Cannibalism - Archaeological and Anthropological Studies

Is it True that We Are All Descended from Cannibals?

Scene of cannibalism in Brazil in 1644 by Jan van Kessel
European colonial imagination of cannibalism in Brazil, painted by Jan van Kessel in 1644. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Cannibalism refers to a range of behaviors in which one member of a species consumes the parts or all of another member. The behavior occurs commonly in numerous birds, insects, and mammals, including chimpanzees and humans.

Human cannibalism (or anthropophagy) is one of the most taboo behaviors of modern society and at the same time one of our earliest cultural practices. Recent biological evidence suggests that cannibalism was not only not rare in ancient history, it was so common that most of us carry around genetic evidence of our self-consuming past.

Categories of Human Cannibalism

Although the stereotype of the cannibal's feast is a pith-helmeted fellow standing in a stew pot, or the pathological antics of a serial killer, today scholars recognize human cannibalism as a wide variety of behaviors with a wide range of meanings and intentions.

Outside of pathological cannibalism, which is very rare and not particularly relevant to this discussion, anthropologists and archaeologists divide cannibalism into six major categories, two referring to the relationship between consumer and consumed, and four referring to the meaning of the consumption.

  • Endocannibalism (sometimes spelled endo-cannibalism) refers to consumption of members of one's own group
  • Exocannibalism (or exo-cannibalism) refers to the consumption of outsiders
  • Mortuary cannibalism takes place as part of funerary rites and can be practiced as a form of affection, or as an act of renewal and reproduction
  • Warfare cannibalism is the consumption of enemies, which can be in part honoring brave opponents or exhibiting power over the defeated
  • Survival cannibalism is consumption of weaker individuals (very young, very old, sickly) under conditions of starvation such as shipwreck, military siege, and famine

Other recognized but less-studied categories include medicinal, which involves the ingestion of human tissue for medical purposes; technological, including cadaver-derived drugs from pituitary glands for human growth hormone; autocannibalism, eating parts of oneself including hair and fingernails; placentophagy, in which the mother consumes her new-born baby's placenta; and innocent cannibalism, when a person is unaware that they are eating human flesh.

What Does it Mean?

Cannibalism is often characterized as part of the "darker side of humanity", along with ​rape, slavery, infanticide, incest, and mate-desertion. All of those traits are ancient parts of our history which are associated with violence and the violation of modern social norms.

Western anthropologists have attempted to explain the occurrence of cannibalism, beginning with French philosopher Michel de Montaigne's 1580 essay on cannibalism seeing it as a form of cultural relativism. Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski declared that everything in human society had a function, including cannibalism; British anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard saw cannibalism as fulfilling a human requirement for meat.

Everybody Wants to be a Cannibal

American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins saw cannibalism as one of several practices that developed as a combination of symbolism, ritual, and cosmology; and Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud saw it as reflective of underlying psychoses. American anthropologist Shirley Lindenbaum's extensive compilation of explanations (2004) also includes Dutch anthropologist Jojada Verrips, who argues that cannibalism may well be a deep-seated desire in all humans and the accompanying anxiety about it in us even today: the cravings for cannibalism in modern days are met by movies, books, and music, as substitutes for our cannibalistic tendencies.

The remnants of cannibalistic rituals could also be said to be found in explicit references, such as the Christian Eucharist (in which worshipers consume ritual substitutes of the body and blood of Christ). Ironically, the early Christians were called cannibals by the Romans because of the Eucharist; while Christians called the Romans cannibals for roasting their victims at the stake.

Defining the Other

The word cannibal is fairly recent; it comes from Columbus' reports from his second voyage to the Caribbean in 1493, in which he uses the word to refer to Caribs in the Antilles who were identified as eaters of human flesh. The connection with colonialism is not a coincidence. Social discourse about cannibalism within a European or western tradition is much older, but almost always as an institution among "other cultures", people who eat people need/deserve to be subjugated.

It has been suggested (described in Lindenbaum) that reports of institutionalized cannibalism were always greatly exaggerated. The English explorer Captain James Cook's journals, for example, suggest that the preoccupation of the crew with cannibalism might have led the Maori to exaggerate the relish in which they consumed roasted human flesh.

The True "Darker Side of Humanity"

Post-colonial studies suggest that some of the stories of cannibalism by missionaries, administrators, and adventurers, as well as allegations by neighboring groups, were politically-motivated derogatory or ethnic stereotypes. Some skeptics still view cannibalism as never having happened, a product of the European imagination and a tool of the Empire, with its origins in the disturbed human psyche.

The common factor in the history of cannibal allegations is the combination of denial in ourselves and attribution of it to those we wish to defame, conquer, and civilize. But, as Lindenbaum quotes Claude Rawson, in these egalitarian times we are in double denial, denial about ourselves has been extended to denial on behalf of those we wish to rehabilitate and acknowledge as our equals.

We are All Cannibals?

Recent molecular studies have suggested, however, that all of us were cannibals at one time. The genetic propensity that makes a person resistant to prion diseases (also known as transmissable spongiform encephalopathies or TSEs such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, kuru, and scrapie)--a propensity that most humans have--may have resulted from ancient human consumption of human brains. This, in turn, makes it likely that cannibalism was once a very widespread human practice indeed.

More recent identification of cannibalism is based primarily on the recognition of butchering marks on human bones, the same kinds of butchering marks--long bone breakage for marrow extraction, cutmarks and chop marks resulting from skinning, defleshing and evisceration, and marks left by chewing--as that seen on animals prepared for meals.

Evidence of cooking and the presence of human bone in coprolites (fossilized feces) have also been used to support a cannibalism hypothesis.

Cannibalism through Human History

The earliest evidence for human cannibalism to date has been discovered at the lower paleolithic site of Gran Dolina (Spain), where about 780,000 years ago, six individuals of Homo antecessor were butchered. Other important sites include the Middle Paleolithic sites of Moula-Guercy France (100,000 years ago), Klasies River Caves (80,000 years ago in South Africa), and El Sidron (Spain 49,000 years ago).

Cutmarked and broken human bones found in several Upper Paleolithic Magdalenian sites (15,000-12,000 BP), particularly in the Dordogne valley of France and the Rhine Valley of Germany, including Gough's cave, hold evidence that human corpses had been dismembered for nutritional cannibalism, but skull treatment to make skull-cups also suggest possible ritual cannibalism.

Late Neolithic Social Crisis

During the late Neolithic in Germany and Austria (5300-4950 BC), at several sites such as Herxheim, entire villages were butchered and eaten and their remains thrown into ditches. Boulestin and colleagues surmise a crisis occurred, an example of collective violence found at several sites in the end of the Linear Pottery culture.

More recent events studied by scholars include the Anasazi site of Cowboy Wash ( the United States, ca 1100 AD), Aztecs of 15th century AD Mexico, colonial-era Jamestown, Virginia, Alferd Packer, the Donner Party (both 19th century USA), and the Fore of Papua New Guinea (who stopped cannibalism as a mortuary ritual in 1959).

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