Cannibalism and Archaeology

Eating the Body

Cannibalism is one of the most sensational topics in both archaeology and social anthropology and yet incontestable claims for its existence have proved elusive. The case has even been made for its non-existence except as a mythic construct of the colonial mind in defining 'otherness', while the colonized have also accused Europeans of cannibalism. Indeed, one of the clearest cases is the sixteenth- to eighteenth-century English and European practice of consuming as medicine powdered human bones, pieces of mummy (mumia), human bone marrow and blood; most extraordinarily, in Sweden and Denmark the warm blood of beheaded criminals was drunk as a cure for a variety of disorders. It is also recorded as being ingested by epileptics in parts of nineteenth-century Denmark. One of the indirect pieces of evidence has come from the investigation of the transmission of a viral disease, kuru, among women and children of the Fore of Papua New Guinea, which appears to be associated with removal of the brain and, supposedly, cannibalism of the dead.


A basket once used to present a Fijian chief with cooked human flesh. Cannibalism persisted until modern times in Melanesia and Polynesia.

The competitive ABUTU exchanges, in which modern Kalauna or Goodenough Islanders (Papua New Guinea) challenge each other to present the largest gifts of garden produce, began as a ritual to satisfy the appetite of Malaveyovo, a voracious cannibal who is said to have roamed the interior of the island. The islanders believed that if they gave Malaveyovo enough vegetables to eat, he would not need to eat humans. Cannibalism occurs in mythology throughout Oceania and is characterized by a strong theme of intersexual hostility. In Papua New Guinea, many stories revolve around the male hero pursuing a woman, or a game animal, to a region beyond that of human habitation, only to find himself in a land of cannibals. His successful attempts to extricate himself from the clutches of such cannibals constitute the heart of these myths. In Polynesia, tales of cannibalistic women are known from Tahiti and the Chatham Islands just east of New Zealand. One Tahitian Myth recounts the story of the female ancestress "Rona long-teeth", whose daughter Hina grew  into a lovely young woman and fell in love with a man called Monoi. Rona, however, trapped Monoi and ate him. Hina then enlisted the aid of the 'hairy chief' No'a-huruhuru to put an end to the rapacious cannibal.

Regarding themselves as "the fierce people", the Yanomami explain that the blood of Periboriwa (the Moon Spirit) spilled over the earth, changing into men as it hit the ground. Born of blood, the Yanomami for this reason conceive of themselves as naturally fierce, and continually make war on each other. Cannibalism was a widespread feature of Amerindian ritual belief , and various forms are historically well attested throughout South America.


Anthropological explanations of cannibalism

As Sahlins notes, cannibalism is always symbolic even when it is real. Other than those situations of disaster and starvation, cannibalism is rarely just gastronomic. The case of the Miyanmin of Papua New Guinea may be one exception, where blood feuding is thought to have turned into a quest for human meat. We can dismiss as unsubstantiated Levi-Strauss's claim that cannibalism formed part of a symbolic gastronomic opposition in which kin were boiled and outsiders were roasted. Cultural ecological research in the 1960s and 1970s focused on the nutritional value, and adaptive potential, of eating human fiesh. Aztec nobles' eating of limbs from human sacrifices, observed by the conquistadores, has been interpreted by Harner and Harris as an adaptive means of acquiring protein in an environmentally exhausted ecosystem even though most sacrifices were carried out at the time of the harvest when food was plentiful. For Harner and Harris, the symbolic motivations of rebirth for the eaten and the divine nature of human flesh were simply rationalizations of a latent ecological materialism - symbolism and culture 'covering up' for meat protein hunger a position rejected as patently absurd and ethnocentric by others.

Most social anthropologists prefer to explain the phenomenon in terms of notions such as symbolic communion, acquisition of the deceased's prowess, release of the soul, revenge or punishment of the deceased's ghost. It is never just to do with eating but is primarily a medium for the maintenance, regeneration and even the foundation of the social order. Endocannibalism (eating of kin) may constitute funerary rites and form part of the transmission of ancestral essence across the generations. Traditionally Gimi women in Papua New Guinea ate the flesh of their dead menfolk to prevent it from rotting in the ground, to free the deceased's spirit so that it might rejoin the ancestral forest spirits, and to exact revenge for a mythic scenario when women's penis-like flutes were stolen by men who, in the process, caused women to bleed menstrually. Exocannibalism (eating of strangers) is rarely an aspect of funerary rites other than after a revenge killing in response to a death. Both practices are documented for Amazonian Indian groups such as the Ache or Guayaki, though the knowledge and practice of cannibalism is hidden as far as possible from the probings of anthropologists and other outsiders.57 Finally, the essential ritual of Christianity is charged with symbolic cannibalism. Transubstantiation is the doctrine whereby the wine and the bread which Catholic worshippers take during communion are considered to become the blood and flesh of Christ after their blessing.


Archaeological evidence of cannibalism

Like ethnography, archaeology is one of those fields in which the otherness of the savage and primitive is reified through claims of cannibalism, thereby serving to reinforce selfidentities of civilized superiority. The popular imagination, as reflected by newspaper interest, is always ready to devour stories on archaeological discoveries of cannibalism.

There has been something of a recent revival in cannibalistic interpretations from archaeological evidence. At the cave site of Fontbregoua in south-eastern France, human bones among Neolithic deposits of butchered animal bones exhibit the same cut marks, while long bones are broken as if to extract marrow, all in the absence of carnivore tooth marks. Modifications of human bones found in deposits of the Pueblo II/III period (AD 1000-1300) at Chaco Canyon and Mancos - sites belonging to the Anasazi culture of the south-western USA - have been considered as revealing probable cases of violent death followed by cannibalism. Criteria that archaeologists have used in identifying cannibalism from the study of human remains include:

 brain exposure
 facial mutilation
 burnt bone
 a pattern of missing elements
 greenstick-splintering of long bone shafts exposing marrow   cavities
 cut marks
 bone breakage
 anvil or hammerstone abrasions
 many missing vertebrae
 fragment end-polishing (deriving from cooking in a coarse ceramic pot).

No single instance is judged sufficient to provide evidence of cannibalism and all criteria have to befflet. For example, detailed taphonomic studies of Neanderthal bones previously thought to be indicative of cannibalism, especially the burnt and split bones from Krapina and the damaged skull from Guattari Cave on Monte Circeo, do not support the cannibalism hypothesis. Those archaeological cases that do qualify all appear to involve aggressive cannibalism, inflicted on defeated outsiders, which is perhaps riot surprising since compassionate cannibalism, of the sort practiced by kin during funerary rites, may be considered less likely to result in such extensive bone modification.

Cannibalism is, therefore, extremely difficult to demonstrate archaeologically beyond doubt; absolute proof requires the identification of human tissue or bone in human coprolites. The difficulty of proving the existence of cannibalism from archaeological remains is, on one level, methodological. But there is also an ideological problem, outlined above, in that the cultural baggage of chauvinist and racist attitudes to the 'primitive' is so strong in popular perceptions that archaeologists are often at pains to refute such claims because they are deeply reluctant to bolster unquestioned attitudes of discrimination which, in the west, are centuries old. Until cannibalism can be understood as simply one means among many of transforming the dead corpse, rather than the monstrous bogey so repellent to the civilized mind, such sensationalizing stereotyping will continue to be reinforced.


Panche Hadzi-Andonov , AAI
 Copyright 2000 

All rights reserved.
Revised: August 21, 2000