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The belief in the existence of man-eaters just beyond a culture’s boundary is a time-honored and cherished notion for many parts of the world. In what we call advanced societies, such as our own, cannibals are thought to inhabit the remaining mysterious distant fringes of civilization such as the highlands of New Guinea and the rain forests of the Amazon. There, the inhabitants with a more limited view of the world suspect cannibals in the next valley or around the bend of the river. How and why this imagery came into existence and continues to be so compelling for both the lay public and academics alike is as debatable as it is apparent.
No better example of the longstanding Western proclivity to label distant people as cannibalistic can be found than in the work of the fifth century BCE Greek traveler Herodotus, the father of history and anthropology. Not far from the limits of Hellenic culture in an area we now recognize as central Asia, he noted (in Herodotus: A New and Literal Version, 1879) that “beyond the desert Anthropophagi dwell, … the only people that eat human flesh” (pp. 243, 273.) With these characteristic remarks, the author of the first account of exotic peoples set the paradigm generally employed over the succeeding centuries: First, those who did not share Western culture, those both different and inferior, are the other; and second, they were often labeled sight unseen as man-eaters.
This theme was repeated in some of the classic Roman texts and then later by medieval travel accounts of the then known world. Over time, many peoples, such as the Irish and the Scots, as well as the European Jews and North African Muslims, were cast by one or another obscure writer as consumers of human flesh. Eventually, the list of itinerant raconteurs included the famous Marco Polo, who in the late fourteenth century claimed to have traversed the Eurasian continent from Venice to China before residing there for a number of years.
Although the veracity of his account is now debated, what is significant is his report of unobserved cannibals on Jipangu (Japan) on the border of Kubla Khan’s Mongol empire. A copy of this text, which even then was popular, was later in the library of Christopher Columbus and also occupied his imagination as he sailed into the New World while erroneously assuming he was on the eastern border of the Old World. Believing that he was in the vicinity of Jipangu, the admiral also recorded an encounter with cannibals in what was actually the Caribbean, probably in the vicinity of Cuba. Thus, for the first time contact with the rumored man-eaters was made, and the word cannibal, a Spanish derivation of Carib, entered the lexicon to replace Anthrophagi. Although the suspected cannibals were then seen, the act of cannibalism continued to go unobserved. This new context necessitated a revision of the ideological paradigm, which now assumed that the custom was repressed by conquest. There were also more profound practical implications, for at the time those degenerate enough to eat their own kind could be enslaved. In subsequent eras the label legitimized conquest and colonization as Western nations came into contact with a host of farflung would-be cannibals.
This assumption and powerful image of the other as cannibal remained a feature of Western ideology for some centuries until it was eventually challenged in The ManEating Myth (Arens 1979). A review of some of the literature on the most infamous reputed man-eaters from North America, Africa, and New Guinea led to the book’s conclusion that the idea of gustatory cannibalism—that is, an activity engaged in on a regular basis with social approval—could not be substantiated by the usual standards of academic inquiry.
The initial negative reaction to the conclusion, most explicit in a series of essays by cultural anthropologists (Brown and Tuzin 1983) has gradually lessened over time. Once the question whether it could be that so many, if not most, people of color were cannibals until contacted by white Europeans was explicitly framed for debate, it became intellectually and politically untenable in the postcolonial era to maintain what was formerly an implicit affirmative conclusion. There was also the eventual realization that the proposal did not rule out survival and ritual cannibalism. This new perspective, though, leads to related issues regarding how those implicated in this sort of activity are labeled, and then how to define ritual in a consistent manner.
As for the consumption of human flesh under dire conditions, it has been long recognized that this behavior is possible in any culture. This impression is substantiated by European shipwreck tales, as well as by the Donner Party incident when the party’s members survived on the remains of their compatriots while stranded in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1846. In no instance are those implicated—the French, the English, and Americans—subsequently labeled as endo-cannibals, eaters of their own kind. Similarly, this behavior may have been characteristic of, for example, the Inuit or other Native Americans, as deduced from historical sources or archeological evidence, such as that reported in Billman, Lambert, and Leonard’s (2000) detailed article about the Mesa Verde region in the twelfth century. However, these groups are not stigmatized as cannibals by the general public. These contradictory impressions are objectively unacceptable.
The issue of ritual cannibalism is more complicated. Desiccated human body parts were sold as remedies for various human ailments by European and American apothecaries until the early twentieth century (GordonGrube 1988); some American food cultists advocate the consumption of the human placenta (Janszen 1980); and there is the use of human cadaver extracts in contemporary biomedicine, presumably to capture the strength of the deceased. These domestic customs may be considered bizarre, misguided, or even guided science, but they are never labeled ritual cannibalism. However, South American groups reported to consume the ashes of the dead for whatever reason are ipso facto deemed ritual cannibals. Again this situation is intellectually unacceptable and hints at cultural discrimination.
A recent consideration of the issue in Gananath Obeyesekere’s Cannibal Talk (2005) recommends that we reserve the term cannibalism for the irrational fear that the other wants to eat us and use the term anthropophagy to refer to the actual practice in ritual and survival contexts. Perhaps it would be simpler to conclude that there are no cannibals in the sense of how the situation was once subjectively viewed; alternately, from a more objective contemporary perspective, we could all be cannibals. What is more obvious is that the cannibal epithet, as leveled by one culture against another, is more common than the deed itself.
- Arens, W. 1979. The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Barker, Francis, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen, eds. 1998. Cannibalism and the Colonial World. Cambridge, NJ: Cambridge University Press.
- Billman, Brian R., Patricia M. Lambert, and L. B. Leonard. Cannibalism, Warfare, and Drought in the Mesa Verde Region During the Twelfth Century, A.D. American Antiquity 65: 145–178.
- Brown, Paula, and Donald Tuzin, eds. 1983. The Ethnography of Cannibalism. Washington, DC: Society for Psychological Anthropology.
- Gordon-Grube, Karen. 1988. Anthropophagy in PostRenaissance Europe: The Tradition of Medicinal Cannibalism. American Anthropologist 90 (2): 405–409.
- Janszen, Karen. 1980. Meat of Life. Science Digest (November–December): 78–81, 121.
- Obeyesekere, Gananath. 2005. Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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