All Warí photos courtesy Beth Conklin
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.
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
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."
Cannibal: Heal thyself
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?
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
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...
©2002, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.