Cannibalism is defined as the ingestion of members of one’s own species. As used in zoology, it refers to species that prey on their own kind. In anthropology, it is used specifically to refer to the eating of humans by humans. Around the 16th century in English-speaking countries, the term cannibalism began replacing the Latin-derived term anthropophagy. The word cannibal is usually traced to the Caribbean and the voyages there of Christopher Columbus. Richard Hakluyt’s Divers Voyages Touching the Discovery of America and the Islands Adjacent (1582) popularized the word in its English form.
Analytic categories of cannibalism vary. A recent archaeological study used the threefold classification of survival, funerary, and gastronomic cannibalism. Other categories commonly found in the literature, both anthropological and otherwise, include aggression, criminal, epicurean, nutritional, ritual, sexual, spiritual, and, less commonly, medical and autocannibalism.
Anthropologists usually focus on ritual cannibalism and often use the subcategories of exocannibalism to refer to the consumption of members from a culturally defined outside group and endocannibalism to refer to the consumption of members of one’s own group. Hermann Helmuth suggests that exocannibalism was more common among agriculturalists and endocannibalism among foragers. In the folk model, exocannibalism is usually associated with the effort to strike fear in the enemy as well as to absorb the spirit of the enemy, and involves killing. Associated with an effort to maintain the group’s identity, endocannibalism is often viewed as showing respect for the deceased. Obviously connected to burial ceremonies and sometimes called “mortuary cannibalism” or “compassionate cannibalism,” endocannibalism rarely involves killing. For example, according to Beth Conklin, the Wari people of Amazonia justified their mortuary cannibalism with the belief that when they consumed the corpse, the spirit of the dead was absorbed by the entire tribe.
Cannibalism has a long history, ranging from 5th century BC writings of Herodotus to Bruce Knauft’s documentation of three cases of cannibalism between 1978 and 1983 among the Gebusi in south central New Guinea. Probably the first full-scale treatment of cannibalism in English was Garry Hogg’s 1958 Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice. More journalistic than anthropological, the book, nevertheless, was based on acceptable scholarship and remains a useful survey.
Recently, archaeologists working in the U.S. Southwest have provided incontrovertible evidence of cannibalism. For example, Tim White’s extraordinarily meticulous account of cannibalism among the Anasazi in the U.S. Southwest uncovered the cannibalized remains from one site of 17 adults and 12 children. The number of cannibalized remains from other Anasazi sites is expected to exceed 100. Christy Turner and Jacqueline Turner concluded that cannibalism occurred in the Four Corners area for about four centuries, beginning about AD 900. In some Anasazi sites, human proteins have been identified as residues in cooking pots and in human feces. And preserved human waste containing identifiable human tissue was found at an Anasazi site along with osteological evidence of cannibalism.
William Arens critically reexamined several anthropologically accepted accounts of cannibalism. Although he contended that he was simply investigating the connection between anthropology and cannibalism and not the existence of cannibalism itself, his writings have frequently been read as proposing that ritual cannibalism never existed.
The charge of cannibalism clearly has been used historically to impugn the reputation of certain groups, but Arens’s notion that cannibalism is primarily a construction of European colonizers seems a peculiar instance of ethnocentrism; since Europeans did not do it, nobody did it. Unfortunately for Arens’s position, Europeans did do it. Peggy Sanday briefly summarized the European medicinal cannibalism that existed from the first until at least the 19th century. And anthropology has never been as obsessively focused on the study of cannibalism, as Arens suggested.
Anthropologists before and after Arens have, indeed, considered the occurrence of cannibalism as quite obvious. One of the most vivid eyewitness accounts of cannibalism was written by Paul P. de La Gironiere, from his travel in 1820 among the Western Kalingas of the North Luzon Highlands, also known as the Tinguians. The striking similarities between the details of his writings and the stories told to me by my elderly nonliterate Kalingas about what they had witnessed during their youth and the impossibility of any collusion between La Gironiere and my informants convinced me of the truth of ritual exocannibalism among the Kalingas. And as one anthropologist stated, “The case for past cannibalism in parts of Papua New Guinea is no longer an issue for the majority of Melanesian scholars” (Goldman, 1999, p. 19).
Psychological, Symbolic, and Ecological Perspectives
After an exhaustive survey, the psychologist Lewis Petrinovich wrote, “Cannibalism is not a pathology that erupts in psychotic individuals, but is a universal adaptive strategy that is evolutionarily sound. The cannibal is within all of us, and cannibals are within all cultures, should the circumstances demand the appearance” (2000, p. vii). Psychologists offer many theories to explain cannibalism, most of them centering around the notion that the cannibal was ovenurtured as an infant. Ethnographic evidence does little to support most of the psychological explanations.
Some of the more convincing symbolic explanations of cannibalism focus on the development of the Eucharist and the doctrine of transubstantiation in Europe in the Middle Ages, seeing in the ritual of ingesting consecrated bread and wine an association with theopagy (consuming the body/flesh of a deity).
While ritual cannibalism has been established beyond question, the origins and causes for the practice remain elusive. Previously ranging from obfuscations and elaborations of folk models to the phantasmagoric notions of psychoanalysis, analytic models were significantly advanced by the introduction of ecological perspectives. For example, Michael Harner famously proposed protein deficiency as the cause of Aztec cannibalism. With the careful reexamination of eth-nohistoric accounts, the continuing gathering of ethnographies, and the important contribution of archaeology, anthropology and the public may expect still better explanations of cannibalism.
- Arens, W. (1979). The man-eating myth: Anthropology and anthropophagy. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Conklin, B. (2001). Consuming grief: Compassionate cannibalism in an Amazonian society. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Goldman, L. R. (1999). From pot to polemic: Uses and abuses of cannibalism. In L. R. Goldman (Ed.), The anthropology of cannibalism (pp. 1-26). Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
- Marlar, R. A., Leonard, L., Banks, L., Billman, B. R., Lambert, P. M., & Marlar, J. E. (2000). Biochemical evidence of cannibalism at a prehistoric Puebloan site in southwestern Colorado. Nature, 407, 74-77.
- Petrinovich, L. (2000). The cannibal within. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
- Price, M. L. (2003). Consuming passions: The uses of cannibalism in late medieval and early modern Europe. New York: Routledge.
- Turner, C. G. II, & Turner, J. A. (1999). Man corn: Cannibalism and violence in the prehistoric American Southwest. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.