Man is off the menu

December 12, 1997

When William Arens debunked the history of cannibalism he caused a furore among anthropologists. Here he answers his critics

While travelling through Scandinavia in 1795, fleeing a failed love affair, Mary Wollstonecraft came across a public execution in Copenhagen. As a liberal reformer, she remonstrated against the effect of capital punishment, which she thought "hardened rather than terrified" those potentially in need of a lesson in comportment. Thereafter, Wollstonecraft jolts the reader of her published letters to her former lover with a casual "there was something I forgot to mention to you".

What slipped her mind was the fact, relayed to her by a "man of veracity," that after the deed was done two men stepped forward from the onlookers and drank a glass of the deceased's blood as a folk remedy for apoplexy. When she took issue with this custom, the author was reproved by a native with the question: "How do you know it is not a cure for the disease?" Presumably experiencing the usual logical problem in proving a negative case, Wollstonecraft merely declared her interrogator ignorant and the custom "a horrible violation of nature". She then dismisses the subject as quickly as she raised it, as if it were a minor problem of native morals and manners.

In fact, Wollstonecraft should not have been so perplexed for, back in her native England, up until the early 20th century, dessicated human body parts and fluids were regularly sold in apothecary shops as remedies for a whole host of maladies - apoplexy no doubt among them. Indeed, the medical profession still relies on related procedures today, such as injections of human pituitary extracts to encourage growth in children, often with about as much demonstrated benefit to their recipients. Perhaps this is a different matter; or is it? I can only say that in those parts of the world I, as an anthropologist, am familiar with, such injections are regarded by the natives as bordering on, if not as being, cannibalism itself. We, of course, dismiss their garbled perception as gross ignorance.

Such examples raise interesting questions about human ingestion habits and their interpretation. Are or were the English cannibals? Obviously, this is an issue of perspective shaped by our position in time and space. Why do we see cannibalism, however defined, so often and clearly through the mists of time and distance, while failing to appreciate what is happening here and now? What may be obscuring the issue for those so desperately trying to make sense of it, like Wollstonecraft and so many after her, is this temporal and cultural intimacy. We do not expect cannibalism in 20th-century England and so specific practices, such as the injection of children with human pituitary extract, even though they have suspicious characteristics, are not identified as cannibalistic. Perhaps more important, the substances involved are not deemed food and the consumption not "eating". Thus, this admittedly bizarre feature of western society is interpreted as a rational medical treatment rather than as a superstitous ritual.

The earliest literature from "our" side of the equation about contact with "other" cultures often suggests we are entering the past. These early Western authors treated the mysterious cultures they encountered as relics of human history rather than as contemporaneous. These same reports indicate that, for their part, the "natives" also saw our representatives as coming from the ghostly past - as another sort of mythical ancestor returned to earth. From this point of view anything is possible, as each side struggles to make sense of the occasion and the other. The difference is that usually only one side records the encounter, in print at least, and in the process mythical thought enters the historical record. Indeed, where are the man-eating Caribs or Aztecs today except in the history books of their conquerors?

In contemporary parlance, the cannibal is "invented", as we deny the stranger in space our time and its prevailing sensibilities. In effect, "they", these strangers of other cultures, become our past - Neanderthals, cave men, or primitives - what we once were at a distant point of human history. This intellectual process of course demands that we also create our rather obscure past as one characterised by cannibalism.

The result of this culture contact can be characterised as myth-making on the part of explorers, conquistadores, missionaries, travellers, colonial officals, and academics, including anthropologists. This was what I argued in my 1979 book The Man-Eating Myth. The results were not as persuasive as I would have liked. Many anthropological colleagues, as I set a minor cottage industry into motion, took vehement exception to my conclusion that the apparently widespread existence of the practice of cannibalism was little more than an exercise in myth-making.

Seemingly I had not only set upon a cherished cultural notion, but also a privileged group, those in our society charged with interpreting other times and places in what was assumed to be an objective fashion. I soon learned that there is nothing like an academic discipline scorned, and that convincing my colleagues to accept that there might be no cannibals yonder was like trying to persuade a convention of UFO buffs that there are no aliens visiting us. Everyone was having too much fun to allow rationality to ruin the party. Indeed at a convention of anthropologists a special panel, convened to look into the issue, soon pronounced my argument unacceptable. Some of the convention's members even went on to allege that I was engaged in a cover-up of the evidence for cannibalism.

Nevertheless, there was a limited acceptance of my theory. Some cultural anthropologists confirmed, in politically-correct fashion, that my general message about over-exoticising the generic "other" was a reasonable one. Some admitted that many of those who have come down to us in history and anthropology books as cannibals may, in fact, not have been, and that such errors were the result of our uncritical reliance on unsophisticated predecessors. Because of the often close resemblance on the ground between missionaries, colonial officers and anthropologists, some of those who responded to my argument agreed that it seemed a good idea to establish the differences between the conclusions of the academics and those of other fieldworkers.

Less sophisticated brethren did not entirely grasp the subtle complexity of the situation, however, and rushed into print in defence of these early visitors to an often fantastic New World. The most amusing was a colleague who penned the slogan: "Three Cheers for Hans Staden," Staden being an illiterate 16th-century Dutch seaman who fell in among some South American cannibals, or at least thought he had. The hero of the piece not only somehow survived his encounter with man-eaters, but later also managed to produce an "as told to" book about his harrowing experiences upon return to Europe. At least one contemporary anthropologist thought it a rather good read.

Apart from a few such exceptions, it was concluded that the image of cannibals here, there, and everywhere might well be a regrettable overstatement. However, there were also anthropologists who would then go on to say that they had it on good authority that the subjects of their own research were truly cannibals and had, indeed, been so until fairly recently. "Recently" however, did not include the period during which the anthropologists in question were conducting fieldwork, so the custom had not been personally observed.

In sum, the overall response to The Man-Eating Myth was the admission by anthropology that although the general image of rampant anthropophagy by the "natives" might be flawed, this conclusion did not hold true for Native South or North America, New Guinea, the other islands of the Pacific, Africa, or the Arctic. Of course "they" (the "natives") - wherever located in any given instance - were no longer cannibals. Thus, the conclusion was difficult to contradict.

There was a particularly notable agreement that cannibals did exist, however, until practically yesterday, in the highlands of New Guinea, the "final frontier" of western cultural contact. In this instance many smugly noted that the evidence for cannibalism emerged from medical research rather than from the usual less reliable forms of documentation. In the light of the exalted position of science, how could any rational person doubt this research? I discovered, with perhaps even more smugness, that one could.

The story began in 1957, with the arrival in New Guinea of D. Carleton Gajdusek, an American research paediatrician on his way home from a fellowship year in Australia. Why he opted to visit this part of the world did not become clear until recently. However, the eventual results of the sojourn proved important for both medical science and for Dr Gajdusek. Eventually, he would receive the Nobel prize for medicine, and then, later, be arrested and plead guilty to the sexual abuse of minors in the US. He adopted a number of boys from part of New Guinea well known for institutionalised male homosexuality between youngsters and adults. Laudatory reports of Gajdusek's charity, including references to his bringing a number of the lads to the Nobel ceremonies, were recounted in the media.

The intervening stages in the process from public acclaim to disgrace were less dramatic. Having arrived in New Guinea, Gajdusek learned of an epidemic disease called kuru raging among a highlands population called the Fore. He made his way to the locale and initiated a research project with neither funds nor permission from his superiors at the National Institutes of Health in Washington DC, nor the Australian authorities, who had their own plans. Although many have justly commented on the brilliant nature of Gajdusek's work under such circumstances, as his published diaries intimate, he was at peace with himself and the local cultural environment for perhaps the only time in his life. Under these peculiar conditions, Gajdusek was able to demonstrate that kuru (related to many medical problems, including the degenerative illness Creutzfeldt-Jakob's Disease), is a "slow virus" rather than a genetic occurrence. As such, it is capable of transmission via personal contact. The problem then was to identify how the natives were passing on the malady to each other in epidemic proportions.

Gajdusek eventually intimated over time, with the intellectual encouragement of cultural anthropologists included in an expanded research team, that perhaps the illness was spread by local "ritual" cannibalism: the kin ate the remains of those who had died from kuru. It soon became popular, scientific, and anthropological lore that man-eating spread the disease. The distinction Gajdusek himself referred to between eating and touching corpses (common in mortuary activity) was subtle at best and subsequently obscured by publishing "pictures" of ritual cannibalism in his Nobel prize lecture. Thus, most thought, and still believe, that Gajdusek had provided modern photographic documentation for cannibalism. But this was not the case, for Gajdusek candidly admitted to me in correspondence on the subject that what the natives were eating in the "cannibalism" photographs was actually pork. He went on to say, by way of explanation, that this is what the scene would have looked like if he had actually seen it. Apparently he had not observed cannibalism "in the flesh" but the anthropologists involved assured him that the natives were cannibals until recently.

The issue might have faded into academic history if not for the recent concern over the eating habits and maladies of contemporary Britons and the outbreak in the United Kingdom of BSE. A reasonable reflection on the English's "Mad Cow" disease might suggest that perhaps the poor Fore of New Guinea suffered from "Mad Pig" rather than "Mad People" disease. "Mad Cow" is a variety of Creutzfeldt-Jakob's disease (suspected to be caused in North Africa by eating infected sheep) which in turn is a variant of the New Guinea kuru. Initial suggestions in the UK that the virus might be the result of eating contaminated beef were rejected on the grounds that it was well-known medical "fact" that Gajdusek had "proved" that this sort of disease could only be transmitted by ritualised people-eating, which obviously did not happen in the civilised UK. Now, however, it is generally accepted that mass-produced beef is the infectious agent. Thus, in the UK, people get the disease from eating what was once safe food, while those far away get the same result from engaging in ancient rituals involving eating each other. Not only is history a foreign country; a foreign country is also history.

Some time ago a colleague, preparing a collection of essays for The Anthropologist's Cookbook, asked me for an entry from the cannibalism menu. She assumed, as I had at the time in light of the ubiquity of presumed creatures in the literature, that I would be able to serve up numerous tempting recipes from around the world.

I revisited the material for possibilities but the curious result was the inability to add to the cookbook with entries on cannibal cuisine. I learned from the usual cast of sources that among the savage races in Africa, human flesh was popped into the pot for boiling. Some of the brave missionaries to Fiji and other islands of the South Pacific went into horrid detail about the unholy use of clay ovens normally reserved for pigs. In North and South America, the normal procedure, according to accidental explorers such as Hans Staden, was charcoal broiling, while New Guineans favoured steam cooking in underground pits. In other words, boiled, broiled, baked, and steamed - but, no recipes. Apparently human flesh was so tasty to these savages that nothing else was needed to improve the dish. No salt or pepper - just the "beef" or whatever we should call human meat.

This lacuna suggests an odd state of affairs. Could it be that cannibals have no recipes? The inability to provide this minor but crucial bit of evidence on the presumed custom of man-eating is probably the best reason to conclude that cannibalism exists more in the limited culinary imagination of the observer than in the native appetite. Perhaps the whole corpus must be taken with a large grain of salt on these grounds alone. There may be no need for erudite disputes over logic, epistemology, or ontology. No recipes, no man-eaters.

William Arens is professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

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