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Dietary Deficiencies in Oasis America and the “Lost Anasazi/Paquimé Trade Route

Cribra orbitalia/porotic hyperostosis is a disabling skeletal disorder caused by iron-deficiency anemia. Evidence of this condition is broadly found in virtually all late date Oasis America mega-sites where human skeletal remains have been analyzed . Severe malnutrition is evident in the remains of adults and children, both male and female. In conjunction with this, there is dramatic evidence in the archaeological record that large mammals, such as deer, antelope, and bighorn sheep, were frequently consumed during the founding phases of virtually all the Paquimé/Anasazi/Hohokam pueblos.

At Paquimé, a high percentage of the bone recovered was from bison. This makes Paquimé unique, as no other site excavated in the region, including those that predate Paquimé, uncovered any substantial amount of bison bone. In addition, the House of the Well in central Paquimé, shows evidence of two full bison, along with numerous ceremonial birds that were sacrificed there.

In the early days of the pueblos’ existence, the supply of protein was sufficient. In the final phases of their existence, pueblo inhabitants were eating rabbits, mice, and rats to satisfy their protein needs. I originally thought that a general decline in agricultural production caused by lack of fertile soil and a buildup of soil salinity led to the cultural collapse of Oasis America . My archaeological research has clearly demonstrated, however, that the Paquimé/Anasazi/Hohokam cultures were using advanced technological systems to produce fertilizer and store corn. They were also transporting the grain over long distances from the growing fields to the silo-granary storage sites. Enough food was not the problem; rather, it was the lack of available dietary iron.

In a 1965 analysis of 18 Pueblo III burials at Mesa Verde, remains dating from AD 1000-1300 were examined; Reed cited arthritis and dental pathologies combined with low life expectancy as indications of a stressed population (Martin, Goodman, Armelagos, and Magennis 1991:7). Chaco Canyon Anasazi suffered from “subsistence stress,” according to Akins (1986), as indicated by growth disruption, high rates of nutritional anemia, and degenerative diseases (Martin et al. 1991:8). Todd Bostwick, Ph.D. reports that there was high mortality among Hohokam females of childbearing age as a result of anemia during the last phase of habitation at Pueblo Grande and other sites.

A common finding in many paleopathological studies is the presence of nutritional anemia. A study by El-Najjar and colleagues (1976) concluded that a dependence on maize in marginal areas, like those found in the Southwest, predisposes individuals, especially children, to health problems (Martin, et al. 1991:10); Martin and colleagues state that Walker then expanded this finding through an extensive review of published literature on anemia for all the major Southwestern sites and concluded:

The remarkable prevalence of osseous lesions indicative of anemia among prehistoric Southwest Indians apparently resulted from the interaction of a complex set of biological and cultural variables relating to nutrition and infectious disease. Lack of iron in the diet, prolonged breast feeding, diarrheal and helminth infections, and living conditions conducive to the spread of disease all appear to have contributed to the prevalence of [anemia] (1985:153).

Reliance on corn as the primary food source actually increases the need for red meat, as maize inhibits iron absorption. El-Najjar and Robertson (1976) indicate that the Anasazi diet of maize is important in interpreting porotic hyperostosis in the skeletal remains of a child from Canyon de Chelly (Martin et al. 1991:163). Analysis of the corn species used today throughout the Southwest shows it is very low in usable iron, and the iron content of a Mexican tortilla is less than 3.2 mg/tortilla (Martin et al. 1991:163). Red meat enhances the absorption of iron and when it is an integral part of the diet, anemia is not a problem.

There is strong evidence throughout the Americas that large mammals become locally extinct in areas of high human density; the archaeological record indicates that this occurs when social conflict reaches a peak over increasingly scarce natural resources. The Oasis America cultures, suffering from severe anemia because of the lack of health-producing protein sources, had the option of adopting Mesoamerican dietary practices. Despite the fact that any population suffering from severe anemia would be at a tremendous disadvantage against healthy neighbors or invaders, there is well-documented evidence of widespread violence and strife at the end of the Oasis America period, as indigenous tribal groups who were against Mesoamerican practices rebelled against those in favor of that solution to their health needs. The trade route from the Paquimé/Anasazi to Mesoamerica , now known as the “lost trade route,” fell into disuse after about AD 1450 precisely because of the warfare and strife over Mesoamerican dietary practices . Carlos Lazcano reports that by the time of Coronado ’s arrival in 1541 all tribes north of Durango and Sinaloa had rejected the Mesoamerican dietary option.