cannibalism a human face
David F. Salisbury
August 15, 2001
is one of the last real taboos of modern society. As such, it evokes
a powerful mixture of fascination and revulsion. So strong are these
preconceptions, in fact, that both the public and the scientific
community have repeatedly fallen prey to them.
that cannibalism is always an aggressive, barbaric and degrading
act," objects Beth A. Conklin, an associate professor of anthropology
at Vanderbilt University. "But that is a serious over-simplification,
one that has kept us from realizing that cannibalism can have positive
meanings and motives that are not that far from our own experience."
is based on an intensive study of the Wari' ,
a group of native people who live in the Amazon rainforest. Her
fieldwork provides detailed confirmation about how and why the Wari'
practiced an elaborate form of cannibalism until the 1960s, when
government workers and missionaries forced them to abandon the practice.
are unusual because they practiced two distinct forms of cannibalism
in warfare and funerals ,"
Conklin says. "However, the two practices were very different
and had very different meanings. Eating enemies was an intentional
expression of anger and disdain for the enemy. But at funerals,
when they consumed members of their own group who died naturally,
it was done out of affection and respect for the dead person and
as a way to help survivors cope with their grief."
focused on the less understood practice of funerary cannibalism
in her new book, Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in
an Amazonian Society [University of Texas Press] .
"I hope that this book will make people think more deeply about
the meanings that the body has in human relationships, and to consider
that other cultures may have understood those in ways that made
the destruction and transformation of the body through cannibalism
seem to be the best, most respectful, most loving way to deal with
the death of someone you care about."
is a medical and cultural anthropologist, began her study of the
Wari' because she was interested in studying how the health and
the medical practices of an indigenous population had changed as
they came into contact with outsiders who brought new diseases and
Western medicine. When she began her research in the 1980s, the
Wari' were being affected by a major international development project
in western Brazil but little was known about many aspects of
their culture. "At the time, many of my fellow anthropologists
didn't consider the Wari' very interesting because they had adopted
Western clothing, didn't paint themselves or put on colorful native
ceremonies very often and were generally considered to be under
the thumb of the missionaries," Conklin says.
From 1985 to
1987, the anthropologist spent 19 months living in Wari' communities,
plus seven months collecting data at an indigenous health clinic
and in national archives. Return trips in 1991, 1999 and 2000 allowed
her to confirm her information and interpretations. The case for
Wari' cannibalism is based on the testimony of the Wari' themselves,
corroborated by accounts of missionaries and government officials
who said they had witnessed cannibalism at Wari' funerals in the
1950s and 1960s .
Conklin interviewed dozens of older Wari' who remembered life before
contact and talked freely about observing and participating in funerals
in which cannibalism was practiced. At about the same time, two
conducted independent research among the Wari', producing findings
that closely correspond with Conklin's.
decided to study the Wari' I was a vegetarian and the last thing
I was interested in studying was cannibalism," Conklin recalls.
Her attitude changed as she talked to Wari' about their experiences
with the deaths of family members. To assess changes in patterns
of illness and death, Conklin interviewed the heads of 198 Wari'
families and compiled information about when and how their relatives
died. Her research documented a history of brutal assaults on the
Wari'. Before contact, the Wari' lived in almost total isolation
from other people. They knew of the existence of other Indians and
non-Indians, but considered them as "wijam" (outsiders,
enemies). They did not trade or intermarry or have peaceful relations
with wijam. Their only interactions with outsiders were hostile.
In the 1950s,
local businessmen who wanted to open Wari' lands to commercial development
hired assassins, armed them with machine guns and repeating rifles,
and sent them out to kill the natives. Whereas Wari' warriors killed
intruders one by one, the assassins massacred entire villages, including
many women and children. As a result, more than 25 percent of the
deaths that the Wari' suffered were the result of killings by Brazilians.
To stop the escalating violence, the government stepped in.
First in 1956
and then in 1961-62, "pacification teams" went into the
forest to leave gifts to attract the Wari' into peaceful contact.
The friendly contact proved to be even more devastating to the Wari'
than the previous hostilities. Due largely to ignorance and carelessness
on the part of the government workers, the Wari' were exposed to
infectious diseases to which they had little resistance. The missionaries
were much more careful and did what they could to save lives. Nevertheless,
the Wari' died in large numbers and their total population shrank
from about 1,000 to 399 within a few years, Conklin says. During
the devastating epidemics, the Wari' became dependent on the government
and missionaries for food and medicine. The outsiders used their
influence to put a stop to cannibalism and make the Wari' adopt
Western burial practices. Today, all bodies are buried. As Conklin
collected family histories of the Wari', the process led inevitably
to the subject of funeral practices. In discussions with older people,
she learned that some were uncomfortable with the practice of burial,
considering it to be a less respectful and less comforting way to
treat the passing of someone you care about.
past, the idea of leaving the body of a loved one in the dirt and
letting it rot was as repulsive to the Wari' as the idea of eating
human flesh is to us," Conklin explains .
As she began
exploring these attitudes, Conklin found that the models developed
by anthropologists and psychologists to explain cannibalism did
not fit. The Wari' did not eat human flesh because they needed the
protein. They were not trying to absorb the dead person's life force,
courage or other qualities. They were not acting out aggression,
dominance or a desire to hold onto the deceased. Instead, Conklin
concluded that the practice was deeply rooted in the world view
of the Wari' and their understanding of how memories affect the
grieving process. Like a number of other groups in South America,
the Wari' have rituals designed to help bereaved relatives cope
with their sorrow by eliminating things associated with the dead,
which provoke sadness by reminding survivors of their loss and also
may attract the dead person's ghost. To loosen attachments between
the living and the dead, Wari' burn all the dead person's possessions,
including the house he or she lived in. They stop speaking the person's
name and change the appearance of the village and other places where
the dead person spent time.
the body is part of this process as well," Conklin says. "Far
more than we do, the Wari' see the body as a place where personality
and individuality reside, and so, of all the things that remind
you of dead people, the corpse is the strongest reminder. So they
believed it was important to transform the corpse in order to help
transform survivors' memories of their dead relative." This
transformation involves developing new images of the dead person
joining the animal world. According to their traditional beliefs,
the spirits of dead relatives go to an underground world from which
they return in the form of wild, pig-like animals called peccaries
that are a major source of meat for the Wari'. The ancestor-peccaries
seek out hunters from their own families and offer themselves to
be shot, ensuring that their meat will go to feed the people they
relationship with peccaries is part of a native cosmology centered
on ideas about communication and transformations between humans
and animals. According to Conklin, the traditional mourning rites
of the Wari' emphasized helping survivors to gradually stop dwelling
on memories of the past and develop new images of the dead rejuvenated
as animals who feed the living. Eating the body at funerals affirmed
these positive religious ideas. Reconsidering the range of meanings
that consuming substances from the human body had for people in
the past is important, Conklin says, because it challenges the negative
stereotypes of cannibalism that have often been used to denigrate
and stigmatize native peoples. "Thinking about cannibalism
as a way to cope with grief and mourning gives it a more human-even
humane-face," Conklin says. Such reconsideration can also make
us reflect on our own ways of dealing with death.
recognize the intensity of bereavement, whereas the tendency these
days is to resist even the thought of death. In modern society,
there is no longer a standard way of dealing with death and I think
something has been lost. As a result, we are very uncomfortable
dealing with bereavement," Conklin says .
"We feel pressure to hide our grief; we don't know how to treat
people who have suffered a loss. There is a certain wisdom in the
Wari' practice of acknowledging the deep impact of death and survivors'
need for social and spiritual support." To us, cannibalism
looks like an extreme, exotic practice. "By stepping outside
our own cultural framework to try to understand this from the Wari'
point of view, however, we can see some of the realities of social
life, especially the ways of caring and coping, that unite us all
as human beings," she says.
about the Wari', on the website of the Instituto Socioambiental,
the major indigenous rights organization based in Brazil. (in Portuguese)
of the discovery of a previously unknown sound identified in the
Wari' language by linguist Daniel Everett.