Sunday, October 9, 2011 - 0 comments

Once were Canibals : 1. Preview

By : Tim D.White

New scientific evidence is now bringing to light the truth about cannibalism. It has become obvious that long before the invention of metals, before Egypt’s pyramids were built, before the origins of agriculture, before the explosion of Upper Paleolithic cave art, cannibalism could be found among many different peoples—as well as among many of our ancestors. Broken and scattered human bones, in some cases thousands of them, have been discovered from the prehistoric pueblos of the American Southwest to the islands of the Pacific. The osteologists and archaeologists studying these ancient occurrences are using increasingly sophisticated analytical tools and methods. In the past several years, the results of their studies have finally provided convincing evidence of prehistoric cannibalism.
Human cannibalism has long intrigued anthropologists, and they have worked for decades to classify the phenomenon. Some divide the behavior according to the affiliation of the consumed. Thus, endocannibalism refers to the consumption  of individuals within a group, exocannibalism indicates the consumption of outsiders, and autocannibalism covers   everything from nail biting to torture-induced self-consumption. In addition, anthropologists have come up with lassifications to describe perceived or known motivations. Survival cannibalism is driven by starvation. Historically documented cases include the Donner Party—whose members were trapped during the harsh winter of 1846–47 in the  Sierra Nevada—and people marooned in the Andes or the Arctic with no other food. In contrast, ritual cannibalism occurs   when members of a family or community consume their dead during funerary rites in order to inherit their qualities or  honor their memory. And pathological cannibalism is generally reserved for criminals who consume their victims or, more often, for fictional characters such as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

Despite these distinctions, however, most anthropologists simply equate the term “cannibalism” with the regular, culturally encouraged consumption of human flesh. In the age of ethnographic exploration—which lasted from the time of Greek historian Herodotus in about 400 B.C. to the early 20th century—the non-Western world and its inhabitants were scrutinized by travelers, missionaries, military personnel and anthropologists. These observers told tales of human cannibalism in different places, from Mesoamerica to the Pacific islands to central Africa.

Controversy has often accompanied these claims. Anthropologists participated in only the last few waves of these cultural contacts—those that began in the late 1800s. As a result, many of the historical accounts of cannibalism have come to be viewed skeptically.

In 1979 anthropologist William Arens of the State University of New York at Stony Brook extended this theme by reviewing the ethnographic record of cannibalism in his book The Man-Eating Myth. Arens concluded that accounts of cannibalism among people from the Aztec to the Maori to the Zulu were either false or inadequately documented. His skeptical assertion has subsequently been seriously questioned, yet he nonetheless succeeded in identifying a significant gulf between these stories and evidence of cannibalism: “Anthropology has not maintained the usual standards of documentation and intellectual rigor expected when other topics are being considered. Instead, it has chosen uncritically to lend its support to the collective representations and thinly disguised prejudices of western culture about others.”
The anthropologists whom Arens was criticizing had not limited themselves to contemporary peoples. Some had projected their prejudices even more deeply—into the archaeological record. Interpretations of cannibalism inevitably followed  any discoveries of prehistoric remains. In 1871 American author Mark Twain weighed in on the subject in an essay later published in Life as I Find It: “Here is a pile of bones of primeval man and beast all mixed together, with no more damning evidence that the man ate the bears than that the bears ate the man—yet paleontology holds a coroner’s inquest in the fifth geologic period on an ‘unpleasantness’ which transpired in the quaternary, and calmly lays it on the MAN, and  hen adds to it what purports to be evidence of CANNIBALISM. I ask the candid reader, Does not this look like taking advantage of a gentleman who has been dead two million years....”

In the century after Twain’s remarks, archaeologists and physical anthropologists described the hominids Australopithecus africanus, Homo erectus and H.neanderthalensis as cannibalistic. According to some views, human prehistory from about three million years ago until very recently was rife with cannibalism. But in the early 1980s an important critical assessment of these conclusions appeared. Archaeologist Lewis Binford’s book Bones: Ancient Men and Modern Myths argued that claims for early hominid cannibalism were unsound. He built on the work of other prehistorians concerned with the composition, context and modifications of Paleolithic bone assemblages. Binford emphasized the need to draw accurate inferences about past behaviors by grounding knowledge of the past on experiment and observation in the present. His influential work coupled skepticism with a plea for methodological rigor in studies of prehistoric cannibalism.

Next : Standards of Evidence


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