A Generous Quantity of Fat

Paul Henley

  • Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American South-West by Christy Turner and Jacqueline Turner
    Utah, 512 pp, US $60.00, January 1999, ISBN 0 87480 566 X
  • Cannibalism and the Colonial World edited by Francis Barker and Peter Hulme
    Cambridge, 309 pp, £13.95, August 1998, ISBN 0 521 62118 6
  • Cannibals: The Discovery and Representation of the Cannibal from Columbus to Jules Verne by Frank Lestringant, translated by Rosemary Morris
    Polity, 256 pp, £39.50, April 1997, ISBN 0 7456 1697 6
  • Chronicles of the Guayakí Indians by Pierre Clastres, translated by Paul Auster
    Faber, 256 pp, £9.99, June 1998, ISBN 0 571 19398 6

Even before it was published, Christy and the late Jacqueline Turner’s Man Corn provoked media hubbub. Last November, the New Yorker published a long profile of Christy Turner, and soon afterwards the story was picked up in Britain. The Times dedicated half a page to a discussion of the book’s findings, and even reflected on them in a leader. Turner, a biological anthropologist from Arizona with a reputation for being something of a loner, has become such a media celebrity that he now has an agent. Recently, he declined to give an interview to a British television company on the grounds that he was already contractually obliged to a US company making a programme for Channel 4.

On the face of it, this degree of interest in a work of academic anthropology is extraordinary, for Man Corn is a scholarly text, drily descriptive, without literary pretensions. It wouldn’t sell in an airport bookstore – for a start, it is far too heavy, being somewhat bulkier than a portable PC. More significantly, most of its five hundred pages are dedicated to a review, with many supporting photographs, of skeletal collections excavated from 76 sites in and around Chaco Canyon, a remote gulch in the sagebrush desert of New Mexico. It is an extremely detailed review and under normal circumstances would engage the interest only of the most dedicated specialist.

These are not normal circumstances, however. The skeletal collections in question were made at various points over the last hundred years and pertain to a people known in the archaeological literature as the Anasazi. Their way of life reached its peak between the 10th and 12th centuries, as reckoned by the Christian calendar. From the ruins they left behind, it is clear that they were remarkable architects and engineers. Among their most celebrated achievements are the so-called Great Houses, large edifices erected from blocks of sandstone and sometimes reaching four storeys in height. The largest of them, Pueblo Bonito, contains 650 rooms and required more than thirty thousand carved blocks to build.

These Houses were connected by a network of roads built in dead straight lines over difficult terrain, with the benefit neither of draught animals nor of the wheel. The Anasazi also produced beautiful pottery decorated with white and black geometric designs, built sophisticated irrigation systems and erected astronomical and solar observatories. Man Corn, however, makes no attempt to deal in detail with any of these aspects of Anasazi society. Instead, it concentrates uncompromisingly on the bones, and attempts to read the society exclusively through them.

For reasons that remain obscure, the social system based in the Chaco Canyon came to a sudden end. Sometime around 1150 AD, the inhabitants of the Great Houses appear to have abandoned them, leaving behind granaries full of corn, sandals hanging on pegs, and vast quantities of pottery, grinding stones and baskets littered over the windswept landscape. The romantic trope of the Lost City, whose inhabitants seem suddenly to have vanished into thin air, has a powerful hold over the Euro-American imagination: Machu Picchu and Chichén Itzá are just two actual examples from the Americas that have inspired any number of imaginary ones. The Chaco ‘phenomenon’, as it was called in the title of an exhibition in New York, seemed to be another.

It was not this, however, that accounted for the media interest in Man Corn. What excited them was the Turners’ claim that half the skeletal collections they review provide evidence, not merely of violence and murder, but of a particularly brutal form of cannibalism. They note that ‘the vast majority’ of the remains show ‘abundant evidence of consideration and concern for the dead’, but they point this out only in passing; and the fact that cannibalism, if it was practised at all, was the exception rather than the rule tends to recede into the background.

The evidence for Anasazi cannibalism lies in what the Turners call the ‘taphonomic signature’ on the bones. The science of taphonomy, first developed by a Russian palaeontologist in the Forties, is the study of the post-mortem transformations of bone material, whether as the result of natural processes or of human agency. As the Turners suggest, it concerns the death history as opposed to the life history of an individual. In the case of the Chaco bones, this death history indicates that many of the individuals whose skeletons they examined had been murdered. (Christy Turner had been a forensic consultant to the local police department and was reminded of some of the more gruesome cases he had dealt with there.)

Even more sensationally, some of the Anasazi had been butchered in ways very similar to the faunal remains found at the same sites. The bones had been sawn into pieces and had had the meat scraped off them, or they had been smashed open, apparently to extract the marrow. Some even show evidence of having been cooked: either a tell-tale polish left on the bones from knocking on the rough inside of the Anasazi’s ceramic cooking pots indicates that they’d been boiled, or the bones (typically skulls) appear to have been roasted directly over a fire.

What has given this soberly scientific account added resonance is the belief that the Anasazi did not become extinct, but gave rise to the present-day Pueblo peoples of the region. This view is held not only by many South-West scholars, but also by the Native peoples themselves. Among the Hopi in particular, the Anasazi are revered as ancestors, though they reject the archaeologists’ name for them because it is derived from the language of their traditional enemies, the Navajo, for whom it means ‘ancestors of the enemy’. The Hopi’s own term, Hisatsinom, means simply ‘ancestors’.

The Turners’ work was therefore deemed to cast a slur on Pueblo peoples, associating them with a way of life entirely at odds with their current reputation as peaceful farmers who have sustained an autonomous spirituality based on principles of a harmonious relationship between all living beings. It was also a threat to the worldview of those Anglos (a South-West term for white non-Indian Americans) associated with the New Age movement, who think of themselves as the spiritual descendants of the Anasazi. The New Yorker reported that during the so-called Harmonic Convergence of 1987, thousands of New Agers gathered in the Chaco Canyon to chant, pray and hold hands. Even before that, one of the archaeological sites had had to be closed because too many New Agers were burying crystals there or illegally arranging to have their ashes scattered among the ruins.

Most of the academic critics who have taken part in discussions of the book recognise that the skeletal evidence for a limited cannibalism in Chaco Canyon is reasonably convincing. Inevitably, though, the motive remains a matter for speculation. Some specialists have suggested that it was a fate reserved for witches, whom, despite their general commitment to harmonious relations, the Pueblo peoples have been known to execute, mutilate and dismember in order to disperse their maleficent powers. This treatment, it has been argued, might have included symbolic rather than actual cannibalism.

The Turners’ claim that the cannibalism was real enough recently received strong independent endorsement, when another archaeologist, Brian Billman, excavated a 12th-century Anasazi site in the adjacent state of Colorado which contained remains of individuals who had clearly been murdered and whose bones bore the ‘taphonomic signature’ of cannibalism. Close to these remains, Billman’s team also discovered a human coprolite which, once subjected to an immunological assay, provided unambiguous scientific evidence that ingestion of human body parts had taken place.

The Turners’ own account of the motive behind this cannibalistic activity turns on the fact that such practices are confined to the peak period of Chaco Canyon society, both in time and space. Not only is there no subsequent evidence of cannibalism among Pueblo peoples but no evidence either of cannibalism at any time among neighbouring indigenous groups in the Great Plains or California. In fact, the closest group to practise cannibalism at roughly the same time as the Anasazi were the Toltec, the militaristic precursors of the Aztec in Central Mexico.

This provides the key to the Turners’ hypothesis. In brief, the argument is that, for some unexplained reason, marauding refugee bands of ‘warrior-cultists’ moved more than a thousand miles north into the Chaco Canyon region, following civil strife in the Toltec Empire. They brought with them the cult of the Feathered Serpent and its associated practices of cannibalistic sacrifice, which they used as an instrument of intimidation to impose themselves on the local population. Eventually, the social disruption they caused, probably exacerbated by drought, famine or some other natural disaster, brought about the collapse of the Chaco system in its entirety. This explanation, the Turners suggest, solves the long-standing mystery of the Anasazi’s sudden disappearance.

Most scholars acknowledge that key features of Pueblo culture originated in Mexico, including maize and cotton cultivation, and also their pottery. Chaco excavations have even produced the skeletons of macaws, which are thought to have been traded from the tropics. For their part, the Turners argue that actual individuals from Central Mexico rather than mere trade links account for the many cultural similarities, pointing to the presence in one of the skeletal collections from the relevant period of a mature individual with a characteristically Mexican form of dental mutilation.

But to move from a few notches in an old man’s teeth to positing the existence of pathological cult killers of the Charles Manson variety, to use the Turners’ own analogy (in interviews, Christy Turner has also drawn comparisons with Hitler, Genghis Khan and Stalin), who first terrorised and then destroyed Anasazi society, clearly requires a huge imaginative leap. Turner recognises that there is absolutely no ethno-historical evidence for any cult of this kind, but proposes hopefully that this may be because the prohibition on warfare enforced by the earliest Spanish colonial authorities ‘drove any such organisation underground’. But in the absence of any attempt to engage in an analysis of the social and cultural features of Anasazi society, Turner’s speculations about the motivation for this particular form of prehistoric cannibalism remain singularly unconvincing.

Whatever the academic strengths and weaknesses of Man Corn, the ideological significance of the hype surrounding it has been highly revealing. The Times leader was a predictable clarion call for respect for scientific fact even when (or did the writer mean particularly when?) it ran counter to the canons of political correctness and New Age spirituality. Since the Anasazi had disappeared even before the arrival of Europeans, it claimed that these new findings were one in the eye for those who claimed that all attested reports of cannibalism were simply a product of the colonial encounter. ‘Truth,’ it thundered vacuously, ‘must matter more than fashion in anthropology.’

That the contents of a single thousand-year-old turd should lead to such portentous conclusions is merely the most recent indicator of the importance of the cannibal in European thought. In the early days of empire, reports of cannibalism emanating from the ‘new world’ served to reinforce Europeans’ inclination to believe in the less-than-human status of those that practised it, and on occasion could be used as one more justification – if any were felt necessary – for destroying, enslaving or dispossessing them. At the same time, accusations of cannibalism were also turned inwards against the marginal peoples of Europe – the Wild Men who were supposed to inhabit the forests or the Jewish communities that had grown up in the inner cities.

But given the cultural ecumenicalism of the late 20th century it has become almost impossible to accept that any group of human beings could indulge in cannibalism. The frontier marked by the cannibal now lies further out: other creatures may consume their own kind, perhaps the Neanderthals indulged in it long ago, but Homo sapiens sapiens has only ever done so under the most extraordinary circumstances.

Rather than accept that anthropophagy has ever been a cultural norm among any particular group of human beings, it has become the orthodoxy to question the validity of the original testimonies. The bien pensant reaction now is to attribute any reported instances to pathological circumstances that arose as a result of European colonialism, or simply to dismiss them as the fantasies or self-interested fabrications of the colonial sources. Even in academic anthropology, supposedly a discipline that promotes an awareness and appreciation of cultural difference, the figure of the cannibal has become subject to much sceptical discussion.

It is this attitude which informs Cannibalism and the Colonial World. The early chapters consider a number of classic accounts of anthropophagy. Peter Hulme shows how the brief report of the ship’s doctor on Columbus’s second voyage in 1493, itself based on circumstantial evidence, was blown up out of all proportion by subsequent editors. Four or five human bones stolen from an abandoned village on Guadeloupe, which may have had nothing to do with cannibalism, were transformed in the course of many retellings into evidence for a human butcher’s shop, with dripping limbs hanging from the rafters and the inevitable cauldron bubbling away in the corner. In a similar vein, Gananath Obeyesekere argues that certain 19th-century texts which have been considered prime evidence for Fijian cannibalism should be read not as unimpeachable eye-witness testimony but rather as adventure stories or seamen’s yarns in which incidents of anthropophagy are no more than genre conventions.

Neither Hulme nor Obeyesekere is as sceptical as William Arens, whose well-known book, The Man-Eating Myth, was first published 20 years ago. Although he was careful not to deny the theoretical possibility of cannibalism, he claimed then that there was no reliable evidence for it. The book caught the spirit of the times and enjoyed great popular success. In the anthropological literature, on the other hand, Arens’s book attracted many dismissive reviews as well as numerous attempts to show that in this, that or the next part of the world, the evidence for cannibalism was irrefutable. Here, for the first time, he responds to his academic critics.

The title of his chapter, ‘Rethinking Anthropophagy’, is an ironic reference to Edmund Leach’s famous paper called ‘Rethinking Anthropology’ (Leach described Arens’s original argument as ‘absurd’). It is also ironic in that this turns out to be no rethink at all. Unrepentant, Arens declares that he stands entirely by his original thesis. As in The Man-Eating Myth, he sustains his position with much verve and style, but he does not confront in detail the many factual counter-demonstrations to the original argument. Instead, he takes to the moral high ground and claims that banal questions of truth or falsity do not interest him much: rather he is concerned with the more fundamental question of why anthropologists have conspired with other agents of Western colonialism to propagate these accounts of cannibalism.

One reason may be that there are grounds for thinking that these accounts are true: so it is not so easy to separate the grander question of anthropology’s complicity with colonialism from more mundane issues of verification. But whatever shortcomings it may have, Arens’s critique has the merit of encouraging a much closer reading of the original sources. In the latter part of his chapter, he gives a good example of how it can be done as he unpicks the supposedly watertight association between the incidence of kuru, a variant of CJD found among the Fore of the New Guinea Highlands, and the eating of human brains. This association is often cited as knock-down evidence in favour of the existence of cannibalism. But Arens claims that medical researchers and anthropologists relied on one another to make up for deficiencies in their data and that neither group ever directly witnessed the eating of human brains or, indeed, any other human body part.

Most of the remaining contributions to Cannibalism and the Colonial World are concerned less with the reality or otherwise of cannibalism than with its status as a metaphor. A number of chapters concern its use in a variety of contexts: the literature of the Brazilian modernismo movement and of post-colonial Guyana, Mexican horror movies, European nursery stories, Freudian psychology and so on. Others consider its resonance with more general aspects of the modern condition: the voraciousness of capitalism as a world system or the desperate attempt by the modern Cartesian Self to escape its lonely prison house through the indiscriminate incorporation of the Other. The range of topics covered is impressive but the quality of the analyses uneven and the general tone knowingly jocose: one contributor reveals that she ‘likes to have people for dinner’. Perhaps this is a sign that whatever its real-life status, cannibalism continues to evoke residual anxiety among cultural critics.

It is a curious fact that the French have generally been much more open to the idea of customary cannibalism than the Anglo-Saxons. Arens’s arguments have been dismissed in France as being on a par with those of the Holocaust negationists. The comparison is overblown, but there is a long French tradition of philosophical reflection on cannibalism, going back to the chroniclers associated with attempts to establish a colonial foothold on the coast of Brazil in the latter part of the 16th century. This strand of thought is the main focus of Frank Lestringant’s book.

Perhaps the best-known early exemplar of the tradition is Montaigne’s essay ‘On Cannibals’, first published in 1580 and largely based on ethnographic accounts of cannibal feasts by the Protestant Jean de Léry and the Catholic André Thevet, both of whom had lived for a time in the 1550s in a French colony on the present site of Rio de Janeiro. Montaigne supplemented these sources with interviews he carried out himself with some Brazilian Indians he met in Rouen in 1562. This is not as extraordinary as it might seem: Rouen was then the centre of an active trade in brazil wood, and Brazilian Indians had been regular visitors since the beginning of the century.

In the European imagination, these Brazilian testimonies soon displaced the much sketchier accounts produced by earlier Spanish expeditions to the Caribbean, and formed the basis for the long-running trope linking the Renaissance idea of the Brazilian Indians as protagonists of an Ovidian Golden Age to the modern idea of the Indian as wise ecologist, with the 18th-century idea of the Noble Savage as a staging-post. If Brazilian Indians continue even now to incarnate the possibility of an alternative form of human society based on egalitarianism and in perfect harmony with nature, they have done so only by sloughing off the association with cannibalism. In John Boorman’s Hollywood movie, The Emerald Forest, the cannibal Indians are the bad guys, in league with the dam-builders who will flood the forest and dispossess the friendly Indians who are the film’s heroes.

This is in line with Lestringant’s general argument that the once noble status of the cannibal in European thought has declined greatly over the centuries. Montaigne, he points out, played down the brutal physical facts of cannibalism, emphasising instead its ritual character and its association with an honourable form of warfare, and arguing that the European society of his time, with its Inquisitorial courts and Wars of Religion, indulged in far greater cruelties. But in the 18th century, a strong anti-primitivist strain emerged in the writings of Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers. This was reinforced in the 19th century, the high-water mark of European colonialism, when cannibalism came to be considered as confirmatory evidence of the inherent degeneracy and inferiority of its practitioners.

Lestringant’s book is a masterly review of a vast field, but strongest when dealing with the 16th-century texts. It was on these that the great early 20th-century Americanist, Alfred Métraux, relied when producing a modern reconstruction of the life of the Tupi-speaking peoples of the Brazilian Atlantic coast at the time of the European invasion. As an admirer of Méraux, Pierre Clastres, the author of Chronicle of the Guayakí Indians, would have been intimately acquainted with the accounts of cannibalism in the works of Thevet and Léry, as well as in the celebrated account of the German mercenary Hans Staden and in numerous Jesuit sources from the same period.

Little wonder then that Clastres was excited to discover evidence of cannibalism in the early Sixties among the Atchei, a recently contacted sub-group of Guayakí living in the forests of Paraguay. At that time, the Atchei were a small hunting and gathering group of no more than a hundred people, related, both culturally and linguistically, to the much more numerous and sedentary Tupi-speaking peoples of the Brazilian Atlantic coast described by the early chroniclers. They could even be their descendants, reduced to a nomadic way of life in the forest after fleeing inland from the Europeans.

Clastres’s Chronicle lies in the terrain midway between personal memoir and academic monograph already occupied by a number of well-known accounts of Amazonian Indian life by French writers, beginning with Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Troptques and exemplified most recently by Philippe Descola’s The Spears of Twilight. These books may have their roots in structuralist theory, but they are presented as chronicles of personal experience, loosely arranged within a diary-like narrative.

Clastres’s account was published in French in 1972 and an English translation was commissioned. Shortly before this was due to be published, Clastres was killed in a car crash, the publishing house went bankrupt and the manuscript of the translation was lost. It was miraculously rediscovered by the translator, Paul Auster, twenty years later. This delay has resulted in some anachronisms, notably in certain turns of phrase and the evocation of obsolete anthropological theories (e.g. the Atchei are described as a ‘primitive Stone Age tribe’), but they do not detract from the quality of the account, clearly based not merely on astute observation but also on intense identification with the Atchei themselves.

Interspersed with a couple of historical chapters and a number of remarkable black and white photographs, the book proceeds through a series of beautifully but economically described vignettes of the Atchei life cycle: birth, childhood, initiation, adult affairs such as sex, marriage and warfare, and finally, killing and death. Indeed, the ever-present threat of death stalks its pages. Not only are individuals constantly aware of the fragility of life, but the apparently imminent collective disappearance of the Atchei hangs like a dark cloud over all that they do. A complicated theory about the postmortem destiny of a person’s souls (Atcheiontology allows for two distinct types) provides an explanatory framework for aspects of their morality which are difficult for the European reader to countenance: the killing of children, the abandoning of the sick and the old to the jaguars of the forest and, finally, cannibalism.

Sensitised by Arens’s critique as we now are, Clastres’s enthusiastic enquiries into a subject which the Atchei were initially reluctant to discuss now read a little awkwardly. Nor did he personally witness any anthropophagous events, since the Atchei had been persuaded by the Paraguayan rancher to whom they were effectively indentured that these were not for European eyes. But everything that the Atchei had to say coincides well not only with the 16th-century accounts but with the frequent reports of anthropophagous practice, both real and metaphorical, that have emerged in the ethnography of Amazonia in the twenty-five years since Clastres’s book was first published. Although the Atchei were disposed to eat their enemies, it was primarily their own dead whom they ate. This was regarded by the living as a desirable fate: in that way, the ove soul would not be left lurking beside the rotting corpse, but would be free to make its way to the next world. Nor would it be lying in ambush to take the soul of a living relative with it. Since the deceased left no physical trace, the living could put their painful memory completely out of mind, secure in the knowledge that their own bodies, rather than the cold, unfeeling earth, had become the departed’s final resting place.

All this sounds rather noble, providing, after the manner of Montaigne, an image of cannibalism without teeth – to use Lestringant’s phrase – taking it out of the physical realm and giving it a ritual rationale that distantly echoes the more familiar Christian belief in transubstantiation. But Clastres goes further, claiming that although Atchei might eat the dead in order to protect themselves from wandering souls, they also actually liked the taste of human meat, particularly when there was a generous quantity of fat. This was reported by the 16th-century chroniclers, too, who claimed that the coastal Tupi, particularly the old women, would gather enthusiastically around the barbecue where human joints were roasting in order to catch the fat before it fell into the flames. In our own time, the Papuans who have talked to ethnographers about the cannibal feasts of their youth have also stressed how good human meat tastes.

This is surely where the idea of engaging in cannibalism becomes repugnant for most modern Europeans, particularly for those who write in English. It is easy enough perhaps to accept, even to appreciate, the ritual rationale for cannibalism. But for most of us without a medical training, the mere handling of a fresh corpse would be difficult enough, let alone dissecting it for dinner. That one would then find the meat delectable seems even more difficult to believe. Why francophone authors should be more tolerant of the idea is a matter that itself invites explanation. But then they have always had a more adventurous sense of the edible. After all, they eat horses, don’t they?