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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 26.djvu/217

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CANNIBALISM AS A CUSTOM.

CANNIBALISM AS A CUSTOM.
By A. ST. JOHNSTON.

THERE is a certain weird attractiveness about the subject of cannibalism, a grim fascination in its grisly horrors, that is not easily to be explained, but which, although few of us will admit it, most of us have experienced. Perhaps it is in subjective cannibalism alone that this uncanny attraction exists; objective cannibalism may not possess the same eerie charm. But the very fact that cannibalism either exists now, or ever existed, is, however, denied by some skeptical persons—mostly strict and rigid vegetarians, one would think—who argue that wild and natural races of men can not and do not lust for flesh. The fact remains the same.

It seems that this time-honored practice—crime, many unthinking and unjudicial people would call it, whose opinions have been formed without consideration of the relation of crime to custom—has, at different times, existed in almost every part of the earth. It seems to have lingered longest in the most beautiful regions of it—in Polynesia, namely, where the writer of this, but for a fortunate and timely warning, would himself have fallen a victim to the custom for which he has a feeling of respect, if not exactly of affection.

Our remote, possible forefathers themselves, the prehistoric cavemen of Europe in the Quaternary period, were addicted to this habit, which a pious feeling of respect for our ancestry should alone prevent us from characterizing as a crime. Evidences of their occasional little anthropophagistic failings, in the shape of scraped and chipped human bones which, besides being cooked, are broken in a manner too scientific and skillful to be the work of animals, are not infrequent, though it is believed by paleontologists that the custom was more of an exception than a rule. Animal food being plentiful at that time in these cold northern latitudes, the greatest incentive to cannibalism was wanting, and the very practice of it shows a tendency to epicurean indulgence and luxury that already (from a very long way off) pointed to the future extinction of their race. The ancient Irish, too, in more recent than Quaternary times, ate their own dead; and our own Saxon forefathers must have possessed a knowledge of the custom if they did not in early times actually practice it, as is shown by the Saxon word manceta, which occurs not infrequently in their literature.

Tales of cannibalism have also come down to us from classic times, which prove that the Greeks were at least not ignorant of it. Polyphemus in the "Odyssey" was a man-eater; and Herodotus tells us of a race of men, the Massagetæ, who ate their aged parents, going only a step further than the Feejeeans, who simply buried theirs alive. The Padæi, the father of history also tells us, ate their relatives when