Skip navigation Learning to love cannibals

1. Learning to love cannibals

2. The strangest menu

3. Bone appétite

4. The dark side of cannibalism

5. Cannibalism reconsidered.


A member of the Wari' tribe sits in the forest. All Warí photos courtesy Beth Conklin


A bad reputation
Being a cannibal -- defined to mean any human consumption of the human body -- no longer appears on many resumes. Yet until recently, cannibalism was a requirement among a tribe in the Amazon rainforest, up where Brazil meets Bolivia.

During the 1950s, the Wari' (pronounced wha-REE), who now number about 2,000, became one of the last native tribes in the world to be contacted by outsiders.

A Wari' man sits next to a woven basket, surrounded by thick vegetation.

Beth Conklin, who's now at Vanderbilt University, started studying the tribe in 1985. She says outsiders brought industrial products, foreign diseases, and a visceral hostility to eating human flesh. The manufactured tools were useful, the diseases caused hundreds of deaths, and the visceral hostility ended cannibalism.

Before about 1960, the Wari' ate defeated enemies (other warriors, and, in the 20th century, intruding Brazilian settlers and their hired gunmen).

The Wari' also ate relatives after death.

It's rare to find both types of cannibalism in one tribe, and the motivations were different, Conklin points out. "Killing and consuming the enemy outsider was partly equating the victim with animals that are hunted -- the manner of eating was explicitly similar to the eating of animals." It was, she says, a way of "marking human dominance over the victim." In contrast, the funeral cannibalism was intended to start emotional healing after a death.

Cannibalism as grief management
The general goal of Wari' funeral practices, Conklin says, was to erase reminders of the dead. The person's name was not spoken and his or her house was burned. During three days of mourning, the body decayed. As the mourning peaked, the dead person's in-laws cut up the body and cooked and ate portions of it.

In culinary terms, the "meal" left something to be desired. "The flesh was partly decomposed," Conklin explains (three days is quite a while in the Amazon!). "The Wari' are horrified by decay and decomposition, so they had to force themselves to eat it. No-one every really got over the revulsion they felt about eating decaying flesh."

A dark-haired older woman pounds yellow grain between two large stones.
A Wari' woman grinds grain.

Cannibal: Heal thyself
In the context of Wari' mourning practices, Conklin says the purpose was clearly healing. "The Wari' believe you need to gradually create emotional distance between the living and the dead, because in a small society, the ties of love and affection to your family are your strongest bonds, and they don't automatically dissolve or loosen with death. They are concerned that if you dwell too much on the memory of the dead, you will spiral into uncontrollable, consuming grief. They believe it's necessary to use the funeral, and the rituals of the year of mourning, to help mourners accept the finality of death, and gradually come to see the dead person in a different form."

The repellent rituals regarding victuals were actually performed by in-laws, while the closest relatives, figuratively speaking, left their forks on the table. "We tend to assume that motives are located in the people who do the eating," says Conklin. "But clearly, the people who were doing the eating were revolted, were forcing themselves to eat ...because they believed it was so important to the family of the dead."

Emotionally, she says, the eating showed that the "person who had died was no longer one of the eaters, but was in the process of transformation to a different form, to one of the eaten. ... You can hardly think of a more dramatic way of making that point ... than by confronting the close relatives with this image of seeing the loved ones dismembered, roasted and consumed in front of their eyes."

If readers find this repulsive, the tribe was equally appalled when churches and governments imposed western funeral practices 40 years ago. The Wari' "traditionally thought of burial with as much horror as we think of cannibalism," says Conklin. "The ground is wet, cold, dirty, polluting, and the idea of putting the body of a loved one in the dirt and leaving it to decompose is horrific, something you would never do to someone you care about."

Learning to love the cannibals?
Cannibalism may be less comprehensible than golf or nouvelle cuisine. Cannibalism may be even tougher to understand than other bizarre cultural practices (we're thinking hip-hop music, golf or nouvelle cuisine). And yet understanding behavior - not judging it -- is stock in trade for anthropologists.

Is it possible to transcend the instinctual "Gross!" response to cannibalism, and view it without familiar cultural lenses? Can we accept that cultures have internal logic and justice, which outsiders judge at their peril?

That can be a tough order with cannibalism, and it did indeed challenge Conklin (who arrived in Wari' country as a vegetarian). But she succeeded well enough to write the book "Consuming Grief" (see bibliography) about it.

We read the book, and had to ask the obvious question. "Did you learn to love the cannibals?" No, she answered, and yes. "I don't think of them as cannibals -- they don't see that as the primary factor in their identity. I think of them as my friends. ...They treat each other with a lot of respect, gentleness, with a kind of generosity among friends and close relatives that's really meaningful; they are some of the nicest people you would care to meet."

A harmful stereotype
The point of writing about these retired cannibals, she says, was "to shift the assumption that cannibalism is always about savagery, aggression and violence. That stereotyping of cannibals, and by extension, of indigenous people who used to practice cannibalism, is really damaging to native people. If we can understand that cannibalism is not just one thing, but it's been practiced in very different forms, with very different meanings, maybe we can get past those stereotypes."

Two large black pigs and one small light-colored pig are trussed and dead on a woven mat.
These are peccaries, forest pigs. The Wari' thought the souls of the deceased turned into peccaries, which then come back to feed the relatives.

Wari' funerary cannibalism, she insists, "has to do with compassion, and a kind of cycling and renewal of a life-supporting relationship." After death, she notes, the deceased is thought to return to the family as a peccary - a forest pig and dietary mainstay. As the wheel of life turns, the deceased feeds the family in fact and in perception.

The Wari' were among the last to abandon cannibalism. Nowadays, younger Wari' consider the mourning rituals as "folklore, a quaint custom from the old days," Conklin says. "It's not part of their identity. Every one knows it's a practice that horrifies outsiders, a practice that they would never revive; they know the condemnation, the interference that would result."

Still, the loss of tradition has its price. "Older people say that now that bodies are buried, it's harder to let go emotionally. They say their thoughts constantly return to the loved one's body lying in the dirt... They say it really was easier in the old days, when bodies were consumed."

For more on "compassionate cannibalism."

These cannibals aren't compassionate. And they're still killing...



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