Is cannibalism a myth?

Martin Gardner

“Must have been someone he ate.”

– Bob Hope, after hearing an African native burp loudly in The Road to Zanzibar

Cultural anthropologists disagree over lots of things. Some still cling to the fading tradition of extreme cultural relativism, which forbids one to make value judgments about any culture. For example, it prevents an anthropologist from condemning Nazi anti-Semitism or American slavery because each was once embedded in a culture. It prevents condemnation of the widespread practice today, in Africa and elsewhere, of slicing off the clitoris of young women. More enlightened anthropologists find such relativism impossible to defend.

Some anthropologists, such as the late Margaret Mead, are strong believers in paranormal powers that are the stock in trade of parapsychologists. The vast majority of their colleagues consider this nonsense.

The latest, and perhaps the most bitter, of squabbles is over cannibalism. Most anthropologists remain convinced that cannibalism was widespread in the past and continues to flourish in obscure pockets of the world. This belief is defended in hundreds of papers and in such popular books as Eli Sagan’s Cannibalism (1974) and Garry Hogg’s Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice (1973).

A growing minority of anthropologists think otherwise. They are persuaded there is not now, nor has there ever been, a culture that routinely eats its dead, or that kills and devours its enemies. The debate simmered for decades until 1979, when it was blasted wide open by William Arens, an anthropologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The blast was his explosive book The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. First published by Oxford University Press in 1979, it is currently available in soft-cover.

No one denies that during life-and-death emergencies, such as starving after a shipwreck or airplane crash, or during times of extreme famine, individuals may choose to eat human corpses rather than die.’ No one denies there have been occasions among primitive peoples when, after a military victory, the body of a once-feared enemy leader was ritually devoured, either out of revenge or out of a belief that the enemy’s powers would be acquired by the eaters. No one denies the existence of pathological serial killers, even in advanced cultures, who murder and feast on their victims.

The big question is this: Has cannibalism ever been a common custom? Arens’s maverick opinion is that this kind of cannibalism is pure folklore, fabricated by the desire of one culture to feel superior to another. No trustworthy anthropologist, or any other reliable person, he contends, has ever directly observed a cannibal feast. The myth arose, he is convinced, from unsupported charges made by one culture against a hated neighboring culture, and by gullible missionaries and naive anthropologists who swallowed every tall tale told them by friendly natives.

A random check of current anthropology textbooks shows that most authors take for granted that cannibalism not only was widespread in the past, but also persists today among primitive tribes in Africa, South America, and on islands in Oceana. Respected anthropologist Marvin Harris, in Cannibals and Kings (paperback, 1991) argues that cannibalism among the Mexican Aztecs was a way to obtain much-needed protein.

As for the public at large, who can doubt that there have been, and perhaps still are, fierce headhunters who eat their prey? Cannibalism continues to turn up in fiction and movies, in cartoons showing persons being boiled alive in enormous caldrons, and in crude jokes.

Have you heard about the cannibal whose cousin disagreed with him? Or the cannibal who admitted his wife made such a great pot roast that he would surely miss her? Or the Catholic cannibal of many years ago who on Friday ate only fishermen? Or the dentist who filled a cannibal’s teeth while the cannibal was eating? Or the cannibal who told a psychiatrist he was fed up with people? Asked how he liked the psychiatrist he replied, “Delicious.” And we must not forget the cannibal who was walking through the jungle when he passed his mother-in-law.

Of several cannibal limericks I have come across, I like this anonymous one best:

A cannibal bold of Penzance Ate an uncle and two of his aunts, A cow and her calf, An ox and a half, And now he can’t button his pants.

The word cannibal derives from Carib, the name of an indigenous people of the West Indies and South America encountered by Columbus. In his journal Columbus described the Caribs as man-eaters. Why? Because he was told this by their neighbors, the Arawaks. How did Margaret Mead know that the Mundugumors of New Guinea were cannibals? The “gentle Arapesh” said so.

Arens documents hundreds of similar instances of one culture accusing another of cannibalism. The ancient Chinese thought Koreans were cannibals. Koreans thought the same about the Chinese. The Aztecs accused their Spanish conquerors of cannibalism. The conquistadors, who wrote all the books, are of course the main source for belief in Aztec cannibalism. When Arens was doing fieldwork in Tanzania, natives assured him that Europeans were cannibals. No culture in the world, he writes, ever claimed itself to be cannibalistic. Always, some other culture makes the accusation. As physicist Philip Morrison put it, praising Arens’s book in Scientific American (September 1979), “[S]o it always seems: not us but them, or perhaps long ago and in another place.”

Classic references to cannibalism go back to ancient Greek myths and the cyclops of Homer’s Odyssey. Herodotus gave a secondhand account of cannibalism among the nomadic tribe called the Androphagi. In the Middle Ages, Catholics accused Jews of ritually devouring Christian babies. It was widely believed that witches also killed and gobbled babies. Incredibly, such a belief persists to this day among some ignorant fundamentalists obsessed by the notion that satanic rituals, including baby-eating, are taking place all over the United States!

Wild descriptions of cannibalism soared in the sixteenth century in hundreds of books by travelers and explorers. Hans Standen, a German sailor, wrote lurid accounts of savage headhunters among the Tupinamaba Indians of Brazil. His imaginary dialogs and appalling woodcuts were reprinted endlessly by other writers around the world.

Contributors to today’s leading encyclopedias all defend ritual cannibalism: Ronald Berndt in Academic American Encyclopedia, Paula Brown in The Encyclopedia of Religion, and Leslie Spier in Collier’s Encyclopedia and in Encyclopedia Americana (current editions). For horrendous earlier articles on cannibalism, see the eleventh edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (reprinted in the fourteenth). The current Britannica has no article on the topic. An even worse article (sixteen pages!) is by an erudite Anglican priest in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics.

American Indians, especially the Iroquois tribes of New York, were branded cannibals by early white missionaries who saw them as cruel, mindless savages. The Britannica’s eleventh edition says that Mohawk, the name of an Iroquois tribe, probably means “man-eaters.” There is not a shred of reliable evidence that the Iroquois, or any other native American culture, indulged in the ritual eating of human flesh.

Many anthropologists have written about cannibalism among Australian and New Zealand Aborigines. Michael Pickering, in Cannibalism Among Aborigines?, a thesis completed in 1985 for the anthropology department of the Australian National University, concluded after an exhaustive study of the evidence that Aboriginal cannibalism never existed.

Descriptions of cannibalism are often mixed with unbelievable fantasy. Arens tells of an informant who, after disclosing to an anthropologist the human-flesh-eating customs of a neighboring people, added that the cannibals were all women who could, at will, turn themselves into birds!

The curious thing about the vast literature on cannibalism is the absence of firsthand accounts. Anthropologists never actually see a human-flesh-eating ritual. No photographs of the practice exist. “Cannibals are always with us,” writes Arens, “but happily just beyond the possibility of direct observation.”

The heated controversy between anthropologists who agree with Arens and those who dismiss his book as worthless is summarized as follows by Lawrence Osborne in “Does Man Eat Man?”, an excellent article in Lingua Franca (April/May 1997):

The result of this uproar has been a crisis at the heart of the discipline, with different schools of anthropology – cultural, physical, and archaeological – turning in radically different verdicts on whether people are, or ever were, cannibals. It’s enough to make some wonder if the always shaky alliances between anthropology’s subfields are doomed to collapse altogether.

Mainline anthropologists have reacted to Arens’s book with the same kind of fury they displayed toward Derek Freeman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa, a book exposing Mead’s gullibility in taking at face value the myths told to her by Samoan pranksters. Anthropologists have yelled insults at Arens in meetings. They have pounded him relentlessly in their writings. Reviewers called his book “dangerous” and “malicious.” The American Anthropological Association conducted a panel on cannibalism. Its attacks on Arens were published by the Association in The Ethnography of Cannibalism (1983), edited by Paula Brown and Donald Tuzic.

In 1989, British anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach declared: “Montaigne writing about cannibalism in the sixteenth century is still far more convincing than Arens writing . . . in 1979.” Anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano, reviewing Arens’s book harshly in The New York Times Book Review (July 29, 1979), called it “poorly written, repetitive, snide.”

D. Carlton Gajdusek, a physician who won a Nobel Prize for investigating a rare viral disease in New Guinea known as kuro, claimed the disease was transmitted by cannibals in the Fort tribe when they handled corpses. Believing the evidence to be so overwhelming for New Guinean cannibalism, he said, “It’s beneath my dignity” to answer Arens. On the other hand, Lyle Steadman, of Arizona State University, after two years of work in New Guinea, failed to find any evidence of cannibalism.

In spite of his opponents, Arens’s skepticism is slowly gaining respectability. Osborne reports in his Lingua Franca article that the 1996 Encyclopedia of Anthropology, in its entry on cannibalism, concludes: “Cannibals are largely creatures of our own surmise.” Paul Behn, in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution (1992), writes: “Ritual or habitual cannibalism is rare or nonexistent: There are no reliable, first-hand witnesses of the practice, and almost all reports are based on hearsay.” (See also Behn’s article “Is Cannibalism Too Much to Swallow?” in New Scientist, April 27, 1991.) Noted anthropologist Ashley Montagu, long suspicious of cannibal accounts, has given Arens’s book high praise.

In recent years paleontologists and archaeologists have claimed to have found evidence of cannibalism in human bone fragments among Neanderthal skeletons and in the burial sites of other ancient cultures. Archaeologist Timothy White, of the University of California at Berkeley, in his book Prehistoric Cannibalism at Maneos (1992), gives his reasons for believing that bone fragments in Pueblo Indian burial mounds in Colorado’s Mancos Canyon prove that the Anasazi Indians had frequent cannibal feasts. He has likened Arens to a flat-earther who denies the world is round.

Not all experts buy White’s conjectures. They find explanations other than man-eating for the conditions of his more than two thousand bone fragments. The fragments may indicate burial practices or eating by wild animals. Even if they are evidence of cannibalism, they could simply reflect isolated events brought on by famine. See archaeologist Behn’s sharp criticism of White’s book in New Scientist (April 11, 1992), and his contribution to the Cambridge Encyclopedia previously mentioned.

Arens will be replying to his detractors in a soon-to-be-published anthology, as yet untitled, by Cambridge University Press. Not being an anthropologist, I hesitate to take sides in this acrimonious controversy, though my sympathies at the moment are with Arens. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between. Habitual cannibalism may be much rarer than believed by anthropologists who have a vested interest in reinforcing their earlier opinions. And cannibalism may not be as mythological as Arens supposes. Maybe time will settle the question.


1. “The Yam of the Nancy Bell,” the best known of W. S. Gilbert’s comic ballads, is an account of cannibalism forced by a shipwreck. The yarn is told by the sole survivor, who are nine of his shipmates.

Martin Gardner’s latest book is The Last Recreations (Springer-Verlag; Copernicus, 1997), a collection of twenty-three of his Scientific American columns from the last seven years before his retirement from the magazine in 1981.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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