TheScreamPerhaps there are rational explanations for the chilling 700-year-old scream that jolted me out of my sleeping bag in the Anasazi wastes of northeastern Arizona. My first thought was of the child whose braid of hair I had discovered in the Keet Seel ruins—and of cannibalism.

My son Joshua and I had backpacked a grueling 18-mile round trip to reach the ruins. I have studied “The Ancient Ones” for over 30 years, being particularly intrigued by evidence that the Anasazi practiced ritual cannibalism. Stark fear may have led to the vanishing of the Anasazi from the American Southwest.

Anasazi Indians occupied the desolate Four Corners region for about 1,400 years in the pre-Columbian era, building a remarkably advanced civilization that constructed “apartment houses,” domesticated turkeys and grew beans, corn, peppers, and squashes. Traders, they obtained seashells from the west and copper bells from Mexico. They may have also received something far less benign from the south—tlacatlaolli, translated from the Aztec as man-corn, “a sacred meal of sacrificial human meat, cooked with corn.”

The peaceful and agrarian Anasazi apparently developed a dark side.

Archaeologist Walter Hough and Paleoanthropologist Tim D. White located sites in Arizona and New Mexico where they identified signs of cannibalism—cracked and shattered bones scorched by fire.

“They skinned them (their victims), roasted them, cut their muscles off, severed their joints, broke their long bones on anvils and hammer stones, crushed their spongy bones, and put the pieces into pots.”

During “The Great Abandonment” of the 13th Century, the large Anasazi communities broke up, the inhabitants fleeing into the hills as though escaping from a palpable evil. Refugees built small isolated fortresses on cliffs and in the lee of canyon walls as if to protect themselves from cultural darkness.

Keet Seel, part of the Chaco sub-culture of New Mexico, lies tucked into the overhang of an enormous cave weather-eroded out of a canyon wall. That was where I found the tiny braid of hair, undisturbed for the past 700 years since the village was abandoned.

Alone in the valley, Joshua and I camped by the creek. Surrounded by the canyon’s silent cathedral walls, I lay awake gazing up into the stars while I reflected on the tiny braid of hair and the tangible, emotional contact it provided with a human being from centuries past.

The terror-filled scream echoing against canyon walls startled me awake. The little girl with the missing braid! I jumped up, prepared to rush to her rescue, only to be greeted by chortling laughter erupting from several points about the dark floor of the canyon.

Coyotes! They had slain a rabbit, whose death knell had chilled my spine. A rational explanation. Nonetheless, it was a long time before I slept again. I stood in the cool of a night older than time itself and couldn’t help feeling that the scream of a little girl with a missing braid may have reached out to me over the ages to express the horror of the curse that had destroyed her people.

“I had gone to war on trains and trucks and even elephants once, but this was the first time I ever went to war in a psychedelic-painted bus so crowded that about twenty people clung to the luggage rack on top while a turkey with its legs tied lay in the aisle. . .” From The War Chaser by Charles W. Sasser. Now available on Kindle.