Monday, June 20, 2005

A Cannibalistic Gravesite

I'm neither an archaeologist nor an anthropologist, so I don't know what the modern consensus is on whether the Tonkawa Indians were cannibals or not. There was no mention of cannibalism in two well-respected sources: The Handbook of Texas Online and However, other online sources do mention that the Tonkawas were supposedly cannibals, including this site and this site. The following news article is a reflection of at least one scientific view from 1935.

Cannibal Tonkawas Set Up Mystery for Archeologist

Trunkless Heads Buried in Moody Cave Puzzle Indian Experts Who Dig Them Up

Waco Times-Herald
December 22, 1935

Did the cannibalistic Tonkawa Indians, who ate their Comanche enemies to imbibe the fierce spirit of those brave warriors, bury the heads of their enemies in a Tonkawa burial ground near Moody? Or do the decapitation burials in that ground indicate some other custom of the primitive inhabitants of these parts 200 or more years ago? These questions may be solved by archaeologists who have already dug up the remains of 22 Indians from a cave in Bell county, and who hope to find more. The skeletons are being carefully preserved for intense study.

Skulls Only Found

Three heads without body bones have been found and another, which may prove to have been buried by itself, but which, on the contrary, may later be found to have had other bones with it.

The Tonkawas unquestionably were cannibals, according to Frank Watt of Waco, who is conducting the research. This is proved by finding, at their camps, human bones broken for the removal of marrow, other human bones burned for cooking, and “bundle burials,” where the bones of the devoured enemy were tied up together and placed in the ground. The bones were carefully buried to prevent the Comanches from finding out that their fellows had been eaten. Tonkawas feared the terrible vengence of the scourges of the prairie.

Maybe the heads are those of Comanches; maybe they are those of Tonkawas decapitated in battle, the body buried elsewhere or abandoned on the field. The students are not yet sure; but somehow, by working carefully with whisk broom and dust-blower among the graves, they may get at the secret.

Watt thinks that probably the burial ground he has found is a Tonkawa cemetery, because it is in Tonkawa territory, but so far has no other proof. To date he has found no evidence in the bones themselves.

All but one of the bodies were buried flexed; that is, the burial party, following the usual custom, doubled them up. One, however, was buried extended; why, Watt does not know, unless for lack of space. This is one of the fascinating puzzles the archaeologists hope to work out.

The burial cave, recognized by Watt as a probable place where bones might be found, is about 25 feet deep, 100 feet long, with a ceiling ranging from six feet in front to 18 inches in the rear. A soil ranging in depth from 2 to 40 inches covers it.

Watercolor of Tonkawa Indians by Lino Sánchez y Tapia
Jean Louis Berlandier, The Indians of Texas in 1830 (1969).
Texas Collection Library, University of Texas

Covered With Rocks

The bones, however, were first covered with rocks, to prevent wild animals digging them up. Soil settled on these rocks, and droppings of limestone have covered them to the depth of sometimes two inches, indicating the long time the bones have lain undisturbed.

The remains are being carefully preserved by Watt in Waco, for study later by Dr. K.H. Aynesworth, and an exhaustive report on the findings. No other burial ground in this territory has yielded so many bodies. Included are the bodies of several children, one in which the milk teeth are still evident, as well as the bodies of women, and one of a warrior who had an arrowhead rattling in his ribs.

Watt doesn’t like to be too definite about the location of his find, because he says laymen, curious about such things, show an inclination to dig around and spoil the evidence. Some boys found the burial cave in question, after some digging had been done, and by careless digging ruined several of the skeletons. The archaeologists do their work carefully and minutely in order to save all particles, and Watt asks that laymen refrain from disturbing places where Indian relics might be found, and instead notify some expert who knows how to preserve them.


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