Pick from the Past
Natural History, October 1974

One Man’s Meat Is Another's Person

Over the years, Natural History has published numerous articles on the human diet, considering such topics as the role that food has played in the evolution of our ancestors. In October 1974, Raymond Sokolov, who for twenty years wrote “A Matter of Taste,” the’s monthly food column, addressed a controversial aspect of human consumption.
Seated around large platters, women and children consume human entrails

Seated around large platters, women and children consume human entrails, in this late sixteenth-century sketch by a German explorer.

UMANS may taste good, but most societies are a long way from cannibalism. Of all the taboos in Western society, the prohibition against the eating of human flesh is the most widely obeyed. Thousands among us kill someone every year. Incest is not common, yet it occurs—and enriches the fantasy life of many an analysand. But cannibalism is an infraction of the social order that very few have risked.

Like all forbidden fruits, nevertheless, cannibalism fascinates us. Ever since Columbus first discovered it among the Caribs (who were called canibales, whence the name), it has inspired an entire literature of speculation and raised a dark question in the minds of people too civilized to feel anything but repulsion at the idea of bolting human steaks but unable to keep from wondering in untrammeled moments what they taste like.

Explorers, probably translating a Fijian phrase, reported that the stuff was known to its fanciers in the Pacific as “long pig.” This never seemed more than a dubious description of the savor of our
Prisoners were given wives, and thus shared their genes with the victorious village before they gave up their bodies in a ceremonial war game that they were doomed to lose.
muscular Christian selves. The enigma basically remained until late 1972. Survivors of a Uruguayan plane crash in the Andes, who were cut off from the outside world for weeks, in desperation ate fellow passengers killed in the accident. After their rescue, the survivors told Piers Paul Read—who set down their story in the current best-seller Alive (Lippincott)—that after cooking the meat briefly (they tried it first raw), “the slight browning of the flesh gave it an immeasurably better flavor–softer than beef but with much the same taste.”

That is the kind of testimony one can believe, especially from Uruguayans, who know their beef. It is also good news that humans taste good: alternatives to soyburgers are always welcome, and we can at last exonerate cannibal societies of the charge of unrefined savagery. Instead, they were gastronomes.

I anticipate the retort that the anthropophagic banquets of Fiji and Papua and the Amazon began with the butchery of neighboring tribes. But who are we, with our kill ratios and My Lais, to question the civility of, say, Tupinambá warriors? To begin with, they captured prisoners live, led them back through the great forest of the Amazon, and then allowed them to live for months in virtual freedom until the final blood rite. Prisoners were given wives, and thus shared their genes with the victorious village before they gave up their bodies in a ceremonial war game that they were doomed to lose. The quartered body, according to an eyewitness account, was barbecued. Women and children rushed to drink the blood. Mothers smeared their nipples with it so that their babies could taste it. Delicacies, wrote anthropologist Alfred Métraux, such as fingers and the grease around the liver and heart, were given to distinguished guests.

Ethnographers have advanced several theories to explain such full-blown bloodthirstiness. Some say that meat hunger caused it, a craving brought on by poor, monotonous diets of manioc or sago. This won’t entirely wash. Contiguous tribes with equally drab and deficient diets did not practice cannibalism. And the Tupinambás, who had plenty of nonhuman protein in their diet, ate slain enemies primarily as a form of revenge.

Other experts point to the ritual content of most cannibal acts. For the Tupinambás, the ceremony associated with cannibalism was so important that after cannibalism was effectively outlawed, the ritual continued to be performed on skeletons exhumed for the purpose. In the northwestern Amazon area, Cubeo warriors’ wives ate the penis of a dead victim to promote fertility. And several endocannibalistic societies recycled the souls of their own villagers by drinking the ashes of naturally deceased relatives dissolved in corn beer or a banana drink.

Endocannibalism—whether practiced by primitives or by Uruguayan rugby players—is less shocking than exocannibalism because it does not normally include murder. But the simple act of consuming
Higher primates do not (with rare and ambiguous exceptions) eat each other.
human flesh, even when enshrined in ritual, is obnoxious to most people (although excusable in extremis). It seems to arise from a fundamental sense of solidarity with one’s species. Even higher primates do not (with rare and ambiguous exceptions) eat each other. It may be that exocannibalism results from a narrow system of taxonomy that limits the nonedible “species” group to the kinship group and defines unrelated human outsiders as fair game. Clearly, no all-encompassing principle of human brotherhood informed the daily life of the Tupinambás.

The real difference between us and the Tupinambás, however, is that we are more adept at making our cannibalistic acts and impulses into metaphor or else hiding them from view. We certainly enjoy the fruits of warfare, not in the form of flesh, but as territory, wealth, or influence. Moreover, Christianity’s most fundamental ritual, the Eucharist, is symbolic endocannibalism; the consumption of the body and blood of “Our Father’s Son.” Orthodoxy denies that communion is only symbolic eating and claims that the sacramental wine and wafer do actually transsubstantiate into Christ’s flesh and blood in the mouths of the faithful. True cannibals are less “civilized” only in degree.

The best ethnographic information, as a matter of fact, shows that cannibalism was not practiced by men at a low level of subsistence but rather arose after the invention of agriculture and the intensification of warfare that followed it.

In our society, we have moved beyond the agricultural-tribal stage, into something we are pleased to call advanced civilization. From this lofty vantage, we shudder at the “bestial” conditions from which we have risen. We instill the fear of cannibalism in our children with tales of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Hansel and Gretel.” Adult squeamishness extends to include both cannibalism and the eating of nonhuman flesh. For Americans particularly, food that still looks like the animal it came from is often cause for (irrational) disgust. Whole fish, live lobsters, sides of beef on hooks all inspire distaste in people who will blithely eat a slab of steak (it is no longer recognizably lopped from a steer, but the national meat hunger supports giant abattoirs in which wholesale slaughter takes place). Unfortunately, organ meats cannot be so easily disguised. Brains look, almost inevitably, like brains. The sight of those convoluted lobes forces us to admit that we are about to dine on mammal. And so we prefer less obvious cuts. Unlike the Tupinambás, we hide from our killing.

Copyright Natural History Magazine, inc.

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