CANNIBALISM is both a concept and a practice that may involve diverse themes of death, food, sacrifice, revenge, aggression, love, and destruction or transformation of human others. The many and varied examples of cannibalism are difficult to summarize, except in terms of the widespread idea of the human body as a powerful symbolic site for defining relations between oneself and others and marking the boundaries of a moral community. In violating the bodily integrity that prevails in ordinary social life, cannibalism signifies an extraordinary transformation or dramatization of relations between those who eat and those who are eaten. When it occurs in religious contexts, the act of consuming human substance commonly represents an exchange between people and cosmic powers, promoting union with the divine or renewing life-sustaining spiritual relations. Such religious meanings may overlap with the social and political significance of consuming enemies to mark one's dominance and superiority—or consuming kin to express love, to distance the spirit of the deceased from the world of the living, or to acquire physical or spiritual qualities contained in the corpse. Thus sacrifice, the aggressive destruction of enemies, and the devoted incorporation or anxious destruction of a loved one's body are all facets of cannibalism that may be present in different cultural contexts.
Cannibalism and Its Complexity of Form
Anthropologists distinguish between endocannibalism, eating a member of one's own social group, and exocannibalism, eating a member of some other group, frequently an enemy. Endocannibalism is most often associated with funerals or other mortuary rites and with themes of sacrifice, familial devotion, reincarnation, and regeneration, as well as group welfare, reproduction, and continuity. Exocannibalism commonly signifies domination, revenge, or destruction of enemies. The distinction between exo- and endocannibalism has limited value in describing the complex forms in which people have ingested human body substances.
The symbolism of the sacrifice and consumption of human offerings pervades religious thought in European and Middle Eastern traditions; this symbolism is explored by Walter Burkert in Homo Necans (1983). Cannibalism is a common theme in mythology and folk tales (see Lévi-Strauss, 1969) and, as a practice, it has been reported in Europe, Polynesia, Melanesia, North and South America, and Africa (see Tannahill, 1975; Sanday, 1986; Gordon-Grube, 1988). The occurrences have no simple correlation with patterns of subsistence, ecology, food supply, or other cultural conditions.
In popular imagination and in psychoanalytic analyses such as that of Eli Sagan (1974), cannibalism has commonly been seen as characteristic of primitive communities and magical thought rather than civilization and religion. Such assumptions ignore the variety of cannibalistic practices in complex societies, such as the western European tradition of using human body parts as medicines and the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. As William Arens (1979) has emphasized, exaggerated or unfounded reports of cannibalism are widespread and often have been used as racist propaganda and justification for colonial domination of native peoples. Arguments persist about when and where cannibalism really has existed as an institutionalized, socially accepted practice. Some of the most heated of these debates have focused on Fiji and the circumstances surrounding the death of Captain James Cook in Hawai'i, and on the interpretation of archaeological remains of the ancient Anasazi culture of the southwestern United States. Anthropological scholarship on some of the better-described ethnographic and historical cases has focused on elucidating the cultural beliefs reflected in the diverse historical practices of consuming human body substances.
Cannibalism and the Aztec Religion
Perhaps the most widely known large-scale practice of human sacrifice and cannibalism is that of the ancient Aztec, as recorded by many early reports. The Aztec religion involved many kinds of offerings, but the Sun, patron of warriors, required human hearts and human blood for nourishment; human sacrifice was therefore essential. The victims were usually prisoners or purchased slaves; during the rituals, their hearts were removed and placed in vessels, and their heads were placed in skull racks. The limbs, and sometimes other portions of the victims' bodies, might be cooked and eaten by the nobles, priests, and wealthy elite, as well as by successful warriors and guests invited to celebratory feasts. Aztec priests also practiced autosacrifice, drawing their own blood as an offering.
Michael Harner (1977) and Marvin Harris (1977) argue that Aztec cannibalism had a nutritional purpose, because the Aztecs of the late prehistoric and early historic period had depleted their game supply and lacked domestic herbivores. Harner and Harris suggest that cannibalism was a response to the pressure of overpopulation and meat shortage, disguised as propitiation of the gods. Their reasoning and claims about the scale of both human sacrifice and food shortages have been disputed by other scholars who emphasize that the public ritual of blood sacrifice was vital in the Aztec religion.
Cannibalism in Symbolism and Myth
Among the Kwakiutl of the northwest coast of North America, a major feature of the winter ceremonies was the Hamatsa dancer, who symbolized hunger, craving for human flesh, the fire that transforms, and regurgitation (rebirth), and who was later tamed so as to become a member of society. Here the cannibalistic image is the key to the relation between man and supernatural forces. In the Great Lakes region of Canada and the United States, northern Algonkian legends describe a cannibalistic Windigo monster. Under conditions of winter isolation and the threat of starvation, individuals sometimes developed delusions of being transformed into such a monster (Marano, 1985). The idiom of cannibalism in myth is worldwide and has an extensive range of context and meaning. Claude Lévi-Strauss (1969) points to the universe of oppositions, associations, and transformations of humans and animals: death and rebirth, cooked and raw food, death and rotting, cannibal and ogre. South America is one of the areas where these themes have been elaborated in myths and, in the past, were expressed by a number of native societies through practices of endocannibalism and exocannibalism.
Endocannibalism and Exocannibalism in South America
For some native peoples in lowland South America, endocannibalism was a ritual act that honored the deceased by sparing the corpse from the horror of burial and decay. Eradicating the body by consuming it was thought to protect against the negative effects of death and the twin dangers associated with the corpse: the danger that the body's presence would attract the dead person's soul to attack living people, and the danger of excessive grief among mourners for whom the body is a constant reminder of their loss (Conklin, 2001). South American endocannibalism took several forms, from eating the flesh (among the Guayaquí of Paraguay and the Wari' of Brazil) to cremating the flesh and grinding the roasted bones into a powder to be mixed with food or beverage and consumed (Clastres, 1974; Conklin, 2001; Dole, 1962; McCallum, 1999; Vilaça, 2000). Among the Wari' of Brazil, who believed that ancestors' spirits become game animals that offer their flesh to feed their living relatives, the act of consuming the corpse at the funeral evoked religious beliefs about life-supporting reciprocity between the living and the dead, and between people and animal spirits.
For the Tupinamba and other native peoples of lowland South America, exocannibalism was traditionally associated with intertribal and intercommunity warfare. War was highly ritualized, being preceded by dreams and magical rites, and victory was celebrated with further rites, cannibal feasts, and a display of head trophies by the victors. Prisoners might be kept for a long time, adopted or married into a local family, and then tortured before being killed and eaten. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (1992) has shown how the Tupinamba treatment of war captives embodied cultural ideas about self and other, nature and culture, marriage and alliance. Carlos Fausto (1999) sees cannibalism as a key mechanism and metaphor through which Amazonian peoples transformed enemies into kin, or mortals into immortals, by taming, socializing, or perfecting that which is wild or culturally inferior.
Cannibalism in the Pacific Islands
The raiding of enemy villages and consumption of enemy dead—or the taking of captives who were later killed and eaten—also has been documented in Melanesia and Polynesia. The discovery and control of Pacific islanders from the eighteenth century onward brought exploratory expeditions, missionaries, administrators, magistrates, and, later, anthropologists into contact with local informants who described and explained their beliefs and practices related to consuming human substances. Ross Bowden (1984) reports that in New Zealand, Maori cannibalism in warfare not only provided contributions to the warriors' diet but also had a profound symbolic significance: to degrade the slain enemy, whose flesh was converted into food and whose bones were turned into objects of common use. The victors especially relished desecrating the corpse of a chief.
In Fiji, myth and historical practices together provide an understanding of the interconnections between the Fijians' surrender of their sisters to foreign husbands in exchange for marriage payment of valuable whale teeth and their capture of foreign war prisoners for cannibalism. Human sacrifice accompanied the building of sacred houses and canoes and the ceremonial visits of allied chiefs. A Fijian chief oversaw an exchange cycle that included the symbolic transfer of valued objects—women (as wives) and men (as cannibal victims); by this process, political alliances were confirmed. The cannibal victims were consecrated to the major war god, who was represented by the chief.
In parts of Melanesia, anthropologists have documented native informants' accounts of cannibalistic practices that continued into the mid-twentieth century. In the northern Fore region of the New Guinea highlands, dead enemies were eaten by men and women, and in the southern region women and children ate kin and members of the residential group who had died. Similarly, Gimi women cooked and ate the dead of the local group. The Fore people reportedly valued enemy flesh as food, but cannibalism carried ritual meanings as well. When Gimi women ate human flesh they prevented the ravages of decomposition and alleviated the hunger they believed to be caused by intense sorrow. Gimi practices were structured by kinship relations, ideas about exchange transactions between men and women, and myths that associate cannibalism with wildness and uncontrolled or rapacious female sexuality.
Elsewhere in the New Guinea highlands, warfare cannibalism reflected concerns with fertility and gender. The Bimin-Kuskusmin (see Poole, 1983) and the neighboring Miyanmin reportedly ate enemies killed in war. The latter ate the whole body, whereas the former group dismembered bodies, buried heads, and ate to defile the enemy. The Bimin-Kuskusmin distinguished between hard body parts that were considered male and were eaten by men, and those parts, flesh and fat, that were considered female and were eaten by women. The Great Pandanus Tree Rite was an occasion for feasting upon game and human victims obtained by raiding a nearby group. Fitz John Porter Poole's interpretation of this ritual emphasizes the cultural meaning of male and female substances, ritual expression of myth, relations between the sexes, fertility, and death.
Cannibalism and the Occult
Among the Asmat, the consumption of enemies was associated with the construction of masculinity through head-hunting and initiation rituals. In West Africa, among the Sherbro, for example, certain secret societies, such as the Human Leopard and Alligator, reportedly required head-hunting and cannibalism as a qualification for membership (see MacCormack, in Brown and Tuzin, 1983). Witches and sorcerers acquired and renewed their powers by consuming human flesh and thereby absorbing the powers of the deceased. Accusations of cannibalism are a political weapon still powerful among the contemporary Sherbro of Sierra Leone.
Witchcraft is in various ways commonly associated with cannibalism. In the Strickland/Bosavi region of the New Guinea highlands, among a number of groups, including the Onabasulu (see Ernst, in Goldman, 1999), witches who were executed were cooked and consumed in a symbolic denial of the individual's humanity and status as a moral person. Elsewhere, witches themselves are often thought to be cannibals who obtain personal mana (power) by consuming a victim. The notion that witches feed upon the blood and body of their victims and that death results from this loss of body substance is noted in many areas among unrelated peoples. In some places a cult group of witches is believed to teach and share techniques and cannibalistic acts, real or symbolic, but a belief in a solitary cannibal-witch also exists. Neil Whitehead (2002) describes how sorcerers in the highlands of Guyana extract and sip fluids from decomposing corpses. The act is the sorcerer's gift to divine beings of the cosmos, given to ensure the fertility of plants, fish, and animals.
The theme of cannibalism as an exchange that feeds and renews sources of life and fertility appears in a wide range of contexts, from the hostile relations of Guyanese sorcery and Aztec warfare and human sacrifice to the loving and honorable funerary rites of native peoples in Melanesia and lowland South America. Although Eli Sagan (1974), I. M. Lewis (1986), and other psychological theorists see in aggression and interpersonal conflict the source and meaning of cannibalism, the trend among most anthropologists and historians has been to demonstrate the diversity of cultural meanings. In both practice and imagination, cannibalism is clearly an emotionally charged and culturally significant act, but it has no single meaning. Cannibalism's multifaceted symbolism and its connections with mythic themes of sacrifice, destruction, regeneration, and social reproduction are understood best within a specific cultural context.
Books and articles on cannibalism may be theoretical or interpretive general works or they may present descriptive case studies that analyze cannibalism in particular cultural settings. Many works combine both features, applying a theoretical or interpretive approach to particular case studies.
Arens, William. The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. New York, 1979. Finds the evidence for cannibalism unconvincing.
Goldman, Laurence R., ed. The Anthropology of Cannibalism. Westport, Conn., 1999. Presents a series of articles with critiques of Arens's position, analyses of the politics of ethnographic representations of cannibalism, and case studies cited in the text of this article: Kantner on the Anasazi, Zubrinich on the Asmat, and Ernst on the Onabasulu.
Harris, Marvin. Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Culture. New York, 1977. Presents a materialist-ecological explanation of cannibalism.
Lewis, I. M. "The Cannibal's Cauldron." In Lewis's Religion in Context: Cults and Charisma, pp. 63–77. New York, 1986. Highlights symbolic themes of sexuality and oral aggression.
Sagan, Eli. Cannibalism: Human Aggression and Cultural Form. New York, 1974. A popular psychoanalytic study of cannibalism in general, relating it to aggression and sublimation of aggression.
Sanday, Peggy Reeves. Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System. New York, 1986. Surveys cross-cultural cannibalism and analyzes its relation to cultural concepts of self-other relations and the reproduction of society.
Tannahill, Reay. Flesh and Blood: A History of the Cannibal Complex. New York, 1975.
Studies of Areas and Cases
Bowden, Ross. "Maori Cannibalism: An Interpretation." Oceania 55 (1984): 81–99.
Brown, Paula, and Donald Tuzin, eds. The Ethnography of Cannibalism. Washington, D.C., 1983. Presents a group of case studies, some cited in the text of the article: Poole on the Bimin-Kuskusmin, MacCormack on the Sherbro, and Sahlins on the Fijians, with a commentary by Shirley Lindenbaum.
Burkert, Walter. Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. Berkeley, Calif., 1983. Essentially a study of the ritualization of sacrifice. Cannibalism as imagery rather than practice.
Clastres, Pierre. "Guayakí Cannibalism." In Native South Americans: Ethnology of the Least Known Continent, edited by Patricia J. Lyon, pp. 309–321. Boston, 1974.
Conklin, Beth A. Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society. Austin, Tex., 2001.
Dole, Gertrude. "Endocannibalism among the Amahuaca Indians." Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences 24 (1962): 567–573.
Fausto, Carlos. "Of Enemies and Pets: Warfare and Shamanism in Amazonia." American Ethnologist 26, no. 4 (1999): 933–956.
Forsyth, Donald W. "The Beginnings of Brazilian Anthropology: Jesuits and Tupinamba Cannibalism." Journal of Anthropological Research 39 (1983): 147–178.
Gillison, Gillian. Between Culture and Fantasy: A New Guinea Highlands Mythology. Chicago, 1993.
Gordon-Grube, Karen. "Anthropophagy in Post-Renaissance Europe: The Tradition of Medicinal Cannibalism." American Anthropologist 90, no. 2 (1988): 405–409.
Harner, Michael J. "The Ecological Basis for Aztec Sacrifice." American Ethnologist 4 (1977): 117–135.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked. New York, 1969. Discusses myths of cannibalism and the symbolism of raw, cooked, and rotten food, especially among South American tribes.
Lindenbaum, Shirley. Kuru Sorcery: Disease and Danger in the New Guinea Highlands. Palo Alto, Calif., 1979. A discussion of the importance of sorcery belief in the reactions of the Fore to the kuru disease, which was spread by contact with victims of the disease, mainly through cannibalism.
McCallum, Cecelia. "Consuming Pity: The Production of Death among the Cashinahua." Cultural Anthropology 14, no. 4 (1999): 443–471.
Marano, Lou. "Windigo Psychosis: The Anatomy of an Emic-Etic Confusion." In Culture-Bound Syndromes, edited by Ronald C. Simons and Charles C. Hughes, pp. 411–448. Dordrecht, 1985.
Métraux, Alfred. "The Tupinamba." In Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian H. Steward, vol. 3. Washington, D.C., 1949.
Métraux, Alfred. "Warfare, Cannibalism, and Human Trophies." In Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian H. Steward, vol. 5. Washington, D.C., 1949.
Obeyesekere, Gananath. "Cannibal Feasts in Nineteenth-Century Fiji: Seaman's Yarns and the Ethnographic Imagination." In Cannibalism and the Colonial World, edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen, pp. 63–86. New York, 1998.
Poole, Fitz John Porter. "Cannibals, Tricksters, and Witches: Anthropophagic Images among Binim-Kuskusmin." In The Ethnography of Cannibalism, edited by Paula Brown and Donald Tuzin, p.13. Washington, D.C., 1983.
Sahlins, Marshall. "Raw Women, Cooked Men, and Other 'Great Things' of the Fiji Islands." In The Ethnography of Cannibalism, edited by Paula Brown and Donald Tuzin. Washington, D.C., 1983.
Strathern, Andrew. "Witchcraft, Greed, Cannibalism and Death: Some Related Themes from the New Guinea Highlands." In Death and the Regeneration of Life, edited by Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry, pp. 111–133. New York, 1982. Compares and discusses the themes of cannibalism, witchcraft, sacrifice, exchange, recreation, and the enemy.
Vilaça, Aparecida. "Relations between Funerary Cannibalism and Warfare Cannibalism: The Question of Predation." Ethnos 65, no. 1 (2000): 83–106.
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo Batalha. From the Enemy's Point of View: Humanity and Divinity in an Amazonian Society. Chicago, 1992. An interpretation of Tupi-Guarani ritual cannibalism, emphasizing how society is constructed through the incorporation of enemy others.
Walens, Stanley. Feasting with Cannibals: An Essay on Kwakiutl Cosmology. Princeton, N.J., 1981. A symbolic analysis of Kwakiutl cannibalistic spirits and dances.
Whitehead, Neil L. Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death. Durham, N.C., 2002.
Zerries, Otto. "El endocanibalismo en la América del Sur." Revista do Museu Paulista (Sao Paulo) 12 (1960): 125–175.
Paula Brown (1987)
Beth A. Conklin (2005)
CANNIBALISM. There is certainly no shortage of information on cannibalism. A search at any good library will net twenty to thirty books on the topic, and, at the time this encyclopedia went to press, the World Wide Web contained no fewer than 850 sites. Books on the topic range from popular surveys by Askenasy (1994) to anthropological treatments by Brown and Tuzin (1983), Goldman (1999), and Petrinovich (2000) to anthropological critique by Arens (1979) to postcolonial and literary critique by Barker and others (1998). A superficial examination of post–World War II films lists a variety of both serious and humorous treatments of cannibalism, many of them first-rate (Fires on the Plain [Japan, 1959], Soylent Green [U.S., 1973], Survive! [Mexico, 1976], Eating Raoul [U.S., 1982], Silence of the Lambs [U.S., 1991], Delicatessen [France, 1991], The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover [1993/1989, France/Netherlands.], Alive [U.S., 1993]). The fact that cannibalism is a powerful taboo in most human societies undeniably contributes to our fascination with tales about organisms eating conspecifics (others of the same species), especially humans.
The practice of human cannibalism is highly variable and can be defined in a number of ways: (1) Endocannibalism is the consumption of deceased individuals who live within the group, such as kin and friends. (This pattern was common in New Guinea as an act of veneration.) (2) Exocannibalism is the consumption of outsiders as an act to gain strength or demonstrate power over the vanquished, who had usually been murdered. (3) Starvation or survival cannibalism is the consumption during actual or perceived starvation. (This is well documented in numerous historical sources.) (4) Gastronomic cannibalism is nonfunerary, nonstarvation cannibalism, that is, routine cannibalism for food. (This is not well documented.) (5) Medicinal cannibalism is the consumption of human tissues such as blood, powdered bone, or dried tissue for medicinal purposes. (6) Sadistic cannibalism is the killing and eating of individuals out of sadistic or psychopathological motives. (There is considerable evidence for this pattern of cannibalism.) In exocannibalism, gastronomic cannibalism, and sadistic cannibalism, the victims are murdered before being eaten; in endocannibalism, starvation cannibalism, and medicinal cannibalism, they are not.
Cannibalism in Nonhuman Animals
Cannibalism occurs in a wide variety of invertebrate and vertebrate species and includes: infanticide, mating and courtship, competitive encounters, eating the old, and eating eggs. Among nonhuman organisms, cannibalism may be either ecological or social. Ecological factors include a limited food supply or the recovery of reproductive investment when food is scarce for infant survival; social factors include competition for reproductive resources or food resources. A general principle is that older individuals usually consume younger ones or eggs; it is relatively rare for adults to eat other adults. Elgar and Crespi (1992) define cannibalism in nonhuman organisms only in cases where an individual is killed (rather than dying a natural death) before being eaten.
In a comprehensive survey of cannibalism in primates in the wild, Hiraiwa-Hasegawa (1992) observed only five species in this practice: Cercopithecus ascanius (redtail monkey), Papio cynocepharus cynocephalus (baboon), Macaca fuscata (Japanese macaque), Gorilla gorilla beringei (mountain gorilla), and Pan troglodytes (common chimpanzee). In each episode observed, infants were eaten after being killed, and this custom appeared to serve a nutritional (therefore, ecological rather than social) purpose in animals who ordinarily consumed meat as a part of their diets. Chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary relatives, have the highest rates of cannibalism among non-human primates; chimpanzees also have the highest rates of predation (of red colobus monkeys) among nonhuman primates.
Cannibalism in History and Prehistory
Identification of cannibalism in the distant past is, according to Tim White (1992), based on very specific indicators in fossilized or unfossilized human bones: (1) similar butchering techniques for human and animal remains; (2) similar patterns of long bone breakage (for marrow extraction); (3) identical patterns of processing and discarding after use; and (4) evidence of cooking (White, 1992). Based on these criteria, there is good evidence for cannibalism from the southwestern United States; New Guinea, Fiji, and other sites in the Pacific; and Europe; there is limited evidence at other sites around the world. Ann Gibbons (1997) has reported that very early paleoanthropological specimens dating back hundreds of thousands of years are increasingly being identified as showing signs of cannibalism.
There is abundant evidence from historical accounts of cannibalism in the Caribbean (the term was defined for Carib Indians; the Spanish word Canibales is a form of the ethnic name Carib ) and in Spanish accounts of Mesoamerican ritual sacrifices and cannibalism. Many historical accounts have been challenged within the past few decades because most information was derived from enemies of the groups identified as "cannibals," where the term was used to denigrate the other group. Also, during periods of exploration from the sixteenth century onward, Europeans were likely to accept the identification of "cannibal" in a group that was thought to be "savage" and "primitive." Hence, there is probably some exaggeration in the historical literature.
A storm of controversy has arisen over new evidence for cannibalism in Anasazi populations of the southwestern United States from the period between 900 and 1200 c.e. White (1992) and the Turners (1999) have identified skeletal remains from a number of populations that lived in the Four Corners area that show clear signs of persistent and regular cannibalism (White, 1992; Turner and Turner, 1999). The controversy has been fueled by the traditional view of these peoples as peaceful and non-violent and the belief that, if cannibalism did exist, it resulted from periodic famine and hunger, which must have commonly struck prehistoric peoples of the arid Southwest. A new image of these peoples, under the purported cultural influence of Mesoamerican traditions of violence from the south, is one of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and social pathology—quite different from the earlier view.
Cannibalism and Survival
Some of the best-documented examples of cannibalism have been based on the conditions that take place during widespread famines and on accounts of shipwrecked, marooned, or stranded groups of people who have gone for long periods without food. Two of the best-documented of many cases are the pioneer Donner party's isolation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the fall and winter of 1846–1847, and the crash of the Uruguayan rugby team in the Chilean Andes in October 1972. In these and other well-documented cases, it is unquestionable that the food acquired by means of cannibalism enabled some individuals to survive rather than starving to death.
A more controversial issue is whether regular cannibalism in groups of people makes the difference between inadequate and adequate dietary intake. The Aztecs of Mexico practiced regular ritual sacrifice of captives and consumed the victims. Michael Harner (1977) and Marvin Harris (1977) argued that this food provided a protein-rich source of nutrients to a large Aztec population that was suffering from limited protein intake due to the absence of Native American domestic animals during pre-Hispanic times. This argument has been countered on the grounds that (1) population density was somewhat lower than estimated and (2) protein sources were available from a variety of plant and wild animal food that, when considered together, provided an adequate protein intake for most of the people.
Garn and Block (1970) argued that the meat yield from an average human body (50 kg) would only provide about 4.0 kg of protein, and that this would meet the daily minimum protein requirements of only sixty adults. However, Dornsteich and Morren (1974) presented a more convincing argument for New Guinea cannibalism in several highland populations. They noted that the consumption of human flesh by the Miyanmin people provided between 5 and 10 percent of the daily intake of protein, which was equivalent to or greater than the protein derived from domestic and feral pig consumption. This basic issue seems to relate to the primary motives that people have for consuming human flesh. It is probably not correct to state that some people practice cannibalism solely as a source of food. There are many other human motives for cannibalism. On the other hand, human tissue has the same nutritional value as any other mammalian tissue when it is eaten, whether by a human or nonhuman predator.
Cannibalism and Disease
The Fore tribe of the highlands of Papua New Guinea was investigated at length beginning in 1957 by D. Carleton Gajdusek, who won a Nobel prize in 1976 for his study of the neurological-degenerative disease kuru, which he determined was caused by human contact with infected human brain tissue. Kuru, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy are all transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE) and were formerly believed to be caused by a slow virus infection; recent evidence indicates that they are conveyed by proteins called prions. Among the Fore, the principal pattern of contact with infected human tissue was during the mortuary preparation associated with endocannibalistic consumption of dead kin. In 1979 William Arens challenged Gajdusek's explanation for the spread of kuru on the grounds that there were no direct observations of cannibalism in the Fore people.
Whether cannibalism reflects pathological behavior depends on the circumstances of consumption. Starvation cannibalism appears to be tacitly condoned by Western societies, and other societies have sanctioned a variety of exocannibalistic practices. But perhaps the most abhorrent practice is that of sadistic or psychopathological murder and consumption of human tissue. Jeffrey Dahmer is a most recent example. A deranged young man who did not appear to be abnormal, he was arrested in Milwaukee in 1991 for the murder, dismemberment, and partial consumption of seventeen individuals. There are many other examples of such bizarre and pathological behavior in the literature.
Arens, William. The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Askenasy, Hans. Cannibalism: From Sacrifice to Survival. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1994.
Barker, Francis, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen, eds. Cannibalism and the Colonial World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Brown, P., and D. Tuzin, eds. The Ethnography of Cannibalism. Washington, D.C.: Society for Psychological Anthropology, 1983.
Dornstreich, Mark D., and George E. B. Morren. "Does New Guinea Cannibalism Have Nutritional Value?" Human Ecology 2 (1974): 1–12.
Elgar, M. A., and B. J. Crespi. "Ecology and Evolution of Cannibalism." In Cannibalism: Ecology and Evolution among Diverse Taxa, edited by M. A. Elgar and B. J. Crespi, pp. 1–12. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Gajdusek, D. Carleton. "Unconventional Viruses and the Origin and Disappearance of Kuru." Science 197 (1977): 943–960.
Garn, Stanley M., and W. D. Block. "The Limited Nutritional Value of Cannibalism." American Anthropologist 72 (1970): 106.
Gibbons, Ann. "Archaeologists Rediscover Cannibals." Science 277 (1997): 635–637.
Goldman, L. R., ed. The Anthropology of Cannibalism. Westport, Conn., and London: Bergin and Garvey, 1999.
Harner, Michael. "The Ecological Basis for Aztec Sacrifice." American Ethnologist 4 (1977): 117–135.
Harris, Marvin. Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures. New York: Random House, 1977.
Hiraiwa-Hasegawa, M. "Cannibalism among Non-Human Primates." In Cannibalism: Ecology and Evolution among Diverse Taxa, edited by M. A. Elgar and B. J. Crespi. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Petrinovich, L. The Cannibal Within. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 2000.
Turner, Christy G., II, and Jacqueline Turner. Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999.
White, T. D. Prehistoric Cannibalism at Mancos 5MTUMR-2346. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Michael A. Little
The ancient Greeks' fears of cannibalism were reflected in the writings of Homer and others. For example, the Titan god Kronos ate his sons Hades and Poseidon and tried to eat Zeus in the fear that they would supplant him. Zeus, the future leader of the Olympian gods, forced his father to disgorge Hades and Poseidon. In another story, the curse on the House of Atreus was brought about by a deceptive form of endocannibalism. Atreus and Thyestes were brothers. In a series of deceptions, Atreus, having killed his own son without knowing who he was, exacted revenge against his brother, Thyestes, by killing Thyestes' own sons and serving them to him at a feast. A final example is in the tale of Odysseus' return from Troy to Ithaca. He stopped at an island in search of food and stumbled on the cave of Polyphemus, a Cyclops. Odysseus escaped from Polyphemus, but not before the Cyclops had devoured a number of his men.
Jack and the Beanstalk
This rhyme from "Jack and the Beanstalk" illustrates an example of threatened cannibalism in a children's story. Numerous nursery rhymes and fairy tales include cannibalism as part of the theme. Another example is "Hansel and Gretel."
Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum.
I smell the blood of an Englishman.
Be he alive or be he dead,
I'll grind his bones to make my bread.
Kuru can be used as an example of how endocannibalism led to a disastrous epidemic of a degenerative encephalopathic disease, the discovery of a whole class of diseases called prion diseases, a Nobel Prize won by D. Carleton Gajdusek, and the beginning of our understanding of mad cow disease, which led to the mass destruction of livestock in the United Kingdom.
A popular account of the early discovery of kuru is given in a book by Michael Howell and Peter Ford (1985). The Fore people, who live in the central highlands of New Guinea and practiced a form of endocannibalism, were reported to have a disease that had a gradual onset (imbalance) but then progressed rapidly to an inability to stand or sit upright, dementia, and a general neurological deterioration that always ended in death. The Fore attributed the lethal disorder to sorcery, but Western officials believed the epidemic had natural causes, perhaps hysteria. Following work by Vincent Zigas, a district medical officer, and Carleton Gajdusek, a young American scientist, it was discovered that endocannibalism, as practiced by the Fore, contributed to the familial transmission of the infectious agent. By handling and consuming the incompletely cooked remains of the kuru victims, especially the highly infectious brain and nervous tissue, members of the family contracted the disease but did not show symptoms until many years later. The first connection with an animal disease was suggested in 1959 when a veterinary scientist suggested that kuru in humans seemed similar to symptoms of a disease called scrapie that was found in sheep. The most recent epidemic of a prion disease is mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), which is a livestock disease that has been transmitted to humans. This is the second example of a livestock prion disease that has somehow been transformed and become infectious in humans (the first is the probable transmission of scrapie to humans in kuru). Finally, the kuru epidemic in the Fore population was brought to a halt when the Australian government outlawed cannibalism in what is now Papua-New Guinea, and the practice slowly began to decline.
Cannibalism, or anthropophagy, is the ingestion of human flesh by humans. The idea of people eating parts of other people is something that has occurred wherever and whenever humans have formed societies. In traditional accounts cannibalism has emerged from peoples' history and cosmology, embedded in their myths and folklore. In all of these contexts, anthropophagy connotes moral turpitude.
The concept of cannibalism, its ethical encumbrances, and its cultural expression in history and myth are unquestionably universal. To be human is to think about the possibility of cannibalism. Anthropophagy is hard-wired into the architecture of human imagination. Cannibal giants, ogres, bogies, goblins, and other "frightening figures" populate the oral and literate traditions of most cultures, summoning images of grotesqueness, amorality, lawlessness, physical deformity, and exaggerated size. The Homeric tradition of the Greek Cyclops, the Scandinavian and Germanic folklore giants, or the Basque Tartaro find parallels in Asia, Africa, India, and Melanesia. In a fusion of the historical and the fabled, these pancultural incidences of cannibal indicate a remarkable similarity in the way meanings are assigned to cannibalism across the world.
Constructing History with Cannibals
Many cultural mythologies posit a prehistory that antedates the onset of acceptable mores, an epoch closed off from the beginnings of human settlement and social organization, when cannibalistic dynasties of giants prevailed. This common motif in cultural history indicates that cannibalism often symbolizes "others" that are less than fully human in some way. The imputation of anthropophagy draws a boundary between "us" and "them," the civilized and uncivilized, in a manner that depicts humans as emerging from a chaotic and bestial epoch dominated by a race of human-eating giants. These images of cannibal predecessors constitute a story that people tell themselves through myth to explain their past and present circumstances. So conventional are these patterns of thought across time and culture that we have come to understand cannibalism as the quintessential symbol of alterity, an entrenched metaphor of cultural xenophobia.
Constructing Fiction with Cannibals
These themes of primordial anthropophagy serve other functions as well. Most oral traditions contain such folktales and fables that are passed down through the generations. One thinks here of the Western stories such as "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Hansel and Gretel," and early versions of "Little Red Riding Hood." These are not just dormant figures inhabiting the fairytale world, they convey for caretakers a vision of control and are frequently used—like the Western bogeyman or little green monster—to coerce, frighten, and cajole children into obedience. The threat of cannibalization provides an externalized and uncontrollable projection of parenthood capable of punishing misdeeds. In this sense, cannibal figures share certain characteristics with imaginary companions and fictions such as the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus, which, by contrast, project positive reward rather than negative punishment.
Cannibal representations are part of the universal stock of imaginative creations that foster obedience and conformity. Psychologists thus argue that anthropophagy is an archetype unaffected by cultural relativism and is, perhaps, a reflection of childhood psychodynamic processes. Flesh eating, from this perspective, may reflect child-engendered projections of parenthood and innate destruction fantasies.
Parallels between Western and non-Western fictional mediums illuminate the power cannibalism exerts on the human psyche. The commercial success of films such as Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, along with the extensive media coverage of cannibalistic criminals such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Gary Heidnik, and Albert Fish, speaks volumes about the public's fascination with cannibalism. Moviegoers' sympathetic cheering for Hannibal Lecter is a way of suspending disbelief, of inverting societal norms in the sanctuary of a movie theater. An alternative reality of moral turpitude is assumed as escapism, as if the audience is saying, "Do your best to scare me because I know it isn't really true." As a metaphor for abandonment, cannibalism scandalizes, titillates, and spellbinds.
In the context of folklore, cannibalism allows a rich re-imagining of the boundaries between the human and nonhuman, civilized and barbarian, male and female, the utopian and real. As such anthropophagy promotes not only social control but also teaches lessons about history, morality, and identity.
Cannibalism emerges in these discourses of imaginative literature and sacred history as an "otherworldly" phenomenon that is unfavorable to human survival and thus likely to command fear and respect—hence the prevalence of cannibalistic motifs in nursery rhymes. These profound pancultural similarities have led some analysts to argue that the term "cannibalism" should be reserved only for the fantasy, both European and native, of the flesh-eating "other" rather than the practice of flesh-eating.
Constructing the Practice of Cannibalism
As soon as one starts to consider questions about which peoples have eaten human flesh, one finds controversy. The main issues are the colonial history of attributions of flesh-eating as a political form of domination; the problem of what is acceptable evidence in the context of scientific knowledge of the day; and the problems of interpreting oral, archaeological, and written evidence.
Although there is no accepted consensus on the various types of cannibalism encountered by researchers, the literature differentiates generally among a few types.
Survival cannibalism. This well-documented variant involves consumption of human flesh in emergency situations such as starvation. Some of the most famous cases are the 1846 Donner Party in the Sierra Nevada and the South American athletes stranded in the Andes in 1972, whose plight later became the subject of the film Alive (1993).
Endocannibalism. Endocannibalism is the consumption of human flesh from a member of one's own social group. The rationale for such behavior is usually that in consuming parts of the body, the person ingests the characteristics of the deceased; or through consumption there is a regeneration of life after death.
Exocannibalism. Exocannibalism is the consumption of flesh outside one's close social group—for example, eating one's enemy. It is usually associated with the perpetration of ultimate violence or again as a means of imbibing valued qualities of the victim. Reports of this practice suggest a high incidence of exocannibalism with headhunting and the display of skulls as war trophies. The majority of the controversies about the practice of cannibalism refer to endocannibalism and/or exocannibalism.
Evidence in the Twenty-First Century
In the popular Western imagination, knowledge and understanding of cannibals were shaped by early explorers, missionaries, colonial officers, travelers, and others. The most commonly cited accounts are those about the South American Tupinamba Indians; the Caribbean Cariba (the word cannibal comes from, and is a corruption of, carrib and Caliban )of St. Vincent, St. Croix, and Martinique; and the South American Aztecs. These accounts were followed by numerous reported incidences of cannibalism in Africa, Polynesia, Australia, and Papua New Guinea. These often dubious attributions of cannibalism were a form of "othering"—denigrating other people and marking a boundary between the good "us" and the bad "them." The "primitive savage" was thus constructed as beyond the pale of civilization. As Alan Rumsey has noted, "Cannibalism has been most fully explored in its Western manifestations, as an aspect of the legitimating ideology of colonialism, missionization, and other forms of cultural imperialism" (1999, p. 105). Books that charted the travels of early explorers during the 1800s and early 1900s invariably carry titles with the term cannibal.
How reliable are these early accounts, and what kinds of evidence for cannibal practices do they contain or rely upon? One of the most famous commentators and critics, has concluded, "I have been unable to uncover adequate documentation of cannibalism as a custom in any form for any society. . . . The idea of the 'other' as cannibals, rather than the act, is the universal phenomenon" (Arens 1979, p. 139).
Many historical texts are compromised by Western prejudices, so that cannibalism emerges more as colonial myth and cultural myopia than as scientifically attested truth. The accounts do not stand the test of modern scholarly scrutiny. Most anthropologists, however, tend to reject the argument that unless one has photographic or firsthand evidence for a practice, one cannot infer its existence at some period. Anthropologists and archaeologists rely on a host of contextual clues, regional patterns, and material-culture evidence when drawing conclusions about past social practices. What the anthropologist gains by way of notoriety may be lost by heated dispute with ethnic descendants who find the attribution of past cannibalism demeaning because of the connotations of barbarism.
The Main Disputes
Among the principal academic disputes about evidence for cannibalistic practices, two in particular stand out. First, archaeologist Tim White has conducted an analysis of 800-year-old skeletal bone fragments from an Anasazi site at Mancos in southwest Colorado. William Arens has responded that White was seduced by the Holy Grail of cannibalism and failed to consider other explanations for the kind of perimortal bone trauma he encountered.
Second, Daniel Gajdusek found a fatal nervous disease known as kuru among a small population of the Fore people in Papua New Guinea. The disease is related to Creutzfeldt-Jacob, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), and Gertmann-Stausler-Scheinker syndrome. Working with anthropologists, Gajdusek claimed the disease was caught through the mortuary practice of eating the brains from dead people in Fore. Arens questioned the photographic evidence provided by Gadjusek and others. He suggested other forms of transmission by which the disease may have been contracted. The result is clashing scholarly perspectives on the historical occurrence of cannibalism.
Social Explanations and Conditions for Cannibalism
The cross-cultural evidence for cannibalism among societies in Papua New Guinea, such as the Gimi, Hua, Daribi, and Bimin-Kuskusmin, suggests it is linked to the expression of cultural values about life, reproduction, and regeneration. Flesh is consumed as a form of life-generating food and as a symbolic means of reaffirming the meaning of existence. In other areas of Papua New Guinea, the same cultural themes are expressed through pig kills and exchanges. Cannibalism was a means of providing enduring continuity to group identity and of establishing the boundaries of the moral community. But it was equally a form of violence meted out to victims deemed amoral or evil, such as witches who brought death to other people.
A second line of research has suggested that this latter exocannibalism is an expression of hostility, violence, or domination toward a victim. In this interpretation, the perpetrator eats to inflict an ultimate indignity and thus an ultimate form of humiliation and domination. The archaeologist John Kantner, reviewing the evidence for reputed Anasazi cannibalism in the American Southwest, has concluded that with the gradual reduction in available resources and intensified competition, exocannibalism became a sociopolitical measure aimed at enforcing tribal inequities. However the evidence remains hotly disputed. Skeletal trauma is indexed by bone markings made by tools or scrapers, disarticulations, breakage patterns, and "pot polish," blackened bone fragments suggesting abrasions caused by the boiling of bones. Such data indicate intentional and targeted defleshing of bones for the extraction of marrow. Such bone markings are quite different from mortuary bones found elsewhere in the region. Controversy surrounds these findings because other causes for the same bone markings have been proffered, including, second reburial of remains and external interference with bones by animals and natural hazards. Other scholars are therefore reluctant to impute cannibalism in the absence of any direct observation of it.
Other analysts, looking at the famous Aztec materials, have suggested that such large-scale cannibalism is related both to hunger and the appreciation of the nutritional value of flesh. In other words, cannibalism is a response to material conditions of existence such as protein depreciation and dwindling livestock. In Mesoamerica these predisposing conditions ensure that cannibalism is given a ritual rationale so that themes of renewal are manifested through flesh-eating. The evidence of perimortem mutilation is overwhelming; the inference from these data to cannibalism and its rationales remains, however, contestable and less compelling.
From the available evidence, scholars have gleaned a seemingly reliable historical account of how cultures have constructed and used their concepts of cannibalism to provide a stereotype of the "other." Whatever technological advancements might yield in the way of more refined analysis of skeletal materials, proving that culture "X" or "Y" conducted cannibalism may not be quite the defining moment in human self-definition that some have thought it to be. The key insight is that in pancultural discourse and imaginative commerce, the human consumption of human flesh has served as a social narrative to enforce social control. Moreover, attributions of cannibalism remain a potent political tool wielded by those who pursue agendas of racial and ethnic domination.
The French philosopher Michel Montaigne long ago disabused society of the Western-centered notion that eating human flesh is somehow barbaric and exotic: "I consider it more barbarous to eat a man alive than eat him dead" (1958, p. 108). How one interprets cannibalism is thus always circumscribed and inflected by a culturally shaped morality.
For many researchers, then, the issue of whether cannibalism was ever a socially sanctioned practice is of secondary importance. Developments in experts' understanding of archaeological remains include the etiology and transmission of diseases like BSE, and interpretation of oral accounts and regional patterns that will likely point to some forms of cannibalism in some past cultures, even if such findings are tempered by contemporary cultural imperatives to avoid the appearance of stigmatization of the "other."
See also: Aztec Religion; Sacrifice
Anglo M. Man Eats Man. London: Jupiter Books, 1979.
Askenasy, Hans. Cannibalism: From Sacrifice to Survival. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1994.
Cortés, Hernando. Five Letters 1519–1526, translated by J. Bayard Morris. New York: W. W. Norton, 1962.
Davies, Nigel. Human Sacrifice. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1981.
Goldman, Laurence R. Child's Play: Myth, Mimesis and Make-believe. Oxford: Berg, 1998b.
Goldman, Laurence R., ed. The Anthropology of Cannibalism. Wesport, CT: Bergin & Garvey 1999.
Harris, Marvin. Cannibals and Kings. New York: Random House, 1977.
Hogg, G. Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice. London: Pan, 1962.
Montaigne, Michel de. Essays, translated by J. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958.
Obeyesekere, G. "Review of the Anthropology of Cannibalism: (L. R. Goldman)." American Ethnologist 28, no. 1 (2001):238–240.
Pickering, M. "Cannibalism Quarrel." New Scientist 15 August 1992:11.
Rumsey, Alan. "The White Man As Cannibal in the New Guinea Highlands." In Laurence R. Goldman ed., The Anthropology of Cannibalism. Wesport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1999.
Sagan, Eli. Cannibalism: Human Aggression and Cultural Form. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
Sahagón, Bernardino de. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, 13 vols., translated by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur O. Anderson. Santa Fe, NM: The School of American Research, 1950–1982.
Sanday, Peggy Reeves. Divine Hunger: Cannibalism As a Cultural System. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Turner, Christy G., II, and Jacqueline A. Turner. Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Tuzin, D., and Paula Brown, eds. The Ethnography of Cannibalism. Washington, DC: Society for Psychological Anthropology, 1983.
LAURENCE R. GOLDMAN
The belief in the existence of man-eaters just beyond a culture’s boundary is a time-honored and cherished notion for many parts of the world. In what we call advanced societies, such as our own, cannibals are thought to inhabit the remaining mysterious distant fringes of civilization such as the highlands of New Guinea and the rain forests of the Amazon. There, the inhabitants with a more limited view of the world suspect cannibals in the next valley or around the bend of the river. How and why this imagery came into existence and continues to be so compelling for both the lay public and academics alike is as debatable as it is apparent.
No better example of the longstanding Western proclivity to label distant people as cannibalistic can be found than in the work of the fifth century BCE Greek traveler Herodotus, the father of history and anthropology. Not far from the limits of Hellenic culture in an area we now recognize as central Asia, he noted (in Herodotus: A New and Literal Version, 1879) that “beyond the desert Anthropophagi dwell, … the only people that eat human flesh” (pp. 243, 273.) With these characteristic remarks, the author of the first account of exotic peoples set the paradigm generally employed over the succeeding centuries: First, those who did not share Western culture, those both different and inferior, are the other ; and second, they were often labeled sight unseen as man-eaters.
This theme was repeated in some of the classic Roman texts and then later by medieval travel accounts of the then known world. Over time, many peoples, such as the Irish and the Scots, as well as the European Jews and North African Muslims, were cast by one or another obscure writer as consumers of human flesh. Eventually, the list of itinerant raconteurs included the famous Marco Polo, who in the late fourteenth century claimed to have traversed the Eurasian continent from Venice to China before residing there for a number of years.
Although the veracity of his account is now debated, what is significant is his report of unobserved cannibals on Jipangu (Japan) on the border of Kubla Khan’s Mongol empire. A copy of this text, which even then was popular, was later in the library of Christopher Columbus and also occupied his imagination as he sailed into the New World while erroneously assuming he was on the eastern border of the Old World. Believing that he was in the vicinity of Jipangu, the admiral also recorded an encounter with cannibals in what was actually the Caribbean, probably in the vicinity of Cuba. Thus, for the first time contact with the rumored man-eaters was made, and the word cannibal, a Spanish derivation of Carib, entered the lexicon to replace Anthrophagi. Although the suspected cannibals were then seen, the act of cannibalism continued to go unobserved. This new context necessitated a revision of the ideological paradigm, which now assumed that the custom was repressed by conquest. There were also more profound practical implications, for at the time those degenerate enough to eat their own kind could be enslaved. In subsequent eras the label legitimized conquest and colonization as Western nations came into contact with a host of far-flung would-be cannibals.
This assumption and powerful image of the other as cannibal remained a feature of Western ideology for some centuries until it was eventually challenged in The Man-Eating Myth (Arens 1979). A review of some of the literature on the most infamous reputed man-eaters from North America, Africa, and New Guinea led to the book’s conclusion that the idea of gustatory cannibalism— that is, an activity engaged in on a regular basis with social approval—could not be substantiated by the usual standards of academic inquiry.
The initial negative reaction to the conclusion, most explicit in a series of essays by cultural anthropologists (Brown and Tuzin 1983) has gradually lessened over time. Once the question whether it could be that so many, if not most, people of color were cannibals until contacted by white Europeans was explicitly framed for debate, it became intellectually and politically untenable in the postcolonial era to maintain what was formerly an implicit affirmative conclusion. There was also the eventual realization that the proposal did not rule out survival and ritual cannibalism. This new perspective, though, leads to related issues regarding how those implicated in this sort of activity are labeled, and then how to define ritual in a consistent manner.
As for the consumption of human flesh under dire conditions, it has been long recognized that this behavior is possible in any culture. This impression is substantiated by European shipwreck tales, as well as by the Donner Party incident when the party’s members survived on the remains of their compatriots while stranded in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1846. In no instance are those implicated—the French, the English, and Americans—subsequently labeled as endo-cannibals, eaters of their own kind. Similarly, this behavior may have been characteristic of, for example, the Inuit or other Native Americans, as deduced from historical sources or archeological evidence, such as that reported in Billman, Lambert, and Leonard’s (2000) detailed article about the Mesa Verde region in the twelfth century. However, these groups are not stigmatized as cannibals by the general public. These contradictory impressions are objectively unacceptable.
The issue of ritual cannibalism is more complicated. Desiccated human body parts were sold as remedies for various human ailments by European and American apothecaries until the early twentieth century (Gordon-Grube 1988); some American food cultists advocate the consumption of the human placenta (Janszen 1980); and there is the use of human cadaver extracts in contemporary biomedicine, presumably to capture the strength of the deceased. These domestic customs may be considered bizarre, misguided, or even guided science, but they are never labeled ritual cannibalism. However, South American groups reported to consume the ashes of the dead for whatever reason are ipso facto deemed ritual cannibals. Again this situation is intellectually unacceptable and hints at cultural discrimination.
A recent consideration of the issue in Gananath Obeyesekere’s Cannibal Talk (2005) recommends that we reserve the term cannibalism for the irrational fear that the other wants to eat us and use the term anthropophagy to refer to the actual practice in ritual and survival contexts. Perhaps it would be simpler to conclude that there are no cannibals in the sense of how the situation was once subjectively viewed; alternately, from a more objective contemporary perspective, we could all be cannibals. What is more obvious is that the cannibal epithet, as leveled by one culture against another, is more common than the deed itself.
SEE ALSO Anthropology; Religion; Rituals; Warfare, Nuclear
Barker, Francis, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen, eds. 1998. Cannibalism and the Colonial World. Cambridge, NJ: Cambridge University Press.
Billman, Brian R., Patricia M. Lambert, and L. B. Leonard. 2000. Cannibalism, Warfare, and Drought in the Mesa Verde Region During the Twelfth Century, A.D. American Antiquity 65: 145–178.
Brown, Paula, and Donald Tuzin, eds. 1983. The Ethnography of Cannibalism. Washington, DC: Society for Psychological Anthropology.
Gordon-Grube, Karen. 1988. Anthropophagy in Post-Renaissance Europe: The Tradition of Medicinal Cannibalism. American Anthropologist 90 (2): 405–409.
Janszen, Karen. 1980. Meat of Life. Science Digest (November–December): 78–81, 121.
The possibility of cannibalism has been an object of thought and imagination in virtually every society. The idea of consuming human body substance as food or for symbolic purposes invokes emotionally charged cultural and psychological concerns with boundaries between self and other, persons and nonpersons, the meanings of food and ingestion, and the limits of a moral community. Many societies, both Western and non-Western, have seen cannibalism as a marker of negative difference between peoples, a quintessential symbol of otherness, savagery, and subhumanity. Others have treated it as a form of exchange or as a mechanism of transformation, regeneration, or reproduction through transactions between ontological categories such as kin and enemy, mortals and deities, human and animal.
In Western thought, two uses of the idea of cannibalism have been recurring themes: as a negative stereotype of exotic "others," and as a metaphor for reflexive questioning, critique, and parody of Western culture. Especially in the politics of colonialism, accusations of cannibalism have been deployed to denigrate non-Western peoples, assert colonizers' moral superiority, and legitimize the takeover of native lives and lands. Only recently have scholars called attention to socially approved cannibal practices in Western history, such as the tradition of using human body substances as medicines, which flourished in Europe until the eighteenth century.
The stigma associated with cannibalism in Western thought makes any assertion that certain people engaged in it politically sensitive. Since the 1970s, especially in the United States, anthropologists and historians have debated where and to what extent cannibalism was an institutionalized, socially accepted practice (as distinguished from its occurrence as an aberrant, individual act motivated by starvation or psychological deviance). These arguments mostly involved historical and retrospective evidence, since under the impact of colonialism and modernity, any former practices of institutionalized flesh-eating had largely disappeared by the 1970s. Major controversies focused on Michael Harner's and Marvin Harris's interpretation of human sacrifice as a response to dietary shortages among the Aztecs of fifteenth-century Mexico; the role of funerary cannibalism in epidemics of the neurological disease kuru in the New Guinea highlands; the ongoing debate between Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere over allegations of cannibalism among South Pacific islanders and after the death of Captain James Cook; and the interpretation of archaeological finds from Europe and the southwestern United States that show dismemberment, mutilation, and cooking of body parts.
A major impetus to debates over the reality of cannibalism came from William Arens's The Man-Eating Myth (1979), which examined selected accounts from some non-Western societies. Finding a lack of hard evidence and no credible eyewitness accounts by Western experts, Arens expressed doubt that cannibalism ever existed anywhere as a socially approved practice. He argued that cannibalism is best understood not as a cultural practice but as a projection of Western fantasies, racism, and political propaganda. Although presented as a critique of Orientalist prejudices, the argument reified negative colonial stereotypes with its implicit assumption that the act of ingesting human substance is in all cases repulsive and morally indefensible. Arens's critique of the supposed bias and credulity of those who have written about cannibalism as social practice found some scholarly receptivity, particularly within cultural studies.
In anthropology, Arens's book drew criticism for its methodology, sensational rhetoric, and unreasonable and inconsistent empirical standards. The controversy had the positive effect of stimulating ethnographers and historians to reassess historical and ethnographic evidence. While debates continue over the evidence in specific cases, most anthropologists accept the idea that normative, institutionalized practices of consuming human body substances did occur in some times and places in the past.
Recent anthropological work has sought to contextualize local cultural practices by elucidating their social, symbolic, religious, and ritual significance. A few scholars, such as Eli Sagan and I. M. Lewis, have proposed universal explanations interpreting flesh-eating in all contexts, from warfare to funeral rites, as expressions of similar impulses such as hostility, ambivalence, or desires for dominance. The stronger trend has been to recognize diversity and the many different kinds of practices with distinctive cultural meanings that have been lumped together under the rubric of "cannibalism." Ethnographies from Melanesia and the South Pacific have highlighted how cannibalism, as practice or idea, was linked to cultural ideas about ethnicity and gender, the uses of flesh and food to define spheres of morality and exchange, and human reproduction and the circulation of vital energies or substances contained in the body. Lowland South American ethnography has emphasized cannibalism's role in the production of personhood and alterity and indigenous notions of its role in metaphysical transformations and exchanges between enemies and between the living and the dead, humans and animal, mortals and immortals. There has also been new attention directed to native peoples' images of Europeans or other foreigners and their descendants as "white cannibals." An implicit agenda in much recent scholarship is to undermine negative stereotypes and deexoticize the subject of cannibalism by expanding humanistic understandings of how, within local systems of cultural meaning, some peoples may have felt that consuming human flesh or bones was a positive, morally acceptable thing to do.
Over the past five centuries, numerous writers, from Michel de Montaigne to Jonathan Swift and Ruth Benedict, have used cannibal imagery to express critical perspectives on Western culture and as a rhetorical device for inverting conventional boundaries of civilization and morality. In Brazil in 1928, Oswaldo de Andrade's "Cannibal Manifesto" launched the avant-garde Antropofagia movement, which reclaimed cannibal imagery from native Brazilians' early encounters with Europeans and asserted that the key principle of Brazilian modernity is assimilation of foreign influences. Latin American artists and intellectuals continue to find cannibalism a fertile metaphor for Euro-American culture and exploitative political economic relations.
Since the 1970s, there has been a trend among scholars, artists, and culture critics in the United States and elsewhere to deploy cannibalism as a metaphor for Western civilization itself. Globalization, capitalist consumer culture, and cross-cultural appropriation in tourism, art, media, and museums have been portrayed as forms of cannibalism. Richard King criticizes the Occidentalism in analyses that treat "the West" as a single, undifferentiated entity while perpetuating negative stereotypes, trivializing cannibalism as a real experience and embodied cultural practice, and deflecting attention from its meanings in specific social-historical contexts. As one of the last real taboos in contemporary cosmopolitan society, cannibalism's attention-getting power to shock ensures that it will continue to be a theme and source of fascination in popular culture and scholarship.
See also Colonialism ; Ethnography ; Eurocentrism ; Occidentalism ; Orientalism .
Arens, William. The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Brown, Paula, and Donald Tuzin, eds. The Ethnography of Cannibalism. Washington, D.C.: Society for Psychological Anthropology, 1983.
Conklin, Beth A. Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.
Goldman, Laurence, ed. The Anthropology of Cannibalism. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 1999.
Harner, Michael. "The Ecological Basis for Aztec Sacrifice." American Ethnologist 4 (1977): 117–135.
Harris, Marvin. "People Eating." In his The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig: Riddles of Food and Culture, 199–234. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
King, Richard. "The (Mis)Uses of Cannibalism in Contemporary Cultural Critique." Diacritics 30, no. 1 (2000): 106–123.
Obeyesekere, Gananath. "Cannibal Feasts in Nineteenth-Century Fiji: Seamen's Yarns and the Ethnographic Imagination." In Cannibalism and the Colonial World, edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iverson, 63–86. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Sagan, Eli. Cannibalism: Human Aggression and Cultural Form. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.
Sanday, Peggy Reeves. Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Beth A. Conklin
Cannibalism, which is practiced by humans and other animals, is the act or practice of consuming any part of the body of a member of one's own species. In some cultures the practice is sacrosanct; in others, including the majority of those in the West, it is taboo. Although the origins of cannibalism are unclear, "archeological evidence suggests that cannibalism was practiced as far back as the Neolithic Period and Bronze Age in what is now Europe and the Americas" (Bell 2006, p. 2). According to William Arens's The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (1980), the word stems from an expedition to the West Indies led by Christopher Columbus during which he and his crew purportedly learned of the ritualistic consumption of human flesh among members of the Carib tribe. "The explorers mispronounced the name of the tribe and referred to them as 'Canibs,' which was over time changed to 'canibales,' meaning thirsty and cruel in Spanish. The English translation of the Spanish word became cannibalism," whereas "the Latin form of the word cannibalism is anthropophagy and is a term used mostly in anthropology and archeology" (Bell 2006).
TYPES OF CANNIBALISM
Survival cannibalism (the consumption of flesh to survive a desperate situation) is exemplified by the 1846 Donner Party expedition through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the 1972 crash in the Andes of the airplane carrying the Uruguayan rugby team, the story of which was told in the 1993 film Alive. The most prominent forms of ritualistic cannibalism are epicurean and/or nutritional (practiced for the taste or nutritional value of the consumed flesh), exocannibalism (cannibalizing members outside one's social group), and endocannibalism (cannibalizing members within one's social group).
Exocannibalism usually is associated with violence and the belief that consuming the flesh of an enemy endows a cannibal with the spirit and/or abilities of the deceased. Commonly based on the same belief, endocannibalism most frequently is practiced in the form of mortuary cannibalism (consumption of the already deceased) and may be referred to as compassionate cannibalism. Prominent historical examples include the ancient Aztecs of Mexico, who employed all these forms in their cannibalization of several thousand individuals per year, and the Iroquoian North American Indian tribe, which is thought to have engaged in exocannibalism as recently as 1838. Certain tribes in Papua New Guinea practiced all three types of ritualistic cannibalism until the 1950s and 1960s. Such practices were accompanied by the spread of kuru, a deadly and highly infectious illness similar to mad cow disease. Large-scale ritualistic cannibalism was curtailed by the early 1900s, largely as a result of the activities of Christian missionaries.
Sexual cannibalism (sexualized consumption of one's own species), although widely considered a psychosexual disorder, is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Vorephilia (sexual interest in things eating other things) may involve sexual cannibalism, although it typically does not (Adams 2004). In 2002 the psychologist Steven Scher of Eastern Illinois University conducted an atypical research study regarding cannibalism and sexual interests in which he and his team "found that people were more likely to eat someone that they were sexually attracted to" (Bell 2006, p. 5). Modern serial killers who may be placed under the heading of sexual cannibalism include Andrei Chikatilo, Jeffrey Dahmer, Albert Fish, Robin Gecht and the Chicago Rippers, Ed Gein, Georg Grossman, Fritz Haarmann, Edmund Kemper, Armand Meiwes, Issei Sagawa, and Sascha Spesiwtsew.
The Russian Andrei Romanovitch Chikatilo (1936–1994), known as the Rostov Ripper, was convicted of and executed for the murders of fifty-two women and children. After his first killing in 1978 Chikatilo was unable to achieve sexual arousal separate from violence, and he was known to mutilate and consume parts of his victims, including their breasts and sexual organs. Furthermore, "Chikatilo claimed that he was disgusted by the 'loose morals' of many of his victims, who served as painful reminders of his own sexual incompetence" (Bell 2006, p. 5).
The American Albert Fish (1870–1936), known as the Moon Maniac, the Gray Man, and the Brooklyn Vampire, was a self-mutilating sadomasochist who enjoyed driving sharp objects deep into his genital region. Although Fish apparently never harmed his six children, whom he raised largely by himself, he tortured and/or killed numerous other children, whose flesh, urine, blood, and excrement he admitted to consuming for sexual pleasure. Fish referred to his implements of torture as "instruments of hell" and used a belt studded with nails to tenderize the flesh of his victims before cooking and consuming them. Fish pleaded insanity in 1935 but was found sane and guilty and electrocuted in Sing Sing Prison in 1936, an experience he predicted would be the "supreme thrill." Fish's final words apparently were "I don't know why I'm here."
The advent of the Internet brought the worldwide subculture of cannibalism fetishism to the surface through a myriad of websites and bulletin boards where individuals can post classified advertisements. The advertisers have been mostly homosexual males seeking men or heterosexual men seeking women. In 2001 such postings translated into actual cannibalistic activities when the forty-one-year-old homosexual computer administrator Armin Meiwes of Rotenburg, Germany, placed an advertisement on the Internet searching for "young, well-built men aged 18 to 30 to slaughter" and received a promising reply (one of approximately two hundred) from the forty-three-year-old Bernd-Jurgen Brandes (BBC: "German Cannibal" 2003). The ensuing activities, which were videotaped by Meiwes, began with the two attempting to flambé, then fry, and then consume Brandes's penis at Brandes's request and ended with Meiwes slowly killing, dissecting, and partially consuming Brandes as well as storing parts of the deceased in his freezer. Meiwes was caught after he again advertised on the Internet ten months later. As in most industrialized nations there are no laws directly governing cannibalism in Germany. Meiwes was charged with murder for "sexual satisfaction," convicted of manslaughter in January 2004, and sentenced to jail for eight and a half years. In 2005 the gay filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim turned Miewes's case into a feature entitled Your Heart in My Brain.
Adams, Cecil. 2004. "Eat or Be Eaten: Is Cannibalism a Pathology as Listed in the DSM-IV?" Chicago Reader. Available from http://www.straightdope.com/columns/040702.html.
BBC News. 2003. "German Cannibal Tells of Fantasy." Available from http://www.news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3286721.stm.
BBC News. "German 'Cannibal' Tells of Regret." Available from http://www.news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3230774.stm.
Bell, Rachel. 2006. "Cannibalism: The Ancient Taboo in Modern Times." Court TV Crime Library. Available from http://www.crimelibrary.com/criminal_mind/psychology/cannibalism/index.html.
"Rosas Biografie." 2006. Available from http://www.rosavonpraunheim.de/bio/bio_engl.html.
Sanday, Peggy Reeves. 1986. Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Whitney Jones Olson
Initially it must be entertained, if not accepted, that travellers' accounts of strange lands with anthropophagic (man-eating) inhabitants should be discounted. Famous representatives of this genre, such as Herodotus and Marco Polo, as well as a host of minor peregrinators, never actually encountered the phenomenon in question. (Often they never even encountered the presumed anthropophagi.) Instead they relied upon the reports of one exotic people about the peculiar behaviour of others even more distant. Nonetheless, a template had been set for followers, including Columbus and his contemporaries, who subsequently also issued accounts on the fantastical inhabitants of the New World. (In the process they introduced the term ‘cannibal’, as a perversion of the word ‘Carib’). In addition to relying on expectations and unsubstantiated reports, this generation of explorers and Conquistadors had the added impetus to provide a legitimization for their activities, which often had sad consequences for the indigenes. Subsequent exemplars also inevitably came upon cannibals in Africa, South America, Asia, and the Pacific in the colonization process. In some instances, those who failed to have the encounter merely plagiarized the work of others so as not to be outshone.
In the twentieth century, anthropologists — newly-minted professional interpreters of the exotic — whose self-proclaimed mandate was to de-romanticize the experience by direct observation and objective interpretation of contemporary cultures, continued, despite its absence, to reinforce the cannibalism theme on the authority of previous visitors. The usual explanation for the lacuna was the recent cessation or secret practice of the deed, due to the impact of colonialism and/or missionary activity. The retention of this ethnographic tidbit, as so many others were abandoned, obviously has much to do with the discipline's need for the exotic. This peculiar state of affairs led to the suggestion of a cannibal mythology as a feature of Western cosmology. This does not suggest that those responsible for the vision, including anthropologists, were engaged in a conscious hoax as opposed to maintaining a long-standing cultural projection. (Although their errors are understandable, it could be argued that the discipline had a greater responsibility to be more circumspect in its deliberations on this matter than others.) Nor does the argument imply that cannibalism has never been a feature of some societies; rather that such a conclusion is not supported by evidence. The best way to comprehend the situation in all its complexities invites a consideration of a more recent cannibal belief complex involving a number of academic disciplines, including medicine.
In 1957, while visiting Papua New Guinea, D. Carleton Gajdusek, a medical researcher, learned of an epidemic called kuru, savaging the highland area, principally among the Fore people. After arduous initial investigations, his preliminary results allowed for an expanded research team including cultural anthropologists. Of more immediate importance, laboratory results indicated that the disease could be transmitted — via the distillation of human victims' brain tissue — to chimpanzees. A reasonable extrapolation of this fact was that the illness had been transmitted among humans in New Guinea in some unknown fashion. A review of the literature indicates that the pre-figured notion of cannibalism entered into the discussion as the suspected agent of kuru transmission, first tentatively, and then with greater authority; the authors, including the anthropologists, began to cite each others' remarks in their publications until cannibalism eventually emerged as a scientific fact. The sensational nature of the claim soon enshrined it in the secondary and popular literature. However, none of the parties intimately involved had ever observed the deed, as opposed to learning of it from previous accounts. The inability to document the activity was explained as usual in terms of the cessation of the practice, or its continued secret occurrence. Thus, a common assertion about an exotic people was incorporated into an otherwise rational scientific discourse.
The recent concern over the spread of Creutzfeld–Jacob disease (a variant of kuru) in Europe provides an instructive example of how the matter is envisioned for ‘civilized’ populations. The implication of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in this instance suggests that the dietary habits of the Fore people, which included the consumption of undercooked pork, including brain tissue, should now be given greater consideration in the transmission of kuru. Customary funeral practices, which involved direct contact with the deceased's brain tissue, and institutionalized male homosexuality, also deserve greater appreciation as a disease vector, since they are well-documented activities, as opposed to cannibalism, which was merely assumed.
In sum, it no longer appears reasonable to assume the anthropophagic nature of others in the sense that they have been wholesale consumers of human flesh. This assertion does not deny some cross-cultural variation on the theme. For example, it has been reported on good authority that inhabitants of South America ritually consume the bone-ash of the departed. Yet, similar bodily substances were sold in European and American apothecaries until the beginning of the twentieth century and continue to be used today in some forms for their assumed medicinal qualities. The human use of the human body in all these instances raises interesting questions about the distinction between science and ritual.
See also prions.
While anthropophagy, the eating of humans by other humans, has been a sign of difference between ethnic groups since earliest recorded history (for example, when the fifth-century bce historian Herodotus employs the concept to distinguish between Greeks and barbarians), the term cannibalism was coined through the contact between Europe and the Americas. Upon landing in the Caribbean islands in 1492, Christopher Columbus wrote of friendly natives who claimed that their neighbors, the Caribs, consumed human flesh, and soon thereafter, the word cannibal, derived from the name of this people, became common usage. Over the course of the early colonial period, explorers and conquerors continued to hear rumors of cannibals. The 1516 disappearance of the Solís expedition is attributed to an anthropophagic River Plate tribe. The Aztecs of Mexico performed human sacrifices on prisoners of war and may have eaten parts of their victims. The Tupinambá and other tribes of Brazil engaged in ritual cannibalism consisting of assimilating their enemies into tribal life, then killing and eating them in order to symbolically absorb their strength. In the sixteenth century, the shipwrecked German sailor Hans Staden and the French Protestant missionary Jean de Léry lived among anthropophagic tribes of coastal Brazil and upon their return to Europe recorded their experiences. Both Léry and his countryman Michel de Montaigne arrived at the conclusion that European civilization was morally inferior to anthropophagic Amerindians.
The anthropologist William Arens inspired controversy by contending in his 1979 The Man-Eating Myth that there are virtually no verified eyewitness accounts of indigenous cannibalism. Instead of focusing on cannibalism as a gastronomic reality, Arens emphasizes the existence of a powerful cultural discourse marking the distinction between "civilized" Europeans and "savage" natives. As Arens observes, in the early years of the conquest, the Spanish monarch Queen Isabella sought to protect her new subjects who accepted Christianity by mandating that only cannibals, sodomites, and idolaters could be enslaved, and as a result these labels were liberally applied to peoples whom the Spaniards wished to conquer. Thus, throughout the colonial period cannibalism continued to be invoked by the conquerors in order to justify the imperial enterprise.
In the postcolonial period, the term cannibal has often been resignified by Latin American creative writers and cultural critics, who embrace it as a positive sign of their difference from colonial and neocolonial centers. In 1928, the Brazilian modernist Oswald de Andrade published his "Manifesto antropófago," which asserts that the former colonies must consume, digest, and transform metropolitan influences in order to generate cultural products that reflect their own hybrid national identity. In this way, Andrade employs an image formerly used to disparage colonized peoples and appropriates it as a symbol of empowerment. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries various Latin American novelists and filmmakers have drawn upon the ambiguous image of anthropophagy in their artistic production. Some salient literary and cinematographic examples are Mário de Andrade's Macunaíma (Brazil, 1928), Nelson Pereira dos Santos's Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês (How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, Brazil, 1971), and Carlos Balmaceda's Manual del caníbal (Argentina, 2005).
These artistic endeavors have inspired a number of scholars to meditate on the significance of cannibalism both as a literal act and as a cultural metaphor for Latin American identity. In particular in the years surrounding the quincentenary of the European discovery of the Americas, there was a surge of creative and critical interest in interrogating the connection between cannibalism and colonialism, and its continued significance in postcolonial Latin America.
See alsoAnthropology .
Barker, Francis, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iverson, eds. Cannibalism and the Colonial World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Boucher, Philip P. Cannibal Encounters. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Brown, Paula, and Donald Tuzin, eds. The Ethnography of Cannibalism. Washington, D.C.: Society for Psychological Anthropology, 1983.
Hulme, Peter. Colonial Encounters. London and New York: Routledge, 1986.
Kilgour, Maggie. From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Madureira, Luís. Cannibal Modernities: Postcoloniality and the Avant-Garde in Caribbean and Brazilian Literature. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005.
Root, Deborah. Cannibal Culture. Boulder, CO: West-view, 1998.
Sanday, Peggy Reeves. Divine Hunger. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Kimberle S. LÓpez
- Alive account of cannibalism among air crash survivors. [Am. Lit.: Alive ]
- Antiphates chieftain of Laestrygones, man-eating giants of Italy. [Gk. Lit.: Odyssey ; Rom. Lit.: Metamorphoses ]
- Beane, Sawney highwayman who fed his gang on victims’ flesh. [Br. Culture: Misc.]
- black giants kill, roast, and devour Sindbad’s companions. [Arab. Lit.: Arabian Nights in Magill II, 50]
- Caliban his name is anagram of cannibal. [Br. Lit.: The Tempest ]
- Clymenus eats child who is product of incestuous union with daughter Harpalyce. [Gk. Myth.: Howe, 114]
- Cronos swallowed his children at birth; they lived again when he was forced by Zeus to disgorge them. [Gk. Myth.: EB (1963) VI, 747]
- Donner Party of 89 emigrants to California, 47 survive by eating others (1846-1847). [Am. Hist.: EB, III: 623]
- Hansel and Gretel fattened up for child-eating witch. [Ger. Fairy Tale: Grimm, 56]
- Laestrygones man-eating giants encountered by Odysseus. [Gk. Lit.: Odyssey ]
- Lamia female spirit in serpent form; devours children. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 146; Br. Lit.: “Lamia” in Benét, 563]
- Lycaon turned to wolf for cannibalistic activities; whence, lycanthropy. [Gk. Myth.: Espy, 37]
- Modest Proposal, A Swift’s satire suggesting that children of the poor be used as food for the rich (1729). [Br. Lit.: “A Modest Proposal” in Harvey, 793]
- Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, The for four days, survivors feed on Parker’s flesh. [Am. Lit.: Poe, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” in Magill I, 640–643]
- Pelops cut up and served as meal to gods. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 817]
- Tereus wife Procne murders son Itys and serves him to Tereus. [Gk. Myth.: Howe, 144]
- Thyestean banquet banquet where Atreus serves Thyestes’ sons to him as food. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 1081]
- Ugolino when his children die of starvation in prison, he devours them. [Ital. Poetry: Inferno ]
cannibalism (kăn´ĬbəlĬzəm) [Span. caníbal, referring to the Carib], eating of human flesh by other humans. The charge of cannibalism is a common insult, and it is likely that some alleged cannibal groups have merely been victims of popular fear and misrepresentation. Nevertheless, archaeological research suggests that ancient societies did practice cannibalism, and it has been observed in Africa, North and South America, the South Pacific islands, and the West Indies. Widespread cannibalism is usually not found in state-level societies, which have the means to tax and control surplus labor. Nevertheless, one of the most famous cases of cannibalism is that of the Aztecs, who sacrificed their prisoners of war and undoubtedly ate some of them. According to available evidence, most authorities consider the partaking of human flesh almost always to be a ritual practice. A minority of anthropologists, however, believe cannibalism emerged as a cultural response to chronic protein shortages. In modern Western society, cannibalism is commited only by the deranged or by people who otherwise face death from starvation (see Donner Party). In contrast, various traditional cultures are known to have encouraged their members to eat part of their kinsmen's corpses out of respect for the deceased in a practice known as endocannibalism. For example, Foré women of New Guinea, who dispose of the dead, ritually ate their deceased relatives' brains. Some anthropologists believe that head-hunting evolved from cannibalism. Among a few peoples the head of the enemy is preserved and the rest of the body or selected parts of it are eaten; this may represent a connecting link between cannibalism and head-hunting. The term cannibalism is also used in zoology to describe species who prey upon their own kind, such as lions, crabs, ants, and some kinds of fish.
See P. Brown and D. Tuzin, ed., The Ethnography of Cannibalism (1983); A. W. B. Simpson, Cannibalism and the Common Law (1984).