SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Did we really nosh on each other's body parts -- or are we merely feeding on the dark recesses of fear and imagination?


Kate Rix
May 14, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

a subject that seems much better suited to the pages of the Weekly World News made the April/May cover of Lingua Franca, the high-toned magazine of academic life. To wit: Do people eat each other? Did they ever, for any reason other than to avoid starving to death?

Outside of documented cases like the Donner Party, reliable eyewitness accounts are hard to find. The journals of early explorers, with their baggage of colonial and racist assumptions, have to be taken with a great deal of salt.

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Still, most anthropologists assumed some ritualistic cannibalism took place until the publication in 1979 of "The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy" by William Arens of the State University of New York, Stony Brook. Arens challenged his colleagues to find real proof -- not just the jottings of 14th century explorers -- that such cannibalism ever occurred.

In 1992 UC-Berkeley archaeologist Tim White came up with what he and other scientists consider to be evidence of cannibalism in southwest Colorado 800 years ago. Aided by a new electron microscope, White analyzed bone fragments of an Anasazi site at Mancos and spotted what he says are cuts, marks and abrasions that could only come from the preparation of nearly 30 adults and children for consumption by other humans.

White's book, "Prehistoric Cannibalism at Mancos" fanned the academic flames. Arens accused White of hunting for sexy publication material. White left anthropology altogether, lamenting that the field is "losing its way."

Salon spoke to White, who now teaches at the Integrative Biology department at UC-Berkeley, about the cannibalism debate and whether the fierce argument surrounding it has had a chilling effect on scientific research.

Assuming that organized cannibalism existed in the past, why did people eat each other?

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Obviously people eat each other if they're starving to death. The Donner Party is a good example of that. In a case like Mancos, where you have a clear pattern of damage directly related to the nutritional value of the skeleton, you can presume they were being eaten to obtain nutrition.

Just for nutrition, or for ritual reasons as well?

Anthropologists like to categorize things, and they invent silly categories like "dietary cannibalism" and "ritual cannibalism," when in fact if you're going to eat another human being there's probably going to be some kind of ritual involved. Spanish chronicles of the time established that the powerful Aztec state would raid, take captives, sacrifice them and cut up bodies to parcel out to soldiers. They obtained both nutrition and a military advantage from the practice. Jeffrey Dahmer was a cannibal. What motivated this guy? Hunger? Some kind of pathological sickness? I don't know.

Besides the Aztecs, where else was cannibalism practiced on a widespread scale?

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The New Guinea Highlands, Fiji and a lot of the Pacific islands.

In a recent New Yorker article, Oliver Sacks wrote about the Fore people of New Guinea, who contracted "kuru," which some scientists believe is related to "Mad Cow Disease" -- it causes rapid neurological deterioration and kills a person in a matter of months. Nobel Prize-winning scientist Carleton Gajdusek determined that "kuru" was caused by cannibalism -- that the Fore people ate each other's brains.

Ethnographers disagree over Gajdusek's conclusion. Some ethnographers believe that the disease was transmitted during the preparation of corpses, not necessarily through ingestion. I believe the disease was contracted through ingestion because the ethnographers who concluded that are familiar with New Guinea and watched this practice taking place.

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If ethnographers "saw" certain practices take place, why is there still a debate about whether cannibalism is myth or reality?

Proof in any historical science is a very difficult thing to come by. It's always about likelihood. O.J. did it. The prosecution knew he did it. Proving it, well that was a little more difficult.

How and why did you get interested in cannibalism?

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I found cut marks on an old fossil in Africa in 1981 and I wanted to know how they got there. At Mancos I was trying to establish a methodology to study human remains that have been modified in the course of cannibalism. This is hard to do in the modern world because nobody's doing cannibalism anymore, so you have to turn to the archaeological record and the best one we have is in the Southwest here.

What did you find there?

We found the remains of 17 adults and 12 children who had been cannibalized. Across the Southwest the numbers are in the hundreds. In the Southwest there are approximately 50 known sites.

Your critics have said that some burial practices, in which bones were buried and then dug up, broken and sometimes boiled, have been mistaken by you and others as evidence of cannibalism, when in fact such practices were part of a burial ritual.

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Unfortunately the people who use that argument have never documented it. They should go off to Australia and actually study those bones, which they cite as proof of their argument. Those bones were broken in a different way to the bones we found in Mancos. Rather than the thin bone in the legs being broken -- as they were in Australia -- we found the larger leg bones broken, presumably because there's marrow in those larger bones. Bones like the lower jaw that have no nutritional value are left intact. It's the opposite of what one would expect if this were some kind of burial practice.

William Arens cites a story from his own fieldwork in Tanzania, where Africans believed Europeans were cannibals. He says it's easy to level cannibalism charges against a culture with which we're largely unfamiliar.

And he's right to a considerable extent. I was a great supporter of Arens and I think he did a great service to scientific study by pointing out the shortcomings of the ethnological record. Where he stepped over the line is by saying that we shouldn't be studying this at all, which is a political statement. The other thing is when he said that I only studied cannibalism to become famous. That, I found personally offensive.

How was he being political?

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He seems to be saying that if it (cannibalism) is true, let's close our eyes to it. I find that to be amazing for an anthropologist to say. My understanding of anthropology and science is that if it's true, let's go out and document it, and throw light on it and understand it.

Rather than saying that some discoveries are just too ugly to look at.

Exactly. It's very similar to my other work on evolution. I have students in my classes who say, "Evolution may be true but if it is I don't want to know about it because it's not palatable to me." There's a political correctness going on. For example, we have the image of the American Indian as conservationist, but Lewis and Clark found large carcasses of giant rotting bison along the Missouri River, driven over the cliffs by the Indians. It was an effective method of hunting. Let's not rewrite history and pretend that's not true in an effort to make it appear that these guys were the first tree huggers. That's turning our back on the evidence.

So, saying there was no such thing as cannibalism is another example of political correctness?

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The whole issue over how anthropologists conduct studies of cannibalism is but one example of what I would call an identity crisis in anthropology over the last 10 or 15 years. They're no longer attempting a scientific investigation into behavior but rather how they can become advocates of poor people, disenfranchised people and so forth. That's fine, but it's not anthropology, or at least it's not my idea of what anthropology is.

Which is why you left it?

I didn't get into anthropology to become an advocate. I got into it to find out what the truth was.

It's ironic because the Lingua Franca article suggests that more anthropologists are on your side than on Arens'.

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Arens is anomalous. Anthropologists before and after Arens have considered it a fairly obvious thing that cannibalism occurred. The Lingua Franca article established a false dichotomy with two factions of equal size in the field. That isn't the case.

Apart from Jeffrey Dahmer, is there any evidence of organized cannibalism in modern times?

No. It was pretty much stamped out by missionaries before scientists got a chance to observe it very much.

You've changed academic disciplines, but are you still studying cannibalism?

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Yes. In fact I had visiting at Berkeley an anthropologist who's excavating one of the cave sites of Neanderthals in France that has cannibalized remains.

What difference does it make to us now whether our ancestors once practiced cannibalism? Is this an important question for anthropology?

I think so. Arens makes the argument that anthropology maintained its status in earlier centuries by perpetuating a myth of cannibalism. But cannibalism is a kind of human behavior which is rare. How rare was it? That's a question we ought to ask if we're interested in human behavior.


Kate Rix

MORE FROM Kate Rix

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