Anthropological Quarterly 75.2 (2002) 433-436
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There are very few topics in anthropology that are as exotic as cannibalism. We might like to think of ourselves as open-minded and adventurous, but we nevertheless still recoil at the thought of eating human flesh. Cannibalism, as much as any other practice, still represents a limit to cultural relativism. However, as a consequence of colonialism and evangelization, cannibalism is almost entirely a thing of the past. Nowadays, the only way to study it is through the testimony of witnesses who have eaten either co-socials in funerals (endocannibalism), or victims of confrontations with neighboring groups (exocannibalism).
In Consuming Grief, Beth A. Conklin and her informants describe the ways in which funerary cannibalism was practiced until the 1960s by the Indians of the western Amazonian rainforest. According to the author, Wari' practice of endocannibalism is embedded in the way social relations are constructed among the Wari'—especially between consaguines and affines—and in how they see themselves as part of a world in which human/animal identity is fluid in this life, as well as in the afterlife. Conklin shows that funerary cannibalism was a main component of a grieving process in which causing the body of the deceased "to disappear" helped the family and friends to come to terms with their loss more easily and more quickly. [End Page 433]
The book is divided in four well integrated parts. The first part, "Contexts," opens with a synthetic chapter on "Cannibal Epistemologies" that, as its title suggests, takes us through the different types of evidence that cannibalism has existed as a social practice in human history. This book is a convincing challenge to William Arens' (1979) claim, in The Man-Eating Myth, that cannibalism is purely a Western construct. The chapter also puts into perspective Amazonian cannibalism by comparing it to medicinal cannibalism carried out for centuries in Europe.
Chapter Two, "Wari' Worlds," presents an in-depth description of Wari' social organization and environment both as they were before the contact with Europeans (who tried to put a stop to the cannibalistic tradition) and as they evolved in the post-contact period. "Cultural Collisions" relates the Westerners' reaction to their encounter with the Wari' and, especially, to their discovery of Wari' cannibalistic funerary practices. The conquerors soon pressured the Wari' to abandon these practices and to adopt the custom of burying corpses instead of eating or cremating them.
The second part of the book, entitled "Motifs and Motives," aims to answer why and how the Wari' practiced endocannibalism. In Chapter Four, Conklin depicts Wari' funerals in rich detail, as they were before and after the contact, and offers accounts of Wari' perspectives on illness and death. In "Explanations of Eating," she takes us on an intellectual journey through the various classical explanations of cannibalism: lack of proteins in the diet, sublimation of aggression, respect for the ancestors, desire to incorporate the essence of the deceased into one's own body, etc.
In the third part, "Bodily Connections" Conklin examines the ways in which the individual's body and its components are fitted into a network of social relations. Those relations are in part intertwined through the exchange of bodily fluids (Chapter Six) between parents and children, lovers, and consanguines. Conklin explains why only affines could consume a corpse without any danger and how this act reinforced existing ties among consanguines and affines. Chapter Seven, "Embodied Identities," focuses once again on the body, but this time the author clarifies the ways in which the body serves as a central concept for defining Wari' juxtaposed identities. Through the exchange of fluids and food, the Wari' find themselves anchored in the community and can adopt various identities as they move from childhood to womanhood or manhood. We are treated to a discussion of Wari' conceptions of mind, body and emotions and the complex relations between these elements. In "Burning Sorrow," a chapter about how funerary cannibalism served...