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

Similar to many tribes in Papua New Guinea, this group of Iwan warriors were once cannibals. While the tyranny of time often hampers these interpretive processes, the very act of attributing cannibalism to a society is now seen as a controversial political statement given modern sensitivities to indigenous peoples and cultures. CHARLES AND JOSETTE LENARS/CORBIS
Similar to many tribes in Papua New Guinea, this group of Iwan warriors were once cannibals. While the tyranny of time often hampers these interpretive processes, the very act of attributing cannibalism to a society is now seen as a controversial political statement given modern sensitivities to indigenous peoples and cultures.
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


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