What the Most Influential Text on Cannibalism Can Teach Us About Studying History

tags: historiography, history, academia, social history, cultural history

Tim Seiter earned his Bachelor of Arts in History at the University of Houston and is currently a Ph.D. student at Southern Methodist University. He is writing a history of the Karankawa Indians.


In the 1970s, a student at Stony Brook University asked his anthropology professor, William Arens, why he “lectured on kinship, politics and economics instead of more interesting things like witchcraft, fieldwork experiences and cannibalism.” Arens listened to the student, reevaluated what he taught, and “consequently...turned to the study of man-eaters.”


As Arens researched popular accounts of cannibalism, he discovered a disturbing trend: there was not a single shred of compelling evidence that humans ever practiced the ritualistic eating of human flesh. Could conquistadors, for instance, be concocting stories of Native American cannibalism in order justify their conquests of the “heathens”? Arens presented the idea to colleagues who promptly told him “to concern [himself] with more serious scholarship.” This further stimulated Arens’s curiosity. 


Unable to locate reliable textual sources, Arens put a notice in the Newsletter of the American Anthropological Associationasking if anyone had eye-witness knowledge of ritualistic cannibalism. Arens received four responses, each a dead end. With Arens’s suspicions of ritualistic cannibalism seemingly confirmed, his project picked up steam and soon Oxford University Press accepted his manuscript. The resulting 1979 monograph, The Man-Eating Myth, is the most influential text ever written on cannibalism.


The reason why The Man-Eating Myth rejuvenated a whole field of study; the reason why it inspired a deluge of articles, theses, dissertations, and books; the reason why it changed the approach scholars take when dealing with sources that contain anthropophagy is because of the book’s shocking thesis. Arens argued that ritualistic cannibalism had never been observed or documented by anyone at any time. Instead, all recorded instances of cannibalism that he studied (save survival cannibalism à la the Donner Party, or “antisocial behavior” in the vein of Jeffrey Dahmer) were fabricated by whites in their quest to barbarize and brutalize those they intended to colonize. As Arens summarizes, “Excluding survival conditions, I have been unable to uncover adequate documentation of cannibalism as a custom in any form for any society. Rumors, suspicions, fears and accusations abound, but no satisfactory first-hand accounts.”


This article addresses six problematic aspects of Arens’s The Man-Eating Myth—the most pronounced is that ritualistic cannibalism does exist as a cultural practice across the globe. Even though the majority of this piece is a strong critique, I attempt to avoid the complete slash-and-burn style that is often seen in discussions of this controversial book. In addition to pointing out the work’s errors, my analysis highlights some good that came from The Man-Eating Myth, such as how Arens made authors far more accountable and careful when discussing the sensitive topic of anthropophagy, and the importance of not completely writing off colonizers’ viewpoints simply because they are colonizers. In essence, this article argues that although Arens’s denial of ritualistic cannibalism is totally irresponsible, his book is quintessential to modern studies on cannibalism.




Arens released his monograph at an opportune time. In the 1970s, the Ivory Tower thoroughly began rejecting the traditional and colonially biased versions of history. Pioneering scholarship such as Edward Said’s Orientalism and Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish preceded Arens’s work and dovetailed with his findings of colonizers controlling the gazes of outsiders for their own gain. Further making the environment ripe for The Man-Eating Myth, anthropologist Michael Harner published a controversial article in 1977 suggesting that the Aztecs maintained their empire through the use of cannibalism. Harner argued that because of rapid population growth and the absence of large sustainable herbivores (buffalo or deer), Aztecs had to rely on cannibalism in order to satisfy their protein requirements. Arens’s refutation of ritualistic cannibalism provided a provocative counter to Harner’s arguments. Oxford University Press expected a hit. 


The initial reception of the Man-Eating Myth was positive. William McGrew, a psychologist from the University of Stirling, proclaimed that “if [Arens’s] idea sounds preposterous, the reader might pause to reflect on how recently it was in Europe and America that witchcraft was taken very seriously indeed.” Khalid Hasan, in Third World Quarterly, reverberated the praise: “In a brilliant and well-documented work Arens scrutinizes the available anthropological and popular literature on cannibalism and establishes that no concrete evidence exists about the practice.”

But after a wave of positive reviews, a torrent of negative reviews flooded in—each more vicious than the last. “The difficulty with the book,” contended James Springer in Anthropological Quarterly, “is that Arens is almost certainly wrong.” “There is so little regard for accuracy,” quipped Shirley Lindenbaum, “that one wonders whether the book was in fact ever intended for a scholarly audience.” To explain the backlash and to have all the main critiques assembled in a single location for future researchers, I will concisely describe the six major issues with The Man-Eating Myth


Issue #1: A Purposefully Unattainable Criteria for Cannibalism

The provocative point of Arens’s argument is that hecould not find any valid sources of cannibalism. Therefore, if a single historical source is able to meet his strict criteria, his essentialist statement crumbles. With this in mind, Arens sets his criteria for a legitimate viewing of cannibalism at a nonsensical level: an eyewitness account from an academically trained anthropologist. This effectively nullifies every viewing of cannibalism prior to the twentieth century. As one scholar incredulously responds, “It is difficult to assume, as [Arens] does, that all explorers, conquistadors, missionaries, traders, and colonizers—as well as many historians and journalists—have inaccurately, and perhaps dishonestly, represented instances of cannibalism they claimed to have witnessed, and for which physical evidence has been found.”


Issue #2: Excessive Denigration

Arens’s thesis rests upon the backs of easily demonized historical actors such as Christopher Columbus and Hernán Cortés. These figures perfectly fit the model Arens has created: their accounts are outrageous, and they had everything to gain from propagating the assertion that Indians practiced cannibalism. Arens then treats feasible sources as if they had the same dark intentions and motivations as Cortés and Columbus. This allows Arens to use the reasoning that if a source came from a colonizer, their descriptions must be false. For an example of the ad hominem employed, consider Arens’s passage on Hans Staden, a German shipwrecked on the coast of Brazil:


[Staden] curiously informs the reader that “the savages had not the art of counting beyond five.” Consequently, they often have to resort to their fingers and toes. In those instances when higher mathematics are involved extra hands and feet are called in to assist in the enumeration. What the author is attempting to convey in this simple way with this addendum is that the Tupinamba lack culture in the sense of basic intellectual abilities. The inability to count is to him supportive documentation for the idea that these savages would resort to cannibalism. 


As anthropologist Donald Forsyth explains in an article countering Arens assertions, “Staden’s statement concerning Tupinamba enumeration is correct….ancient Tupi had no terms for numbers beyond four. Larger numbers were expressed in circumlocutions, often involving fingers and toes.” Staden expresses what he saw, but Arens puts thoughts in Staden’s head and twists the testimony to fit his needs.


Issue #3: Cannibalism is Not Inherently Evil

Arens believes that cannibalism goes against “the strongest and most elementary social constraints.” Asa result, The Man-Eating Myth is written with the mindset that cannibalism is naturally aberrant or evil behavior. This ignores that cannibalism functions as a positive act in some cultures. The Amahuaca Indians of the Amazon, for example, consumed the ash of their dead to “appease the spirit of the deceased.” Neglecting to do so could result in the deceased being stuck in this world “caus[ing] trouble, [and] hanging around wanting to kill someone.” The Wari’ of coastal Peru similarly described that cannibalism “was considered to be the most respectful way to treat a human body [after death].” For the Amahuacas and the Wari', endocannibalism is an affectionate act; to not practice it is cruel and immoral.Arens is unable to inhabit this cultural relativism; for Arens, all forms of cannibalism are evil. As Christopher Robert Hallpike expounds in his 2017 article on The Man-Eating Myth, “Arens’s unwillingness to believe in the very possibility of cannibalism as an institution appears, in fact, to be his own ethnocentric Western prejudice.”


Issue #4: Arens Refused to Look Deeply at European Culture

The fifth problem is closely related—Arens continually looked outward for cultures that practiced cannibalism rather than inward. Had he taken a closer look at Europeans, he would have found a wonderfully well-documented customary cannibalism. 


During the Renaissance, at the same time explorers wrote of cannibalistic orgies in the New World, consumers in the Old World—entranced in a culture of ailments, elixirs, and tinctures—ritually consumed human flesh as medicine. One ritual was savage; the other, enlightened. As author Bess Lovejoy writes in an introduction to the European flesh market, “many recipes relied on sympathetic magic: powdered blood helps bleeding, human fat helps bruising, skulls help with migraines or dizziness.” This sort of cannibalism had a different face. It was “scientific” and consequently, easier to overlook as Arens did. The irony, of course, is thick. As Europeans scorned cannibalism, they had a culture that simultaneously revered it.


Issue #5: Archaeological Evidence of Ritualistic Cannibalism Exists

In spite of Arens’s assertion that “the rarity of the [archaeological] finds...does not permit the conclusion that the material evidence ever points to cannibalism as a cultural pattern in either gustatory or ritual form,” archaeological evidence for cannibalism is now robust. 


Before The Man-Eating Myth, there existed a rickety list of criteria for osteological proof of cannibalism. Since the publication of Arens’s thesis, archaeologists have revamped that list and set a stricter standard. Osteological indicators of cannibalism include “pot polish,” or bones smoothed from rubbing against the sides of clay boiling pots; cut marks that are analogous to the cut marks on processed animal bones; and a pattern of bone being cut, and then broken, and then burned (harvested, prepared, and cooked). With the such osteological indicators, archaeologists discovered cannibalism in the American Southwest, in Neolithic France, and in prehistoric Ethiopia. And in 1999, a new technique was developed to further solidify evidence of cannibalism in our past: the presence of digested myoglobin, a human muscle protein, in fossilized feces.


Although the archaeological evidence of cannibalism is robust, the archaeological evidence of ritualistic cannibalism was less than clear-cut. That is key because Arens does not deny “rare [and] isolated instances of prehistoric beings who engaged in survival cannibalism.” Instead, he denies “cannibalism as a cultural pattern.”


In 1993, archaeologists made a major theoretical advancement by showing strong archaeological evidence of customary cannibalism in the American Southwest. A husband and wife team, Christy and Jacqueline Turner, analyzed hundreds of sites over the span of decades in the Anasazi cultural region and found that sites with strong evidence of cannibalism were not randomly distributed. Instead, the sites were exclusively located within the Anasazi culture area—none in the surrounding regions despite those regions having “more severe winters [which] should have produced some cannibalized assemblages if starvation had been the primary cause.” Moreover, survival-cannibalism could not explain why the bodies uncovered by Turner and Turner were so battered and beaten—the markings indicating torture-like trauma. With starvation-cannibalism ruled out, customary cannibalism became heavily inferred. Turner and Turner solidify this inference by turning to the historical record and showing that this outcropping of cannibalism was likely spurred by the spread of Aztec culture in the form of immigrants flowing north and following a “warrior-cultist tradition.”


Determining cultural cannibalism through archaeological means is a greatly burdensome and difficult task and had not been conclusively done prior to The Man-Eating Myth. Arens is overstating his case in arguing that there exists no evidence of customary cannibalism derived through archaeological means. Yet, in 1979, his assertion was technically correct.


Issue #6: Arens’s Limited Source Base

The Man-Eating Myth attacks instances of cannibalism among Africans, early man, Polynesians, the Indians of the American Southwest, the Iroquois, the Caribs, the Aztecs, the Tupinambás, and the peoples of the New Guinea Highlands. With such a broad range of peoples, Arens is unable to give a nuanced analysis of each group’s supposed cannibalism. For each community, Arens devotes a paltry twelve pages.


To clarify, the number of pages devoted to a topic is not fully indicative of that work’s quality. And the problem of being overly broad is inevitable when considering the scope of Arens’s book—a problem that Arens himself acknowledges. Arens decided to focus on “the most popular and best-documented case studies of cannibalism.” Therein lies the issue. Arens only uses the “popular and best-documented” cases of cannibalism as his sources, or at least principally. Numerous primary sources, secondary sources, and any other cultural histories are bypassed. Cannibalism, by The Man-Eating Myth’s correct assertion, is an incredibly dangerous label. When discussing the subject, a comprehensive review of the surrounding literature must be done; a comprehensive review which Arens neglected.


The New Yorker wrote that the The Man-Eating Myth “is a model of disciplined and fair argument.” The six aforementioned problems show that The Man-Eating Myth is instead a model of imprecision and sharp sophistry. As one scholar aptly puts, “If anthropologists don’t want to believe in evidence for regularly-practiced, culturally-sanctioned cannibalism it is because they are purposefully avoiding the evidence.”

The Second Part That Is Usually Forgotten

Writers usually end there—they bash the book and call it a day. This is a mistake. Academics are so frenzied by the scent of scholarly blood, that they have ignored insightful aspects of Arens’s work.


To begin, colonizers do in fact use cannibalism as a tool to claim what is not theirs. In my own studies on the Karankawa Indians of Texas, Anglo-American settlers regularly used rumors of these Native Peoples’ cannibalism to justify wanton murder.  In one vivid instance, Anglo-Americans supposedly stumbled upon some Karankawas cannibalizing a colonist’s young child. “The Indians were so completely absorbed in their diabolical and hellish orgie, as to be oblivious to their surroundings, and were taken by surprise.” The colonizers massacred all of the Karankawas except “a squaw and her two small children,” but after the Whites “consulted a little while...they decided it was best to exterminate such a race” and proceeded to murder the three remaining survivors. Dismissing Arens’s book dismisses this reality. Cannibalism is a powerful mechanism used to cast undesirables as worthy of extermination.


Continuing, Arens’s assertion that “anthropology has not maintained the usual standards of documentation and intellectual rigor expected when other topics are being considered” hits the nail on the head. Before The Man-Eating Myth, research tended to lean toward the implication that all native Peoples practiced cannibalism. Now scholars are far more careful with their approach to cannibalism.


In a scathing review, one writer stated that The Man-Eating Myth “does not advance our knowledge of cannibalism.” The opposite is true. Prior to the book’s publication, the field of cannibalism had been grossly understudied, which is one of the reasons why Arens found so little scholarly-backed evidence when examining cases of cannibalism. After publishing The Man-Eating Myth, the book’s controversy grew to such a severe level that scholars representing an assortment of fields jump-started research on anthropophagy to disprove the book’s thesis. Essentially, Arens’s book cannibalized itself. The reaction it prompted caused its own undoing. 


Historians today can learn a great deal from the Man-Eating Myth’s saga. The most profound takeaway is that when we focus too heavily on a single perspective while ignoring others, dangerously flawed history is bound to be produced. By dismissing colonizers’ history as propaganda and zeroing-in only on the oppressed’s perspective, Arens came to an unsound conclusion and denied deeply meaningful cultural practices. Yet, in the end, his book has done the most to inform us about an erroneously maligned cultural practice.

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