Tag Archives: cannibalism

Cannibalism by Bill Schutt

Biologist and author Bill Schutt has a new book out: Cannibalism: A perfectly natural history.

He and I talked about cannibalism on Ikonokast: Click here to check it out! It is was a fun interview, and Bill’s book is excellent.

See also:

vizziniYou Come From Cannibals
Among Cannibals
Cannibal, Native, Indigenous
On Cannibalism and Jameson

So, what do you think, are all mammals cannibals, or is it mainly the Sicilians? Check out the podcast.

On cannibalism and Jameson

A recent twitter conversation prompted me to dig up some old posts on cannibalism, and maybe a few memories of my time in Central Africa.

The twitter conversation concerned a story in which it is claimed that James Jameson, heir to the Jameson Irish whiskey empire, bought a slave girl (for the price of six handkerchiefs) in order to watch her be eviscerated and eaten by cannibals, and in particular, so that he could make some nice watercolor painting of the event. Apparently this is going around the internet.

If this is true, which as I will argue in a moment is not actually the case, then there are two things we would draw from the story. First, there were, in the late 18th century, villages of cannibals in Africa. Second, Jameson was a total jerk.

There are a few things you need to know before evaluating this story. First, it is true that almost all Americans and Europeans in the 18th and 19th century who had an interest in Africa knew with a high degree of certainty that African were, generally, cannibalistic, even if not all of them were fully fledged cannibals. This presumption, however, is untrue. It is simply something that people believed as part of the prevailing very racist attitude about Africa. This applied to other places as well. It was assumed that the natives around the world were cannibals, and we even see the use of the term “cannibal” being used here and there interchangeably with “native.”

The second thing you need to know is that nineteenth century traveler’s accounts and other documents are notoriously inaccurate, and often designed for a purpose other than to convey the truth, such as self aggrandizement or to disparage rivals, or, of course, to further the racist trope or support colonialism.

The third thing you need to know is that by the time Jameson got to the village in question, the mainly middle to later 19th century practice of slave trading was in full swing in the interior of Central Africa, mainly as part of a larger slave and ivory trade focuses on the Indian Ocean and probably North Africa. So, there were villages of slave traders, some of whom were really shady characters, and the village Jameson visited was almost certainly one of them. This was during the period of colonialism in the Congo when there was a full scale genocide starting out, orchestrated bv the King of Belgium and utilizing such notable players as the famous Henry Morton Stanley. So, if there were gruesome murders and even cannibalism, this would not have been normal for the local cultures.

Here’s the third thing you need to know. Even though it is very hard to find confirmed cases of cannibalism in the historic record for Central Africa, the idea of cannibalism is widespread. But you have to understand this in a cultural context. To help you understand this, I’m going to switch for a moment to the United States.

In the US, we have serial killers. For every actual serial killer, there are probably a dozen stories about serial killers, some based on actual serial killers, some just made up books and movies. We seem to be very interested in serial killers. We teach our children to avoid strangers because some of them might be bad people, and the idea of a stranger being a serial killer (as opposed to, say, a rapist or something) is absolutely part of that concern. So, in the US we fear serial killers, amuse ourselves with stories of serial killers, and even teach our children to avoid them.

So, does this mean that Americans are serial killers? In Africa, there are many many stories of cannibals, many traditional Africans fear cannibalism and think it is fairly common and consider this to be something to avoid and instruct children about. There are probably many more actual serial killers in the US than there are cannibals in Africa. Of course, some of the American serial killers have been cannibals, and that may be the case in Africa too. But the point is, these two things — serial killing and cannibalism — are sort of real but in fact very very rare, and are blown way out of proportion by the cultures in the two regions.

Now, the fourth thing you need to know is this. The Jameson story is known from two places. One is an account written by someone who probably wanted to damage Jameson (they had a thing), later promoted by a major rival (HM Stanley himself). The other comes from Jameson’s documents assembled and conveyed by his widow after his death.

In the first story, the one written by the Jameson haters, Jameson asks to have a demonstration of cannibalism and offers six handkerchiefs, which sounds like a cheap price but that’s only because you don’t know the value of cloth in late 19th century Central Africa (they would have actually been fairly valuable) to buy a young girl, a slave, so she could be eviscerated, butchered, and eaten while he painted the process.

In the second version of the story, from Jameson (indirectly), something like this did happen, but he did not knowingly pay for a slave (but there were handkerchiefs involved), a girl was killed and butchered (but there is no clear evidence she was eaten, I believe). It was not done at his request, he was aghast and horrified, and also, it all happened very quickly and given the situation he was powerless to stop it.

More recent write-ups of this event seem to make the assumption that the more gruesome version of the story is real, and in those write-ups we see lame excuses for things like there has never been any evidence that any paintings were every produced or existed in any form.

I know a guy who told me he was with the Zaire police when they were called to a village run by a cannibalistic chief. They found body parts everywhere and arrested the chief. He also told me that this people come from a location to the northeast of where he lived and were scattered to the four winds by a nuclear explosion. And he told me a lot of other things.

When I was living near the Rwenzori, this happened. There were rebels up on the mountain at that time. They had been there for years. (Now, they are the government, but that is another story). One day the army went up there to harass them, as they did now and then. A villager, it is said, told the army where to find the rebels. Eventually the army left, and the rebels captured the villagers and …

… well, that part of the story almost certainly happened but the rest is in question ….

… and then killed him and ate him in front of the other villagers, to teach them a lesson. The problem is, isn’t any really good evidence that they killed anybody and even less evidence that anybody ate anybody. But throughout the region, people’s fear of the rebels grew. The cannibalism story works.

I could tell you many more stories like this. I, myself, am a cannibal according to some. (But, honest, I’m not.) People have searched for confirmed cases of cannibalism and found very few. The Jameson story is unbelievable for a number of reasons, but partly plausible given the context of a village of bad guy slave traders. But to assume that it was routine to have “cannibal villages” is incorrect.

Cannibal is real. We see it here and there in the archaeology. But usually it involves eating your ancestors, maybe their ground up bones processed in a respectfully funerary rite. Most cases of “normal” (culturally accepted) cannibalism is probably of those who died on their own or were killed as part of warfare. Other cases are symbolic (like the Christian ritual of eating Jesus Christ and drinking his blood). And, as in discussed in one of the items linked to below, sometimes eating other people is done as a separate event form their death, like when human blood is consumed from an injured person. For medicinal purposes, of course.

As noted, I’ve written about cannibalism and expanded on these themes in a few places. In You come from Cannibals I talk about cannibalism in Classic and European history. In Among Cannibals I talk about the Rwenzori incident in more detail, and talk about cannibalism in other contexts. In Cannibal, Native, Indigenous, I have a little fun with Google N-Gram Viewer.

Enjoy. If that’s what you want to call it!


Other posts of interest:

Also of interest: In Search of Sungudogo: A novel of adventure and mystery, set in the Congo.

You come from Cannibals

A man “lies crumpled on the sand … Behind him a dark trail leads back to the spot from which he has just been dragged. Looking closer, we notice something slightly odd about the figure crouching over the wounded man. His posture does not suggest a doctor attempting to staunch bleeding, or even to check heartbeat or pulse. Look a little closer still, and you may be inclined suddenly to reel back or to close your eyes. The man sprawled at such an odd angle beside the injured [man] has his face pressed against a gaping tear in [his] throat. He is drinking blood fresh from the wound…” Why? Well, to cure his epilepsy, of course. The date is 24 AD, the injured man is a gladiator, and the man drinking the blood must have bribed his way to the front of the line because he’s getting what a lot of other people in Ancient Rome routinely sought. A nice blood meal, for medicinal purposes, of course. Continue reading You come from Cannibals

Among Cannibals

I have lived among Cannibals, according to a lot of people who claim to know. The number of times that the “tribal” people of the Congo have been called cannibals is too great to be counted, most notably in great literature like The Heart of Darkness but most commonly, I suspect, from the pulpit or soap box by those raising money to spread this or that word. Most Europeans and Americans don’t know it, but many people who live in the Congo are quite convinced that the bazunga … the white foreigners … are cannibals. I’ve listened closely to these assertions, made by many individuals, and I’ve lived in both places for considerable time and I can say something about these claims.

They have a case. Continue reading Among Cannibals

You come from Cannibals

A man “lies crumpled on the sand … Behind him a dark trail leads back to the spot from which he has just been dragged. Looking closer, we notice something slightly odd about the figure crouching over the wounded man. His posture does not suggest a doctor attempting to staunch bleeding, or even to check heartbeat or pulse. Look a little closer still, and you may be inclined suddenly to reel back or to close your eyes. The man sprawled at such an odd angle beside the injured [man] has his face pressed against a gaping tear in [his] throat. He is drinking blood fresh from the wound…” Why? Well, to cure his epilepsy, of course. The date is 24 AD, the injured man is a gladiator, and the man drinking the blood must have bribed his way to the front of the line because he’s getting what a lot of other people in Ancient Rome routinely sought. A nice blood meal, for medicinal purposes, of course.

Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires

And that is not the most shocking thing you’ll read if you devour Ricahrd Sugg’s Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. In this scholarly yet macabre book, Sugg documents the practice of consuming or wearing or otherwise messing around with human flesh, skin, fat, brains, and blood as generally recommended by the best and most reputable healers, and as generally practiced by people of means and education, among others. “James I refused corpse medicine; Charles II made his own corpse medicine; and Charles I was made into corpse medicine.” Corpse medicine. Sounds like cannibalism to me!

Suddenly, the Eucharist makes sense. The consumption of human tissue in Europe for quite some time was a primarily Christian practice. Some of the tissues were harvested from the bodies of the freshly executed. Were the fabled crowds gathered to see the bad men hang after something other than a good show? Was it like a drive-through, a buffet, or more of a sit-down affair? Interestingly, though the roots of this tradition go back to the Classical Period, and it was developed to its full science during the Medieval Period, Medical Cannibalism seems to have reached it’s height during the early Renaissance and continued into the Victorian Era, though much reduced in fashion. You have to read this book.

Is cannibalism normal?

In my last essay on Cannibalism (Among Cannibals) I asked if you thought that cannibalism could ever be considered as just one of many of the diverse modes of human behavior, recently abandoned by virtually all societies and thus seen as much odder and demented than it should be viewed. In particular, I was asking about cannibalism where you go and kill someone so you could eat them. The stuff I mention above, from Sugg’s book, seems a bit more like ritual cannibalism where you eat your ancestors, perhaps cremated and calcined and made into a sort of soup, as part of a ritual. So maybe, if you are of European Ancestry, you can keep believing that your people have never really been cannibals. But I’m not so sure. Sucking the blood from the gaping wound of a dying gladiator is probably not what you were thinking as an example of “not demented” or fully ritualized. And, once there is a sufficient demand for human body parts, tissues, and fluids, would you think for a moment that there were not agents who could provide these valuable items in ways that were exactly the same as killing someone so you could eat them … because people were killed, so they could be eaten, then, well, eaten?

No. Sorry. If you are of European Ancestry, you come from Cannibals.

One way to make sense of this all is to consider blood, and bodily fluids in general. These days, in Western society, we know that these things are dangerous. Some people (smart people) carry around portable shields that allow them to give mouth-to-mouth to strangers and not get a disease. Ambulance workers and other first responders routinely don protective materials to avoid contact with fluids. I’m not sure … do mothers still suck the blood from their children’s wounds like they did when I was a kid? Probably not. Do people still suck the blood from their own wounds? (Not counting when you bite your own tongue.) I’m not sure, you tell me. When was the last time you tasted human blood?

Our fear of fluids has gone so far that you can’t get a good piece of red meat out any more unless you go to the highly specialized restaurant’s, where despite the availability of Pittsburgh you will see people ordering “medium” or even, gasp, “well done.”

Given this, the whole idea of paying to suck the blood from the gaping wound of a dying gladiator is enough to put you off your lunch, but I submit that this disgust is a cultural trait that you need not be endowed with. I’m not saying sucking blood is a good thing. I’m just saying that it is a bad thing, to you, because you learned to be that way. And in other times and other places, the distaste for human body parts, tissues, or fluids may not have been routinely learned.

It’s all cultural

And maybe in some cases, quite the opposite may have happened: Such a taste may have been cultivated. And once you’ve got a culture where eating raw human liver or rendered human fat or whatever is seen as a good thing, it is very hard to not define such a culture as “Cannibals.”

So why, then, is it the case that in our Western literature the prevailing notion (over the last couple of centuries) is that dark skinned people living in far off lands are sufficiently cannibalistic (even when they aren’t) that the term “Cannibals” can actually become the primary term by which they are referred (used in much of the literature more often than “Natives”), but French, English Germans, and others who, if of sufficient status, mainstream, and solvent, did it whenever they could but are not thusly labeled?

Because the meaning of the word “cannibal” has almost nothing to do with who eats whom.


See more on Cannibalism