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Cannibal holocaust
December 5, 2009 11:39 PM   Subscribe

"Heads were skinned and muscles removed from the brain case in order to remove the skullcap. Incisions and scrapes on jaws indicate that tongues were cut out." "Scrape marks inside the broken ends of limb bones indicate that marrow was removed." "Whatever actually happened at Herxheim, facial bones were smashed beyond recognition." - Neolithic mass canibalism in southern Germany.
posted by Artw (85 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
...was totally metal. Sorry.
posted by Artw at 11:40 PM on December 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


Man. I wonder if their analysis will reveal that they were all eating poison berries or something that would make them go insane.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:44 PM on December 5, 2009


This is one place where PETA-style protests would have been appropriate: paint a supermodel to look like a human and leave her in a cage in the main square, with a sign, and alert the media.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:45 PM on December 5, 2009 [6 favorites]


Man. I wonder if their analysis will reveal that they were all eating poison berries or something that would make them go insane.

No, it was just a really good recipe.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:45 PM on December 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


I can vouch for this. I was almost eaten in southern Germany once. Made it to the French border, fortunately, with only a few minor fork-stab wounds.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:49 PM on December 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


Herxheim is quite the name... It totally sounds like the kind of place where unwary travellers would become stranded and stumble onto the descendants of a neolithic cannibal cult, or where an undead army hanging out in Warhammer Fantasy Battle.
posted by Artw at 11:53 PM on December 5, 2009 [8 favorites]


Might I recommend either "Can I Play With Madness" or "Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter" as ideal Maiden songs to listen to while you read this article.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 12:21 AM on December 6, 2009 [4 favorites]


I guess this happened too late in the game to be a case of modern humans feasting on the last of the Neanderthals.
posted by Partial Panel at 1:30 AM on December 6, 2009


I don't suppose there was a neolithic primate research laboratory nearby?
posted by maxwelton at 1:56 AM on December 6, 2009


A few proud Germans have done their part to keep this tradition alive.
posted by chillmost at 2:19 AM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Revival time!
posted by telstar at 2:39 AM on December 6, 2009


Herxheim is quite the name... It totally sounds like the kind of place where unwary travellers would become stranded and stumble onto the descendants of a neolithic cannibal cult, or where an undead army hanging out in Warhammer Fantasy Battle.

Häxan
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:51 AM on December 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


Interesting topic, thanks.
posted by ws at 2:55 AM on December 6, 2009


The Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday season has always been a bit rough.
posted by metagnathous at 3:31 AM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is their tourism guide up for a rewrite?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:01 AM on December 6, 2009


Leave it to the neolithic bavarians to invent the most fucked up possible giant restaurant. I like that butchery scars on carcass skeletons are supposedly so easy to identify. Couldn't there be a million non-cuisine reasons for disassembling LOTS of bodies? Such as:

Being vicious.
Following very important religious practices.
Terrifying the shit out of enemies.
Not having enough disassembled bodies in your existing shallow pit network.
posted by damehex at 4:03 AM on December 6, 2009 [5 favorites]


"... found with a primitive rotating stone wheel for crushing and stuffing the rendered meat into human intestine casings, and 38 intact clay crocks containing still edible sauerkraut, and..."

hm...
posted by Auden at 4:03 AM on December 6, 2009


Dibs on naming my black metal band Herxheim!
posted by bookish at 4:18 AM on December 6, 2009


undead army hanging out in Warhammer Fantasy Battle.

with their pen protectors and neatly folded hankies
posted by mattoxic at 5:14 AM on December 6, 2009


I thought the article was horribly written, essentially "these guys say this happened, and those guys say that happened... but ooooh cannibalism and poorly sourced hypotheses of social-political underpinnings to explain why some folks may have traveled long distances."

Not only does it read like a sensationalist article run amok, but it tries to pin current morals onto a given society 7K years ago, “giving an impression of the destruction of individual identity, a kind of psychic violence against the person,”

wank wank wank.
posted by edgeways at 5:50 AM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I guess this happened too late in the game to be a case of modern humans feasting on the last of the Neanderthals.
posted by Partial Panel at 1:30 AM on December 6 [+] [!]


Yeah, neolithic is tens of thousands of years too late for neanderthals. This is only 7,000 years ago. So there would already have been cities in the near and middle East.
posted by atrazine at 6:06 AM on December 6, 2009


well, yeah, it's not like they had the money to hire a french chef
posted by pyramid termite at 6:13 AM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


a scenario in which the dead were reburied at Herxheim following dismemberment and removal of flesh from bones.

Plus je vois le hommes, plus j’admire les chiens.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 6:17 AM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


In these tough economic times the "waste not, want not" traditions of our ancestors make a lot of sense.
posted by Iron Rat at 6:28 AM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


And thus began the annual "Oktoberfest" celebration, which lives on to this day.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:31 AM on December 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


Ouh, they even scraped out the marrow! That's the best part!
posted by autoclavicle at 6:41 AM on December 6, 2009


So what's worse? Killing and eating a few of your distant relatives who...let's face it..were always wankers and drunken louts who never contributed anything to society but farts and bad jokes, OR creeping up on a darling little pink and white lamb with the sweetest little puffy tail which gamboles about innocently in the sunshine and then slitting its throat while it screams out for its momma before shuddering, twitching and crumpling to a bloody heap?

Food for thought.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:44 AM on December 6, 2009 [5 favorites]


I blame Reavers.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:46 AM on December 6, 2009 [14 favorites]


what, we have to make a choice?
posted by pyramid termite at 6:46 AM on December 6, 2009


Might I recommend either "Can I Play With Madness" or "Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter" as ideal Maiden songs to listen to while you read this article.

Judas Priest's "Eat Me Alive," would be even better.
posted by jonmc at 6:48 AM on December 6, 2009


Ein om nom ach nom nom
posted by Lord_Pall at 6:48 AM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


William Arens says that accusations of cannibalism are used to dehumanize one's enemies, but that it really doesn't happen but in a few specified contexts: see The Man Eating Myth. Looks like he's proven wrong again, huh.
posted by munyeca at 7:49 AM on December 6, 2009


"Many researchers argue that the marks attributed to flesh-eating could instead be created during slightly less gruesome activities, such as the public execution of suspected witches."

Were the Anasazi cannibals too?
posted by rdone at 7:52 AM on December 6, 2009


Couldn't there be a million non-cuisine reasons for disassembling LOTS of bodies?

Other researchers suggest ritual reburial. But to my mind, that doesn't readily explain cracking the bones for the yummy marrow, or the teeth marks on finger bones.

Occam's razor explains the butchering marks on the bones.

(And no, it's at least 21 thousand years too late for Neandertals, and no, it's too many bones too widely distributed for a single bad harvest to account for it. It's ritual cannibalism, and if we want to pretend that Europeans don't do that, well, look at what they did do at Uppsala, at Birkenau, or in the Congo.)
posted by orthogonality at 8:13 AM on December 6, 2009


Secret Life of Gravy: "Killing and eating a few of your distant relatives who...let's face it..were always wankers and drunken louts who never contributed anything to society but farts and bad jokes"

And thus MeFi proceeded to feast on the flesh of Fark.
posted by idiopath at 8:18 AM on December 6, 2009 [12 favorites]


Why would it surprise anyone that there was cannibalism 7000 years ago? Meat is good. And there's plenty of examples of occasional ritual cannibalism going into and through the 20th century. Are we supposed to be surprised because this happened in what is now Europe?
posted by Nelson at 8:21 AM on December 6, 2009


Can't talk. Eating ribs.
posted by clvrmnky at 8:28 AM on December 6, 2009 [4 favorites]


I would give credence to the controversy. Interestingly enough, much as most of accept rather unquestioningly that some societies at some times were cannibals, there is hardly actually no truly uncontestable evidence of ritual cannibalism (as opposed to survival or act-of-war cannibalism) in all of the archaeological record. There's an enormous academic battle which started a couple decades ago with this book and is going on right now about this topic, with a few (like these folks) working desperately to demonstrate even one instance in which there is direct evidence for ritual cannibalism with strong likelihood that that interpretation is accurate, and other scholars who are systematically questioning the cannibalism narrative as it appears in history and in contemporary archaeology. It's a bit of a minefield to navigate because it really is a passionate debate with a ton at stake on both sides, but here is some stuff.

That narrative often depends on documentary evidence in which one group of people points to another nearby group as cannibals ("We don't eat people, we're civilized, but those barbarians over the ridge do!"), and that is taken as truth by the Western observers who record it; or even in which a group encountered by Westerners says that they themselves are cannibals, and even shows what appears to be evidence, ("We're totally badass; if we catch any of your guys in our village we are going to eat you like we ate them [points to pig bones]") ...but that in fact it turns out that this is an attempt to threaten and intimidate the Western reporters.
posted by Miko at 8:28 AM on December 6, 2009 [8 favorites]


"creeping up on a darling little pink and white lamb with the sweetest little puffy tail which gamboles about innocently in the sunshine and then slitting its throat while it screams out for its momma before shuddering, twitching and crumpling to a bloody heap?"

Yes, this is exactly how it is done.
posted by jellywerker at 8:41 AM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


In New Guinea, kuru (and the recently discovered allele that protects against kuru) demonstrates ritual eating of the dead (though not killing them to do so).
posted by orthogonality at 8:43 AM on December 6, 2009


Secret Life of Gravy: creeping up on a darling little pink and white lamb with the sweetest little puffy tail which gamboles about innocently in the sunshine and then slitting its throat while it screams out for its momma before shuddering, twitching and crumpling to a bloody heap?

Food for thought.
Yep. Totally having leg of lamb tonight now.
posted by Decimask at 8:45 AM on December 6, 2009


Those wacky Germans!
posted by five fresh fish at 9:09 AM on December 6, 2009


Mmmm. Cannibalism. Tastes like... chicken.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:40 AM on December 6, 2009


Now I'm sad I missed the barbeque meetup.
posted by fuq at 9:50 AM on December 6, 2009


Wow, this thread hasn't Godwined yet?
posted by Maias at 10:10 AM on December 6, 2009


TOO SOON

just kidding

(and a genuine hat tip to miko for the informative comment. The rest of you go on back to your marrow-cracklin and finger-bone-gnawin, nothing to see here)

posted by mwhybark at 10:11 AM on December 6, 2009


Mmmmmm.... long pig.
posted by brundlefly at 10:33 AM on December 6, 2009


Has kuru been conclusively demonstrated to be caused by eating of flesh?
posted by Miko at 10:42 AM on December 6, 2009


Miko: I read a book about prion disease (The Family That Couldn't Sleep - really fascinating, mostly focusing on fatal familial insomnia, but goes into other prion diseases as well including spongiform encephalopathy) and yeah, kuru has been pretty conclusively linked to eating human flesh.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:57 AM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Maias,

...if we want to pretend that Europeans don't do that, well, look at what they did do at Uppsala, at Birkenau, or in the Congo.

Subtle, but still Godwined.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 11:30 AM on December 6, 2009


Dibs on naming my black metal band Herxheim!

May I join? My drumset uses human skins, and my sticks are actually a pair of midget's legs. During longer songs I take bites out of them without missing a beat.
posted by mannequito at 11:39 AM on December 6, 2009


My information is admittedly secondhand; this isn't a specialty of mine, and anything I know about anthropophagy mostly from discussions by a scholar friend who's been working on the cannibal controversy and some citations and discussion of the research in her book, but this page seems to sum up the origin of the kuru-attribution problem:
In 1957, while visiting Papua New Guinea, D. Carleton Gajdusek, a medical researcher, learned of an epidemic called kuru, savaging the highland area, principally among the Fore people. After arduous initial investigations, his preliminary results allowed for an expanded research team including cultural anthropologists. Of more immediate importance, laboratory results indicated that the disease could be transmitted — via the distillation of human victims' brain tissue — to chimpanzees. A reasonable extrapolation of this fact was that the illness had been transmitted among humans in New Guinea in some unknown fashion. A review of the literature indicates that the pre-figured notion of cannibalism entered into the discussion as the suspected agent of kuru transmission, first tentatively, and then with greater authority; the authors, including the anthropologists, began to cite each others' remarks in their publications until cannibalism eventually emerged as a scientific fact. The sensational nature of the claim soon enshrined it in the secondary and popular literature. However, none of the parties intimately involved had ever observed the deed, as opposed to learning of it from previous accounts. The inability to document the activity was explained as usual in terms of the cessation of the practice, or its continued secret occurrence. Thus, a common assertion about an exotic people was incorporated into an otherwise rational scientific discourse.

The recent concern over the spread of Creutzfeld-Jacob disease (a variant of kuru) in Europe provides an instructive example of how the matter is envisioned for ‘civilized’ populations. The implication of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in this instance suggests that the dietary habits of the Fore people, which included the consumption of undercooked pork, including brain tissue, should now be given greater consideration in the transmission of kuru. Customary funeral practices, which involved direct contact with the deceased's brain tissue, and institutionalized male homosexuality, also deserve greater appreciation as a disease vector, since they are well-documented activities, as opposed to cannibalism, which was merely assumed.

In sum, it no longer appears reasonable to assume the anthropophagic nature of others in the sense that they have been wholesale consumers of human flesh. This assertion does not deny some cross-cultural variation on the theme. For example, it has been reported on good authority that inhabitants of South America ritually consume the bone-ash of the departed. Yet, similar bodily substances were sold in European and American apothecaries until the beginning of the twentieth century and continue to be used today in some forms for their assumed medicinal qualities. The human use of the human body in all these instances raises interesting questions about the distinction between science and ritual.
Maybe there's new information that's been brought to light that I haven't heard about.
posted by Miko at 12:02 PM on December 6, 2009 [5 favorites]


Interestingly enough, much as most of accept rather unquestioningly that some societies at some times were cannibals, there is hardly actually no truly uncontestable evidence of ritual cannibalism (as opposed to survival or act-of-war cannibalism) in all of the archaeological record.

Isn't there eyewitness testimony from Edmund Leach in Borneo in 1945 where cannibals did a ritual consumption of a couple captured Japanese soldiers? They did it in public legally because of the war and that was how Leach got to see it (as I recall). The thing which was so memorable about it was he claimed the ritual was perfectly isomorphic to a Sunday service at an English country church.

Has Leach been debunked?
posted by bukvich at 1:15 PM on December 6, 2009


Occam's razor explains the butchering marks on the bones.

So, this Occam was some sort of Neolithic Jack-the-Ripper?
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:27 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't know that Leach has been debunked, but given what we now know from reality shows, it's easy to imagine that while the Borneans killed and ate Japanese soldiers while and because Leach was watching, although the had not previously and were unlikely to again eat the long pork.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:45 PM on December 6, 2009


I'm not convinced by the argument that ritual cannibalism didn't exist. There are many accounts, into historical times, by both Maori and colonists, of cannibalism amongst Maori in New Zealand. Far from being a slander, some tribes positively revelled in the reputation of being eaters of men.

There is a continuing controversy about just how common cannibalism was among Maori before colonisation -- Paul Moon of Auckland University wrote a book last year called This Horrid Practice and it was widely criticised for portraying cannibalism as a widespread practice -- or whether it was purely ritual, but no one that I know of argues about whether it happened at all.

For example, from 10 seconds of random googleage, quoting the NZ Dictionary of Biography on Te Rauparaha, a famous leader in the 19th century:

"His name is derived from an edible plant called rauparaha. Soon after he was born a Waikato warrior who had killed and eaten a relation of his threatened to eat the child as well, roasted with rauparaha leaves; the child was called Te Rauparaha in defiance of this threat."

Just a few weeks ago I was reading Ranginui Walker's history of Opotiki (he is a very respected local academic and certainly no propagandist for colonists) and it is replete (you should pardon the expression) with accounts of people being eaten.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:56 PM on December 6, 2009


The thing which was so memorable about it was he claimed the ritual was perfectly isomorphic to a Sunday service at an English country church.

If you believe in transubstantiation, it's not a whole lot different. One is eating the dead flesh of a human, the other is eating the dead flesh of a human-come-zombie. Same-same in the end.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:53 PM on December 6, 2009


I don't want to harp on Polynesian cannibalism, but I have read a scholarly work which insisted that the popular belief that in eating vanquished foes, the victors absorbed their mana, was actually based on nothing more than the Christian preconceptions of contemporary European observers, who were almost all believers and often missionaries.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:16 PM on December 6, 2009


I'm not certain why this would be 'controversial', unless the word is intended to mean that there is scientific disagreement about it.

There are many accounts, into historical times, by both Maori and colonists, of cannibalism amongst Maori in New Zealand. Far from being a slander, some tribes positively revelled in the reputation of being eaters of men.

Fijians as well. And nicer people you will never meet, these days at least.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:44 PM on December 6, 2009


Not only does it read like a sensationalist article run amok, but it tries to pin current morals onto a given society 7K years ago, “giving an impression of the destruction of individual identity, a kind of psychic violence against the person,”

Dude, that's a direct quote from the archeologist. If the reporter goes, "Really? They busted up their faces? Why would they do that?" and the archeologist responds as above, how would you expect them not to quote it?

And while what the hell the ancient Europeans were actually doing with these pit certainly seems a fit subject for debate, since we're only speculating on what really happened and why, the idea that beating someone's face in until it's unrecognizable is a wee tad dehumanizing seems pretty universal to me. The significance of gestures and symbols varies a great deal among cultures, to be sure, but desecrating the body of a defeated enemy as a calculated insult is something that crops up pretty widely, and thus doesn't seem like a big stretch. It doesn't mean the theory is correct, either, but I wouldn't say it's pinning current morals onto it. I mean, we can still sympathize with Antigone's desire to see her brothers buried, can we not?
posted by Diablevert at 10:20 PM on December 6, 2009


Would you rather eat a stranger, or a friend (whom you knew ate only organic wholesome foods and took great care of themselves)?

I kinda get the "ick" of cannibalism (ooh, me being eaten) but not the "icky" of cannibalism ("that the worst potential competition for any young organism can come from its own kind" - Frank Herbert via _Dune_).

I totally dig the "He was my friend. I now take my (dead) friend to be part of me."

What's the problem?
posted by porpoise at 11:13 PM on December 6, 2009


What's the problem?

In traditional Maori culture, all things are divided into sacred (tapu) and mundane (noa). Food is noa, and cooked food is particularly noa. To humiliate your enemy (and his relatives) thoroughly, nothing is more insulting than to transform their person -- default state somewhat tapu -- into cooked food -- thoroughly noa -- and then to shit them out.

Part of me agrees with the idea that it's wasteful just to bury all that useful protein, but turning a former person into food is deeply symbolic of their transition from a fixed presence in this world into nothingness. And it transforms your relationship with them from one between people into one between a diner and food. You might see other aspects, but many people find that an unpleasant and degrading prospect.

I bet anthropologists have a lot to say about this.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:45 PM on December 6, 2009


I totally dig the "He was my friend. I now take my (dead) friend to be part of me."

What's the problem?


The problem is that the Great Recipe was lost in the course of a month-long pitched dinner-party/battle in which only one diner survived, only to die from indigestion.

Modern attempts at inventing the Great Recipe: meh. Nothing to invite the in-laws over for.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:07 AM on December 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I keep waiting to see the big reveal on Iron Chef America to be a few nicely butchered corpses, but no, it's fucking mangoes or mahi-mahi or walnuts again. You know Iron Chef Symon would whip up some amazing long pig
posted by Scoo at 6:37 AM on December 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


Far from being a slander, some tribes positively revelled in the reputation of being eaters of men.

The nexus of the debate is that the activity itself has never been observed or verified by a cultural outsider. That could, of course, be attributable to outsider status, but it also could be attributable to the fact that it was talked about, by people both in and outside the cultural groups involved, a whole lot more than it ever occurred, if it ever occurred. So you can see that it could be to a group's material advantage to "positively revel in the reputation" of eating other humans, whether or not they did actually eat humans.
posted by Miko at 8:16 AM on December 7, 2009


Cannibalism as an act of war is treated somewhat differently in the scholarship, I think - that's more an intentional desecration of corpses than ritual cannabilism for religious purposes.
posted by Miko at 8:17 AM on December 7, 2009


braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnssssssssssss
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:44 AM on December 7, 2009


"the activity itself has never been observed or verified by a cultural outsider"

I'm afraid I just don't believe that. Plenty of eye-witness accounts and material evidence in historical times in these parts.

Having said that, I'd like to correct what I said about Walker's book upthread. I just went to check it for the passage I was thinking of, and couldn't find it. It did remind me though how Kereopa Te Rau ritually ate the eyes of the missionary Carl Völkner. [see].
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:34 AM on December 7, 2009


The article was interesting enough on its own, but the discussion of the ongoing controversy over ritual cannibalism (which I had always assumed was a given) is fascinating. As an anthropologist by inclination but not by training* I'd heard of cannibalism used as slander, political attack, and self-aggrandizement, but I always assumed that there was a documented case somewhere. I guess that speaks more to my cynicism than anything.

*In other words, not an anthropologist at all but keenly interested in the field
posted by lekvar at 12:18 PM on December 7, 2009


I'm afraid I just don't believe that. Plenty of eye-witness accounts and material evidence in historical times in these parts.

Can you link to any? The whole basis of the academic argument is that there are no historical eyewitness accounts that haven't been subject to serious doubt. Many of what were thought of as "accounts" have turned out to be fiction; in some famous cases, the authors never even visited the locations they were writing about, and based their travelogues on hearsay or imagination. And the absence of incontrovertible material evidence is the crux of the debate. There is evidence that people have suggested or asserted points to cannibalism, but in no cases has the proof been conclusive.

This is speaking of ritual cannibalism as distinct from survival cannibalism (where shipwrecked starving people ate their dead or even killed and ate their dead)-which has happened and has generated verifiable accounts.
posted by Miko at 12:42 PM on December 7, 2009


Here's one starting point. The incident described is part of what is popularly known as Titokowaru's War or the Hauhau rebellion.

You could also google up Hongi Hika, a chief of the 19th century Ngapuhi whose old-school man-eating ways are proverbial and not disputed by his people.

See this article about Paul Moon's book, which I mentioned upthread. Note the quote from Professor Mutu.

It sounds to me very much as though the academic view you are describing rests on disputing the veracity of eyewitnesses and indigenous people's own traditions. Well, any tradition can be brushed aside this way, and I don't buy it. In fact I find it kind of offensive. If a similar approach were taken to claims by native people in other areas of life -- say with respect to land ownership and historical settlement -- we would be rushing to condemn the arrogant historians who discounted oral history and the supporting testimony of European settlers. This is just replacing one kind of patronising attitude to the natives with another.

I'm sorry I don't have time to supply more links, I'm at work and I need to stop goofing off. But the claim that there was no ritual cannibalism in New Zealand is truly so extraordinary and at odds with the accepted history of the country that frankly, the burden of proof rests with the people who make that claim.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:27 PM on December 7, 2009


Apropos of nothing, when's the next local MeFi meetup?
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:33 PM on December 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Argh, I can't stop. In fairness, this dude is on the skeptical side, and clearly a serious scholar to boot.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:39 PM on December 7, 2009


Finally, a review that mentions both Moon and Obeyesekere.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:02 PM on December 7, 2009


Well, any tradition can be brushed aside this way, and I don't buy it. In fact I find it kind of offensive.

Well, you're entitled to that opinion of course, but you are wading into some very deep waters. Part of the discussion notes that there is a widespread cannibalism taboo across many cultures, and if you are going to assert that a group maintained the practice, there should be an abundance of evidence, not just speculation or tentative interpretation (always subject to cultural biases). It's not at all hard to find contemporary accounts from the past in which people claimed to witness cannibalism. The problem is that none (few? unsure as yet) have been corroborated, and most are rife with issues of veracity. Kimble Bent, for instance - I didn't have to look far to find descriptions of Kimble Bent as a popular author and somewhat disreputable figure, someone who used his time with the Maori as a launchpad for celebrity status who used his time "going native" as the basis for talks and reporters' interviews on his experiences. Part of the discourse of cannibalism is that it's so sensationalistic - in the nineteenth century as today, what better way to get popular and perhaps scholarly attention than to say you finally found or saw evidence of cannibalism?

Was his account true? Could be. But we have only his word for it, and is his word sufficient to accept his characterization of the Maori as demoniacally relishing a human feast? It's not a very rigorous test.

And as for Paul Moon, his Wikipedia entry notes "Moon's works have come in for criticism from some reviewers...The first relates to his historical approach. In many of his books, he has stated that he writes history from the perspective of those involved at the time, and not with the historian's benefit of hindsight. The result is that some of his conclusions differ from what later analyses of events reveal. "

I don't know enough about him or his book to delve deeper into it at this time. But what I do know is that this debate is real; those having it are better read than I, and the sense is that the side that asserts that ritual cannibalism did/does exist really has the burden of proof, since the allegation is so serioues and since the incidence of it, if it happened, is so very rare. And the historical record yields little in the way of un-shaky evidence. The idea is that anthropological or archaeological arguments need to be built upon observable evidence or behavior, and there is none for cannibalism. Documentary evidence is problematic; the reports of a nineteenth-century Western celebrity seeker, or sailor who writes a book, or traveler who wishes to thrill listeners at parties, or member of a tribe in a locked battle for land or water rights, or enemy of another group of people, as long as uncorroborated by evidence, are all open to criticism as possible hearsay or fiction.
posted by Miko at 2:09 PM on December 7, 2009


There's no doubt Bent told lies - in his youth to save his skin and later to restore his reputation - but fact or fiction, the story he told Cowan in The Adventures of Kimble Bent: A story of wild life in the New Zealand Bush definitely lives up to its title.
There are problems like this with most accounts.
posted by Miko at 2:17 PM on December 7, 2009


I understand that the debate is real. I get a strong sense though that Obeyesekere et al are applying a standard for evidence here that is higher than the usual standard.

To describe someone like James Cook as "a sailor who writes a book" is absurdly reductive.

Since I'm not a historian, I'm reliant on authority. I'm still going to take the view of local and reputable historians like Jamie Belich over Obeyesekere's deconstructions.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:34 PM on December 7, 2009


Even the James Cook narrative doesn't contain any witnessing of cannibalism.

This is the problem one will continually run into - what's the evidence? How convincing is the evidence? How reliable the account? What were the biases embedded in the composition and use of the accounts? What interpretations were made at the time and subsequently? What are the dangers of relying on such accounts as veracious when writing history in the present day?
posted by Miko at 2:47 PM on December 7, 2009


I absolutely agree that this is a problem, but a history that applies such stringent standards is a very thin one indeed, not merely in this area. Doing so seems implausible to me in a Polynesian context where indigenous tradition agrees with the outside observers. The meaning of the phenomenon is clearly politically fraught, its facticity much less so.

If we were to apply Obeyesekere's standards to, say, the existence of child prostitution in 19th century England, could we show that it existed? I don't think so.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:02 PM on December 7, 2009


a history that applies such stringent standards is a very thin one indeed,

Note that this debate doesn't occur so much within the field of history, it occurs in anthropology and archaeology, which are science-based fields which insist on evidentiary arguments.

in a Polynesian context where indigenous tradition agrees with the outside observers

The problem there is that though the tradition might agree, perhaps when you're an insider in those cultural groups, you have learned and accepted a tradition about what your group used to do that might never have been true. Because it can be an adaptive behavior to characterize oneself as cannibalistic when faced with invasion and cultural annilihation, that tradition might have occured as a defense stance. Of course it might not, but as a cultural outsider or even a modern person who is a cultural insider who never participated in the activity themselves, it's truly impossible to tell - unlike with many many other behaviors which are observable and well documented.

If we were to apply Obeyesekere's standards to, say, the existence of child prostitution in 19th century England, could we show that it existed? I don't think so.

We can't show that it existed, because we can't travel in time to witness it ourselves. History has to accept that our understanding of the past changes constantly based on evidence and can be erroneous. But we could build a strong and convincing argument that it existed, because there would be a preponderance of evidence, and this is how historical arguments are made.

Historians rarely view a single document as a repository of The Truth about an event, because for all the obvious reasons history is full of unreliable narrators. It is always and entirely legitimate in academic history to question the veracity of individual texts as relative to the facts. But a preponderance of documents, in the aggregate, makes an extremely strong case that child prostitution existed. One would expect to find documentary evidence in court records, tax records, records of doctors and sanitoriums, diaries and journals, letters, account books, newspaper editorials and stories (especially where violent crime occurred in association with prostitution), reformist screeds, etc. In the case of child prostitution especially, some of the strongest evidence comes from the documentary and artifact history of the reform movement that sought to end prostitution by developing child welfare as a concept. It's not any one account that "proves" child prostitution existed, it's the combined power of many accounts created by many different witnesses over a period of time and in an array of formats that creates a preponderance of evidence that this phenomenon existed. Cannibalism simply doesn't have anywhere near as strong a paper trail.

I understand that you aren't leaping at the idea of questioning cannibalism, because it's a deeply entrenched narrative and who knows, it might have happened somewhere. But the evidence has yet to accumulate to comprise an overpowering case (documentary or scientific) that it ever happened. That's why I characterized it as an academic debate - it takes place primarily within the methods of specific disciplines, who look on these things differently and require their own conditions to be satisfied before making a truth claim. The historical (documentary) evidence for cannibalism is suggestive, but as yet really not powerful enough to be conclusive.
posted by Miko at 1:02 PM on December 8, 2009


I understand that you aren't leaping at the idea of questioning cannibalism, because it's a deeply entrenched narrative and who knows, it might have happened somewhere.

The evidence tends to suggest it did, unless you've fallen in love with the idea that's it's an invention; I would love to see you try to tell Ranganui Walker he's full of shit.
posted by rodgerd at 9:42 PM on December 8, 2009


Miko, even Obeyesekere says ritual consumption occurred: I have found the relevant passage on Google Books. (I can't figure out how to link directly to the page, but it's p 107 of "Cannibal talk: the man-eating myth and human sacrifice in the South Seas"). Clearly our different attitudes to what constitutes reliable accounts of the past can't be resolved by this, but here we have one of the chief proponents of the idea that Polynesian cannibalism was exaggerated by European myth-making acknowledging that there was a traditional practice, albeit a rare one of ritual character.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:45 PM on December 8, 2009


unless you've fallen in love with the idea that's it's an invention;

I'm presenting the idea that there's a legitimate debate on the topic.
posted by Miko at 6:57 AM on December 9, 2009


"Pages 27 to 258 are not part of this preview" - oh well.
posted by Miko at 6:59 AM on December 9, 2009


I think it's a legitimate debate too, but I don't find both sides equally convincing.

That's weird that you can't get that page via preview -- that's how I found it! Ah well.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:28 PM on December 9, 2009


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