The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropophagy and Anthropology by William Arens (1979) examines the evidence or lack thereof in determining what constitutes cannibalism or anthropophagy. Throughout history anthropologists as well as other “explorers” have encountered numerous peoples throughout the world. During their fieldwork they have gathered data which suggest the practice of cannibalism within the communities. There have been countless documents which have substantiated the claim of cannibalism in distant countries. This data has been accepted as fact but in actuality these assumptions contain more fiction that validity.
Arens has addressed this issue by scrutinizing these documents and providing secondary information that sheds light on the initial discoveries. Anthropophagy has been an ongoing topic for thousands of years. Cannibals are viewed as exotic, barbaric people whom lack the civilization to realize their customs are inane and fundamentally wrong. Due to this fact, foreign communities have been labeled cannibals to justify ethnocentric views and actions: “This avenue of inquiry has led to the conclusion that our culture, like many others, finds comfort in the idea of the barbarian just beyond the gates. (p. 184) Anthropologists, for this reason, have substantiated accusations of cannibalism or anthropophagy without concrete evidence supporting these statements. “…and almost every anthropologist considers it a sacred duty to report that the people studied and lived among were in the past or just recently eaters of their own kind. “(p. 8-9) This agenda is detrimental in finding the actual characteristic of a people because the researchers’ views become clouded by the cannibalistic fascination.
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Anthropologist began to formulate ficticous accounts of anthropophagy by combining previously submitted documents along with miniscule true accounts: “…we are to judge by the eye of reason, and not from common account. “(p. 9) First person evidence is the only credible way of substantiating or refuting the argument of cannibalism. Hearsay is only circumstantial in finding the truth on the subject. Arens’ experience with the tribal people in Tanzania added more depth to the anthropophagy debate. While in the field, Arens notice the Tanzanian people referring to him as Mchinja-chinja.
Curious of the meaning, Arens asked his guide what the meaning was. Arens was told the meaning of Mchinja-chinja was blood-sucker. “… I learned early on that the majority of the inhabitants either had suspicions or were convinced that I consumed human blood. “(p. 12) This evidence gives rise to the assumption people do not require ample evidence to conclude that a person or a group of people foreign to themselves is or was a cannibal. “… their belief in this common variation on the cannibalism theme without a shred of concrete evidence. “(p. 13) The reason this generalization is prevalent is because everyone is an “other” to someone. In contrast to this critical position, the idea that Africans, Polynesians, New Guineans, American Indians are or were man-eaters until contact with the benefits of European influence is assumed to be in the realm of demonstrated fact. “(p. 19) The theory of “others” is associated heavily with anthropology because it helps justify the agenda of “explorers”. Being an “other” helps substantiate the assumptions made by travelers arriving in distant lands. The explorers encounter new lands inhabited by people who possess things of value. The easiest way to relinquish them of their possessions is to prove they do not deserve them.
Being barbaric and uncivilized was reason enough to strip a people of their belongings, to conquer and assimilate them to western civilization. This mindset causes the accepted documentation to be skewed and inaccurate; creating a pattern of savagery for future generations to reference. An example of this is seen in Hans Staden’s story of his journey. Hans Staden, a 16th century seaman, supposedly spent a little less than a year as a captive in America. During his stay Staden was captive as well as a guest. He recalled the tribal people whom inhabited his location as being cannibalistic.
Staden spoke of an extremely detailed display of savagery. Staden explained how the captives were in cages and he heard women taunting him, saying “they would eat him”. He was brought, bound, to a spot designated by the painted females were they again taunted him. He then speaks of seeing a victim who is set next to a fire, and then killed by a warrior. The women then begin to collect the body and the village begins to celebrate. “I was present and have seen all this with my own eyes. “(p. 23) The Staden example shows the stylized depiction associated with tribal eople. Cannibalism was and is a fascination that has weaved itself into history, although no solid proof has ever been found. Staden’s account has no validity because of the clearly obvious problems within the story. Staden, a 16th century seaman, was able to communicate with a group of people whom didn’t share the same dialect after being around them for less than a year. Secondly, how was it possible for Staden to survive this “experience” if he was being prepared to be eaten? The majority of the so-called “cannibal documents” are similar to the Staden account.
It is evident the authors of these accounts are referencing the same source documents to acquire their first hand experiences. “The main point is that Staden and other seafarers of the time were most likely already convinced of Tupinamba savagery and cannibalism before they set foot on the continent, since the idea already had currency. “(p. 28) Staden wasn’t the only explorer of his time who decided to record their adventures. These men all traveled separately and weren’t connected to each other in anyway, but somehow they seemed to have experienced the same exact situation.
Through three different accounts the same experiences are felt, almost word for word. “For example, Las Casas, in his History of the Indies, also written in the sixteenth century, reproduces a letter from some unnamed Portuguese priest among the Tupinamba who describe the cannibalistic rite and point out that the victim says to his executioner ‘that in his day he too killed his enemies, and that his relatives remain to avenge his death. ‘”(p. 29) A Frenchman stationed in Brazil also commented on the Tupinamba as cannibals. “Are you not of the nation called Margaias, who are our enemies?
Have you not killed and eaten our parents and friends? “(p. 29) Finally, an English man witnessed the exact same situation take place: “I am he that hath killed many of thy Nation and will kill thee. ” (p. 29) These accusations provided Europeans with enough “evidence” to go throughout the world attempting to civilize the cannibals they came across. Cannibalism as a whole has been perpetuated by the necessity to conquer foreign territories. Anthropophagy gives would be explorers the “moral” right to invade communities stripping them of their possessions and culture in hope of bringing them to the level of western civilization.
Evidence of this form of assistance has been seen throughout history. Most noticeably, the Aztec Indians were ravaged by Cortes and his search for gold. Cortes expressed that the Aztecs were uncivilized and barbaric. The Spaniards ransacked the civilization stripping it of all it possession and at the same time killing off its people. To justify this large scale genocide, the easiest thing to do was dehumanize the Aztecs. “Sometime shortly after the Conquest, it became apparent that in addition to being idolaters the Aztecs were both sodomists and cannibals. “(p. 58)
Arens addresses the issue of cannibalism or anthropophagy as being associated to “others”. Whether a person is from Spain or a remote part of Africa, the foreigner will be classified in a derogatory manner. This is evident throughout the world by each individual’s ethnocentric views. The necessity for superiority is embedded in every culture no matter how sophisticated or simplistic. The necessity to substantiate these claims however, isn’t a priority. “The most certain thing to be said is that all cultures, subcultures, religions, sects, secret societies, and every other possible human association have been labeled anthropophagic by someone. (p. 139) Evidence is the key in determining which groups of people fall within the category of anthropophagy. Arens doesn’t classify individuals in this category; he instead gives examples of false classification. Whether a person is or isn’t a cannibal isn’t the issue. What is at the core of this argument is documentation. The association of a group of people to anthropophagy without proper support to substantiate the claims provides the imagination with room to grow. This has been the case throughout history. One person, Herodotus, in the 5th Century B. C. mentioned people in distant lands resorted to barbaric acts. …felt compelled to inform his readers in the fifth century B. C. that some unknown people, far beyond the pale of civilization, resorted to this barbaric custom. ” Since this point in history, future generations have “borrowed” thoughts of cannibalism from their predecessors. Countries throughout the world have written on the exotic acts barbaric and savage tribes’ people have participated in, however no solid facts have been submitted to solidify these remarks. The questions remains, If cannibalism is obviously so prevalent throughout distant societies why is finding a piece of concrete evidence so difficult?
The answer to this question is because there is no need for evidence. Ethnocentrism is all that is need to substantiate the claims of individuals who say they have witnessed cannibalism. Societies vie to be the most superior and sophisticated civilizations. In this respect it makes sense to belittle competitors for these accolades. These sentiments are passed through the society reaching every part of community until mere thoughts become reality???fact. An example of this is of a German graduate student. He searched meticulously to find actual account of cannibalism but came up short. His search of all the publications from the sixteenth to the twentieth century had failed to produce a single first-hand account of the act itself in this, one of the last preserves of man-eaters. Almost all of the books he read mentioned its existence, but as unusual they were relying on other sources which never materialized as eyewitness accounts. “(p. 173) After concluding his research the graduate student told his professor of his finding and they concluded: “…in light of their knowledge of the massive available evidence on cannibalism for this cultural area, he was mistaken. (p. 174) Although his professors never glanced at the documents their ethnocentric ideas dictated their actions. There prejudices toward cannibalism overrode their graduate students meticulously work in examining documents because in their eyes: “…these were South American Indians, not civilized Europeans. “(p. 174) The solution to this problem is taking each instance with a grain of salt. Whether they are cannibals or not, there needs to be clear cut evidence that substantiates any data collected.
The previously accepted way of solidify truth needs to be re-evaluated as to safeguard the reputation of peoples of the world. If this comes to pass the ideal of hearsay being fact will cease to exist as it has in the past: “Now the notion of a flying sect of heretics had great advantages: it made it possible to account for assemblies which were frequent and often vast, and which nevertheless nobody ever saw. “(p. 185) This new way of addressing cannibalism with finally create a conclusion, a solid conclusion, whether it is fact or fiction.