Dec 3, 2003
Anthropophagy, or Cannibalism has been an enduring topic in the debates which surround human culture. The phenomenon of man-eating has been cited in numerous cultural accounts from both ancient and more contemporary sources. The ancient geographer, Strabo, writing about the Irish nearly eighteen hundred years ago is quoted as stating that he has “nothing certain to tell, except that the inhabitants are more savage than the Britons, since they are man-eaters…and since they count it as an honorable thing, when their fathers die, to devour them”. It is pertinent to realise, however, that he adds shortly afterwards that he relays this information “…only with the understanding that I have no trustworthy witness for it.”.
This continuation is important, because it could be said to characterise many of the reports and descriptions of cannibalism over the history of cultural scholarship. Indeed, one critic of those who support the actual existence of cannibalism points out that the striking thing about cannibals is that they have become such a deeply ingrained part of the mythical imagination, and that “like the poor, cannibals are always with us, but happily just beyond the possibility of actual observation”.
Other historians, adventurers and early anthropologists have returned to this popular theme in their works, with varying degrees of reliability and accuracy. There have been few first-hand or eyewitness reports or anthropophagy, although this does not seem to have prevented existing reports from contributing to the mixture of horror and fascination which characterises interest in this grisly subject.
Accompanying this interest in recent years has been a heated debate over the historical and ethnographic accuracy of such reports. Some have sought to dismiss the notion of cannibalism as being nothing more than the product of the overactive colonial imagination, which has become a metaphor for the savage. Others have questioned the fundamental nature of the act, attempting to dissect that which is symbolic from that which is real. On the other side of the debate, the constantly increasing number of detailed reports of cannibal acts as cultural phenomena have been cited as undeniable proof of the cannibalistic act, beyond dissenting mutterings of the bias of cultural imperialism.
But why has cannibalism – or the idea of anthropophagy – been such an enduring motif in cultural history? What is it about this phenomenon which causes such a polarity of opinion? How can the examination of colonial reports of cannibalism add to this discussion? And what is to be learnt from this study? Whose side of the debate is to be believed, at the end of it all?
One first-hand report, from the mid-sixteenth century, by a German seafarer called Hans Staden, has become the centrepiece for this entire debate. After being captured by the Tupinamba, who lived in the Atlantic coastal region of Southern Brazil, and who belonged to the wider Tupi language group, Staden was subsequently held as their captive over a period of just over nine months.
During this time, he witnessed daily life in the village, as well as special rites concerned with the ritual killing and consumption of captives. He, however, did not suffer the misfortune of joining their number, and escaped, returning home to Europe some years later to write his account: The true history and description of a Country of Savages, a Naked and Terrible people, eaters of men’s flesh, who Dwell in the new world called America, Being Wholly unknown in Hesse Both Before and After Christ’s Birth until Two Years Ago, When Hans Staden of Hamberg in Hesse took Personal Knowledge of them and Now Presents His Story in Print. His account has been variously applauded (e.g. by Donald Forsyth) and dismissed (e.g. by William Arens) on counts of both historical and ethnographic accuracy.
In the following pages, the evidence for coastal Tupi cannibalism in the sixteenth century will be considered more fully, as well as the evidence (physical, historical and ethnographic) and controversy which surround the wider debate over anthropophagy in general. In order to consider the evidence for Tupi cannibalism, I believe it is necessary to examine the question from a philosophical perspective as well as from a standpoint of historical accuracy.
To this end, the basic taxonomy of cannibalism will first be explained, along with a brief history of anthropophagy in the cultural imagination. Following this explanation, some of the main arguments of one of the fiercest critics of Staden’s account, William Arens, will be presented, including his theories on the ‘mythical world of anthropophagy’ and the othering process in anthropology as well as in other cultural disciplines.
Subsequently, a more detailed examination of Tupi culture, aided by the research and arguments of those on the side of Staden’s account, will demonstrate that Arens’ dismissal of cannibalism as an actual cultural phenomena is both unrealistic and short-sighted. Finally, the case of Tupi cannibalism will be placed in the wider context of Amazonian cultures for the purpose of comparison.
Like many things in anthropology, the definition of specific types of cannibalism is extensive, yet is also relatively straightforward. Arens describes a model in his 1979 book The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy which combines the taxonomy and the typology of cannibalistic acts.
He outlines the three main classificatory categories for describing cannibalism, which themselves can be seen to share similarities with other classificatory endeavours in anthropology. First, he offers the term endocannibalism, which means the eating of a member of ones own group,or kin. The next term he gives, is exocannibalism, meaning the consumption of an outsider – someone who does not belong to the group. The final classificatory term is autocannibalism which is presumed to be extremely rare, and which denotes eating oneself. In this example, both victim and cannibal are one and the same.
Although many reports of anthropophagy have traditionally fallen into the bracket of exocannibalism, it is likely that the number of instances of this type of phenomena would be pretty evenly balanced with those of endocannibalism, for reasons which will be further explored below. Following this primary definition of terms, Arens then goes on to give three typological subsections, which he suggests can be combined with the classificatory groups mentioned above. These are gastronomic cannibalism (in which human flesh is consumed for taste and/or food value), ritual or magic cannibalism (where the participants aspire to absorb some of the spiritual essence or attribute of the deceased) and survival cannibalism (when the participants resort to normally prohibited behaviour in a crisis situation – e.g. chronic food shortage).
The combination of taxonomy and typology yields much more specific definitions; for example, “gastronomic exocannibalism”, “ritual endocannibalism” or “survival autocannibalism”. There are nine possible permutations of these terms altogether, each of which denotes a separate kind of anthropophagy.
After providing the reader with the aforementioned classifications, Arens protests that, when discussing anthropophagy as well as in other areas of anthropology, the “subject matter is mystified by resorting to a specialized vocabulary”.
In other words, by using a complex system of taxonomy, the layman is excluded from any discussion on the subject. For him, this is further proof of the scholar’s attempts to keep the discussion in the realm of philosophical pondering, and not based in empirical reality and/or evidence.
Thomas Whiffen, a nineteenth century adventurer in the north-west Amazon, gives similar reasons for the consumption of human flesh among tribal groups in that region in the book The North West Amazons: notes of some months spent among cannibal tribes which describes his journeys and cultural encounters. He lists the explanations as being as follows:
1. As a system of vengeance; a method of inflicting the supreme insult on an enemy, by putting the victims on the same level as animals (in accordance with the model suggested in Arens’ book, this would be classified as ritual exocannibalism).
2. As a desire to use ‘waste material’, although anthropophagy is the effect, not the cause of war. Because this stems from the presumption that meat is a scarce resource, this means that is gastronomic exo- or endocannibalism (this explanation could be termed the ‘waste not, want not’ theory of anthropophagy).
3. As part of a desire to adopt some of the characteristics of the dead. (This is ritual endo- or exocannibalism, and could also be encapsulated as the ‘you are what you eat’ approach).
Marshall Sahlins provides further explanations for cannibalism, based on his fieldwork in Fiji, where the phenomena of cannibalism is supported by the direct motives of famous cannibals:
…revenge, a gourmet appreciation of human flesh, political ambition, masculine bravado, fear of the chief or because it is custom: all these and similar motives have been well and truly marked. For all are obviously complimentary to the cultural sense of cannibalism.
Sahlins goes on to make an important statement, pointing out that “Cannibalism is always symbolic, even when it is real”.
What does he mean by this? Sahlins raises the issue that while the distinction between ‘symbolic’ cannibalism and ‘real’ cannibalism is of key importance, the boundaries can be blurred, and the categories may even overlap. A case in point could be the ritual of the Judeo-Christian Eucharist, in which believers partake of small amounts of bread and wine, which on one level symbolise, and on a deeper level are the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This could be defined as symbolic cannibalism, although it is usually not referred to as such by those involved.
Similarly, at the funeral of a member of the Lo Dagga of West Africa, a steer is sacrificed in the name of the deceased and then eaten by kin. The meat is said to be the flesh of the deceased, and not of the animal.
Therefore, the Lo Dagga consumption of steer meat which has undergone a ritual transformation to ‘become’ human flesh, rests on the delicate line between symbolic and real cannibalism. To the outside observer, it is a symbolic act, but the meat remains animal. To the Lo Dagga, however, the act is both symbolic and very real indeed.
Inversely, in cases of ‘real’ cannibalism, one could assume that the classificatory terms which distinguish human flesh from animal flesh could be exchanged in reverse, meaning that human flesh is consumed under the belief that it has ‘become’ animal. However, this assumption is unfounded, and furthermore, is unlikely, since as has been pointed out by many authors;
[i]n many cultures, the human body is potentially the most sacred symbol, so that the act of eating human flesh becomes the most profane act imaginable unless conducted in the context of a highly charged symbolic event.
So we can see that while the eating of human flesh remains one of the strongest and most universal of cultural taboos, breaking it is not a task undertaken lightly. Presently, it will be explained that according to Arens, the breaking of this taboo (in reportage more than in practice) dehumanises the accused on an essential level.
But cannibalism in the popular imagination has not only existed in terms of physical phenomena, but also through the telling of dreams, creation or cultural myths and oral history. This places the act of cannibalism as removed from the ego, and can serve as a “mythic marker in the progress of their own cultural development …[which can involve] postulating the eating of human flesh as a former social stage which has now been abandoned”.
Other scholars, influenced by psychoanalysis have added that “the institutionalized eating of human flesh must be the expression of physically primitive, oral-sadistic impulses”.
It is pointed out that while a number of groups have claimed that cannibalism was practised by their ancestors (whether in a mythical past or in more recent times) it is rare to find a group which has claimed the title of cannibal for themselves. Arens cites this ‘second-hand evidence’ or knowledge as a basic flaw in the investigation of cannibalism as an accepted, institutionalised cultural practice, saying that “[e]vidence of this type is not very substantial when considered in the proper social and cultural context which involves beliefs and accusations only, since no-one has actually owned up to the deed”.
For Arens, however, the discussion of the symbolism (historical or otherwise) of human flesh-eating is not the core of his critique of the study of cannibalism as an anthropological pursuit. Indeed, he states that he is “…dubious about the actual existence of this act as an accepted practice for any time or place”.
His complete dismissal of cannibalism as an existing cultural practice is based on a belief that the fundamental point of interest in such a debate is not whether people practice anthropophagy, but why “the cannibal epithet [has] at one time or another … been applied by someone to every human group”.
His reasoning is that through the debunking of historical and ethnographic accounts of cannibalism, the anthropologist must eventually realise that cannibals have themselves become a metaphor for the savage. He explains that anthropophagical behaviour is often attributed by western anthropologists and historians (as well as by neighbouring societies) to remote cultural groups, who have recently (if at all) come into contact with the developed world. This means that by definition, they must be untouched by Western civilisation, ethics, and so on.
In this way, their living condition could be said to be ‘wild’, ‘savage’, ‘strange’ – meaning undeveloped – the exact opposite of the developed, familiar West, by way of a highly ethnocentric definition. He explains that the construction and maintenance of cultural-boundaries is an “attempt … to create a conceptual order based on differences in a universe of often-competing neighbouring communities … one group can appreciate its own existence more meaningfully by conjouring up others as categorical opposites”
But Arens does not halt his theorising at western civilisation. He adds universality to his notion of great cultural difference – and lack of understanding of that which is different – creating mistrust, fear and sparking the process of ‘othering’.
This, he claims, is the idea that is behind all claims of cannibalism. The charge of cannibalism, he asserts, “denies the accused their humanity ….[by] sweep[ing] them outside the pale of culture and plac[ing] them in a category with animals”. He adds that this must mean that the accused “lack culture because human beings do not eat each other. Eating human flesh succinctly signals an individual or group as non-human in a basic way”.
Hence, it can be seen that while Arens makes the sweeping and erroneous claim that anthropophagy has never existed, he may be right in suggesting that “the common attribution of cannibalism is a rhetorical device used ideologically by one group to assert its moral superiority over another”.
The crux of Arens’ argument about the non-existence of cannibalism is his discreditation of Staden’s famous account of his time spent with the Tupinamba in the 1550s. Donald Forsyth, in his article Three Cheers for Hans Staden makes an attempt to redress the balance, by systematically exposing each of Arens’ arguments as erroneous and/or unproven. In addressing each of Arens’ charges individually, and subsequently deconstructing them through analysis of the textual passages cited from Staden’s work, as well as using other relevant historical data sources, Forsyth contextualises Staden’s experience both historically and culturally. In this way, Forsyth is able to respond to and repudiate Arens’ hollow claims.
One of Arens’ harshest arguments is that since Staden was among the Tupinamba for such a relatively short period of time (less than a year), he cannot be credited as a source of authority on the customs of the Tupinamba. This comes especially in view of the fact that, as Staden himself admits, many of the rites and ritual processes involved with warfare and subsequent killing and eating of captives take place over periods of much longer than a year – in some cases, over nearly entire lifetimes (captives could be given wives – indeed, “conjugal ties with a prisoner were regarded as honorable” – and subsequently live relatively ‘normal’ lives, although knowing that they were under threat of execution at any time).
Arens uses this fact to argue that Staden could not have observed the entire process, and therefore his “source of information is suspect, and so is his narrative”. Forsyth picks Arens up on this point, arguing that:
Such an argument is misleading. If … this same logic were applied to the work of contemporary ethnographers, a description of the “life cycle” in a particular society would be suspect if the ethnographer did not remain in the field for 50 or 60 years to observe the entire process.
Forsyth makes a valid point here, in realising that one need not be witness to an entire chronological process in order to be able to report on it accurately. He explains further that, in the same way as modern ethnographers and anthropologists, Staden’s information could have been obtained by “observing different individuals at different stages in the process or by listening to what informants told him”.
This process of data collection and subsequent collation is one of the keys to anthropological enquiry as we know it today, and as Forsyth points out, it is grossly unfair to cast doubt on Staden’s report on the basis of his methodology.
However, the question of the length of time which Staden spent among the Tupinamba is not the only criticism Arens offers. Among other arguments which attempt to pose Staden’s account of his time spent as a Tupinamba captive as unreliable, Arens raises the issue of plagiarism. Of the several sixteenth and early seventeenth century accounts of Brazilian cannibalism (including Knivet, Nobrega, Lery, Casas, Thevet and Staden himself), Arens argues that there are strong similarities in the description of a certain ritual exchange which occurs between the captive and executioner just before the execution itself takes place. Staden reports that the Tupinamba executioner says to his intended victim “I am he that will kill you, since you and yours have slain and eaten many of my friends,” to which the prisoner is said to reply “When I am dead I shall still have many to avenge my death”.
This ritual exchange is reported in each of the other accounts that Arens compares (Lery (1974), Thevet (1971), Knivet (1906) and Casas (1971)), thereby forcing him to the inevitable conclusion that due to the similarity in dialogue, plagiarism must have occurred. He argues that although
…the presentation of the actual words … lends an aura of authenticity to the events … if similar phrases make their appearance in the accounts of others who put themselves forward as eyewitnesses to similar deeds, then the credibility of the confirmation process diminishes.
However, as should be clear to any reader of these accounts, and as is pointed out by Forsyth, the fact that similarities exist between contemporary reports actually lends credibility to them, since the conversations under scrutiny are in fact “not simply random babblings, but highly ritualized exchanges constrained by custom and belief at the very climax of the ceremony”.
By their very nature, these exchanges would require a measure of ritualised repetition. Arens’ case for the undermining of sixteenth century accounts of Brazilian cannibalism is unfortunately weakened rather than strengthened by this particular criticism.
Forsyth goes on to closely scrutinise the publication dates of each of the cited accounts, further proving that it is highly probable that plagiarism did not take place, while berating Arens for exploiting the reader’s ignorance of the data.
The historical evidence that we have about the coastal Tupinamba in the sixteenth century points to the existence of cannibalism as an institutionalised cultural phenomenon. This evidence is based on two sources of information; the eye-witness accounts of contemporaries who spent time among the Tupinamba, and the analysis and examination of modern ethnographies of communities belonging to the Tupi
This latter source has demonstrated similarities between historical and modern cultures (e.g. Castro de Viveiros’ comparison of Araweté and Tupinamba life), and which themselves may provide clues for understanding Tupinamba cannibalism. One example of a comparison could be that of the liminal state entered by the executioner in Tupinamba culture, directly after performing the ritual execution of a captive. He remains in this state, which may involve not moving, refraining from eating certain foods or the adoption of certain positions, until a specified period has passed, after which he emerges from this symbolic death, to be symbolically reborn with a new name.
In this example, many parallels could be drawn with the male initiation rites undertaken by the Panaré. Similarly, the symbolic consumption (in small doses, or of ashes) of human flesh can also be found among the Yanomamo in the Northern Amazon, as well as among the Wari, to the West. However, it should be noted that the reasons for or specific type of cannibalism may be different (e.g. exocannibalism vs. endocannibalism).
Although perhaps the most famous of the historical eyewitness accounts of Tupinamba cannibalism is that of Hans Staden, written upon his return to Germany between 1554 and 1557, other Europeans also became either captives or guests of the Tupinamba during that century and later published accounts of their experiences. Among the most notable in this group are Jacques Léry, who was in the area for over ten months, studying the Tupi language, Anthony Knivet, who lived in Brazil for some eight years, and Manuel da Nobrega, who lived and worked with the Indians in his capacity as head of the Jesuit mission to Brazil from 1549 until his death in 1570. Of these, both Staden and Knivet were known to have been able to speak Tupi, the language of the Tupinamba, and it is probable that Léry could also, while we know that Nobrega used an interpreter.
The information that they have provided through their various experiential accounts gives us a very clear picture of the daily life and ritual activities of the Tupinamba in the sixteenth century. From them, we learn of many aspects of Tupinamba culture, including their methods of hunting, style of dress and body adornment, rites of passage and system of prestige. This latter theme was most important in Tupinamba life, and is a point stressed by all contemporary accounts. In short, the main ways in which to acquire prestige were either to have many daughters or to acquire many names through capturing or killing enemies or captives.
Warfare was extremely common between the different tribes and even local communities, and the mutual hatred which gave rise to war was (according to Métraux) “born of a desire to avenge the insult of cannibalism”.
Other anthropologists (e.g. William Balée), from the eco-determinist school of thought, have erroneously suggested that the cause of warfare was, in fact, to further the acquisition of the prime fishing grounds. However, this does not explain the necessity for the Tupinamba to eat their enemies and captives. However, despite the frequency of war, “Tupinamba battles, as described by the chronicles, involved a great deal of shouting, boasting and gesticulating. War parties would sometimes travel up to two hundred miles to assault an enemy village and then return with just one captive, leaving no victims behind”.
An illuminating point is that while hatred and rivalry was strong between communities and neighbouring groups, warfare was in fact interspersed with the periodic exchange of marriage partners. This shows that the Tupinamba both reviled and relied on their neighbours. A modern reference to this can be found in Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s 1986 ethnography of the Arawaté, whom he compares to the Tupinamba, using the example that “[among the Tupinamba] avuncular marriage predominates, but coexists with the ceding of women to war captives and a general desire for union with strangers – simultaneously minimum and maximum exogamy”.
But it is the taking of names which is the key to unlocking the reasons behind Tupinamba anthropophagy. The taking of captives was not to provide a source of slave labour, but rather to provide a fresh source of names for the community. The acquisition of names was extremely important in Tupinamba culture.
A man got a new name after killing a captive (or an enemy in warfare). Sometimes, the new name was that of the slain person. Furthermore, those involved in the ritual handling of the captive also gained new names – the women who dressed the captive, and who bit their arms in a taunting manner following his capture, and preceding his execution, and the men who prepared the arrows to be used, captured the prisoner, or who actually executed him all received new names. Other people surrounding the ritual might also have acquired new names – including, for example, the wife of the executioner. And it was the acquisition of names through warfare and the ritual execution of captives that led to inclusion in such activities as marriage, beer drinking or speaking in public. Without obtaining a name, or a lip-plug, or body scarification in this way, a man could not participate in any of these activities. It was believed that only the brave – and by definition, this meant those who had accumulated many names – would go on to the afterlife.
Furthermore, it was believed by both captives and the Tupinamba that it was actually preferable (more honourable and noble) to be killed and eaten than to die a natural death and be buried in the ground (and perhaps be eaten by animals), and indeed that “to be killed ceremonially and then eaten was the fate for which any brave longed once he had lost his liberty”.
This is perhaps supported by the explanation that the prisoner would under no circumstances be able to return to his own group, who “far from welcoming them would even have killed any member who attempted to return”.
Following the later cessation of Tupinamba sacrifice of war victims, it is clear that the acquisition of names did not also cease. In order to preserve the supply of names, the Tupinamba would “open the graves of their enemies and break the skulls with the same ceremonies [as surrounding execution of a captive]“. This demonstrates the ritual and symbolic importance of the execution and consumption of outsiders for the Tupinamba.
Finally, it should be pointed out that while the actual eating of human flesh was a major part of the ritual life of the Tupinamba, in actual fact, reports and woodcuts depicting scenes of women chewing on entire limbs were exaggerated. In fact, while at each ritual execution and subsequent feast only two or three captives were killed and cooked, sometimes hundreds of people attended the event, as neighbouring allied groups were invited. In reality, this meant that after the victim’s bodies had been boiled up and made into a kind of bouillon to be shared by everyone present, an individual’s share would have amounted to nothing more than a homeopathic dose.
Therefore, in conclusion, it is fair to say that the debate surrounding the existence (or non-existence) of sixteenth century Tupinamba cannibalism seems to pivot not on proving its existence, but on disproving it – or, alternatively, on discrediting those reports which prove or disprove it. There is, however, sufficient evidence arising from the sources detailed above to demonstrate that cannibalism has indeed existed among the coastal Tupinamba in the form of institutionalised, ritual cultural practice.
As abhorrent as it may be to consider the act of eating human flesh, it is important to remember that the symbolic and ritual value of the practice in all likelihood far outweighed the consumed quantity. Finally, the last word should go to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who suggests in closing that;
…instead of putting society and its ideological products to the service of death, as Western cultures have done all too often, the Tupinamba have put death to the service of society.
1979 The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy New York: Oxford University Press
Brown, P + D Tuzin
1983 The Ethnography of Cannibalism Washington, DC: Society for Psychological Anthropology
1985 ‘Three Cheers for Hans Staden: The case for Brazilian Cannibalism’ Ethnohistory 32(1):17-36
1948 ‘The Tupinamba’. In Steward, J (ed), Handbook of South American Indians 3:95-133
1974 Cannibalism: Human Aggression and Cultural Form New York: Harper & Row
1983 ‘Raw Women, Cooked Men, and Other “Great Things” of the Fiji Islands’ in Brown + Tuzin (eds), The Ethnography of Cannibalism Washington, DC: Society for Psychological Anthropology
1928 Hans Staden: The true history of his captivity 1557, trans. M. Letts, London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd
Viveiros de Castro, E
1992 From the Enemy’s Point of View: Humanity and Divinity in an Amazonian Society, trans. C. Howard, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
1915 The north-west Amazons: notes of some months spent among cannibal tribes London: Constable
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