Sunday, October 9, 2011 - 0 comments

Once were Canibals : 4. Understanding Cannibalism

By : Tim D.White

IT REMAINS MUCH more challenging to establish why cannibalism took place than to establish that it did. People usually eat because they are hungry, and most prehistoric cannibals were therefore probably hungry. But discerning more than that—such as whether the taste of human flesh was pleasing or whether cannibalism
presented a way to get through the lean times or a satisfying way to get rid of outsiders—requires knowledge not yet available to archaeologists. Even in the case of the Anasazi, who have been well studied, it is impossible to determine whether cannibalism resulted from starvation or was rooted in religious beliefs,
or was some combination of these and other things. What is becoming clear through the refinement of the science of archaeology, however, is that cannibalism is part of our collective past.

ETHNOHISTORICAL REPORTS of cannibalism have been recorded for centuries in
many corners of the globe. Although some involve
well-documented accounts by eyewitnesses—such as the Donner Party expedition—other accounts by explorers, missionaries, travelers and soldiers often lack credibility. For example, these two artists’ portraits depict cannibalism catalyzed by starvation in
China in the late 1800s and a European view of cannibalism in the New World (based on a woodcut
from 1497). Such ethnohistorical accounts do not
carry the weight of archaeological and forensic evidence. They may, however, serve as rich sources of testable hypotheses, guiding future archaeological excavations.

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TIM D. WHITE is co-director of the Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also a professor in Berkeley’s department of integrative biology and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
White co-directs the Middle Awash research project in Ethiopia. His research interests are human paleontology, Paleolithic archaeology, and the interpretation of bone modification in contexts ranging from prehistoric archaeology to contemporary forensic situations.


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