Thought it was appropriate considering all that's happening in the news surrounding these "cannibals." Wrote this paper senior year of college for my Primitive Warfare class. Enjoy!
Throughout history there has been this notion of the savage. This primitive wild animal-like human who is ruthless and has no boundaries to what he/she will do. A big part of this “savage” notion is the practice of cannibalism. Cannibalism was thought to be the worst thing that you could do to your enemies, to actually eat them taking them into your body thus eating their soul. This horrible act though is widely debated among anthropologists. Many anthropologists believe that this idea of cannibalism was perpetuated by colonialists and missionaries who were trying to take over these “savages” and convert them to their ways.
The question then becomes, was cannibalism a part of primitive societies or was it a view that was made up by the Europeans who were scared of the “other” or “savage?” If there was in fact cannibalism, which societies practiced it and why was it practiced? These questions can be answered with archaeological, ethnographical, and mythological evidence that will be outlined in this paper, along with case studies of primitive societies that practiced warfare related cannibalism.
Evidence of Cannibalism
There are many anthropologists that believe that cannibalism is just made up to show the savage nature of societies by colonialists, explorers, missionaries or any other group with a mission to convert these so called savage peoples. For example the anthropologist W. Arens talks about the Iroquois in the North East and how the claims of cannibalism among them were
propaganda that was thought up by the Jesuits that came in to convert them to Christianity (Abler 1980).
On the other side of that, these accounts from the Jesuits and other missionaries in other regions can be taken as a jumping off point to making the case that there was in fact cannibalism. In the case of the Iroquois these accounts by the Jesuits can be backed up with archaeological evidence. One such account by a Jesuit that is widely cited as proof of Iroquoian cannibalism is as follows:
One cut off a foot, another a hand, and almost at the same time a third severed the head from the shoulders, throwing it into the crowd, where someone caught it to carry it to Captain Ondessone, for whom it had been reserved, in order to make a feast there with. As for the trunk, it remained at Arontaen, where a feast was made of it the same day. We recommended his soul to God, and returned home to say Mass. On the way we encountered a Savage who was carrying upon a skewer one of his half-roasted hands (Able 1980).
To back that account up there was a place called “Bloody Hill” where in 1967 the archaeologist James Tuck discovered evidence of cannibalism at this site (Abler 1980). Tuck writes that he saw the “principal remains… were fragments of an adult male’s skull and long bones… [showing] marks of cutting tools.” These remains were found on a raised cobble and boulder roasting platform, thus concluding that this was “evidence that ritual torture and cannibalism which were familiar in historical times, were an established part of the Iroquois’ culture in the 15th century” (Tuck 1971). This then becomes evidence in helping the case the cannibalism was not in fact made up, but that it was a practice done in these primitive societies including the Iroquois.
This is just one example of both ethnographical and archaeological evidence that leads to the conclusion that cannibalism did in fact take place as practice among the Iroquois as well as many other primitive societies throughout the world. There are many other examples of these cannibalistic tendencies that are backed up by both the ethnographical evidence as well as archaeological evidence.
Another such example of concrete evidence of cannibalism is in the South America, especially in the Amazonian areas. The anthropologist Ramos though brings up a point similar to Arens, that “cannibalism provided perhaps the most potent weapon for European control” (Conklin 1997). So basically once again like Arens, Ramos is making the claim that the cannibalistic tendencies whether they are true or not make a good case in the colonization of the areas as well as the conversion of some of the societies to Christianity. Once again though the Europeans did propagate the savagery of the “other” at times there is evidence that cannibalism did in fact go on in this region.
The Wari’ Indians of Brazil are another case study that is backed up by data, though like the Iroquois and many others they were portrayed as the “savages” simply based on this propagation which of course had its base in the truth. According to the ethnographical evidence the Wari’ practiced many different kinds of cannibalism that weren’t just related to warfare (which we will be discussed in more detail later). This included but was not limited to the eating of captive enemies (basically like our current POWs) and the eating of loved ones after they died (Conklin 1997).
Once again it was the missionaries that noticed the most about cannibalism first and like the Jesuits with the Iroquois made it their mission to convert them to Christianity. At some points the missionaries even went so far as to try to pass legislation against it. According to ethnographers and politicians in the area the Wari’ continued to practice cannibalism to a degree up until the 1950s when they were pacified by the governing bodies in the area (Conklin 1997). Like the others mentioned above this information is concrete and it is clear that cannibalism did go on among the Wari’.
Reasons for Practicing
Putting aside the eating of people to survive which we see in a lot of cultures, we can examine why exactly these primitive people were eating other humans. First we can determine that the majority of cannibalism was done with captives from raids like mentioned with the Iroquois and the Wari’. There are also examples of people eating family members after they have passed, but we will focus primarily on warfare related cannibalism.
It was custom in many primitive societies to take captives of war. Sometimes the captives were taken as wives, as slaves and other were tortured and killed. Of the ones that were tortured and killed many were eaten not only for subsistence, but as the ultimate “screw you” to the captive. In the case of the Wari’ the warriors would ritually kill the enemies then took their body parts and roasted and ate them. The point of this was to express the total hatred and hostility that they had for the enemy. The eating of the enemies’ flesh marked the victim as being “sub-human” and made the enemies meat equivalent to the meat of animals (Conklin 1997).
Another reason for eating the flesh of the enemy was as a part of a ritual or rite within some of the primitive societies. A great example of this is the Bimin-Kuskusmin of the West Sepik of Papua New Guinea. The anthropologist Poole observed their unique rituals in 1983 when he went to study the Bimin-Kuskusmin. First the captive was taken and strapped to a wooden plank (the sex depended on what kind of ritual was being done, but for this particular one it was a male). He was then tortured by the warriors who prolonged it until dusk. At the time of his death the ritual elders (who were female) butchered the captive and distributed each part to the people. The rank of the person determined what piece of the captive they got, so for example the warriors would eat the thighs and the upper arms to promote good fighting. Once distributed among the different ranks, the flesh was quickly eaten (Petrinovich 2000).
This whole rite was done to prolong the crops for the season and to produce strong sons built for fighting, mating and hunting well. Poole also realized while studying them that the Bimin-Kuskusmin didn’t have a word strictly for “cannibalism.” Instead they had separate words the emphasized certain dimensions of the process such as certain dismemberment techniques, the names for the rituals and names for the powers associated with each body part (Petrinovich 2000).
Eating captives as part of a ritual is found all over in the Caribbean. This is the area where the word cannibal first originated and was applied to the eating of human flesh. It was common for many of the different societies there to eat the flesh of their victims of war, sometimes even not waiting until the person was dead but tearing off their limbs while still alive. They were also known to drink the blood. This was all to obtain power over their enemies, to take in their body and soul literally and become stronger from it (Petrinovich 2000).
Revenge also played a big role in cannibalism. There were many times when societies would practice eating ones enemies in revenge for the fallen men that were killed during raids or other battles. The anthropologist Pierre Clastres noticed this practice among the Guayaki Indians of Paraguay. After battles they would take their captives back and slaughter them, then enjoy a big feast in honor of their fallen men. It was as much a sacrifice for the fallen as it was a regular ritual cannibalistic meal after a battle (Petrinovich 2000).
Clastres and another anthropologist Kim Hill both noted that cannibalism was a regular practice within the Guayaki especially the Ache who dwelled in the forest. For the Ache the eating of their enemies had a more practical application; they were simply eaten for nutritional purposes. Hill writes this about the Ache:
The Ache Ua group regularly ate all killed enemy Ache and outsiders, most members of their own kin group who died of natural causes and some children were killed to be eaten. They considered to be excellent fat meat, and their descriptions of the process is so nonchalant and nutritiously attractive that at least a few of a non-cannibal group participated in some of the last known cannibalistic activities when multiple groups of Ache lived at the same reservation (Pertinovich 2000).
The Ache version of cannibalism is an example of that although it is somewhat revenge driven and mostly consisted of collects of warfare like we see in the other case; it is a more practical application of it. They simply wanted food to survive. This is obvious since Hill talked about eating children that were killed simply for food.
To explain this difference in the influence for cannibalism the anthropologist Helmuth talks about how the social structure and the nature of the societies in South America affects the kind of cannibalism that is practiced. This is especially true he says when it comes to determining whether they are practicing endocannibalism (eating people within the tribe) versus exocannibalism (eating outside of the tribe). He reasons that hunters and gathers of the South American region have a lower social structure and are endocannibalistic. On the other side he says that the agriculturists and more sedentary societies which have a higher social structure are exocannibalistic (Petrinovich 2000).
Helmuth then came up with this statistic: out of the 54 tribes that he studied 16 of them were endocannibalistic and 38 of them were exocannibalistic. The endocannibals were mainly hunters and gathers and the exocannibals were mainly farmers. He then drew the inference that since the hunter-gatherers had a more primitive social structure and economy the whole practice of endocannibalism is one that is primitive in itself (Petrinovich 2000). What we can take from this is that the more primitive societies are the ones that were eating their own dead and then it moved into eating those outside their communities. It is easy to tell from Helmuth’s study that the majority of these societies are using cannibalism as their product of warfare; ie bringing back the captives to eat for either revenge, ritual, nutritional or any of the other reasons that were touched on so far in this paper.
Mythology of Cannibalism
Along with all reasons for eating enemies that were mentioned in the last section, there are also many mythological stories that tell of cannibalistic tendencies. These range anywhere from men turning into monstrous beasts to stories of wild cannibalistic women living in the bush. Many cultures around the world have this supernatural implication to consuming human flesh, like in the Bimin-Kuskusmin society where the eating of the flesh was used in a ritual to get good crops and to make their sons stronger and fit for battles.
There are other stories in Papua New Guinea of mythological proportion. There is the story of the Malaveyouo who roams the interior of the island in the thicket bush. He is said to be this less than human thing because he has devoured so much human flesh over the years. It has come to the point where he needs the flesh to live (Willis 1993).
The cannibal is also featured as a woman in a lot of their myths, shown as a vicious warrior who devours her victims who could be men, other women or ever children (Willis 1993). The concept of the woman devouring people, especially children is an archetype that many cultures around the world have. In Germanic folklore we have the story of Hansel and Gretel who are almost eaten up by the old woman that lives in the candy house. In Russian folklore there is Baba Yaga who lives in a house in the woods that is on chicken legs who lures people into her house then cooks and eats them (Willis 1993).
In all these different stories these women seem to live forever, to never die. This then is related to eating the human flesh and gaining supernatural abilities, thus this is one of the reasons that the practice of eating one’s enemies is practiced among these different primitive societies. The capturing of one’s enemies then eating them gave the different societies both aims to capture more for various reasons. These reason are but are not limited to eating the flesh for supernatural powers, eating the flesh for revenge, eating the flesh as the ultimate “screw you” like mentioned in the previous section and eating flesh for subsistence.
Another popular story is the Wendigo, which is told among the Anasazi in North America. Just the translation of the word Wendigo explains it all; it means “evil spirit that devours mankind.” It is said to roam the woodland and great lakes area of North America seeking human flesh to keep it alive. It is a monster that is thin and deformed (because it is always hungering for human flesh) but strong and fast. It is an anthropogenous creature because as the story goes it was once human (not unlike the Malaveyouo of Papua New Guinea). There are many different stories about the origins of the Wendigo but the most popular is that it was once a male warrior who started eating his victims. He then ate so much human flesh that he ended up as something less than human with supernatural abilities. He is supposedly damned to wander around eating more humans to survive (Irvine 2007).
Along with the story of the Wendigo we also have the myths of other such types of creatures where the warrior has eaten so much flesh that they become this less than human creature. In Canada though we have the opposite mythological stories of cannibalism. In Canada the Algonquian speaking Cree of Northern Quebec and Ontario believe that eating human flesh can cure sickness and help one to gain better health. Among the Cree eating of more human flesh gives the eater more spiritual, mental and physical health (Petrinovich 200).
All of the previous evidence and these case studies show us many things. First they prove that cannibalism was not something that was simply made up by the missionaries, colonists or any of the other groups that were trying to convert the “savages.” In fact there is a wealth of evidence that points out the opposite. The archaeological record reflects that there was physical evidence of these cannibalistic tendencies, the ethnographic data from the societies themselves show that they ate human flesh and the mythology that had been passed down for centuries also reflects the trend of eating human flesh for many reasons.
Another thing that this evidence shows us was that there were different degrees of cannibalism differing from the motivations behind the cannibalism, the different ways of the actual preparing of the human flesh and the different end that were met when consuming the human flesh. Though we see there are some cases of eating human flesh simply from lack of subsistence in the areas the act of cannibalism isn’t one that is simply deemed a “savagery.”
From the different case studies we can see that many of these cannibalistic trends were in fact very planned out and ritualized and not simply men bearing down on the captives right there and then just for the premise of it. It is shown that many of the examples of the eating of human flesh were very carefully timed out and executed. Cannibalism became a staple practice in many societies as a means of supernatural gain, coming together as a society and many other beneficial reasons for the society.
Abler, Thomas. 1980. Iroquois Cannibalism: Fact not Fiction. Ethnohistory. 27(4): 309 – 316.
Conklin, Beth A. 1997. Consuming Images: Representation of Cannibalism on the Amazonian
Frontier. Anthropology Quarterly. 70(2): 68 – 78.
Irvine, Alex. 2007. The Supernatural Book of Monsters, Spirits, Demons, and Ghouls. New
York: HaperCollins Publishers.
Petrinovich, Lewis. 2000. The Cannibal Within. New York: Walter de Gruyter, Inc.
Tuck, James A. 1971. The Iroquois Confederacy. Scientific American. 224(2): 32 – 49.
Willis, Roy G. 1993. World Mythology. New York: Duncan Baird Publishers.