cannibalism not a myth after all?

In his column Is there really such a thing as cannibalism?, Cecil Adams says

Well, here’s an item from the news agency Reuters:

Could this be evidence of a cannibalistic past, or would it be the isolated act of a lunatic?

How about both?? :wink:

If it were both, that would contradict the common belief (according to C. Adams) that the New Guinea natives were never cannibals.

So I was wondering if the story points to some belief/traditional practice in New Guinea about eating portions of your enemy?

It seems to me that this is evidence that either:
A: Cannibalism has been practiced recently in New Guinea, most likely in remote rural settings where it might go unnoticed for years, or
B: Cannibalism has not been practiced recently, but tales are still told about it, much like how most Americans are aware that early settlers and Indians sometimes scalped each other.

I think the idea that cannibalism is a myth is helped by a misunderstanding as to it’s purpose. Alot of people seem to have the idea that cannibals ate people as a primary food source. Not so. Cannabalism was/is an extreme form of totemic magic, whereby you absorb your enemy’s strengh, virility, etc, by eating him. Along a similar vein is those shrunken heads from the Amazon.

–It was recently discovered that research causes cancer in rats.

By the way, Cecil Adams mentions the work of anthropologist William Arens, who is skeptical of tales of routine cannibalism.

But the Encylopedia Britannica, who is also a respected reference source (at least in my book), has the following to say about cannibalism,5716,20307+1,00.html

So is Cecil a little too hasty in his claim that cannibalism might be a legend?

Anyone with a BA in anthropology from a decent school would know that Ahrens is grinding a major axe, although he is essentially correct. Cannibalism has been sensationalized and is largely misunderstood. Cannibalism as sympathetic magic, ie, to gain favorable attributes originally held by the “corpus dilecti” has indeed been witnessed and is well-documented. This is mostly in the fashion of “endo-cannibalism” in which human remains are ritually ingested by the living as a funurary ceremony. The Yanomamo (i) people of Venezuela, for example, dig up the remains of their deceased, pound them into a dust, and sip it as a porridge in order to recycle the spirit of the deceased throughout the group. This is especially the case with powerful shamans, since it is thought to keep their power circulating through other Shamans. “Kuru” is indeed also associated with funerary rituals, but the ritual in question is eating portions of (brace yourself) the brain of the deceased. Ahrens is probably right in saying that there has never been a group of people who routinely hunted other people as a source of food, and he’s certainly right that all accounts to the contrary are on pretty shakey ground.

Thank you, Healym.

I would assume then that Encyclopedia Britannica, when it says “cannibalism has been found among peoples on most continents”, is probably referring to “endo-cannibalism.”

How about non endo-cannibalism in early man - prior to his develops symbolism, rituals etc? There are a number of sites, which show evidence of human remains which show dressing marks but no animal marks.

It also seems like a further distinction should be made for endo-cannabalism. There is the eating of a relative to give him a resting-place. But not covered in endo and not seeming right to be covered is toasting the misfortunes of a rival who is devoured as was up till recently very frequent done in South America but much less today. Eating a rival and honoring him might be pretty close to eating a bear and cerimonializing the act but I don’t think it should be grouped with endo-cannabalism. I bring it up, as I did not see how you came to your conclusion for assuming most cannibalism was endo.

After a careful reading of the article, I have come to the conclusion that…the man was a freakin’ nutcase! I could use Jeffery Dahmer as an example of our cannibalistic past if this is the type of evidence allowed.

Far be it from me to claim to be an expert on cannibalism. I was opposing endo-cannibalism to hunting humans for food.

I could amend my sentence to say:
I would assume then that Encyclopedia Britannica, when it says “cannibalism has been found among peoples on most continents”, is probably referring to endo-cannibalism and other forms of cannibalism that are part of a ritual.

Where did you find this information?

slythe, I agree that the man is a nutcase. But as part of his madness, he might have been remembering some ritual or legend that was common in New Guinea.

“I am feeling a bit peckish - No, No I can’t.”

Do you remember the experiment where they trained some flatworms to go through a maze. After the worms learned it, they were killed and fed to a second group of flatworms who suceeded in mastering the maze faster. The ramifications of this really impressed me in junior high school.

However, I just recently read that the only reason the second group of flat worms learned the maze faster was because they were better nourished (from eating the upper classmen worms) not that they “absorbed” the knowledge in some way. Another intriguing story done away with by the cold, hard cutting edge of science.

I wonder if some of these people are practicising cannibalism only because they are reading about this experiment in old biology texts.

Arnold Winkelried:

The info came from several programs over the years on PBS. The programs have aired segments where the interviewee claimed to have dined on a rival. I can remember three tribes (I think all South American) where they claimed the practice was done but recently dropped. There have been other programs which also gave examples of devouring relatives but this was Endo (burned the relative to ashes then mixed the ashes with some liquid. Members of the tribe then drank to house the relative).

I’m lumping eating a foe in with the classical idea of “savage cannibalism”. I see eating a person in this manner similar to cannibalism as in food hunting. I have recently found a few references to evidence in the fossil record that suggest the bones were from victims of cannibalism.

The above has since been confirmed by many anthropologists.

I’m not morbid but curious. Recently PBS has put on a show with Goodall or Fossy, which showed chimps in an organized hunt of other non-similar species chimps/monkeys specifically for meat. I drew a comparison between Neanderthal and other species. Chimps will occasionally eat their own.

I remember reading the Goodall article about this in National Geographic about 15 years ago. I believe the practice was confined to a single twisted she-chimp and her two daughters. They were stealing babies from other chimps, killing them and eating them.

Are there other documented cases of cannibalism among chimpanzees?

** Ursa Major: **

Two that I know of now:

The case I’m thinking of was with males but I remember the female one now that you mention it. Unsure how pervasive all this is. It seems like the hunting for meat is not done that often with chimps anyway so hunting within the tribe is probably rare.

On reading about this in Neanderthals it could be isolated to a few who did not adapt well. Not really Dormer types but just screwed up about what exactly constitutes food. The case in the link above could have happened over a prolonged winter similar to the “Dormer Party” on PBS last year. That is, a group gets snowed in with a bad winter without good provisioning leaving little alternatives.

I saw one of those bear’s at the MacDugal Falls shows the other night. One bear’s adaptation for hunting at the falls was to take salmon caught by others away. His game plan did not seem like a good one as there seemed to be more risk and danger in doing that rather than fishing. Most bears have fishing habits of their parents. Possibly his parents were not around to train him in more usual fishing techniques hence the unusual adaptation.

May be the Neanderthal’s in the above case was similar and had no real parental training and sort of stumbled into cannibalism as a method of provisioning. Can’t find many cases of this - or at least until I found the Arizona study which is very odd.

Questionable whether “ritual practice” and food are necessarily mutually exclusive, as most of y’all seem to be implying. For Pacific islands, cannibalism was practiced primarily on volcanic islands with high population density and little game; on atolls one can easily fish and reef-glean year-round for sustenance… Not proof - but hard to swallow as mere coincidence.

O le mea a tamaali’i fa’asala, a o le mea a tufanua fa’alumaina.

I actually had previously read that article at the beginning of this debate and the thing I would like to add is apparently the two had been drinking and a fight of some kind had begun.

As far as the monkeys go I had never heard of them but it’s all a little to demented for my tastes.

I am curious as to the type of cannibalism that this debate is about. Is the throw someone in a big boiling pot of water and eat them? Or raw meat belonging to one of the same species? Please clarify.


Well, Michael, at first I was interested because Cecil Adams implied in his column that hunting people for food might never have been a widespread practice (basing his statement in part from a book by anthropologist William Arens.) But Encylopedia Britannica said “cannibalism has been found among peoples on most continents.” So I wondered about the discrepancy.

You will notice in this thread that several posters have said that eating human remains is a practice in some areas of the world (for ritualistic purposes, and/or eating parts of your enemy.)

But as far as recent examples of humans using other humans as a food source (except in isolated cases such as the Uruguayan plane crash, or the Donner party) haven’t been mentioned.

trouts1 mentions examples of Neanderthal bones being found with marks indicative of the bodies having been eaten. I don’t see why that might not another example of some sort of religious practice amonst Neanderthals.

In any event, I don’t think there is any one definitive answer. Except that in historical times, there is really no documented evidence of a systematic hunting/raising of Homo Sapiens, by Homo Sapiens, with the primary goal of using humans as a food source.

Cunninglingus & Fellatio.

Consider another theory on Kuru:

A recent TV special - I think on The History Channel or A&E, concluded that Kuru was caught by the eating of human brains. This is not unlike the way Mad Cow, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), scrapie,
Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (CJD), or prion disease is propagated.


Check out the following links:

mipsman, do you remember where you read this? I’ve always thought that the ‘ingested memory’ story was a little flaky - I’d love to read the article you saw.

Some days you’re the dog, some days you’re the hydrant.