New England Puritans had a sure, fast way of dealing with suspected witches: They executed them.

But the 17th century Puritans were not the first Americans to decree capital punishment for witchcraft. The Anasazis may have been executing witches - and their entire families - in prehistoric Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado by at least 900 A.D.The butchered skeletal remains of some 20 prehistoric Indians, found in a pit at Rattlesnake Ruin 10 miles north of Blanding, may have been Anasazi witches who were ritualistically dispatched about 1050 A.D.

And there is evidence on the bones that the victims were butchered, though there is little evidence to suggest that flesh was actually eaten.

"It's hard to say if they were eaten or not," said Shane Baker, a Brigham Young University researcher, who presented his findings Wednesday at BYU. "But the bone was treated like animal bone; there is evidence they were defleshed. It's certainly possible to draw that inference (of cannibalism)."

Baker has been trying to unravel the 940-year-old mystery of why the bones of some 20 Anasazi Indians show signs of butchering and why those bones were dumped into a pit without any sign of formal burial.

But Baker is not confident that cannibalism is responsible - despite the distinct cut markings on the bones. It is possible the group, probably a small farming community, were ritualistically executed and dismembered because they were involved in witchcraft.

Baker has been researching the oral traditions and history of the Hopi Indians, believed to be the modern descendants of the Anasazi, for evidence of cannibalism. He has found no evidence of cannibalism per se.

Baker believes the answer to the mystery of Rattlesnake Ruin may be related to an incident in 1700 involving a Hopi village in northern Arizona. Most members of the village had been proselyted by Spanish Christian missionaries, something that was offensive to the village chief.

That chief went to neighboring villages, claiming the people of his own village had been seduced by witches and would have to be destroyed. Hopi warriors killed the men of the village and took the women and children captive. But en route to a neighboring village, a disagreement arose over what should be done with the captives.

Because of the supposed witchcraft, the captive women and children were bludgeoned to death, their faces ritualistically smashed and their bones broken into pieces - the identical way the bones were found in the pit in southeastern Utah.

But Baker isn't ready yet to rule out the possibility that ancient residents of the Blanding area dined on human flesh. A detailed comparison of animal bones and human bones recovered from the pit reveal butcher marks that are virtually identical. The same butchering techniques used to remove animal meat from bones were used to remove the human flesh.

Also, there is evidence that human long bones were split lengthwise to get at the marrow. And all of the human bones (thousands of them were recovered) have evidence of repeated blunt-force trauma where stone tools were used to break the bones into smaller pieces. At least one human cranium was carved into a scooping tool.