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Brief history of cannibal controversies

David F. Salisbury
August 15, 2001

"Cannibalism is a difficult topic for an anthropologist to write about, for it pushes the limits of cultural relativism, challenging one to define what is or is not beyond the pale of acceptable human behavior," writes Beth Conklin in her new book, Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society [University of Texas Press].

Historically, charges of cannibalism were used by European nations to help justify their colonization efforts. As a result, many historical allegations of people eating are undoubtedly false. But the fact that such allegations were made is not sufficient grounds to conclude that all reports of cannibalism are untrustworthy and should be discounted, Conklin says.

During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, when Europeans invaded the New World, they saw cannibalism as the quintessential expression of savagery and evil, and used this as a justification for employing violent means to subjugate native people. This theme dates back to Columbus' accounts of a supposedly ferocious group of man-eaters who lived in the Caribbean islands and parts of South America called the Caniba, which gave us the word cannibal. In the 16th century, Pope Innocent IV declared cannibalism a sin deserving to be punished by Christians through force of arms and Queen Isabella of Spain decreed that Spanish colonists could only legally enslave natives who were cannibals, giving the colonists an economic interest in making such allegations.

At the same time that Europeans were condemning various native peoples as cannibals, however, they were practicing a form of cannibalism themselves. Use of medicines made from blood and other human body parts was widespread in Europe through the 17th century. Europeans of the period consumed fresh blood as a cure for epilepsy and substances from various body parts to treat a variety of diseases, including arthritis, reproductive difficulties, sciatica, warts and skin blemishes. A primary source for this material was the bodies of executed criminals. Pieces of mummified human flesh imported from Egypt were considered a general panacea and were widely prescribed by the physicians of the day, Conklin reports.

In the New World, the mania of soldiers, missionaries, explorers and adventurers of past centuries to see a cannibal in every Indian, was followed by a counter-reaction on the part of some scholars to refute all claims of cannibalism, the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres observed several decades ago. For instance, South American scholars have pointed out that Columbus simply accepted the assertion of an unfriendly, neighboring tribe that the Caniba were man eaters without having evidence that they really were.

More recently this revisionist view was adopted by the American anthropologist William Arens at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. In the book The Man-Eating Myth published in 1979, he argued that cannibalism is a myth with no clear basis in fact. Although he acknowledged that starving individuals have been driven to eat human flesh from time to time, he suggested that cannibalism may never have existed anywhere as a socially accepted practice.

Aren's argument caused cultural anthropologists and historians to review existing reports of cannibalism. According to Conklin, there is widespread agreement with Aren's assertion that many past claims of cannibalism are suspect. "William Arens made a valuable contribution in pointing out problems in historical accounts of cannibalism and in sensitizing us to the dangers of negative stereotypes of indigenous people as cannibals," Conklin says. "I have great respect for his work in that regard. But it's going too far to claim that cannibalism never existed at all, because there is substantial evidence that consuming human body parts has been an accepted practice in a number of societies in Europe, South America and elsewhere."

The Wari' case, which has been studied by Brazilian anthropologists as well, provides the best documentation of socially accepted cannibalism in recent times. It is also likely to be one of the last opportunities that anthropologists will have to study this practice in its cultural context. Wari' ethnography highlights the fact that different groups of people had a variety of motives for practicing cannibalism, ranging from love and respect to hate and anger. "If we listen to what indigenous people like the Wari' say about how they experienced funerary cannibalism," Conklin notes, "we begin to see the narrowness and ethnocentrism of our own views."

Conklin sees irony in the fact that scholars who insist that all accounts of cannibalism must be false are actually perpetuating the negative stereotypes of it. "They seem to assume that cannibalism is by definition a terrible act-so terrible, in fact, that could only have been invented by outsiders who wanted to denigrate or exoticize native peoples. A healthier, more realistic approach would be to recognize that various peoples, including western Europeans, have consumed human body substances for different reasons in different times and places. Let's try to recognize the positive, not just negative meanings of these practices," she says.

Another area of debate regarding cannibalism is whether it may spread infectious diseases. Animal studies have suggested that cannibals may be at greater risk for being infected by parasites and diseases from members of their own species than from other prey. One famous study associated human cannibalism with the spread of a fatal viral disease called Kuru in highland New Guinea. Carlton Gadjusek won the Nobel Prize in medicine for discovering a new category of viruses called slow viruses, which include Kuru and Creutzfeldt-Jakob (Mad Cow) disease. Part of Gadjusek's research was based on epidemiological research he did with anthropologists that linked the spread of a Kuru disease to the practice of funerary cannibalism. According to Conklin, serious questions have been raised about the validity of this association and she found no evidence of any disease associated with Wari' cannibalism.

Cannibalism is also controversial in the field of physical archeology. In 1992, Tim White at the University of California, Berkeley published an analysis of bones found at an Anasazi site in southwest Colorado. Using sophisticated statistical and analytical measurements, he concluded that the bones collected at the site included the remains of a 12th century cannibal meal. In 1999, Christy Turner of Arizona State University published a book presenting extensive evidence for prehistoric cannibalism at Anasazi sites. White and Turner's research has been highly praised within the field and strongly criticized by scholars who maintain that it is impossible to determine the motives of the people who appear to have cut up the bodies of a number of people, stripped off the flesh and cooked the bones in a clay pot.

Some members of the Hopi, Zuni, and other Pueblo Indian tribes, who consider themselves descendants of the Anasazi, reject these claims as misinterpretations and slurs on their ancestors, previously characterized as peaceful farmers who attained astonishing results in engineering, architecture and art. Last fall, a group of researchers added to the controversy by reporting biochemical evidence from an Anasazi site that appears to support the cannibalism hypothesis. They analyzed the fossilized remains of human excrement from a site containing butchered human bones and found evidence of myoglobin, a human enzyme that is found in muscle tissue but not in the digestive tract.

"If cannibalism did take place at Anasazi sites, it was associated with torture, murder and mutilation. That's the kind of thing that gives cannibalism a bad name," Conklin says. "To my mind, the killing and torture is more abhorrent than the alleged consumption of human flesh. And it's worlds away from the funerary practices I've studied, in which consuming the body honored the person who was eaten."
According to Conklin, the challenge is to understand each case in its own terms, in the social context within which it was practiced. With this approach, cannibalism starts to look less exotic and more like something with which other people can identify. "Wari' elders have told me they can't understand why outsiders are so obsessed with the idea of eating bodies. They say it's important to look at the whole picture of what went on in their mourning practices, not just focus on the one act of eating. I think we can learn something by listening to them," she says.

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Interview with
Beth Conklin

Wari' music

Photos of life among the Wari'

Giving cannibalism a human face