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Ethnohistory 49.3 (2002) 671-685

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Review Essays

Flesh or Fantasy:
Cannibalism and the Meanings of Violence

Dan Beaver
Pennsylvania State University

Cannibalism and the Colonial World. Edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.)
The Anthropology of Cannibalism. Edited by Laurence R. Goldman. (Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1999.)
Sacrifice as Terror: The Rwandan Genocide of 1994. By Christopher C. Taylor. (Oxford: Berg, 1999.)
Dancing through Time: A Sepik Cosmology. By Borut Telban. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.)

A Problem in the History of Violence

Cannibalism evokes, as few other phenomena, a range of reflection from the most sublime metaphors of religious sacrifice to images of the most extreme murderous cruelty. Across cultures the notion of humans eating other humans pervades belief and behavior, assuming many forms of expression in language, myth, symbol, and ritual. Yet the passions aroused by cannibalism, the moral terms too often clouding debate, tend to compound difficult problems of evidence, making this common aspect of human culture among the most difficult to study. As native accounts may express myth and metaphor—the past practice of cannibalism often being difficult to verify—the accounts of mariners and missionaries may reflect merely their assumptions, prejudices, fantasies. Archaeological evidence of mass graves, containing bones stripped of flesh, presents its own familiar interpretive [End Page 671] difficulties, as excarnation has been a common means of disposing of corpses in many cultures. 1 The discursive and practical complexities of cannibalism have resulted in a variety of interpretations and no lack of controversy, although the work under review suggests few scholars deny the existence of the phenomenon and equally few accept at face value such "evidence" as Peter Martyr's nightmare account of the cannibal butcher shops among the Caribs, published in the early sixteenth century. 2 As a matter of social practice, cannibalism has remained important in many ethnographic fields, the most important for present purposes being Papua New Guinea, the research field of the majority of contributors to the volume edited by Laurence Goldman, The Anthropology of Cannibalism. Because accusations of cannibalism have been used in the past to assert moral superiority, however, recent discussions of the phenomenon have also confronted general issues of social scientific method. Historically, the term cannibal often has expressed the unreflective hatred and distrust of one culture for another, leading some scholars to approach the term as a metaphor for the "primitive" or "savage," likely to reveal more about the observer than the observed. Indeed, this cannibal metaphor has extended in contemporary fiction to the "savage" excesses of the American financial elite of the 1990s. 3 As Neil Whitehead has recently argued, "The cannibal is resurgent as an anticolonialist, antimodernist sign, as with other ‘traditional' forms and poetics of violence seen in Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, Kosovo, and so forth." 4

In many cultures a complex discourse of cannibalism makes analysis of this violent social practice exceedingly difficult. Among its other capacities, this discourse conceives stereotypes of the most vicious insiders and outsiders, such as European representations of witches and cannibals practicing ritual infanticide, and the use of such images in everyday settings may transform an act of violence into an expression of pure evil. An example from the annals of survival cannibalism illustrates the problem. 5 During the German siege of Leningrad from 1941 to 1943, the Russian sappers who dynamited the frozen earth of cemeteries to make graves observed shoulders, arms, and thighs missing from many of the bodies brought on sleds for burial and reasonably inferred some of the starving population had taken the flesh for food. Although such practices were tacitly accepted only under the worst privations of the siege, this treatment of body and flesh in any event was not prohibited by law. At the same time, however, nightmare rumors circulated in the city of cannibal fraternities assembling for special feasts and insisting on freshly killed human flesh. 6 The important evidence of postmortem violence from survival cannibalism is more difficult to evaluate because it is contextually related to less credible rumors of...


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pp. 671-685
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Archived 2004
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