history of cannibal controversies
David F. Salisbury
August 15, 2001
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].
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.