Most species of mammals, except for lions and a few others under extreme situations, seem to have an instinctive ‘inhibitory mechanism’ against consuming the flesh of their own species. For example, dogs will not touch their food when the meat of other dogs has been mixed in. Human beings, however, seem to be lacking in this taboo. Scientists are still trying to understand when and how this inhibition disappeared, and why.
The word cannibal comes from ‘Caribes’ or ‘Caribales’, the name of a group of pre-Colombian anthropophagic peoples1 inhabiting the northern part of the South American continent and parts of the Caribbean Sea. However, there are other peoples throughout history that have been observed practicing cannibalism, whose legends refer to a time in the past when they had that custom, or whose archeological remains give away this fact.
Actually, according to anthropologists, many of the peoples of the world have practiced cannibalism at one time or another in their history. Although reports of anthropophagy among the Australopithecus of 2-4 million years ago are highly questionable, evidence of cannibalism has been found among the Pithecanthropus and Sinanthropus of up to 300 thousand years ago, and the Neanderthals of only 30-100 thousand years ago. Even among the current species of Homo Sapiens or modern man, there are numerous peoples that have practiced anthropophagy in Africa,2 the Americas,3 Asia,4 Europe,5 and Oceania.6
2. The Initial Problem
In some cultures, the very thought of cannibalism is repulsive, and it is seen as an extreme form of aggression. Therefore, some social scientists––primarily in the West––who have studied anthropophagic customs through their own cultural filters, have interpreted it as a savage, cruel and blood-thirsty act. Such reports coming from the inner sanctum of science and embellished with the artist’s imagination have left images in the popular mind of hungry savages cooking fat missionaries in a huge pot, and blood-thirsty tribes hunting down their neighbors to devour them.
These conjectures add to the list of purported ‘evidence’ in support of the thesis that human beings are aggressive and violent by nature and, therefore, incapable of eradicating war and other forms of structural violence. This has even been used to justify the existence and continuation of war and other forms of violence, and to oppose any proposal aiming to eliminate them. For example, Professor Raymond Dart, in his article “The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man”,7 seeks to make sense of the horrors of WWII by recurring to our cannibalistic history:
The blood-bespattered, slaughter-gutted archives of human history from the earliest Egyptian and Sumerian records to the most recent atrocities of the Second World War accord with early universal cannibalism, with animal and human sacrificial practices or their substitutes in formalized religions and with the world-wide scalping, head-hunting, body-mutilating and necrophiliac practices of mankind in proclaiming this common bloodlust differentiator, this predacious habit, this mark of Cain that separates man dietetically from his anthropoidal relatives and allies him rather with the deadliest of carnivora.8
3. Existence of Cannibalism
Our purpose here is not to deny that anthropophagy existed, but rather to seek to understand it better by the light of recent archeological and anthropological findings. This article seeks to demonstrate that there are other less pessimistic explanations for the existence of cannibalism among human beings.
One common misunderstanding is the assumption that anthropophagy was driven by hunger. Archeological findings have shown that it was not usually motivated by lack of animal protein, save in a few exceptional cases such as the South American Saé and Guayupé. As the world-famous paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey says in “People of the Lake”,
(Cannibalism) is not simply a way of supplementing the diet; it is part of the cultural framework of the society. In fact, human bodies are not an especially plentiful source of protein. If, for instance, an average-sized group of gatherer-hunters decided that they would include humans on their menu so as to provide them with half of their protein needs, they would have to slaughter a man every other day. Theoretically feasible, perhaps, but hardly a way of providing a viable life-style!9
There are certain signs that archeologists use to determine whether the fossils they find were involved in cannibalism: splitting of long bones to extract marrow, exarticulations, opennings in the skull base, cuts in bones, bones at firesides, kitchen wastes, signs of force applied by man, etc. However, not all reports of anthropophagy are reliable, especially with regard to the most ancient findings pertaining to the Australopithecus. In this case, there is a discussion as to whether certain ‘evidences’ are signs of violence and cannibalism, or merely the effects of forces, pressures and geological movements within the site over the millennia. As Helmuth explains, “The great age, manner of fossilization and preservation in limestone breccias can lead to only relatively vague assumptions."10 Other ‘clues’ are suspected to have been caused by the bites and gnawings of wild animals such as leopards, hyenas, and crocodiles.
This does not mean that there was no cannibalism hundreds of thousands or even millions of years ago, but that even if there were, we must not see these acts through modern cultural filters, as desperate acts or violent atrocities. The passing of time can profoundly modify ideas and beliefs, cultural meanings and religious symbolisms. As we will see below, some scholars point to a cultural function and even solidarity. Anthropologists who have interviewed cannibals directly report that they display no disgust when discussing the act, but rather emphasize the fine taste of human flesh. This demonstrates the relativity of human customs and moral laws, which do not always have the same cultural form or meaning, and explains why anthropologists define cannibalism as “the custom of eating human flesh, associated with certain ideas."11
Accordingly, anthropophagy has been classified into two general types socially: endocannibalism (within a social circle) and exocannibalism (outside of that circle). Studies of their cultural meanings suggest that endocannibalism may have been prompted by a sense of community and mutualism, and that exocannibalism was more symbolically motivated than once believed. Hermann Helmuth, in his article “Cannibalism in Paleoanthropology and Ethnology”, analyzes these two types in some depth, and this article relies heavily on this work.
Endocannibalism, also known as ‘patrophagy’, is the ritual of consuming the flesh of members of one’s own tribe or social group. Some have mistakenly assumed that, in addition to being driven by hunger, it was motivated by a lack of affection for the victim, or even outright hatred or anger. For example, in his book “On Aggression”, ethologist Konrad Lorenz said of the burnt bones found at the first archeological evidence of the human use of fire: “Peking Man, the Prometheus who learned to preserve fire, used it to roast his brothers: beside the first traces of the regular use of fire lie the mutilated and roasted bones of Sinanthropus pekinensis himself."12 His commitment to the thesis of inherent human aggression blinded him to any possibility that those burnt remains may have been the result of a cremation, or that the flesh may have saved the lives of sorrowful survivors during a famine. His only recourse was to assume that as soon as fire had been commanded, man’s ‘killer instinct’ had driven him to turn it against his own family! Anthropologist Ashley Montagu expounds on this as follows:
The cracked bones of Peking man may represent the remains of individuals who died during a famine and who may well have been eaten by their surviving associates. This sort of thing has been known to occur among most peoples of whom we have any knowledge. There is, however, no record of any people, prehistoric, non-literate, or anywhere in the annals of human history, who made a habit of killing their fellow men in order to dine off them… Does Lorenz seriously believe that Peking man made a practice of ‘roast brother’?13
Anthropological evidence paints a very different picture from the popularized view of aggressive savages. Endocannibalism was generally motivated by feelings of love, respect and solidarity towards the dead. In many cases it was simply the customary funeral practice, often performed out of deference to the wishes of the deceased. Burning and burial were methods used for waste disposal; to treat like garbage the bodies of one’s loved ones was seen as heartless and barbaric. Now through our cultural filters, we may see the eating our deceased friends and relatives as an act of savagery and insensitivity, in keeping with a violent, aggressive human nature. However, if funeral anthropophagy were the norm today, we might have pointed to the burning and burial of bodies as proof of man’s spiteful nature.
Funeral anthropophagy or burial cannibalism was often motivated by to a desire to perpetuate the life of the deceased by incorporating it into one’s own body. It was a means of transmitting the personality and soul of the deceased on to the next generation by absorbing it into one’s own life and that of the tribe as a whole. In this way, loved ones would remain ever present and united with the tribe, both physically and spiritually. This bears an interesting parallel with the Christian rite of communion, in which Jesus’ body and blood are symbolically ingested in the form of bread and wine.
Far from being a sign of aggression, it was an act of deep affection, motivated by feelings of community and belonging together. For example, ethnologist Thurnwald reported that when a youth of the Australian Turrbal tribe died, it was customary to eat his body. The youth was known and loved, so regardless of where his soul might be roaming, his flesh would not be left to rot.14
Another reason for endocannibalism was to help preserve the tribe’s way of life through the repetition of a ritual, thereby generating a sense of continuity, of maintaining the existing order. For example, in the North Bougainville Islands, when a child was born to an important family, a man was killed, eaten and his head buried. According to Riesenfeld, this was in keeping with a tribal legend in which two brothers had fought and one had been killed and devoured, while the other had become the founder of the tribe and its culture. This ‘founding myth’ was henceforth repeated so that the newborn would follow the correct path from the very beginning and thus grow up within the order of tribal life.15
Another example of endocannibalism practiced as a way to preserve tribal tradition was the re-enacting of the New Guinean Fire Myth about how fire was first brought to man after being lit through an act of copulation. The ceremony consisted in performing the coital act with a girl while others lit a fire with long red sticks. The girl was then thrown into the fire, her body eaten, and the bones painted red and stored in a hut. The purpose was to repeat the Fire Myth, reiterate the people’s belief in it, and continue the tradition of tribal life as a cohesive force.
A more magical reason for both endo- and exocannibalism was to acquire and thus perpetuate the powers and qualities of the dead. This is because, in many cultures, certain parts of body were seen as housing special powers or valuable qualities, or as having specific symbolic value. For example, fat was deemed to be the seat of extraordinary powers. The Australian Dieri would cut the fat from the face, belly, arms and legs, and pass it around for all the participants to partake of, while in South America, the fat would be melted off and mixed with ‘chicha’ to drink.
Also in South America, it was believed that the soul dwelt in the bones, so its ashes were mixed with a drink to pass around. The heart and blood were consumed raw in Colombia’s Cauca Valley to ensure the absorption of the dead man’s strength. The liver, heart and intestines had great magical powers for the Chebero, and as part of a fertility cult, a Cubeo chieftain’s wife would be served a dead man’s penis in order to increase her fertility.
Finally, what might be called ‘healing cannibalism’ was practiced by some societies. For example, it is reported that as a last resort to cure a sick boy, the Indonesian Klemantan people killed one of his sisters to appease the evil spirit that had been tormenting him. Then he was given her flesh to eat, in order to obtain the greatest advantage from her sacrifice.
Exocannibalism was the act of consuming the flesh of someone who was not a member of the same tribe or village. The reasons for it vary, but in this case they are also mostly symbolic and ritual in nature, as we will see below. One major purpose for exocannibalism was to take revenge or express hate and scorn, such as eating an enemy’s flesh while mocking him with expressions of contempt and scorn. The Arawak practiced cannibalism to take revenge on hereditary enemies, and one of their worse insults was “your mother’s flesh is stuck between my teeth.” Guaraní children would dip their hands into the still warm blood of slain enemies in order to become audacious and courageous and to avenge the killing and devouring of their relatives by the opposing side.
Sometimes the practice was meant to take away the powers of the victim, in order to prevent the dead man’s soul from returning and taking revenge on his killers. For example, the Sumo chopped up and ate the bodies of their slain foes, not just to insult them after death, but also to ensure that they were completely deprived of any power to do them harm. The Brazilian Parintintin, too, ate the eyes, tongue, and arm/leg muscles of their dead enemies to keep them from seeing, speaking, walking and shooting again, and thereby taking revenge on their murderers. By destroying the organs necessary for revenge, they ensured that the dead would pose no threat to them in the future. In a similar vein, some acts of exocannibalism were practiced merely to produce a deterrence effect by arousing fear and horror among non-cannibalistic tribes, in order to terrorize them and keep them from attacking.
As with endocannibalism, one important motivation was the transmission of powers and qualities. An elderly woman would eat the flesh and fat of a dead man to preserve her health and vitality by taking his life into herself. Female flesh was believed to enhance sexual potency. Often this was a highly ritualized affair that followed strict rules and required a network of obligations. For example, on the Solomon Island of Nissan and in the Carolines, in order to eat a woman, ritual required that one person secure and proffer the victim, another kill her, and yet another eat her. In the Polynesian area, important persons such as chieftains, who were deemed to have the most ‘Mana’, were eaten to share in their magical powers. In the Cauca Valley, only warriors had the right to devour enemy fighters and receive their strength and skill for themselves.
In some cultures the consumption of human flesh was imposed upon a king to be, without which he would not be crowned or allowed to rule. This so-called ‘royal cannibalism’ was believed to harden him, because it was a cruel and horrible act and a king had to be prepared to do terrible things. They felt that humane feelings could sometimes get in the way of duty, so kings were forced to endure these horrors in order to harden themselves. Among the Ovimbundu, on the other hand, royal cannibalism was practiced to perpetuate an institution. Their legendary king Wamba Kalunga had reportedly had a predilection for human flesh. Since then, all future kings had to eat the flesh of a fattened slave mixed with animal meat, in order to ensure the continuation of this custom. This followed a belief in the power of repetition, and that what had once been instituted by a great king as the essence of kingship should be reproduced continually.
There were also exocannibalistic forms of funerary rituals. For example, among the Jaga of Africa, a slave or enemy was decapitated over a grave to quench the dead person’s thirst with their blood. Some of their flesh would then be added to the grave as food for the dead, and some was also eaten by the people to transport themselves from the world of the living to that of the dead by eating the same food as they. This was “not a funeral custom of the living but a rite and necessity of the dead which must be shared by the living,” a case of anthropophagy connected with a communion or identification with the dead person.16
Finally, the killing and eating of one’s own tribesmen as punishment for committing serious crimes such as murder, has been termed ‘judicial cannibalism’. Although the victim was of the same tribe or group, these punitive acts are best classified as exocannibalism, as criminals were and are deemed outcasts or non-citizens. Interestingly, various forms of punishment and coercion are currently defined by sociologists as institutionalized altruism, not as acts of barbarism as was once believed, because they help to maintain a social order of cooperation and mutualism.
6. Other Similar Cases
There are other cases of cannibalism and related practices that do not fit neatly within the endo/exo categorization scheme, but which throw an interesting light on the subject at hand as to whether anthropophagy and similar customs support the view of man has inherently aggressive, violent – an instinctual ‘killer’.
Some cultures made sacrificial offerings for gods to eat, with the intention that they might also share with the tribe in the strength of the sacrificed person and, by extension, in the life of the tribe. A special case of this type of ritual was seen in New Zealand. When an enemy chieftain was killed during an inter-tribal war, the hostilities would cease temporarily while the chieftain was chopped up and roasted by the opposing tribe. Part of his body would be sacrificed to the gods, and another part eaten by the tribe to receive his strength, courage and taboo powers. If the gods accepted this sacrifice, the war would continue, and if not, the war would end.
Koch has reported on various African tribes that eat the corpses of members of their own and other tribes whom they have not themselves slain. He explains that they “believe that whoever eats the flesh of corpses becomes possessed of sinister, magic powers and is capable of changing himself into wild animals”.17 Helmuth reflects on the worldview and reasoning behind this custom as follows:
One can suppose that among these tribes the belief in the metamorphosis of the dead man into his totem animal and thus in the transmigration of souls, results in the consumption of the flesh of corpses so that the eater can change himself into an animal by devouring the flesh of the dead man. The direct way to a transformation, i.e., death, is of course to be avoided, and thus the objective is gained in a round-about manner by eating a human being who is already capable of assuming the form of an animal.18
Several peoples of the world have had the custom of gathering and keeping human parts as trophies to bring good luck, acquire magical powers, express contempt and mockery, or take revenge. Tsantsas (shrunken heads) were believed by the Jívaro and Mundurukú to bring good luck for two reasons: because the preparation process gave the treated heads magical powers; and because the ancestors granted support and protection to the owner of the trophy once their desire for revenge had been fulfilled. Head trophies were also considered very valuable and important by the Guaraní y Omagua people. The Araukans made drinking cups from the skullcaps of slain enemies out of contempt and mockery, while the Huanca, Incas and Quechua stuffed their enemies’ skins, made drums from their hides and crafted flutes from their bones for similar purposes.
All of the above cases share something in common with endo- and exocannibalism: that the motives behind them were sociocultural and ritualistic, rather than driven by innate aggression or inherent violence. However, there have been cases in modern times of deranged people committing anthropophagy within the context of criminal acts. What has been termed ‘criminal cannibalism’ is reported among murderers attempting to get rid of corpses by eating the remains of their victims. Mental illness and paranoia have been blamed in some cases, such as the serial killers Jeff Dahmer and Ed Gein, and megalomania has been suggested as a cause in the cases of dictators such as Idi Amin of Uganda and Jean Bedel Bocassa of the Central African Republic.19
At the other end of the spectrum is emergency or survival anthropophagy, consisting of exceptional, desperate acts driven by starvation among people who have deplored having to resort to this. Documented cases of this phenomenon include the following: A group of 90 American immigrants, on their way westward through the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846-47, were caught in a snowstorm and, after consuming their food rations, had to resort to cannibalism. When the city of Leningrad was under siege during World War II, the inhabitants had to make the choice between starvation and cannibalism. In 1972, members of a rugby team from Uruguay survived the crash of their aircraft in the Chilean Andes Mountains. Rescue teams had to return because of severe weather conditions. The team managed to survive only by eating flesh from the dead. The Franklin Expedition of 1881-84 into the Canadian Arctic region followed the same pattern. According to press reports, famine made people resort to cannibalism in North Korea in 1997/98, where flesh of obviously human origin was even offered on the streets.20
In a strict sense, anthropologists do not consider these extreme cases to be true cannibalism, which is defined as more of a social custom or cultural ritual. As we saw above, very few historical cases of anthropophagy due to hunger have been identified, and no cases where human flesh was eaten as a staple source of protein.
7. Final Considerations
We have seen that anthropophagy has been practiced by numerous peoples throughout human history. We discovered that endocannibalism was motivated primarily by feelings of solidarity and affection, while exocannibalism often had less friendly purposes. However, it has also become clear that both forms were motivated primarily by the symbolic and ritualistic meanings attributed to the act, and only in extreme cases by a deranged nature or a lack of nutrition from other sources. In an attempt to understand how these practices evolved, scientists have compiled statistics of the incidence of endo- versus exocannibalism among hunter-gatherer nomads and among farming village dwellers. The summary results can be seen on the table below:21
Here we can clearly see that hunter-gatherers and nomads practiced more endocannibalism, while farmers and village dwellers were more exocannibalistic. There is over 2-3 times more endocannibalism among hunter-gatherers and nomads, and over 11-17 times more exocannibalism among farmers and villagers. This shows that, just as a hunting-gathering nomadic life came before sedentary farming, endocannibalism came before exocannibalism. Helmuth concludes that “this implies a greater age of friendly, amicable feelings connected with the consumption of human flesh than hostile or magical feelings,"22 and Becher suggests that this is because it is easier for their motivations to go from love and respect to hate and contempt than the other way around.23
1) Tribes with:
(a) Hunting-gathering economy, agriculture missing or unimportant
(b) Planting and farming as basic form of subsistence economy (maize, manioc)
2) Tribes with:
(a) Minimal social differentiation, band, nomadic or semi-nomadic organization
(b) Sessile, village-like social organization
These findings constitute one more piece of evidence that invites the current generation to revise traditional assumptions regarding human nature as being inherently aggressive and violent, and therefore incapable of achieving a peaceful, united society. In this regard, Helmuth also came to the following conclusion:
The belief in a transmission of qualities, fear of revenge, punishment for crimes, repetition of a myth, as well as a certain love and feeling of belonging together, or complete indifference on the part of the subject toward pain and the essence of the object eaten, are not connected with aggressive feelings. The assumption of aggressive feelings or aggressive behavior of man towards his fellow man is not justified without certain conditions, since this assumption too represents nothing else but an application of ideas deduced from the present situation to a past one. With the same justification, one might argue that an Indian or an Australian practicing patrophagy could imply a long history of friendly, loving feelings and affection. A comparison of the modes of thought and motives of humans from different and recent cultures makes it possible to reject previously accepted views as too dogmatic.24
Although exocannibalism declined into a hateful, vengeful act, the very fact that anthropophagy was able to undergo such a profound cultural transformation, and that subsequently both forms should have become so repugnant to contemporary societies, shows that, far from being bound by the determinism of an alleged genetic programming, human beings possess an immense capacity for sociocultural change, a capacity which we must now deploy in order to pass from today’s cultures of violence to a new culture of peace.
1. Anthropophagy comes from the Greek ἄνθρωπος or anthropos, “human being” and φαγειν or phagein, “to eat”, and includes: human cannibalism, the eating of human flesh by another human; self-cannibalism, the eating of one's own flesh; man-eating, the eating of human flesh by man-eaters; and human hematophagy, the sucking of human blood by animals. In this article, we will be using it only in the first sense.
2. In Africa, many tribes such as the Fan or Fang and Jaga; the Ovimbundu or Umbundu in Angola; the Momvu, Baluba, Bakondja, Basongo, Mabudu, Azande and other tribes of Central Africa.
3. In the Americas, the Cayenne of French Guiana; the Tupinambá, Boehm, Parintintín, and Surara of the Amazon; the Tupí-Guaraní, Aminapä and Botokudos of the southeastern part of the continent; the Amahuaca, Omagua, Chebero or Jebero of the northeastern part; several tribes of Colombia such as the Tucano, Guayupé, Quimbaja, Arma, Picara, Putima, Pijao, Pozo, Tupinamba, and Cubeo; the Caríbales, Waika, Arawak or Arahuacos in northern South America and the Caribbean; the Sumo, Chorotega and Nicarao of Central America; and the Hopi, Iroquois and Jumano of North America, among others.
4. In Asia, the Masagetas and Isedones to the west of the Caspian Sea according to Herodotus; on Mount Carmel in the Middle East; in the Swat Valley of Afghanistan; the Kallatians of India; in Teshik-Tash of Uzbekistan; in Zhoukoudian or Chouk Outien of China; and the N’gandong and Sumatra of Indonesia, among others.
5. On the European continent, in Krapina of Croacia; in Weimar-Ehringsdorf, Hohlestein, Doebvritz, Bad Frankenhausen, and Neuessing of Germany; in La Quina, La Chapelle, Le Moustier, and La Ferrassie of France; on Mount Circeo of Italy; and the Slavic peoples, among others.
6. In Oceania, several aborigine peoples of Australia, including the Dieri, Turrbal, Theddora, and Ngarigo; the Klemantan of Indonesia; several of the Solomon Islands; and some of the Caroline Islands, among others.
7. Dart, Raymond. “The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man,” International Anthropological and Linguistic Review, vol. I, 1953, pp. 201-8. Cited in Ashley Montagu, ed. Man and Aggression. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973, p. 5.
8. Ibid. pp. 207-8.
9. Leakey, Richard and Roger Lewin. “People of the Lake – Mankind and its Beginnings”. New York: Avon Books, 1978, p. 231.
10. Helmuth, Hermann. Cannibalism in Paleoanthropology and Ethnology. In Ashley Montagu, ed. Man and Aggression. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968, 2nd edition 1973, p. 231.
11. Helmuth 1973, p. 234.
12. Lorenz, Konrad, “On Aggression”. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966, p. 239.
13. Montagu, Ashley. “The New Litany of ‘Innate Depravity,’ or Original Sin Revisited.” In Ashley Montagu, ed. Man and Aggression. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968, 2nd edition 1973, p. 12.
14. Thurnwald, Richard. Kannibalismus. En: Reallexikon der Vorgeschichte, hrsg. v. M. Ebert, Bd. 6, Berlin, 1926, p. 207-12, cited in Helmuth 1973, pp. 234-5.
15. Riesenfeld, Alfonse. The Megalithic Culture of Melanesia. Leiden, Holland: E. J. Brill, 1950.
16. Volhard, Ewald. Kannibalismus – Studien zur Kulturkunde. Bd. 5, Stuttgart: Verlag Strecker und Schröder, 1939, cited in Helmuth 1973, pp. 237-8.
17. Koch, R. Anthropologische Beobachtungen gegentlich einer Expedition an den Viktoria-Nyanza. In: Z. Ethnol. 40, 1908, p. 465, cited in Helmuth, 1973, p. 236.
18. Helmuth, 1973, pp. 236-7.
19. h2g2 Web magazine, Cannibalism, April 24, 2001, URL: http://h2g2.com/dna/h2g2/A530687.
21. Helmuth, 1973, p. 241. Source: Handbook of South American Indians (Steward) and World Ethnographic Sample (Murdock). Samples are taken primarily from South America, which has abundant data, and extrapolated to the rest of the world, where data is scarcer.
22. Helmuth, 1973, p. 244.
23. Becher, H. Die endocannibalistischen Riten als Früheste Erscheinungsform der Anthropophagie. In: Z. Ethnol. 92, 1967, pp. 248-53, cited in Helmuth 1973, p. 244.
24. Helmuth, 1973, p. 250.