Re: Anthropophagy

Gerold Firl (
6 Jan 1995 18:28:24 -0800

In article <3ejmah$> writes:

>Ortiz de Montellano's analysis is directed at the
>functionalist arguments of Harner (1977) and Harris (1978),
>that it was motivated by protien defficency. He notes that the sacrifices and
>accompanying cannibalism occured at times of resource abundance, rather than
>resource scarcity supporting the traditional idea that it was undertaken as
>thanksgiving offerings in a purely ritual context.

>From my slight exposure to Harris, I would suggest that such a simplistic
analysis seems out-of-character. Cultural systems are rarely amenable to
single-variable input-output type modelling. Cultural attributes appear to
exist within a matrix of interlocking reinforcement, which is one of the
reasons that cultures can be so resistant to change; you can't change one
thing without changing a bunch of other things at the same time. I would
suggest that a functional analysis should note the nutritional advantages of
aztec cannibalism, within the context of the lack of large domesticated
meat sources and the traditional high-status regard for such foods, as one
aspect of a multi-dimensional role for anthropophagy within aztec culture.

Harris very astutely points-out that ritual activities which result in
inefficient resource-utilisation put a culture at a competitive
disadvantage relative to neighboring cultures; this is one of the selection
mechanisms which determines which cultures survive, and which are subsumed.
Within an evolutionary perspective, it is a gross over-simplification to
say that the aztecs ate people "because" they needed the protein. (Note: I
do not know exactly what role the consumption of human flesh played in
aztec culture; I'm simply exploring the possibilities.) But I find it quite
plausible that within the aztec cultural complex, the physical consumption
of subject peoples could have worked in a very synergistic way to reinforce
the aztec policy of political and military domination of those peoples. Not
only is it a very powerful symbolic gesture, but it also provides high-
quality protein. Plus, it simplifies disposal of all those carcasses.

Say, the aztecs ate a lot of dog, right? I wonder what they fed those dogs?

> Eating people out of necessity, and for ritual purposes are two
>different things.

But with a very strong linkage. Rituals which increase the "fitness" of
society will tend to persist; those which diminish the ability of the host
culture to compete with neighboring cultures will tend to disappear. An
aztec cultural complex which used anthropophagy as both symbol and concrete
caloric instantiation of superiority over neighboring groups might be one
of those cultural mutations which gets rapidly amplified.

>A couple of questions to consider, who got to eat the
>victims? In otherwords, was this a privilege of a particular class of
>people or shared by the entire population. Also, what parts were eaten?
>Given the ritual nature of the event, it is likely that only certain organs
>or parts were consumed.

Good questions.

>I don't have the answers to these questions, but
>perhaps someone who has studied this for prelims or dissertation research will

Yes, I would hope that someone here has some actual data. Is there a
mesoamericanist in the house? %^)

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf