A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is there really such a thing as cannibalism?

September 23, 1988

Dear Cecil:

I was just reading about those boat people in Southeast Asia who had to resort to cannibalism to survive and it reminded me of something I heard once. Is it true that cannibalism was outlawed because people developed laughing sickness afterward and died by literally busting a gut?

Cecil replies:

Let's take this step-by-step. Number one, forget about laughing sickness. It's possible to die laughing, a topic I have addressed in the past, but that's not the disease you allegedly get from people eating. Most likely you're thinking of kuru, a fatal neurological ailment characterized by trembling. From 1957 to 1977 kuru was epidemic among certain New Guinea tribes and was suspected of being contracted by eating human flesh. But cannibalism had been outlawed long before.

The question you should have asked, if you don't mind my saying so, is whether cannibalism (or anthropophagy, as we intellectual snobs like to call it) occurs on a systematic basis at all. In a 1979 book called The Man-Eating Myth, anthropologist William Arens argues that cannibalism is the equivalent of an urban legend: lots of researchers say they've heard about it, but hardly anybody has actually seen it happen.

Arens does not deny the occurrence of cannibalism in survival situations, as with the boat people or those guys whose plane crashed in the Andes in 1972. But he says there is no proof it has ever taken place anywhere routinely. Most accounts by early explorers are so larded with patent nonsense that no credence can be placed in them. Reports by contemporary anthropologists, which rely heavily on hearsay, aren't much better.

What is common, Arens believes, is not cannibalism but belief in cannibalism, spurred by the mixture of horror and fascination man eating has always inspired. Many cultures have built up a considerable mythology around cannibalism — consider the Christian notion of consuming the body and blood of Christ. Explorers and anthropologists heard non-Western versions of such legends and made the mistake of taking them literally.

In some cases, I should point out, the mistake was no accident. Stories about cannibalism in the Caribbean spread in part because Spanish kings allowed only cannibal tribes to be enslaved. Naturally this inspired the conquistadors to declare just about every inhabitant of the New World guilty.

Cannibalism stories arise for a variety of reasons. A people may accuse its enemies of cannibalism (and often incest) to demonstrate its superiority: we're civilized, they're savages. One recalls accusations that Jews drank the blood of Christians; many Africans today believe Europeans drink blood. A tribe may confess to having practiced cannibalism in the indefinite past as a way of saying, look how far we've come. In the African equivalent of witchcraft trials, a few unlucky souls might confess to cannibalism under torture just as women here and in Europe confessed to sorcery.

Even prehistoric cannibalism cannot be regarded as a sure thing. A number of archaeologists have reported finding human bones showing the cut marks and breakage characteristic of food refuse, but these may represent isolated instances of survival cannibalism. There is little evidence to suggest that man eating was customary in the Stone Age.

In the scientific community reaction to Arens's book has been sharply divided. A few people liken him to the nuts who claim the mass slaughter of Jews and others during World War II never happened. But the more common view is that while routine cannibalism may not be entirely unknown, its frequency has probably been greatly exaggerated. Many now believe, for instance, that New Guinea natives are not cannibals and that kuru is spread by contact with corpses during funeral preparations, although there is still some argument about this. Cannibalism may yet join witchcraft on the dustheap of history.

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