I eat cannibals, it's incredible, you bring out the animal in me, I eat cannibals
November 27, 2003 1:06 PM   Subscribe

Cannibalism was widespread and routine. Citing archaeological evidence and recent findings in molecular biology, archaeologist Timothy Taylor, author of The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death, says that cannibalism has been the norm in the past, and the more interesting question is why particular societies gave it up. (Previous discussions of cannibalism here and here.)
posted by homunculus (9 comments total)
"Ooh! A head bag! Those are chock full of...heady goodness!
posted by davidmsc at 1:21 PM on November 27, 2003

...the more interesting question is why particular societies gave it up.

posted by Katemonkey at 2:50 PM on November 27, 2003

Props for the 80's song reference in the title!
posted by Asparagirl at 3:21 PM on November 27, 2003

1st! to use the word *Grok* in this thread!
posted by Trik at 3:26 PM on November 27, 2003


I'm still kind of dubious about the whole cannibalism thing. As someone noted a while back, researchers have the habit of visiting tribe 'X' and asking if they are cannibals.

Their response: "We aren't cannibals, but tribe 'Y' is."

Later, when asked, tribe 'Y' replies: "We aren't cannibals, but tribe 'X' is."

So they note the discovery of TWO tribes of cannibals.
posted by kablam at 6:29 PM on November 27, 2003

Wow. Opposing spins.

>... the Australian government's suppression of funerary cannibalism in the Fifties, seems to have been a desire on the part of the indigenous population to be reincarnated as affluent white people. (From FPP link.)

>Government discouragement of the practice of cannibalism led to a continuing decline in the disease, which has now mostly disappeared. (From Katemonkey's link.)

Somewhere I read that native peoples here ate their enemies after capture (and torture) to gain their courage. It seems intuitively safer to eat battle-dead than sick-dead which (digestive-tract design arguments aside) is why the consequences were so bad when modern-day farmers feed their livestock their sick-dead be-hooven brethren.
posted by philfromhavelock at 6:39 PM on November 27, 2003

notes from afu: A review of The Man-Eating Myth and a response to a response.
posted by donth at 6:49 PM on November 27, 2003

This is interesting. Thanks.

It strikes me, though, that there are plenty of problems in Taylor's argument, not least of which is that it's basically Marxist. First off in trying to explain why cannibalism stopped, he identifies a shift to burial rather than eating the dead as being instrumental. But we shouldn't, he says, stretch this tradition back too far in time. Middle- and upper-paleolithic burials weren't typical, but rare and singular rituals -- 'burials as ostracism', whereby social outcasts were scapegoated as a way of cementing 'social cohesion'. (It seems to me he's thinking mainly of middle- and upper-paleolithic European cave burials, and then generalizing to all hunting and gathering populations, and in turn puts them in a line of unbroken cultural and economic continuity with Homo habilis and even chimpanzees. Worse, he attributes this need for 'social cohesion' to the possible conflict between anatomically-modern humans and Neanderthals, which means he's thinking in epic terms.)

In hunting and gathering economies, he says, access to adequate nutrition was so marginal that all groups would have to recycle their dead as food:

It would have been a big luxury for our ancestors to leave 50 or 60 kilograms of meat lying around when trying to survive in a tough environment.

But then, you get the negation: with the epochal shift to agriculture (the revolution in the means of food production) suddenly farmers can afford to put human meat aside:

With farming came a certain pride in displaying a life of plenty. Human burials and cremations were (and are) acts of conspicuous consumption

This is an ideal type, and it looks like his model might be the farming communities of the ancient Near East. He's just universalized it, and placed in (false) succession to his previous ideal-typical hunting and gathering model. (And just how buried bodies are 'on display' when they're hidden underground beats me, but there you go.)

Another problem I have with this is that 'conspicuous consumption' is a way of making a class distinction. (Or, at least, that's how the concept was first formulated.) Is Taylor really proposing that a group of farmers got together and started practising inhumation to differentiate themselves from some form of contemporary, cannibalistic underclass? And since he maintains that burial is still a form of conspicuous consumption, is this still true?

So the invention of the concept of land ownership, the shift to a different mode of economy, determines the end of cannibalism, and even, the shift from a cyclical view of time to a linear one (even though certain other historical anthropologists, using similarly schematic arguments, place such a shift at the end of the middle ages or even later).

There's so much that Taylor doesn't take into account (though, I guess, he is writing for the Telegraph). Firstly, he assumes that hunting and gathering economies are universally on some kind of starvation-line, and that agricultural societies are superior, nutritionally. But wouldn't the success of hunters and gatherers vary according to environment? And wouldn't farmers be prone to famine in times of drought or crop failure? And what about the evidence that many hunting and gathering societies were actually better off nutritionally than farmers, who would be necessarily limited to a much smaller range of foods?

Secondly, in his economic reductionalism, he seems to assume that the transition to 'modern' burial practices and the invention of 'the world of ancestors' came about only with the transition to farming. But what about Australian Aborigines, who practised both inhumation and, on occasion, cremation, from an early date, and certainly had a 'world of ancestors', yet never had agriculture? (Another result of his materialist framework is that he seems to think that genealogies can only come about when there's a physical (and visible) sequence of gravemarkers, which is clearly untrue.)

Thirdly, it seems to me that his argument suffers because so many of the societies he names as either ritually or systematically cannibalistic -- Fijians; Aztecs; Anastazi -- were intensive agriculturalists. If farming supposedly brought about a means to ending cannibalism, why did these cultures that combined cannibalism with sophisticated agriculture continue to exist?

His argument's vigorous and engaging, but it seems to me that the stadial, materialist view of history it's wedded to make it a very limited one. It seems best able to cope with the middle and upper Paleolithic in Europe. Why not leave it there? Why does he feel the need to generalize to the entire planet?
posted by Sonny Jim at 10:06 PM on November 27, 2003

I used to bring this issue up with a lot of my West African friends. Everybody there says "We weren't cannibals, but that other tribe was..." Except that the basic word for "victory" or "winning" in most west african (Kwa family) languages is "to eat". You beat an enemy, well, in Yoruba ( for just one example) is "mo jé è" or" I ate him."

Of course Eat my flesh, drink my blood (John 6:51-56 for you Bible concurrence obsessives) makes me want to go out for some burgers!
posted by zaelic at 5:10 PM on November 28, 2003

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