Man-eating Myth

Donald K Pollock (
19 May 1995 12:29 EDT

Bruce Scott responded to Thomas Gross's question about THE MAN-EATING MYTH with

>Much of the disagreement I read about (Sahlins vs Harris, for example)
>focusses on the reasons for it, not on whether or not it took place.

The book in question, by William Arens, takes up precisely the question of
whether or not it took place. Arens examines a number of 'classic' examples of
cannibalism to suggest that reports are largely unreliable, and in many cases
may have been motivated by a desire to 'animalize' enemies/others. The soft
version of Arens's argument has, I suspect, considerable support in the
(professional) anthropological community: that charges of cannibalism or
of cannibalism have political consequences, that charges or reports are much
more frequent than 'actual' cannibalism as a cultural practice, etc. Arens
willing to be convinced that a few of the classic reports may be accurate, but
his suspicions are healthy.

As for subsequent work, Gross might check the special volume of Ethos(?) on
cannibalism in New Guinea, which includes at least one first-hand report by an
anthropologist, and also Beth Conklin's article on Wari ritual mortuary
cannibalism that appeared in the American Ethnologist, March 1995, as I recall.
The cannibalism question is also, in part, a matter of what counts; Yanomamo
burns corpses and mix the ashes with a plantain drink, which is then consumed.
It may not be the fantasy image of cannibalism, but it expresses the intentions
often attributed to endocannibalism.

Bon appetit!