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.

The kanaimà "assault sorcerers" live in the Guyana highlands, near the Brazilian border.



Kanaimà photos courtesy Neil Whitehead, University of Wisconsin-Madison.






A kanaimà ritual vessel, containing human remains, with a clay snake around the opening. Neil Whitehead touched this urn, and suffered weeks of severe disease. Did that have anything to do with touching a taboo vessel?


A tale of assault sorcery
map shows South America, with Guyana enlarged to show the Kanaima region on a western central spot along the border A considerably less sympathetic type of cannibalism occurs in Guyana, along the Northeast Coast of South America. Called kanaimà, it's a form of "assault sorcery" that may take many years to play out, but in the end the victims die a horrible death.

Three days after death, the sorcerer inserts a stick into the rotting, buried body, extracts some of the ooze, then sucks it like, well, should we call it a Deathsicle? Without that sip of partly-composted human, the sorcerer is vulnerable to revenge by the victim's family.

Victims are chosen simply because they are vulnerable, reports Neil Whitehead, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of anthropology who was drawn, against his will, into studying the phenomenon in 1992. (While starting a different research project, he touched a ritual urn in a cave, and soon became violently sick. Thinking he was poisoned by a kanaimà, he spent several years investigating a reality that sounds like an anthropological nightmare. In the process, he paid several kanaimàs to reveal their secrets.)

a round clay jar sits in sunlight on top of a rock.Here's what Whitehead learned. Kanaimàs, who are real, flesh-and-blood people in the Guyanese highlands, may announce their intention to attack with bird-like warning calls. The first attack weakens the victim, often through a painful spinal injury.

Months or years later, the kanaimà returns to mutilate and kill the victim, in a manner that cannot be described in this family-friendly web site (see "Dark Shamans" in the bibliography for details). We deem this attack against innocent, defenseless people as cannibalism because the ultimate goal seems to be to slurp a swallow or two of the decomposing body.

In trying to grasp the motives of kanaimàs, Whitehead did not see revenge, as others had, so much as a desire to appease the gods and ensure the bounty and fertility of the cosmos. "It represents the sorcerer's gift to divine beings," says Whitehead. "The purpose is to sustain plants, fish and animals." Thus a seasoned anthropologist tries to make sense of a seriously gruesome cultural practice, one he feels has targeted him personally.

Top: sketch of man crouched, face-down, in round chamber; bottom: sketch of a man lying face-up in a coffin-like structure.Top: typical burial of a kanaimà victim; bottom: normal burial among Patamuna people, where kanaimà takes place. Drawing by Matteson Williams

In purpose, Kanaima has some similarity to the human-sacrifice rituals of the Aztecs, who ruled central Mexico until the Spanish arrived. "It's very obvious that death and the cannibalism of the victim was seen as positive benefit to society and to the victim," says Whitehead. "You don't have to have this image of people being dragged kicking and screaming to the sacrifice stone."

Regarding Indians in the New World who defeated warriors, Whitehead offers another dose of cultural relativism in an effort to understand the event. "To be captured and sacrificed by opposing warriors was a good death, it was the most direct route to becoming one with the gods. Dying as victim of those rituals was not nice, but it was a good way to die. If the gods are fed, they will feed us, will ensure the bounty of the land and the presence of fish and game."

Pirai, a dark shaman -- a practitioner of kanaimà.This is Pirai. You don't want to meet Pirai. He's a dark shaman -- a practitioner of kanaimà.

If cannibalism ranges from a compassionate desire to erase painful memories, to an exchange with the gods, to outright attack, what should we make of it? That's not a unitary thing that can be praised or condemned in a single sweep of the tongue.

Think about peanuts for a moment. For many kids, peanut butter is a favorite food; to a few, allergies make peanuts a death sentence. To some people, cannibalism may have been a perfect send-off to beloved relatives; to others, it's an excuse to kill-'n-eat.

Cannibalism. What should we make of it?



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