A group of Mexican anthropologists have announced their discovery through skeletal studies that the early Xixime Indians, who around 1450 inhabited a series of dwellings built inside caves, ate human flesh during a ritual associated with war and the crop cycle.

In a four-year study of 40 human bones found inside Maguey Cave on the Sierra de Durango mountains in northern Mexico, the researchers observed that at least 80 percent of the remains "had cut marks and signs of having been boiled," the National Institute of Anthropology and History, or INAH, said in a communique.

That evidence "reveals practices of cannibalism as part of a ritual that only included Xiximes - they only ate people of their own ethnicity," the institute said.

The cannibalism of that ethnicity had been described in ethnohistorical documents of the 17th century, chiefly in letters written by European missionaries who visited the so-called "cliff houses."

The most important is the missive sent by Hernando de Santaren in 1604 to his superiors in Mexico, telling them about the groups of Indians he found in the mountains of what is today Durango state.

Maguey Cave is located on the Sierra Madre Occidental at an altitude of some 2,600 meters (8,500 feet) in a pinewood forest of the mountainous Pueblo Nuevo municipality.

The area extends 1 kilometer (2/3 of a mile) into the mountain, and in it have been found vestiges of pre-Columbian two-story buildings built inside of five caves with a kind of wattle-and-daub architecture.

The research began in May 2007 after INAH archaeologists received photos of the place on the mountain slopes of Pueblo Nuevo taken by an amateur interested in the discovery.

Archaeologist Jose Luis Punzo, who headed the study - carried out uninterruptedly by researchers working there between six and seven months each year - gave a progress report on the study the first day of the 14th Conference of Archaeology on the Northern Border, which began Thursday in the city of Paquime in the northern state of Chihuahua.

Punzo said that the goal is to recover "testimony of the indigenous peoples" who inhabited that region of Mexico around the year 1450, "whose world-view was lost with evangelization," which has prevented us from understanding why the Xiximes would "feed on the soul of another human being."

Ethnohistorical and archaeological analyses have established that the cannibalism practiced by the Xiximes was related to a ritual for "the planting and growing of maize," and in which deer hunting also played an important role.

After harvesting the maize and making tamales, "the Xiximes went forth to war, which occupied them for half the year. When they won a battle, they usually brought back the body of the enemy," Punzo said.

"Upon returning home they performed a very complex ritual in which everyone took part, and whose purpose was 'to appropriate the soul' of another, by eating that person's body. The most valued parts were the head and hands," he said.

Nonetheless, these Indians only ate people of their own ethnicity. The remains of their enemies, on the other hand, were kept as part of a ritual for renewing the maize cycle. EFE

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