Gereon Janzing, geobotánico y etnobotánico
Gereon Janzing, geobotánico y etnobotánico

Anthropology, the Science of Man-Eaters

(This is a slightly modified version of an article I published in German in the ethnological/anthropological magazine “Cargo”.)

“Cannibalism (anthropophagy): consumption of parts of the human body and drinking of human blood by humans. In earlier times cannibalism was spread over wide parts of the Earth, habitually or on special occasions, stressing sometimes the consumption of the flesh, sometimes religious-ritual motives.”

Diercke Dictionary of General Geography (1)

Long time before I studied cultural anthropology (or ethnology, as it is called in Germany) I knew that in New Guinea and other regions of the Earth there were humans who ate other humans. No doubt, every child knows that. Also during my study I heard such stories occasionally, even seperated into endo- and exocannibalism. (And in ecological anthropology people even looked for explanations why cannibalism was necessary.) But also, for the first time, I met with source criticism that put the reproaches in doubt. And so I said to myself: I want to know it exactly. Of course, I cannot travel to the 16th century Tupinambá to research whether they really–as Hans Staden reported us in details–caught Christians, fattened and ate them. But I can research literature according to its plausibility. And I did that. And I found some interesting things and I published about them.

The German Hans Staden reported in the 16th century how the Tupinambá in Brazil assaulted their enemies, killed women and children (and obviously just left them behind?) and then took the men prisoners. Then they let the foreign men have contact with native women and beget children. These children (to be remembered: of native women) were raised, and whenever the people felt like doing so, they just slaughtered them and ate them up (2). Let’s ask: Is such a report believable? Are we now having to do with real humans or rather with monsters from fairy tales? Generations of anthropologists referred to Staden’s sensation-seeking report and considered the cannibalism among the Tupinambá a fact that was not to be put in doubt. Most of them presumably without ever having read Staden’s original report. Sure, why should they? We know that foreign people are often cannibals. And in the reverse conclusion, cannibals are especially foreign. And the more foreign a culture is, the more it is a subject of anthropology.

To demonstrate how exotic foreign peoples are, Ewald Volhard provides us with an extensive collection about cannibalism: Some peoples eat their adulterous women as a punishment. Others eat rottened corpses. Well then, bon appetit! Or–as a missionary saw–they offer dried human flesh in baskets for sale (3). Shall we believe such things? Or is it rather the task of anthropology as a science to put them in doubt and examine them?

During my study I saw a film where a Papuan threatened another person to eat him up. By that time I thought to myself easily: Ha, that’s a clear confession to cannibalism! So it exists inspite of all rumours! May the doubters remain silent for ever more! But stop! In German we say, we like someone “for eating them up”, meaning we like them very much. Is that a clear confession to cannibalism? In Irish Gaelic there’s an idiom “eating up the neighbours” meaning “reviling, backbiting the neighbours”. A similar metaphorical meaning “eating” can have in Quebecois French. (More exact facts about these and other idioms can be found within my anthology: Janzing 2007a.) Why do not we credit Papuans with a metaphorical language as we ourselves have it? Indeed, “eat up” in some Papuan languages is a metaphore for “bewitch”. Nowadays many Papuans confess Christians, and it is known that part of Christianism is the eating of Christ’s body. Of course, not as real human flesh as such because the Christians are able to symbolize. But now–do we really want to show so much cultural arrogance as to state that the Papuans have learnt the ability to symbolize only with their evangelisation?

Cannibalism in case of famine, of course, exists though probably always practiced with abhorrence. Cannibalism of individuals standing outside society appears occasionally, like is known from the famous Cannibal of Rotenburg (Germany), who–as is to be expected–is considered a psychopath in vast parts of society. But what is of anthropological relevance, is rather socially accepted cannibalism. Be it profane cannibalism, that is mere eating of human flesh for nutritional purposes, as Alfred Métraux postulated it for the Easter Islanders (4) and as according to a thesis of the ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt was very widespread in earlier times (5). Be it on the other hand ritual or cultic cannibalism by which the dead person’s powers are meant to be taken over. A specimen of the latter is the mentioned eating of Christ’s body.

As a glance into the Great Sovyet Encyclopedia shows, eucharistia is sometimes really considered a survival of former consumption of human flesh (6). By the same way also foreign peoples are interpreted to have been cannibals: Cannibalism plays a role in myths, tales and cults of this or the other ethnical group, logical conclusion: the people of this group used to be cannibals until about 200 years ago. Is that sufficient to serve as a proof? Can we conclude from the German fairy tale “Hänsel und Gretel” and the children’s song of the same name that the Germans 200 years ago fattened and baked children?

Let us just imagine someone said the Jews to eat human flesh–what, as a matter of fact, has been said several times during German history. Would not we tend to reproach antisemitism to that person immediately? But about Papuans the same thing may be said? Why do we measure Pauans and Jews differently? Because we have become sensitive to defamations of the Jews, but not of the Papuans? Because the Jews have meanwhile become real humans whereas the Papuans are still considered “underdeveloped” “stone age people”?

Well, Jews usually are not among the peoples treated in anthropology, wehereas Papuans areamong them. Some time or the other my colleagues in anthropology confront me with such distinctive lines when I treat foreign peoples together with European peoples on the same level. Even we anthropologists have obviously not yet learnt to drop the border between “ourselves” and the “others”. Anthropology in its original self-understanding is the science of what is foreign, thus also of cannibals. As soon as we admit that the others are as much human beings as we are, this self-understanding of our subject has to lose grounds. If we do not consider ourselves cannibals, why do we consider others cannibals? Because the others consider us cannibals too? Yes, truely, also we Europeans have been known as man-eaters in other parts of the Earth since olden times. To give an example, in the times of the slave-hunting, in West Africa it was clear enough that the Europeans caught the Africans and took them on their ships for the purpose of eating them. Is this way of proving less convincing than the ways we have used for Papuans, Caraibs and Jews, perhaps also for Neandertals?

Since times lost in history the myth of cannibalism has served as a borderline towards foreign peoples. Many peoples told their neighbouring peoples ate human flesh, what lots of explorers believed without checking: Among all the surrounding peoples the one visited by the explorer does not practice cannibalism (except, maybe, in times of famine) whereas their neighbours do. That is what for example Malinowski found among the Trobrianders (7). Cannibals are often hostile peoples, but also those people for whom reasons are being searched to make them slaves or to evangelize them. The Greek historical scribe Herodot described a people named androphagists, which served as a deterring image of people with no laws and–as has to be expected–ate human flesh (8). The native American chronist Garcilaso de la Vega reports how the Incas accused a people of having no laws, going naked and practicing cannibalism and so supplied reasons for submitting and “civilizing” them (9).

Not long ago I was blamed that I did not have any proofs that cannibalism had never existed. That is true. I do not claim cannibalism never to have existed, that would be arrogant. Such thing, of course, is principally impossible to be proven. The mere fact that the Tupinambá have never been watched while eating human flesh is not a proof of their innocence. Neither have I ever been watched while eating human flesh (except when represented by the host). Still, if a native American or African accuses me of having eaten human flesh, I will be unable to prove the opposite.

Believers of cannibalism sometimes call to theories why it is probable that human flesh has habitually been eaten, for example pointing out at cannibalism among chimpanzees. Sure, the theories allow it–just like the theories allow life on Mars. But to know whether a people really eats or ate human flesh, even the best theories are not sufficient, we need anthropological facts that prove the habitual consumption of human flesh or at least make it appear probable. And such facts are so far missing. Concluding from cannibalism among chimpanzees that there is cannibalism among the Tupinambá, must be as unsatisfactory as concluding from life on Earth that there is life on Mars–without examining Mars.

Once having become sensitive towards accuses of cannibalism, of course, I also became sceptical about assertions that in South America bone ashes of the deceased are consumed in beer or banana mash. But after researching that topic more closely, I found that there are believable reports. Drinking a deceased ancestor represented by bone ashes is obviously as natural for some South American peoples as it is natural for the Christians to eat their Saviour represented by a piece of bread.

Within the animal kingdom the consumption of animals of the same species has been proved and leaves no doubt, although its role is not completely clear. Do female mantises eat their males in freedom as naturally as we think from watching them in captivity? Also in astronomy there is cannibalism when a celestial body (for example a pulsar) consumes its accompanying body. In anthropology it has to be understood symbolically–or as a defamation. Sometimes also as a boast against explorers and tavellers who easily believe things like this and from whom one can earn respect with such stories.

Sources (all of them quoted in my anthology: Janzing 2007a):

1) Leser, Hartmut, Hans-Dieter Haas, Thomas Mosimann & Reinhard Paesler: Wörterbuch der Allgemeinen Geographie. München und Braunschweig 1992. – Vol. 1: A-M, p. 293.

2) Staden, Hans: Warhaftige Hiſtoria und Beſchreibung eyner Landſchafft der wilden nacketen grimmigen Menſchfreſſer Leuthen in der Newenwelt America gelegen. Marpurg 1557. – Caput xxix.

3) Volhard, Ewald (1939): Kannibalismus. Stuttgart. – Passim.

4) Métraux, Alfred: L’Île de Pâques. Saint-Amand 1966. – P. 84.

5) Eibl-Eibesfeldt: Krieg und Frieden aus der Sicht der Verhaltensforschung. München 1990 (1st  ed. 1975). – P. 216f.

6) Першиц, А. И.: Каннибализм. In: Прохоров, А. М. (Red.): Большая советская энциклопедия. Москва 1973. – Vol. 11: Италия - Кравкуш, p. 330.

7) Malinowski, Bronislaw: Soil-Tilling and Agricultural Rites in the Trobriand Islands. Bloomington, Indiana 1965. – P. 162.

8) Herodot: Buch IV, Kap. 106, to be found in: Herodot: Herodoti Historiae. Editio tertia, tomus prior. Aylesbury 1927.

9) Garcilaso de la Vega: 7th book, original around 1600, to be found (in modern orthography) in: Sáenz de Santa María, Carmelo (Hrsg.): Obras completas del Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. Madrid 1963. – P. 271.

Further literature (excerpts of most of the works and essays are quoted in my anthology: Janzing 2007a):

Arens, William (1979): The Man-eating Myth. Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Oxford and others.

Arens, William (1996): cannibalism. In: Barnard, Alan & Jonathan Spencer (ed.): Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. London & New York. – P. 82f.

Bahn, Paul (1991): Is cannibalism too much to swallow? In: New Scientist. 27 April 1991: 38-40.

Frank, Erwin: »Sie fressen Menschen, wie ihr scheußliches Aussehen beweist …«. Kritische Überlegungen zu Zeugen und Quellen der Menschenfresserei. In: Duerr, Hans-Peter (ed.): Authentizität und Betrug in der Ethnologie. Frankfurt am Main 1987: 199-224.

Gilsenbach, Hannelore (1996): „… und verzehren Menschenfleisch“. In: Bumerang. Naturvölker heute. Zeitschrift des Bundes für Naturvölker. 3/1996: 83.

Janzing, Gereon (2007): Kannibalen und Schamanen. Verbreitete Irrtümer über fremde Völker. Löhrbach.

Janzing, Gereon (2007a): Der unwiderstehliche Geschmack von Menschenfleisch – Eine Anthologie zu Menschenfressern und Kannibalismus. Löhrbach.

Janzing, Gereon (2007b): Nach Neuguinea zu den Kannibalen. In: Kritische Ökologie (Göttingen) 22 [1]: 21.

Kuper, Michael (1993): Über die Wut im Bauch der Kannibalen. »Die meisten Vorstellungen sind falsch«. In: Lorbeer, Marie & Beate Wild (ed.): Menschenfresser Negerküsse. Das Bild vom Fremden im deutschen Alltag. Berlin, p. 36-45.

Menninger, Annerose (1995): Die Macht der Augenzeugen. Neue Welt und Kannibalen-Mythos, 1492-1600. Stuttgart.

Müller-Kaspar, Ulrike (1996): Menschenfresser. In: Müller-Kaspar, Ulrike: Handbuch des Aberglaubens. Wien, p. 574f.

Peter-Röcher, Heidi (1998): Mythos Menschenfresser. Ein Blick in die Kochtöpfe der Kannibalen. München.

Steadman, Lyle B. & Charles F. Merbs (1982): Kuru and Cannibalism. In: American Anthropologist 84: 611-627.