Book Review: The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy
Cannibalism as a topic of interest in both general and anthropological way has got many people concerned in the last few years. One of the people principally liable for the revival of this topic is William Arens. He wrote the book, “The Man- Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy” in 1979. There have been numerous suggestions by researchers indicating that cannibalism has nutritional benefits, for instance, in the case of Aztec cannibalism that had its basis on a prolonged animal proteins shortage (White, 2014, pg.18). Evaluation of this and other hypotheses on cannibalism poses serious problems since its only very few people who have written about cannibalism that have witnessed the actual act. Second-hand accounts on cannibalism are usually unreliable and generalized. For this reason, the need for critical examination of cannibalism has always been there. This book by William Arens provides a solution to this problem where an individual can get a chance to evaluate the past and current-day evidences on cannibalism. Whereas this book comprises of numerous stimulating ideas, it falls short for its lack of comprehensiveness and objectivity. A large part of the book, around two-thirds, is an examination of what William contemplates being the six “classic examples” of cannibalism. These examples include the Fore of New Guinea, the Aztecs, the Tupinamba of Brazil, Subsaharan Africans, the Caribs, and the general pre-historic societies. In his argument, William says that cannibalism is a noticeable phenomenon by nature and therefore cannibalism evidence should be based on reliable observations. He analyzes various accounts of cannibalism questioning whether the observers had the capability of making reports they had made, whether they were first-hand or hearsay reports, and whether there might be existing ulterior motives upon which a certain group was labeled “cannibal”. In each of the accounts, William finds the evidence presented to be unconvincing. He concludes that, save for the case of Donner Party where people had to turn to cannibalism for survival, there are no existing documented accounts of indicating that cannibalism was a socially accepted practice in a given culture at a given time in the past. Williams then questions the presence of rumors, allegations, and suspicions on cannibalism regardless of the fact that there is no substantial evidence. He goes on to address this question in the rest part of the book. Giving the answers to this question in a chapter titled “ The Myth of Anthropophagy”, William links the unsubstantiated reports on existence of cannibals to the fact that people believe that others are cannibals so that they can maintain a cultural boundary. Such a cultural boundary permits individuals to view such groups as less human. In history, such a belief was employed in justification of either a political or military action taken against the “cannibal” groups. William concludes the book with a chapter entitled “The Myth of Anthropology”. In this chapter, he accuses anthropology of inadvertent perpetuation of cannibalism. He argues that accounts of cannibalism in anthropology serve in reinforcement of the public belief that there are other cultures massively different from our culture. This belief justifies anthropologists’ existence since they serve as interpreters of such cultures. In the arrangement of his evidence, William achieves different degrees of success. He comes out as very persuasive in his examination of cannibalism among the Caribs and the Fore. He explains that many explorers of European origin were secretly skeptical of the cannibalism reports in the Caribbean though they were aware of the value attached to reporting of cannibalism existence back to Spain. Years ahead, settlers from Spain started regularly to refer the Caribs and other indian groups as cannibals so that they would justify their subjugation and enslavement. The number of groups identified as cannibals increased with increase in demand for native labor. Among the Fore, cannibalism was subject to extensive publicity due to its alleged role in the transmission of an unusual and incapacitating slow-viral infection in highland New Guinea referred to as Kuru. For working on this disease as the principal investigator, Dr.D. Carleton Gajdusek was given the Nobel Prize award for working on the particular subject (Friedlander, 2003, pg.111). Williams reviewed the materials that had been published, carried an examination of the correspondence of the field workers who investigated the disease and finally communicated with Dr.Gajdusek in person. Dr. Gajdusek refutes existence of straight medical evidence linking Kuru disease to cannibalism. He goes on to confess that there were no direct observations of Fore cannibalism noted by the researchers. The link between cannibalism and Kuru was an uncertain hypothesis. Such case studies coupled with other examples offered by William suggest that there was a willingness to accept cannibalism existence devoid of concrete evidence. William succeeds in proving that reports of cannibalism have been accepted uncritically, and cannibalism occurrence has possibly been overestimated. He however undermines the effects of a significant idea by maintaining that no direct accounts on cannibalism exist. His literature survey is choosy.
White, Tim D. Prehistoric Cannibalism at Mancos 5mtumr-2346. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. Internet resource.
Friedlander, Mark P. Outbreak: Disease Detectives at Work. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co, 2003. Print.
Arens, William. The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. New York: Oxford University Press. 1979. Print.