Pennsylvania Museum)

The first group consisted of eight adult men, their bodies flexed and their faces turned toward the mouth of the cave, all but one of whom exhibited signs of what the scientists call “extreme cranial trauma.”

The second featured the body of a young woman with three children positioned on her breast, ranging in age from one to three years, none of which showed any skeletal damage.

The third included seven skeletons seemingly stacked in a haphazard pile, four of them males that had clearly suffered yet more “cephalic brutalization.”

The fourth burial was that of four adult women, one of whom may have been injured at the time of death, and another young child.

Analysis of collagen, a protein, extracted from 11 bone samples among these four groups showed that three of the groups dated to around the same time — from about 1,915 to 1,950 years ago, within the dating process’s margins of error.

Only the remains in the second group, the undamaged female skeleton with the three children, were slightly more recent, dating to about 1,880 years ago.

While Geib and Hurst don’t contest that the 90-some dead in Cave 7 were likely buried at more than one time, these results lead them to conclude that the site’s most salient feature — the nearly five dozen brutalized bodies — were indeed the result of a single massacre.

Basketmaker II projectile point
A Basketmaker II projectile point (Photographer: Ryan Belnap, Bilby Researcher Center, Northern Arizona University)

“Regardless of how many other separate interments there were …,” they write, “it is evident that the bulk of the Cave 7 assemblage was interred at the same time and consisted of victims of a mass killing.”

The researchers note that the majority of the victims who suffered the most obvious deadly force were men — 35 of the 58 bludgeoned bodies. This suggests a more “preferential” approach to killing used among familiar groups, they say, as opposed to the indiscriminate murder of men, women, and children of all ages that’s usually seen in conflicts between different cultural or ethnic groups.

So rather than an act of genocide, the Cave 7 massacre was probably part of a large, but internecine, war within Basketmaker culture, they say, “a clear example of internal warfare.” [Read more about the role of sex in studying mass graves: “Infamous Mass Grave of Young Women in Ancient City of Cahokia Also Holds Men: Study“]

And they go on to point out that, armed with little more than cudgels, knives, and spear-throwing atlatls, there probably would have to have been twice as many attackers as victims, in order to exact the damage seen in the cave.

And yet, all archaeological evidence suggests that Basketmakers at this time lived only in scattered, remote farms, with no more than a few families sharing space. In fact, they note, the largest community in the region — a complex called Rock Island — included no more than nine small pithouses, probably not large enough to account for all the victims in the cave.

So, to the scientists, Cave 7 “suggests collective action far beyond anything that archaeologists can infer at this time from all other evidence,” they write. “It implies a form of social organization and cooperation, even if fleeting, that far exceeds in scale the social units of Basketmaker residential sites or even clusters of such sites.”

Such “massacre assemblages,” Geib and Hurst say, “are the sine qua non for war.”

And indeed, the violence betrayed by Cave 7 was probably of such tremendous scope that, even 2,000 years ago, it may have been considered history-making.

“This incident … doubtless had a significant social impact at the time because of its scale, reverberating throughout the early farming communities of the Southwest,” they write.


Sources:

ResearchBlogging.org
Phil Geib, Winston Hurst (2013). Should dates trump context? Evaluation of the Cave 7 skeletal assemblage radiocarbon dates Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2013.01.034

A re-assessment of Basketmaker II cave 7: massacre site or cemetery context,” Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol. 39, Issue 7

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Discussion

  1. Doug Paulin

    It’s hardly a revelation that Native Americans were just as violent as they accuse European settlers of being. They just eventually came up against an enemy they couldn’t beat, something that’s happened countless times throughout history.

    1. w mcmanus

      That’s a pretty idiotic blanket statement, and frankly, Racist.

      1. PMN

        “Racist”? How does that top-shelf pejorative apply?

      2. GregT

        Oh my, the irony in your statement…..delicious

      3. moberndorf

        Nonsense.

    2. Kevin

      equating the small-scale inter-social attacks of ‘Basketmaker’ groups with the aggressive incursions of European colonials such as the DeSoto or James (whose expeditions admittedly wiped out hundreds in single confrontations) does reflect some type of ideological myopia.

      if it is not racism or ethnocentrism, it is surely poor scholarship.

      1. Gunnard Larson

        Well said.

  2. […] Grisly Mass Grave in Utah Cave Is Evidence of ?Prehistoric Warfare,? Study Says | Western Digs Quote: […]

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  4. […] Nearly a hundred skeletons buried in a cave in southeast Utah offer grisly evidence that ancient Americans waged war on each other as much as 2,000 years ago, according to new research.Dozens of bodies, dating from the first century CE, bear clear signs of hand-to-hand combat: skulls crushed as if by cudgels; limbs broken at the time of death; and, most damning, weapons still lodged in the back, breast and pelvic bones of some victims — including stone points, bone awls, and knives made of obsidian glass.  […]

  5. Kathryn

    I’m amazed that an observation that “Native Americans were just as violent” as Europeans, and that they shared the same recurring historical problem — affecting ALL RACES — of eventually coming up against an enemy they couldn’t beat (same as the Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Mongols, Picts, Africans, Aztecs, etc.), can be considered “Racist.” Acknowledging that humanity shares common traits regardless of race is the OPPOSITE of racism.

    1. rixmax

      Kudos for your response! You’re correct… the exact opposite of racist. I’m so sick of that term being misused or worse used to obscure the original point.

    2. BG Davis

      Actually, the statement that triggered the response included a bit more: “Native Americans were just as violent as they accuse European settlers of being”
      The key part being the injection of adversarial commentary (“they accuse…”) which is extraneous to the article and to the topic.
      It may not be racist, but it is political, defensive and more than a bit smug. There is no “acknowledging” of anything like common traits, rather a hostile “you’re another” comment.

  6. Don Keller

    Very useful synopsis, Blake. Thanks much. And good to meet you on the Pecos Conference tour out to Wupatki. All the best.

  7. Prehistoric Massacre??

    […] From a Utah cave first examined by Richard Wetherill in 1893…. Grisly Mass Grave in Utah Cave Is Evidence of ?Prehistoric Warfare,? Study Says | Western Digs […]

  8. vince

    i find it very interesting that they found some of the mens bodies buried with faces towards the front of the cave, very symbolic, a look into the minds of those who buried them, i think maybe this cave was a place where only people who died in battle or because of war were buried, to bad we will never know the reasons they were buried in the positions they were found in,

  9. Dave

    In this way we appease the slain enemy’s ghost so they won’t cause trouble.

  10. Primitive warfare

    […] Grisly Mass Grave in Utah Cave Is Evidence of ?Prehistoric Warfare,? Study Says | Western Digs […]

  11. Richard Wisecarver

    At the Sedillo Site in lbuquerque, NM we found an adult female with a large depressed head fracture on the floor of a shallow pithouse and matching maul (mauls were rare)in the next pithouse along with a deer headress. The site dated from the 900’s AD. On the floor of a deep pithouse we found a 9 yeaar old child that had crawled into a ventlator tunnel. His lower imbs were scatterd all over the floor of the house ad he had an obsdian arrow point in nhis chest cavity, Neither of the bodies appear to have been buried and the lower limbs of the child appeared to have scattered byb predators. As I remember quite a few nof the oithouses in the site had been burned. I have excavated 7 burials in pithouse sites in the Middle Rio Grande dating from 650 to 900ADand while most pithouse had been burned, only these two bodies appeared to have been the result of violence Many of the earlier pithouses appeared to have been stripped of valuables prior to burning. One house had a deliberate burial in a vemtiator shaft that was unburnt, then the house was burnt. Another two houses were accidentally burned; another was burned and then filled withb trash and thenn a burial. three nmore were burnt wit very little on the floor. Matt Schmader in 1988 excavated 35 a houses and 12 burials in the same area across from Bernalillo. They had shallow and deep pithouse often in pairs He does’t mention victims of violence. So warfare does occur but is not common in the Middle Rio Grande fo 650 to 950AD/

  12. charles bruns

    losers croak, winners joke.
    who wrote your history in what language, hmmm?

    1. Jason

      That war is not over, think about that. Longest war in US History and it is not over, just being fought differently. Put that in your peace pipe and smoke it.

    2. Aaron England

      Do you even know what you’re talking about? Most Native Americans were wiped out by two things. Smallpox and interracial marriage. We’ll use my people for instance. They were reduced from near 50,000 down to around 500 by a combination of smallpox and raids from the Cherokee and Tuscarora. After that my people moved and gathered the remnants of other near-extinct tribes and lived on what was called “stolen British property” where they have resided since the mid 1700’s. The area that is known as Drowning Creek has been under our control ever since and neither the British, Spanish, or French have successfully attempted to take it from us. Unless you count smallpox as germ warfare then you guys did nothing to us. The Spanish were the only ones who had any kind of success with conquering and even they didn’t do a very good job because most of the Native Americans in Central and South America today are descendents of the the tribes that were supposedly wiped by the Spanish Conquistadors.

  13. Jason

    There were people warring everywhere. The American Indians just lost to a sea of immigrants, and technology. Before the invention of the 6 shooter, the Comanche Indians, would dominate most encounters and caused depopulation in Texas for over 100 miles back east until the late 1870’s.. Not to mention the other Plains tribes, who mastered the horse and rifle, nor forget their skills with rapid firing bow and arrows. They were know to be better horssmen then the calvalry and many generals considered them (the Comanche) the greatest mounted calvary ever in the world.

  14. Prehistoric Warefare site

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  15. John A

    the cave itself was most likely the reason for the battles. It would be the envy of all groups looking for a camp safe from weather, animals & other humans. It would have been defended to the death, and many great plans were forged to take it from the occupants. Fascinating! No reason to bring hate into it…

  16. T. Van Alstyne
  17. […] Grisly Mass Grave in Utah Cave Is Evidence of ‘Prehistoric Warfare,’ […]

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  19. L. Gringo

    Enron Pipeline survey project field crews recorded a small Anasazi village on uplands above the Puerco in the Gallup section around 1990. At least one kiva held the remains of dozens of individuals of both genders and all ages, all missing heads, hands, and feet. Don’t bother looking for this information in the final report, however, as the investigators chose not to include it.

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