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 lighter side of cannibalism
We discussed cannibalism with Neil Whitehead, an anthropologist who studies native violence in Central and South America. You could call the region the home to cannibalism, since the word was derived from the Carib -- AKA Canib -- Indians, who lived in what we call the Caribbean basin when Columbus arrived.

We'll sea whether this consists of taking their name in vain, but Whitehead says, "A ritual and spiritual interest in the magic properties of human flesh and blood is certainly central to the cosmology of native people, and especially in South America."

mummy recipe on ancient-looking paper
Johann Schroeder, 1963: 1302, translated in "Evidence... " (see bibliography)

This just in: Cannibals make super slaves!
Although colonial records are replete with references to "cannibals," consider the historical context. A 1503 decree from Queen Isabella of Spain, during the heyday of Spanish colonial conquest, allowed the enslavement of cannibals.

The edict, Whitehead says, "created quite a strong interest in 'discovering' cannibals in the New World. Then you wouldn't even have to observe the minimum notion of human rights they would get as human beings and as God's subjects. It demonized the native population, and legally produced an economic benefit."

So during the first 100 years of colonization of the vast Spanish New-World dominion, you could make good money by branding someone a cannibal. Indians were plantation slaves until about 1600, when legions of African slaves arrived. (Over the past quarter-century, some anthropologists have used this history to question the very existence of cannibalism. In their view -- see "The Man-eating Myth..." in the bibliography -- all evidence for cannibalism is so sketchy or biased as to be incredible.)

top: man sits and weeps. middle: priest and assistant remove heart of victim. bottom: victim is being cooked in a big pot. Person eats leg beside pot. The Aztecs were famous for gory rituals. This image is from the Florentine Codex, written in the 1570's by Aztecs supervised by a Spanish Franciscan friar who was trying to convert the Aztecs to Christianity. The Aztecs recorded their culture, including the ritual sacrifices, in detail. The books were sent to Spain and wound up in Florence. Courtesy Antonio de la Cova, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology .

However, some recent archeological finds, combined with the kind of evidence discussed above, demonstrates that, in one form or another, people-who-eat-people do exist - or at least did so until recently.

The stench of hypocrisy?
In considering the moral, political and social status of cannibalism, one question seldom arises: How clean were the hands of the Europeans who were getting exercised about cannibalism?

More context. While the Spanish were enslaving "cannibal" Indians, Europe was split by tensions between supporters of the Catholic Church and the new Protestant movement. Those events gave the French, who colonized Brazil between 1550 and 1580, an entirely different take on cannibalism.

While the Spanish described cannibalism as "mad, ravenous people tearing flesh," the French saw it "as highly ritualized and rule-governed," Whitehead says. "The French were saying that the Spanish revulsion stands in contradiction to central image of Christian religion, the symbolic cannibalism of our prophet on a weekly basis. It was a very good example of European fascination with cannibalism, but it was not simply on the level of 'Oh my God, we're encountering this behavior we never thought of before!' which was the Spanish line."

On the other side of the pond
Most studies of cannibals have focused on small tribes in remote parts of the planet. But if we held up a mirror, we might see tell-tale spots of blood...

Mummy -- made by processing human bodies -- was a common medicine in the 16th and 17th centuries, and was in the official 1618 London Pharmacopoeia (list of medicines).

Mummy -- made from human bodies -- was a common in 16th- and 17th- century European medicine.The use of human body parts did not end there, according to German researcher Karen Gordon-Grube (see "Anthropophagy..." in the bibliography): "...mummy, blood and other body parts were still being recommended in 1747, for both internal and external use."

Executions provided an excellent source of fresh, low-cost "medicine," Gordon-Grube wrote. "It was the prerogative of executioners to sell the blood of decapitated criminals." Warm blood was thought especially helpful for epilepsy...

So where would you draw the line and say one consumption of human body parts was cannibalism, but another was not? "If you weren't European, and looked at skull collections in museums," says Whitehead, "or at early surgery, or the whole scene of capital punishment, with the flaying and quartering, you would say the same things that the Spanish said about the Americans."

Thinking about medieval torture, Whitehead charges, "It's not just native cannibals that are sticking heads on spikes, right?"

Cannibalism is "a truly challenging human behavior to interpret," Whitehead admits. "But it's not always the same thing. There may be all kinds of ritual behavior that involves mucking around with human bodies. We roll it all up, say, ugh, cannibals! without thinking clearly about what is going on."

Ideas are alive and kicking in our cannibal bibliography.



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