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The History of Cannibalism, Mythology and Religion

The History of Cannibalism, Mythology and Religion
© Photograph by Vicente Concha

Regarding all the implications of cannibalism, only the origin of the word seems to be certain: The word “cannibal” is derived from “Carib”, the tribe Columbus learned about from natives on the Northwest coast of Cuba, the Arawak or Taino, in November 1492. The Caribs, or Canibes, Camballi, Cannibals, were thought to be man-eaters and the word Cannibal meaning “man-eater” was established in Europe around the middle of the sixteenth-century. Meanwhile, the word cannibal refers to any organism that eats the flesh of its own kind. Polis et al. found 146 references documenting intraspecific predation in 75 species of mammals distributed among seven orders. In the 15 primate species in which cannibalism has been observed, it has been attributed to conspecific density factors, nutritional stress, or reproductive strategies.

In the following study, cannibalism means the eating of human bodies or parts of them by other humans. The definition of cannibalism used here encompasses all motives and functions of the consumption. The eating of bone-ash, smashed bone fragments, skin particles or bone marrow as well as the devouring of one eye or the drinking and smearing of blood, are regarded as symbolic acts.

Ritual cannibalism is itself divided into exocannibalism (the eating of strangers and enemies), endocannibalism (the eating of friends or family) and autocannibalism (the eating of one’s own body). Endocannibalism is thought to have been performed in the hope of achieving communion with the dead. With exocannibalism and endocannibalism, there was the belief that by eating the dead person, some of his or her desirable qualities might be conferred upon the eater. In most cases, ritual cannibalism is thought to have been the final act in the drama of human sacrifice; therefore, it is much more than a convenient means of disposal.

Furthermore, Sagan distinguished between aggressive cannibalism (eating enemies) and affectionate cannibalism (eating relatives or friends).

As mentioned above, the eating of bone-ash, smashed bone fragments, and skin particles are also practised cannibalism. This sort of cannibalism was a fashion in Renaissance Europe resulting in an abuse of mostly Egyptian mummies for mysterious remedies and medicine. Unfortunately, this article cannot deal with this interesting aspect of European history.

Cut marks made by stone or metal tools may appear on skeletal remains in a cannibalised assemblage. Humans have fractured long-bone shafts with hammerstones and have pulverised long-bone ends to extract the nutritious marrow. Percussion pits and anvil scars are usually seen under these conditions. Burning of the bone associated with roasting is also thought to be a relevant criterion of cannibalism. Studies of the patterns of bone destruction through bone assemblage composition and actual physical traces left on individual bones often make it possible to distinguish between human and nonhuman damage to the bones. It is even possible to discriminate between the impact on green bone or perimortem bone modification (alteration of fresh bone either just before, at, or immediately after the time of death) and postmortem alterations or impact on (sub)fossil bones.

Villa et al. proposed four types of evidence important in the verification of cannibalism in an archaeological context: 1. Similar butchering techniques in human and animal remains; thus frequency, location and type of verified cut marks and chop marks on animal and human bones must be similar, taking into account the anatomical differences between animals and humans. 2. Similar patterns of long bone breakage that might facilitate marrow extraction. 3. Identical patterns of postprocessing discard of human and animal remains. 4. Evidence of cooking, that could indicate comparable treatment of human and animal remains. The basis is that faunal remains whose context, element representation, and damage pattern are in accordance with exploitation for nutritional benefit were interpreted as evidence of human consumption. Therefore, human remains treated in the same way, with the same patterns of exploitation, are best interpreted as evidence of conspecific consumption, or cannibalism. I would like to use a fifth criteria: It is clear that individual remains were treated in different ways if a site shows a clear dichotomy between primary or intentional burial and widespread, scattered bones. The latter could be an evidence for cannibalism as discussed below.

When human remains from an archaeological site are consistent with a nutritionally motivated breakdown — when patterns of burning, cut marks, percussion, crushing and other fractures on human remains match what is seen on faunal remains — the assemblage is usually interpreted as evidence of cannibalism. However, in many cases, such an interpretation is weakened by doubts about whether humans caused the observed damage and by lack of precise contextual evidence.

Several problems must be regarded before classifying a site as “cannibalistic”: First, the ritual consumption of small parts of the body or of bone ash is archaeologically invisible. Therefore, the amount of cannibalism in the past could easily be underestimated. Secondly, specific cultural rules may affect the exploitation of faunal material in unusual ways that could prove confusing for an interpretation of bones in an archaeological context. Thirdly, the great variety of mortuary practice with its potential archaeological signatures makes it difficult to draw certain conclusions about cannibalism. Human mortuary practices may have profound effects on the disposition of a skeleton. For example, the forcing of the corpse into a small space can cause strong anatomical juxtapositions and even fractures. In secondary burials, there are often traces of human activity left on the bones: defleshing can leave cut marks and scraping marks on the bones, and cremation usually causes charring and transverse cracking of the bones. Fourthly, the use of fire, and the fact that boiling and roasting of bones facilitate muscle detachment from the bone, reduces the amount of cutting needed to deflesh a carcass. The softer texture of both boiled meat and bone means that impact marks are left more easily than on bones that were not cooked or heated. The fire also helps in dismembering and breaking the bone. Therefore the use of fire must be regarded when comparing cannibalistic sites. Fifthly, burning of the bone associated with roasting is often thought to be a relevant criterion of cannibalism. But bone may or may not have been burned or charred when cooked depending on how the piece was cooked. Bones also may have been burned by a natural fire. Therefore, charred bones are not decisive evidence of cannibalism. Boiling would not have resulted in charred bones but may have resulted in “comminuted bone” or small bone fragments.

Stories of cannibalistic gods or acts of cannibalism exist in mythological systems all over the world from the very beginning. In Egypt, Osiris, king and god, was said to have abolished cannibalism as part of his role as god of grain and agriculture. Another reason could be to point out that he guided his people from the very savagery to agriculture and culture. I could not find out what kind of cannibalism was practised before the reign of Osiris. In ancient Greece, Chronos, father of the gods, ate his children, but Zeus managed to escape and killed his father. Zeus himself killed and ate his wife Metis to gain her wisdom. Tantalus slew his son Pelops and served him to the gods to test their omniscience. His punishment is well known. Tereus’ wife and her sister prepared him a meal of his son’s flesh to punish him for raping the women. Tydeus sipped his enemy’s brain. The revengeful Atreus prepared his brother Thyestes’ children for dinner and mixed their blood in Thyestes’ wine. The god Dionysus made Proithos’ daughters mad because they did not want to worship him. In their madness they devoured their babies. These examples show that Greek mythology knew many motives for anthropophagy: It averts disaster, but also symbolises cosmic events (Chronos/Zeus). It is thought to destroy the enemy (Tydeus). Apart from that, cannibalism could be motivated by hate (Tereus), revenge (Atreus) or the desire of making other people’s capabilities one’s own (Zeus/Metis). Furthermore, punishment by the gods (Proithos’ daughters) or arrogance (hybris) led to cannibalism (Tantalos). In all cases, cannibalism is negative, and endocannibalism was only possible because the eater did not know what/who she/he ate or was insane.

In the Christian religion, there are some hints of cannibalism among the Hebrews in the Old Testament. Cannibalism seemed to be known, but only to avert starvation. Furthermore, it is regarded as Lord’s punishment to his unfaithful people. One of the most important Christian rituals was also interpreted as an act of cannibalism: The Holy Communion. But as everybody knows, the Christian act of consuming the deity is considered to be a symbolic act, showing the very love between Christ and His people.

The German epic ‘Nibelungenlied’ tells how in 437 AD the Burgundians drank the blood of their fallen foes after the victory against the Huns, in order to imbibe their valour.

The reports by ancient travellers and writers about monstrous people like dog heads, Cyclopes and monopodes also include stories about man-eating peoples. For example, Herodotus tells us about the Andropophagi, who lived beyond the great eastern desert. These people had no law but the most savage customs and worst, they ate human flesh. But after all, ancient reports about cannibals are not very ample; they refer to unknown people dwelling at the edge of the known world. Cannibalism is one stereotyped characteristic of the typical Barbarian, whereas details about customs and habits have not been reported.

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