The edible dead
The glory that was York
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Editor Simon Denison
The edible dead
Cannibalism is rarely mentioned in archaeology textbooks. But there is clear evidence for cannibalism in almost every society and every period, writes Timothy Taylor
In the course of a single week in February, television audiences were exposed to two claims for cannibalism taking place in Britain in the mid-1st millennium BC. The first, in a Channel 4 documentary series, Cannibal, was based on cut-marked and split human long bones recently found at Eton in Berkshire. The second was part of a Time Team investigation into the 'Bone Cave', a substantial faunal deposit at Alveston near Bristol. Here, among many dog skeletons and various bits of a human, a fragment of thigh-bone showed a pattern of splitting which was interpreted as evidence for the deliberate extraction of marrow.
As academic consultant for the Channel 4 series, I expected some fall-out - people, by and large, don't like the idea of their own ancestors being described as cannibals - and I was not disappointed. Many archaeologists vigorously deny that cannibalism has ever been normal practice in Britain or elsewhere, in prehistory or at any more recent period.
Yet Eton and Alveston join a series of other sites around the world where similar interpretations have been made. In Britain the only other prehistoric (as opposed to modern forensic) material comes from Gough's (New) Cave in the Cheddar Gorge, dating to between 14,000 and 12,500 years ago. In continental Europe, examples include the extensively butchered remains of Homo antecessor from the Gran Dolina at Atapuerca in Spain, dated to sometime before 780,000 years ago.
Claims for cannibalism among Neanderthals (notably at Krapina in Croatia) and modern humans have also been advanced. Perhaps the most compelling evidence comes from the transitional Mesolithic-Neolithic site at Fontbr"goua Cave in south-eastern France, excavated by Paola Villa, where cut-marked human and deer bones occur in the same assemblages, apparently butchered in closely analogous ways.
In the Americas, work on Anasazi and Fremont Indian sites dating to just 1,000 years ago are considered by scholars such as Tim White, Christy and Jacqueline Turner, and Shannon Novak to display a pattern of systematic butchery and cooking of human bodies.
A distinctive protein, human myoglobin, has also been identified in a coprolite (or fossilised turd) from one of these sites.
Archaeological evidence for documented cannibalism associated with the mass ritual killings of the Aztecs is also now coming to light. Accounts of the Aztec ceremonies describe how choice elements, such as the heart and good leg meat, were eaten ritually at the élite level, with the remainder being cycled down through descending social levels. Numerous examples of small, spalled and weathered fragments of human bone consistent with these historical accounts have been found widely scattered outside the swept-clean temple precincts.
One of those who objected to our presentation of the evidence in Cannibal was the prehistorian and writer Paul Bahn. Although Bahn accepts some of the hominid evidence as 'survival cannibalism' or nutritional cannibalism of a sort, he strongly disputes the arguments for the modern-human material, both in Europe and the Americas.
Along with him, the Australian archaeologist Michael Pickering has argued that the Fontbrégoua evidence could as well be the product of ritual treatment of the dead, while Bahn argues that animals can be treated ritually no less than humans.
The claim for Anasazi cannibalism, and even the coprolite, have been similarly attacked. The alternative explanations are ritual activity on the one hand and, on the other, that the turd was either not of human origin or was excreted by someone suffering intestinal bleeding (ie, that it was the person's own myoglobin that had been preserved).
Why is it, then, that a growing number of archaeologists believe that cannibalism is a regularly-recurring cultural phenomenon, while others, equally thoughtful, believe that it is not? There may be a link here with Holocaust denial. Although Holocaust denial and scepticism over cannibalism cannot be equated politically or morally - the first is an attempt to neutralise collective guilt for the behaviour of one's own society, the second is motivated by the desire not to stigmatise other societies - they both suggest that, when a particular shocking form of human behaviour is not on open view, there is a tendency to deny the possibility of its existence.
The modern cannibalism controversy was sparked by the anthropologist William Arens in his 1979 book The Man-Eating Myth: anthropology & anthropophagy. In it he wrote: 'I am dubious about the actual existence of this act as an accepted practice for any time or place.' Police forensic evidence demonstrated that some serial killer psychopaths had eaten parts of their victims, while the Andes air crash of 1972 had brought home the fact that people will eat the dead when faced with starvation. But he considered these things uncharacteristic of humans under normal circumstances - a rare, extreme, desperate and pathological phenomenon.
Arens's thesis was that the label 'cannibal' was actually an accusation - a deliberately denigratory, and often imperialist, exercise in name-calling that had no basis in fact. He argued that as a slur it had its origins in the stories told by classical authors such as Herodotus, who wrote of a people living in Scythia called the Androphagi, literally the 'Man Eaters'. In the wake of Arens, revisionism of an invidious type set in. Today, one may search in vain for index references to cannibalism in 'introduction to anthropology' textbooks. Cannibalism is simply too non-PC even to mention.
Nowadays, cut-marked human bones are often interpreted as evidence for 'ritual funerary defleshing', a ceremony performed without any intention to eat the dead. Mary Russell, for example, has argued that the patterns of systematic cut-marks found on the 80 or so Krapina Neanderthals were 'consistent with post-mortem processing of corpses with stone tools, probably in preparation for burial of cleaned bones'.
There have, indeed, been anthropological observations of defleshing as part of non-cannibalistic funerary rites. However, this behaviour makes sense, to my mind, only against a knowledge of human edibility - put bluntly, to assuage the fear that if you do not deflesh your relatives, then other humans or animals will scavenge them. To back-project this sophisticated routine of ritual funerary defleshing onto Neanderthal communities is perverse.
Moreover, it does not explain where the 60 or more kilos of prime meat ended up - an issue that Russell fails to mention even once. Were her Neanderthals minded to feed their prime cuts to cave bears? Or would they have simply let them become flyblown and rot? A further problem is that, as Alban Defleur has proved, there is a clear pattern of Neanderthal burial which shows no cut marks. Scholars who oppose the possibility of cannibalism have to account for this cut-mark disparity.
Anthropologists have long recognised cases where the label 'cannibal' was denigratory and untrue. But alongside them they also accepted that there were classic cultural forms of cannibalism - reverential funerary endo-cannibalism (eating one's own); and aggressive, gustatory exo-cannibalism (eating one's enemies, having first branded them 'animals').
In denying the validity of these too, Arens had to carry disbelief to new levels and ignore the many eye-witness descriptions, while making bizarrely sexist judgements about others. Hans Staden's 17th century account of cannibalism among the Tupi of coastal Brazil was worthless, apparently, because in it most of the slaughter and consumption was instigated by women, something that Arens found inherently unbelievable.
Arens's whole short book was felt by many to be an academic sleight of hand. Among a sheaf of poor professional reviews, one (from PG Rivière in Man) presciently called it 'a dangerous book. With little work and less scholarship, it may well be the origin of a myth'. And so it turned out. Arens was in step with the PC-Zeitgeist, and his ideas were accepted in vague form by many who lacked the expertise to assess his claims.
The 19th century works that discussed the evidence for cannibalism were, undoubtedly, connected to imperialist interests. But the tribes they describe, such as the Bong-Bongo and the Fang, really existed and the ethnographers and race theorists who studied them, such as Du Chaillu and Schweinfurth, left detailed and, as far as one may judge without prejudice, open-minded descriptions of life among them. They describe societies in which only some people are cannibals, while others will share no drinking vessel with cannibals in their own community. They also tell us of the deliberate sequestration of gustatory cannibalism in the face of foreign visits. The king of Monbuttoo, for example, is reported to have been acutely sensitive to European's distaste in witnessing cannibalism.
The ethnographic record of cannibalism is not just that of Europeans reporting on traditional societies that they considered barbarous. James Cook's log shows transparently that he was motivated to find 'noble savages' and was at first highly sceptical and alert to all the possibilities of slander when he heard cannibal accusations made against the Fijians and others.
Ultimately, according to the sources we have, human flesh was cooked on board the Resolution and eaten as part of a demonstration on the quarterdeck by a group of Maoris in the shocked presence of the crew. Cook wrote an apologia for the Maoris, stressing their honesty, the difficulty that any nation has in breaking from tradition, and the fact that it was enemies that were eaten. 'I firmly believe they eat the flesh of no others,' he wrote.
Nor are first-hand cannibalism reports solely a commentary of Europeans on non-European peoples. The Inuk (Inuit) Eskimos reported that the starving sailors who tried to escape from the ice-bound Erebus and Terror, the ships of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated expedition to find the North-West Passage in 1845, started to eat each other, cooking the meat inside leather sea boots. Their claims were wholly dismissed as describing a behaviour impossible for British sailors.
These two expeditions, Cook's and Franklin's, provide us with the means of matching documentary reports of cannibalism with the archaeological record. For Fiji, the idea that there could be an archaeological 'signature' for the cannibalism thatCook knew about was promoted in 1951 by EWGifford of the University of California at Berkeley. Quantifying fragmented human bone against animal bone in midden sites allowed him to conclude that 'except for fish, man was the most popular of the vertebrate animals used for food'.
His insight has been consolidated by David DeGusta, who has demonstrated an almost exact match between the archaeology of midden sites and the style of human butchery recorded in folklore and ethnography. DeGusta has shown the detailed ways in which non-cannibalistic and cannibalistic mortuary remains differ in Fiji. At the site of Navatu between 50 BC and AD 1900, for example, there are two patterns of human remains deposited contemporaneously - the residues of eating and the remains of funerals.
For the Franklin expedition, a 1981 archaeological survey of parts of King William Island led by Owen Beattie of the University of Alberta recovered a human thigh-bone with clear cut-marks. With Arens's book just out, frostbite surgery or an Inuk attack were the only explanations other academics were at first prepared to entertain. But the pattern that has been subsequently demonstrated across a number of sites is wholly consistent with the traditional Inuk account. Bits of limb were carried as packed food as the doomed survivors struggled slowly south in appalling weather, only to suffer further casualties. These new corpses were eaten too.
Even Herodotus's man-eaters find archaeological support, as Jim Mallory and EM Murphy of the University of Belfast have shown. Herodotus's account of funerary cannibalism among the Massagetae of the Iron Age steppes in the 5th century BC can now be supported by cut-marks in a 3rd century burial of the Uyuk culture in southern Siberia.
By a curious chain of association, not (as far as I know) previously noted, Herodotus seems to have been ultimately responsible for the name 'cannibal' too. When Columbus was told of the existence of people eaters in the Caribbean with an ethnic name variously given as Caribes and Canibales, he seems to have taken it as confirmation that he had indeed reached the Indies, understanding Khan-ibales as people of the Great Khan, the Central Asiatic descendants of the Androphagi. And so the name stuck.
Returning to the late prehistoric practices at Eton and Alveston, Margaret Cox of Bournemouth University examined both bone assemblages and is clear that there are deliberate cut-marks and some splitting of long bones. Sadly, it is far from clear what the standard funerary rite was for Britain at this time. The 1st century BC/AD geographer Strabo mentions reverential funerary cannibalism among the Irish, but abnormal behaviour cannot be rejected out of hand either. If, for example, the Alveston bone cave was controlled by a band of local brigands, they could have split up their victims' bones to reward their dogs. The evidence is open to interpretation, but such a behaviour is perhaps less likely than cannibalism in some form.
Of the many known kinds of cannibalism, five are now attested in archaeological remains. Three have independent and direct textual support - survival cannibalism (the Franklin material); ritualised, sacrifice-related cannibalism (the Aztec material); and psychopathic cannibalism (recognized in forensic archaeology and typically connected with serial-killers). Reverential funerary cannibalism (Siberian Uyuk) has indirect textual support, and matches an anthropologically recognized category; while aggressive warfare-driven cannibalism (the Anasazi and Fremont Indians) is both known anthropologically and can be directly inferred from the bones and coprolite evidence.
At Gough's Cave, the human bones interpreted as cannibalised appear among an assemblage of hunted wild fauna, and display a pattern consistent with butchery for meat, including the removal of tongues. The evidence can perhaps best be interpreted as warfare cannibalism, but survival cannibalism should not be ruled out as a response to hardship years. Unfortunately, as with the Iron Age, the standard funerary pattern for Britain in the Late Palaeolithic is unknown, so a comparison between potentially cannibalised and non-cannibalised human remains is not possible.
Individual instances of cut-marked human bones will always remain open to case-by-case analysis - they will not all be examples of cannibalism - but we should now move beyond the unconstructive for-and-against debate. It is quite clear that the edibility of human beings has led in a systematic way to their being eaten on every continent in nearly every period of human existence.
Timothy Taylor is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Bradford. His book 'The Buried Soul' will be published by 4th Estate later this year.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005