Fine Old Cannibals

by D. Trull
Enigma Editor

"What you are is what you eat," as the preachy old nutritionist slogan goes. Extrapolated to its ultimate implication, this anti-snack-food aphorism might suggest that cannibalism is the perfect diet. Thankfully, human flesh isn't listed on the Recommended Daily Allowance charts, and reasonable people are nearly unanimous in the belief that eating each other is one recycling program the world can do without.

But there's another question concerning this unpalatable topic that requires more thorough digestion: is it possible that cannibalism is just a myth? No one denies that people have eaten people in certain extraordinary circumstances involving insanity or desperation, as in your Jeffrey Dahmers and your soccer team plane crashes. The bone of contention is the proposition that no culture has ever practiced cannibalism as a routine, socially accepted behavior. There are toothsome arguments on both sides of the debate of whether cannibalism has been historically rare or well done.

Tales of cannibal societies have been told since ancient times, despite the surprising lack of solid evidence to verify them. Cannibalism was generally accepted as an authentic primitive custom until 1979, when anthropologist William Arens challenged the orthodox view with his book The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Arens pointed out that all recorded knowledge of cannibal cultures is based on hearsay, on accusations that one group of people has leveled at another. No society has ever been known to proclaim itself cannibals, nor has any cannibal smorgasbord ever been observed in flagrante delicto.

It seems plausible that habitual cannibalism could be nothing more than folklore that has been accepted as fact. Arens suggested that the stories arose out of fears and hatred that certain cultures felt toward their rivals and enemies. Outsiders hearing their imagined accounts of cannibalism accepted them as true, and took advantage of these tales to justify their own notions of superiority over "primitive savages" -- especially when a difference in skin color was also involved. From these dubious origins, cannibalism became entrenched in the annals of anthropology as well as in the popular imagination. Could it be that the barbaric headhunter boiling missionaries in a pot is no more real than Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster?

Arens's book caused a major uproar when it was first published, with most anthropologists blasting his ideas as being ridiculous and unfounded. Over the years, a movement in the field has grown in support Arens, praising him as the revolutionary opponent of the cannibalism myth. But mainstream anthropology still endorses the existence of cannibal cultures, and in recent years new evidence for the conventional view has emerged.

Timothy White, an archaeologist at the University of California at Berkeley, has identified abrasion patterns on ancient human bones which he calls "pot polish" -- an effect he believes to have come from being cooked in a pot of water. White has also found cuts and markings on human bones that suggest butchering with knives and tools. He claims to have refined his analysis techniques to rule out damage done to the bones by wild animals, burial ceremonies or ordinary wear and tear.

White has discovered possible cannibalism evidence on bones and bone fragments from Pueblo burial grounds in Colorado and from Croatia, while his associate David DeGusta has found similar markings in Fiji. These clues have also appeared on the bones of a Homo antecessor, an apparent human predecessor dug up in northern Spain. If the indications of pot polish are to be believed, then cannibalism not only exists, it's an international taste sensation.

So where do these developments leave William Arens and the cannibalism skeptics? There are plenty who dispute the pot polish hypothesis, but Arens himself is admirably keeping an open mind on his long-fought debate.

"I think the procedures are sounder, and there is more evidence than before," he said regarding the new findings. Coincidentally -- or perhaps not -- support for his notion of cannibalism as a myth has bloomed during the rise and proliferation of political correctness and cultural sensitivity. We have to wonder if Arens's ideas have been accepted on their own merits, or because it has become unfashionable and racist to believe in cannibals.

That's a tough question, but it might help to know that a group of biologists have offered another reason why humans and animals seldom eat their own kind. Their shocking discovery: cannibalism is bad for you!

David Pfennig of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill led a study testing the relationship between cannibalism and disease using tiger salamander larvae. Tadpoles of tiger salamanders and a related species were infected with the same pathogens, then introduced to other groups of more mature tiger salamander tadpoles. The bigger larvae that ate the diseased tadpoles of their own species grew more slowly and were more likely to die than those who ate the other species, even though the pathogens were identical.

Pfennig believes this suggests that disease has a greater tendency to be spread through the cannibalism than through consuming other infected materials, particularly in the case of parasitic organisms. If true, this could form a biological basis for the widespread taboo against humans eating humans.

Now here's one last nugget of cannibalistic curiosity for you to chew on. The people of Hawaii and the South Pacific are known for their bizarrely intense love of the processed meat substance known as Spam, which was introduced to the islands during World War II. It might seem a mystery that the inhabitants of a tropical paradise would covet this disreputable American tripe-mush, but travel writer Paul Theroux has offered a possible explanation.

"It was a theory of mine that former cannibals of Oceania now feasted on Spam because Spam came the nearest to approximating the porky taste of human flesh," Theroux wrote in The Happy Isles of Oceania. "'Long pig' as they called a cooked human in much of Melanesia. It was a fact that the people-eaters of the Pacific had all evolved, or perhaps degenerated, into Spam-eaters. And in the absence of Spam they settled for corned beef, which also had a corpsy flavor."

But as Cecil Adams noted in his column "The Straight Dope," there's no proof that Pacific islanders are ex-cannibals, and the scarcity of meat likely fuels the local hunger for a handy reasonable facsimile. Still, none of us can ever say for sure unless we dare to take the forbidden taste test for ourselves. There's no law against peeling back a can of Spam and letting your imagination do the rest.

At least human flesh doesn't come packaged in that gross jelly afterbirth stuff.

Source: Skeptical Inquirer, January/February 1998; The Times (London); New Scientist; The Straight Dope on AOL.

Copyright 1998 ParaScope, Inc.

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