1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cannibalism

CANNIBALISM, the eating of human flesh by men (from a Latinized form of Carib, the name of a tribe of South America, formerly found also in the West Indies), also called “anthropophagy” (Gr. ἄνθρωπος, man, and φαγεῖν, to eat). Evidence has been adduced from some of the palaeolithic cave-dwellings in France to show that the inhabitants practised cannibalism, at least occasionally. From Herodotus, Strabo and others we hear of peoples like the Scythian Massagetae, a nomad race north-east of the Caspian Sea, who killed old people and ate them. In the middle ages reports, some of them probably untrustworthy, by Marco Polo and others, attributed cannibalism to the wild tribes of China, the Tibetans, &c. In our own days cannibalism prevails, or prevailed until recently, over a great part of West and Central Africa, New Guinea, Melanesia (especially Fiji) and Australia. New Zealand and the Polynesian Islands were great centres of the practice. It is extensively practised by the Battas of Sumatra and in other East Indian islands and in South America; in earlier days it was a common feature of Indian wars in North America. Sporadic cannibalism occurs among more civilized peoples as a result of necessity or as a manifestation of disease (see Lycanthropy).

Classification.—Cannibalistic practices may be classified from two points of view: (1) the motives of the act; (2) the ceremonial regulations. A third division of subordinate importance is also possible, if we consider whether the victims are actually killed for food or whether only such are eaten as have met their death in battle or other ways.

1. From a psychological point of view the term cannibalism groups together a number of customs, whose only bond of union is that they all involve eating of human flesh. (a) Food cannibalism, where the object is the satisfaction of hunger, may occur sporadically as a result of real necessity or may be kept up for the simple gratification of a taste for human flesh in the absence of any lack of food in general or even of animal food, (i.) Cannibalism from necessity is found not only among the lower races, such as the Fuegians or Red Indian tribes, but also among civilized races, as the records of sieges and shipwrecks show. (ii.) Simple food cannibalism is common in Africa; the Niam-Niam and Monbuttu carry on wars for the sake of obtaining human flesh; in West Africa human flesh could formerly be seen exposed for sale in the market like any other article of commerce; and among some tribes it is the practice to sell the corpses of dead relatives for consumption as food. (b) In curious contrast to this latter custom is the practice of devouring dead kinsfolk as the most respectful method of disposing of their remains. In a small number of cases this practice is combined with the custom of killing the old and sick, but in the great majority of peoples it is simply a form of burial; it seems to prevail in most parts of Australia, many parts of Melanesia, Africa and South America, and less frequently in other parts of the world. To this group belong the customs described by Herodotus; we may perhaps regard as a variant form the custom of using the skull of a dead man as a drinking-cup. This practice is widely found, and the statement of Herodotus that the skull was set in gold and preserved by the Issedones may point in this direction; from the account given of the Tibetans some seven hundred years ago by William of Ruysbruck (Rubruquis) it appears that they had given up cannibalism but still preserved the use of the skull as a drinking vessel. Another modification of an original ritual cannibalism is the custom of drinking the ashes of the dead, which is practised by some African and South American tribes. The custom of holding burial feasts has also been traced to the same origin. More incomprehensible to the European than any other form of cannibalism is the custom of partaking of the products of putrefaction as they run down from the body. The Australians smoke-dry the bodies of tribesmen; here, too, it is the custom to consume the portions of the body which are rendered liquid by the heat. (c) The ritual cannibalism just mentioned shades over into and may have been originally derived from magical cannibalism, of which three sub-species may be distinguished. (i.) Savages are accustomed, on the one hand, to abstain from certain foods in order that they may not acquire certain qualities; on the other hand other foods are eagerly desired in order that they may by partaking of the flesh also come to partake of the mental or bodily peculiarities of the man or animal from which the meat is derived; thus, after the birth of a child, especially the first-born, the parents are frequently forbidden the flesh of slow-moving animals, because that would prevent the child from learning to walk; conversely, eating the heart of a lion is recommended for a warrior to make him brave; from this point of view therefore we readily understand the motives which lead to the eating of those slain in battle, both friends and foes. (ii.) We may term protective an entirely different kind of magical cannibalism, which consists in the consumption of a small portion of the body of a murdered man, in order that his ghost may not trouble the murderer; according to Hans Egède, the Eskimo, when they kill a witch, eat a portion of her heart, that she may not haunt them. (iii.) The practice is also said to have the effect of causing the relatives of the murdered man to lose heart or to prevent them from exercising the right of revenge; in this case it may be brought into relation with the ceremony of the blood covenant in one of the forms of which the parties drink each other’s blood; or, it may point to a reminiscence of a ritual eating of the dead kinsman. The late survival of this idea in Europe is attested by its mention by Dante in the Purgatorio. (d) The custom of eating food offered to the gods is widespread, and we may trace to this origin Mexican cannibalism, perhaps, too, that of Fiji. The Aztec worship of the god of war, Huitzilopochtli, led to the sacrifice of prisoners, and the custom of sacrifice to their frequent wars. The priest took out the heart, offered it to the sun, and then went through the ceremonies of feeding the idol with the heart and blood; finally the bodies of the victims were consumed by the worshippers. (e) We reach an entirely different set of motives in penal and revenge cannibalism. For the origin of these ideas we may perhaps look to that of protective magic, dealt with above; but it seems possible that there is also some idea of influencing the lot of the criminal in a future life; it may be noted that the whole of the body is seldom eaten in protective cannibalism; among the Battas, however, the criminal, and in parts of Africa the debtor, are entirely consumed. Other cases, especially where the victim is an enemy, may be due to mere fury and bravado. (f) In the west of North America a peculiar kind of cannibalism is found, which is confined to a certain body of magicians termed “Hametzen” and a necessary condition of admission to their order. Another kind of initiatory cannibalism prevailed in the south of Australia, where a magician had to eat a portion of a child’s body before he was admitted. The meaning of these ceremonials is not clear.

2. Most kinds of cannibalism are hedged round with ceremonial regulations. Certain tribes, as we have seen above, go to war to provide human flesh; in other cases it is only the nearest relatives who may not partake of a body; in other cases again it is precisely the nearest relatives on whom the duty falls. A curious regulation in south-east New Guinea prescribes that the killer of the victim shall not partake in the feast; in some cases the whole of the clan to which belonged the man for whom revenge is taken abstains also; in other cases this clan, together with any others of the same intermarrying group, takes part in the feast to the exclusion of (a) the clan or group with which they intermarry and (b) all outside clans. Some peoples forbid women to eat human flesh; in others certain classes, as the Muri of the Bambala, a tribe in the Kassai, may be forbidden to eat it. In Mindanao the only person who might eat of a slain enemy was the priest who led the warriors, and he was not permitted to escape this duty. In Grand Bassam all who had taken part in a festival at the foundation of a new village were compelled to eat of the human victim. But the variations are too numerous for any general account to be given of ceremonial limitations. S. R. Steinmetz has proposed a division into endoand exo-cannibalism; but these divisions are frequently of minor importance, and he has failed to define satisfactorily the limits of the groups on which his classification is based.

Origin.—It will probably never be possible to say how cannibalism originated; in fact the multiplicity of forms and the diversity of ceremonial rules—some prescribing that tribesmen shall on no account be eaten, others that the bodies of none but tribesmen shall provide the meal of human flesh—point to a multiple origin. It has been maintained that the various forms of endo-cannibalism (eating of tribesmen) spring from an original practice of food cannibalism which the human race has in common with many animals; but this leaves unexplained inter alia the limitation of the right of participation in the funeral meal to the relatives of the dead man; at the same time it is possible to argue that the magical ideas now associated with cannibalism are of later growth. Against the view put forward by Steinmetz it may be urged that we have other instances of magical foods, such as the eating of a lion’s heart, which do not point to an original custom of eating the animal as food. We shall probably be justified in referring all forms of endo-cannibalism to a ritual origin; otherwise the limitation is inexplicable; on the other hand exo-cannibalism, in some of its forms, and much of the extension of endo-cannibalism must be referred to a desire for human flesh, grown into a passion.

Bibliography.—Steinmetz, in Mitt. Anthrop. Ges. Wien, N.F. xvi.; Andree, Die Anthropophagie; Bergmann, Die Verbreitung der Anthropophagie; Schneider, Die Naturvölker, i. 121-200; Schaffhausen, Anthropologische Studien, Internat. Archiv iii. 69-73; xii. 78; E. S. Hartland, Legend of Perseus, vol. ii.; Dictionnaire des sci. méd., s.v. “Anthropophagie”; Dr Seligmann in Reports of the Cook-Daniels Expedition to New Guinea.  (N. W. T.)