1902 Encyclopedia > Cannibalism


CANNIBALISM, the eating of human flesh by men. This practice has existed from the most ancient times, and has given rise to descriptive terms such as Gr. GREEK (Lat. anthropophagus), Anglo-Sax. man-aeta, Eng. man-eater. Since the discovery of the New World, the name of the Caribs of the West India Islands, recorded by Columbus under the Latinized forms Canibales or Caribales, has come into popular use as a generic term for man-eaters, cannibals.

Man being by nature carnivorous as well as frugivorous, and human flesh being not unfit for human food, the question first arises why mankind generally have not only avoided it, but have looked with horror on exceptional individuals and races addicted to cannibalism. It is evident on consideration that both emotional and religious motives must have contributed to bring about this prevailing state of mind. Simple association of thoughts causes the remains of a dead kinsman or friend to be treated with respect and tenderness, as may be seen from the conduct of some of the rudest races. Acting in another way, the same ideal association attaches the horror of death to anything con-nected with the dead, so that many tribes will avoid the mention of a dead man’s name, and will even abandon his hut, and destroy the furniture he has used; this sentiment must tend to preserve the corpse from violation. More-over, the religious doctrine that the soul outlives the body, continuing in ghostly shape to visit the living, and retain-ing a certain connection with the mortal remains it once inhabited, has evidently led the survivors to propitiate this honoured and dreaded spirit by respectful disposal of the corpse. Taking this combination of causes into consideration, it is readily understood why aversion to canni-balism must be taken as a rule established at a very early stage of culture, and we have only to consider what causes have from time to time led to its infraction. The principal of these have been the pressure of famine, the fury of hatred, and sometimes even a morbid kindness, with certain motives of magic and religion, to which must be added the strong tendency of cannibalism, once started in any of these ways, to develop a confirmed appetite which will afterwards be indulged for its own sake.

I. Famine.—The records of shipwrecks and sieges prove that famine will sometimes overcome the horror of canni-balism among men of the higher nations. Thus it is not surprising that savages, from their want of food adapted for storing as well as from their reckless improvidence, should in severe climates be often driven to this extremity. For example, it is known that the miserable natives of Tierra del Fuego, when starving in Winter, would throttle and devour the oldest woman of the party; when asked why they did not rather kill their dogs, they replied, "Dog catch otters!" (Fitzroy, Voy. of Adventure and Beagle., vol. ii. p. 183). For accounts of cannibalism and murder under stress of hunger in Australia see Salvado, Memorie dell’ Australia, p. 240; Waitz, Anthropologie der Naturvölker, vol. vi. p. 749 ; among American tribes, Bancroft, Native Races of Pacific States, vol. i. p. 120; Back, Exp. to Great Fish River, p. 227; Waitz, vol. iii. p. 89; in Polynesia, Ellis, Polynesian Researches, vol. i. p. 359; Nlartin, Mariner’s Tonga Islands, vol. i. p. 116.

II. Fury or Bravado.—The North American Indian phrases as to eating the flesh and drinking the blood of their enemies are not to be taken as mere metaphor, but as referring to acts really done. There is even an Iroquois legend of a dialogue between the Manitu (Great Spirit) and a warrior who defends the eating of slain enemies as satisfying at once hunger and revenge (Crèvecoeur, Journey in Pennsylvania; Klemm, Allgemeine Culturgeschichte, vol. ii. p. 28). For actual details of this ferocious custom see Schoolcraft, Indian Tribes, vol. iii. p. 242; Hennepin, vol. ii. p. 159 ; J. G. Muller, Amerikanische Urreligionen, p. 145; Waitz, vol. iii. p. 159. Among the Polynesians, there is similar evidence of warriors devouring the flesh and drinking the blood of the slain enemy, where the purpose seems clearly that of inspiring terror and gratifying vengeance. (See Ellis, Polynesian Researches, vol. i. p. 309; Turner, Polynesia, p. 194; Waitz, vol. vi. p. 158.)

III. Morbid Affection.—Cases of the dead being devoured by relatives and friends (especially children by parents) from a sentiment of affection are recorded among low savage tribes, see Spix and Martins, Reise in Brasilien, vol. ii. p. 692; Angas, Savage Life in Australia, &c., vol. i. p. 73 ; Howitt, Impressions of Australia, p. 134; Gerland, Aussterben der Naturvölker, p. 66. Such accounts are not, however, numerous, and sometimes, at least, may properly belong to other classes. The most remarkable is the often-quoted passage of Herodotus (iv. 26), describing the funeral feasts of the Issedones of Central Asia, where the relatives ate the body of the deceased with other meat, the skull being set in gold and preserved; these were sacred rites done in honour of the dead. As lately as the 13th century, William of Ruysbruck was told that the people of Tibet had till recently kept up this custom of eating their deceased parents, and still used their skulls as drinking-cups (Rubruquis in Pinkerton’s Coll. of Voyages, vol. vii. p. 54).

IV. Magic.—Few notions belonging to primitive savage magic are more intelligible or more widely spread than the belief that the qualities of any animal eaten will pass into the eater. This motive naturally leads to cannibalism (see Stanbridge, in Trans. Ethnological Soc., vol. i. p. 289), especially in war, where the conqueror eats part of the slain enemy with the avowed purpose of making himself brave. This idea is found among the natives of Australia (see Macgillivray, Voyage of Rattlesnake, vol. i. p. 152, vol. ii. p. 6), and not less distinctly in New Zealand (Ellis , vol. i. p. 358); among the North American Indians, when warriors would devour the flesh of a brave enemy, and particularly the heart as the seat of courage (Keating, Long’s Expedition, vol. i. p. 102) ; also in Ashantee (J. L. Wilson, Western Africa, p. 168). An English merchant in Shanghai,,during the Taeping siege, met his Chinese servant carrying the heart of a rebel, which he was taking home to eat to make him brave (Tylor, Early History of Mankind, p. 133). The imagined value of human flesh in giving magical powers to the eater is known to the savage world both in Australia and America (Eyre, Central Australia, vol. ii. pp. 255, 329; Angas, vol. i. p. 123; Keating, vol. i. p. 103 ; Waitz, vol. iii. p. 159, vol. vi. p. 748). This idea even holds a place in the more cultured magical tradiLions of Asiatic and European nations (see Gerland, p. 66; Schaafhausen, in Archiv fürAnthropologie, vol. iv. p. 217).

V. Religion.—One of the strongest reasons for consider-ing anthropophagy as having widely prevailed in pre-historic ages is the fact of its being deeply ingrained in savage and barbaric religions, whose gods are so often looked upon as delighting in human flesh and Wood. The flesh of sacrificed human victims may even serve to provide cannibal feasts. The understood meaning of these rites may be either that the bodies of the victims are vicariously consumed by the worshippers, or that the gods themselves feed on the spirits of the slain men, their bodies being left to the priests and people. Thus in Fiji, "of the great offerings of food, native belief apportions merely the soul thereof to the gods, who are described as being enormous eaters; the substance is consumed by the wor-shippers. Cannibalism is a part of the Fijian religion, and the gods are described as delighting in human flesh" (T. Williams, Fiji and the Fijians, vol. i. p. 231). In Mexico, the anthropophagy which prevailed was distinctly religious in its origin and professed purpose. That the primary meaning of the human sacrifice was to present victims to their deities is shown by the manner in which the sacrificing priest, who tore out the heart, offered it to the sun, and afterwards went through ceremonies of feeding the idol with the heart and blood. It was the Aztec worship of the war-god Huitzilopochtli which brought on the enormous prevalence of sacrifices of prisoners; to obtain supplies of such captives became a motive for frequent wars; and it was the limbs of these victims which were eaten in the sacrificial feasts that formed part of the festivals. (For particulars and authorities see Prescott, Conquest of Mexico ; Bancroft, vol. ii.; Waitz, vol. iv.) In Africa, also, canni-balism has in some cases evidently a sacrificial character (see Lander, Records, vol. ii. p. 250; T. J. Hutchinson, Ten Years among Ethiopians, p. 62, &c.)

VI. Habit.—The extent to which anthropophagy has been carried among some nations is, no doubt, mainly due to the indulgence of the appetite once aroused. In such cases this reason is openly avowed, or some earlier motive remains rather in pretext than in reality, or the practice is justified on the ground of ancestral custom. It seems, for instance, that the cannibal feasts of old Mexico had become in themselves acceptable to the people, and that we must refer the sickening horrors of Fijian anthropophagy more to sensual gratification than to any religious motive. Among conspicuous cannibal races may be mentioned the semi-civilized Battas of Sumatra, whose original instiga-tion to eating their enemies may Lave been warlike ferocity, but who are described as treating human flesh as a delicacy, and devouring not only war-captives but criminals, slaves, and, according to one story, their aged kinsfolk (Junghuhn, Batta-länder; Marsden, Hist. of Sumatra, p. 390; see also Wuttke, Geschichte des Heidenthums, vol. i. p. 172; Fried-mann in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 1871, p. 313). Canni-balism assumes its most repulsive form where human flesh is made an ordinary article of food like other meat. This state of things is not only mentioned in past times in descriptions of West Africa, where human flesh was even sold in the market (see Pigafetta, Regnum Congo, in De Bry; Wuttke, vol. i. p. 171), but still continues among the Monbuttu of Central Africa, whose wars with neighbouring tribes are carried on for the purpose of obtain-ing human flesh, the bodies of the Plain being dried for transport, while the living prisoners are driven off like cattle (Schweinfurth, Heart of Africa, and in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, vol. v. p. 9). Where cannibalism for its own sake becomes popular among a warlike people, its effect in thinning population, and even in exterminating weak tribes, becomes perceptible. This subject has been investigated by Gerland (Aussterben der Naturvölker, p. 61).

As to the history of anthropophagy, the most interesting question is whether at any early period it was ever a general habit of the human race. This has been debated on the evidence of prehistoric human remains (see Schaaf-hausen, ubi supra, p. 264; Proceedings of Congresses of Pre-historic Archaeology, Paris and Copenhagen. It has been well argued that had the men of the quaternary period been cannibals, we should find the bones generally cracked for the marrow like those of beasts, which is not the case (Le Hon, L’Homme Fossile, p. 68) also that, as regards the ancient people of the shell-mounds, had they eaten their own species they would have thrown the human bones into the rubbish heaps with those of beasts and fishes (Lubbock, Prehistoric Times, p. 232). The discovery of some few ancient human remains, the state of which seems to indicate that the flesh had been eaten, may perhaps be taken to show that prehistoric savages were in this respect like those of modern times, neither free from cannibalism nor universally practising it, During later ages, it may have even increased rather than diminished with the growth of population,—its greatest excesses being found among high savage tribes or nations above the savage level. But with the rise of civilization to its middle and upper levels, it is more and more kept down by the growing sense of the dignity of man, and eventually disappears, as we may hope,rrevocably. (E. B. T.)

The above article was written by Edward Burnett Tylor, LL.D., D.C.L., F.R.S., Professor of Anthropology, Oxford University; Keeper of the University Museum since 1883; author of Anahuac, Mexico and the Mexicans; Researches into the Early History of Mankind; Primitive Culture; Anthropology; and The Natural History of Religion.

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