Atlantic History Cannibalism
by
Kelly L. Watson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0307

Introduction

Cannibalism has loomed large in the Western historical imagination for millennia. The 5th-century BCE Greek historian Herodotus devoted considerable attention to the practice of anthropophagy, or man-eating, on the edges of the Greek-influenced world. In classical Mediterranean sources, the paradigmatic anthropophagite was almost always a member of a group like the Scythians, peoples who resided at the edge of the “civilized” world. The preoccupation with man-eating among so-called “savages” is perhaps the most consistent thread from Herodotus to Christopher Columbus. But it is not until the arrival of Europeans in the Americas that the word “cannibal” actually appears; the term derives from the root Carib, referring to one of the cultural groups who inhabited the islands in the sea that now bears their name. Thus, while man-eating, or at least writing about man-eating, has existed for millennia, the “cannibal” was not truly born until 1492. As European empires conquered, converted, enslaved, and killed indigenous Americas over the next five centuries, cannibalism remained a prominent discursive thread. When Europe shifted its imperial focus to Africa and Southeast Asia, the trope of cannibalism followed. In other words, as European empires traveled, they continually rediscovered “savagery” and “cannibalism.” There have been vibrant debates concerning the veracity of claims of cannibalism among non-European peoples, but satisfactory proof is elusive. This does not necessarily mean that all claims of cannibalism were fabricated in order to slander groups and justify their conquest. Some credible archaeological and textual evidence exists for certain acts of man-eating; the difficulty, however, lies in finding definitive proof of cannibalism as a widespread cultural practice. There is evidentiary support for sporadic acts cannibalism in nearly every part of the world even into the modern day: from the French village of Sancerre in 1572–1573 to the city of Leningrad in 1941–1942. In other words, while evidence exists to conclude that indigenous peoples in America and Africa engaged in acts of anthropophagy, they were certainly not the only people to consume other humans. The recent study of cannibalism has moved away from simply attempting to confirm or deny its existence toward analyzing the meaning of accusations of cannibalism within imperial structures. What did it mean to be accused of cannibalism? How did it change people’s lives? How was cannibalism used as a justification for cruelty and conquest? Or conversely, how was man-eating itself used as a tactic to gain control over others? Much of the early modern historical record of anthropophagy reveals more about the preoccupation of conquerors with the “savage” practices of those they wished to conquer, than it actually proves about the consumption of one human being by another.

General Works

At the moment, there is no single text that comprehensively explores the subject of anthropophagy in the Atlantic world. Most academic scholarship about cannibalism comes from the discipline of anthropology, but other fields have not been silent. The following represent some of the most wide-ranging scholarly accounts of cannibalism from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. No single work has been more controversial across the disciplinary spectrum than Arens 1980. While Arens’s arguments about the inadequacy of the historical record of cannibalism and the profound ethnocentrism of earlier anthropologists and scholars who wrote about man-eating are not widely accepted today, his book represents a significant shift in the literature toward thinking about cannibalism both as an act and as an “othering” strategy. Several of the works below directly confront Arens (Goldman 1999, Sanday 1986) while others offer alternative ways to view cannibalism through the lenses of psychology, philosophy, or literary theory (Avramescu 2011, Kilgour 1990, Lestringant 1997, Sagan 1974). Whitehead 2011 is a helpful introduction to the historiography of cannibalism and to some of the key primary sources. More recently, several works have sought to contextualize cannibalism within the larger Atlantic context (Watson 2015) or within the field of natural sciences (Schutt 2017).

  • Arens, William. The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this foundational and controversial work, anthropologist William Arens argues that there has never been a proven instance of cannibalism as an institutionalized cultural practice. Accordingly, he asserts that scholars and observers have willfully misinterpreted the evidence of cannibalism in order to fit their worldviews.

  • Avramescu, Cătălin. An Intellectual History of Cannibalism. Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the more recent general works on cannibalism, this book examines man-eating largely as a philosophical concept that has shaped the way that Western societies understand savagery.

  • Goldman, Laurence R., ed. The Anthropology of Cannibalism. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 1999.

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    This collection of essays brings together the work of anthropologists who examine cannibalism across the globe. Don Gardner’s essay, “Anthropology, Myth, and the Subtle Ways of Ethnocentrism,” includes a particularly useful overview of the difficult task of studying cannibalism and culture.

  • Kilgour, Maggie. From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

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    Kilgour focuses on cannibalism as a metaphor in Western literature revealing its importance in establishing foundational dichotomies (inside/outside, self/other, consumer/consumed, etc.). Her analysis of the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist and its anthropophagous associations is particularly insightful.

  • Lestringant, Frank. Cannibals: The Discovery and Representation of the Cannibal from Columbus to Jules Verne. Translated by Rosemary Morris. The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics 37. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

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    Originally published in French as Le cannibale: grandeur et décadence in 1994, Lestringant analyzes cannibalism as both a literary device and historical practice. He is particularly concerned with the ways that European writers used the figure of the New World cannibal as a cultural mirror. This work is especially useful in its detailed analysis of the rhetorical existence of the “noble” and “ignoble” American cannibal.

  • Sagan, Eli. Cannibalism: Human Aggression and Cultural Form. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

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    Eli Sagan elucidates the psychological reasons for, and purposes of, acts of anthropophagy. Although Sagan’s analysis may feel slightly far-fetched to historians, psychoanalytic analyses of cannibalism have been very influential.

  • Sanday, Peggy Reeves. Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511607790E-mail Citation »

    Sanday aims to challenge many preconceived ideas, particularly those within the field of anthropology, about the origins and functions of cannibalism. Drawing from psychoanalysis, she contends that cannibalism is linked not only with murky notions of savagery but also with a culture’s understandings of the concepts of Self and Other.

  • Schutt, Bill. Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquian Books, 2017.

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    Zoologist Bill Schutt examines cannibalism among humans and a wide range of animals. In particular he focuses on the way that environmental and social stressors lead to “outbreaks of cannibalism.” Schutt’s account, while aimed at a popular audience nonetheless asks a number of important questions about how and why animals consume their own.

  • Watson, Kelly. Insatiable Appetites: Imperial Encounters with Cannibals in the North Atlantic World. Early American Places Series. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814763476.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Rather than engaging in debates about the inherent truth of European accounts of indigenous cannibalism, this book primarily examines cannibalism as a meaningful category in the historical formation of empire in North America. In particular Insatiable Appetites brings to light the role of gender in accounts of indigenous cannibalism through 1763.

  • Whitehead, Neil. Of Cannibals and Kings: Primal Anthropology in the Americas: Latin American Originals. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    Bringing together some of the earliest and best European accounts of cannibalism in the Americas along with a detailed introduction to the subject, this book is a particularly useful starting point for those beginning their research on cannibalism in the Atlantic World.

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