How widespread cannibalism may have been in early times is uncertain. The accusation was freely made to disparage enemies or people who were considered to be barbarians. There is no reason to place much confidence in the reports of ancient writers such as Herodotus (5th century B.C.) and Strabo (63 B.C. - 24 A.D. ) that the Irish Celts, the Scythians, and others were cannibals. In modern times, castaways in small boats or on desert islands, travelers trapped by snow, and the populations of famine-ridden areas have occasionally been driven in desperation to eat human flesh. But as a regular, socially approved practice, cannibalism has been confined in recent centuries to certain tropical and subtropical areas. By the middle of the 20th century, pacification and police control had checked the practice in most regions still inhabited by uncivilized peoples. It is probable that the practice continued only in the most remote districts of the island of New Guinea, perhaps in the northeast Congo, and in inaccessible parts of the Amazon region in South America.
The extent of cannibalism among primitive peoples has been commonly exaggerated. Old maps abound in the legend Anthropophagi sunt (there are cannibals), written across the faces of areas that were unexplored and therefore filled with imagined terrors. The celebrated 13th century traveler Marco Polo reported, from hearsay, cannibalistic practices in the lands from Tibet to Sumatra and the Andaman Islands, but the sole case that survives investigation is that of Sumatra. Likewise, in South America, cannibalism was probably less prevalent than some early sources would seem to indicate.
It is possible that the earliest humans fed on human flesh, as on any other. Carnivorous animals often kill and eat those of their own species that are injured or feeble. Some authorities maintain that the first humans were essentially carnivorous, as witnessed by the great accumulation of animal bones in ancient cave dwellings. One of man's precursors, Sinanthropus pekinensis (Peking man), apparently took skulls of his fellows into the caves at Choukoutien (near Peking), where the posterior sections were bashed in, presumably to pick out the brains. There is no reason for assuming that the first true humans did not eat other humans also. There is some evidence for cannibalism in Aurignacian times (late Ice Age) in central Europe and among the Early Neolithic peoples of Switzerland. Even so advanced a group as the Bronze Age dwellers of Bohemia (about 2000 B.C.) hacked human bones with knives and split them in order to extract the marrow.
The aversion to eating human flesh is not instinctive; rather, the horror shown by civilized men and by most of the primitive peoples is a specialized development. It is the response to a tabooed food, a revulsion that applies equally to other foods, considered unorthodox, unclean, and unfit for human consumption. It is possible that the abhorrence arose from a combination of factors, including fear of the dead and fear of becoming a victim. As ethical codes developed, people came to believe in the sanctity of human life.
Motives for Cannibalism
The motive of augmenting the food supply does not seem to have been a vital factor in impelling humans to cannibalistic habits. No people made human flesh a staple of their diet. It is noteworthy that many of the people who lived under the most adverse conditions for securing food did not consume human flesh: Eskimos, northern Siberian natives, Indians of the interior deserts of North America, and those of sub-Arctic Canada or Tierra del Fuego. All these people had to struggle for subsistence. On the other hand, cannibalism flourished throughout the Congo Basin and adjacent West Africa where food, both animal and vegetable, was abundant. This was true as well for the Oceanic natives who had good supplies of plants and seafood though they had no large mammals other than the domesticated pig. In Africa and Oceania, cannibalism was motivated to a considerable extent by liking for the food and by desire for variety. But everywhere motives for partaking of human flesh were mixed.
A custom often cited to demonstrate cannibalism among savages is that of eating or biting a part taken from an enemy as a trophy (such as his heart, limbs, or scalp) or of partaking of the corpse or blood of a human sacrifice. This, however, is hardly more than token cannibalism and should not be confounded with the consumption of flesh as food. A common and widely occurring custom, it was an expression of blood-thirstiness or exultation over an enemy's downfall. In many cases, eating a portion of an enemy was motivated by a belief in the possibility of acquiring the enemy's strength or prowess, or certain magical qualities. Where, as among the tribes of East Africa, the flesh of a. deceased relative was eaten, the purpose was to conserve his spirit and virtues for the family. Where human sacrifices or headhunting occurred, there was sometimes ceremonial partaking of the flesh, but in most instances this was nor more than a ritual act.
The South Pacific islanders had a well-deserved reputation as notorious cannibals. Cannibalism was customary and held in high esteem in most of Polynesia, where it was everywhere connected with warfare. It was of minor importance in Micronesia except in the Gilbert Islands, the group adjacent to Polynesia. The practice was common in the Marquesas, Easter Island, and New Zealand, and limited in Samoa and Tonga. But it was abhorrent to the natives of Hawaii and the Society Islands. In the period of European discovery the practice was dying out in Samoa, but, by reason of Fijian influence, was on the increase in Tonga. The need for a supplementary food source cannot be held accountable for cannibalism in this region since human flesh was generally tabooed to women. The esteem attached to despoiling enemies and a real fondness for the unusual food seem to have been the motives. As a consequence of their dismemberment of corpses, the Maori of New Zealand accumulated a considerable knowledge of human anatomy.
In Melanesia, cannibalism was most common in Fiji. The victims were usually enemies, but sacrificed commoners and shipwrecked strangers were also devoured. So extensive was cannibalism that at one feast 200 bodies were consumed, and one 18th century native chief was credited with having eaten about 900 persons in his lifetime. As in Polynesia, human flesh was cooked separately and handled with special wooden forks, the utensils for its preparation being taboo for any other purpose.
Cannibalism also occurred elsewhere in Melanesia, and in Australia, New Guinea, and, on a lesser scale, in parts of the Malay Archipelago. Among the Batak of Sumatra, for example, prisoners of war and outlawed men furnished the supply.
Most of equatorial Africa, as well as the regions westward to the Guinea coast and eastward to the sources of the Nile, was a cannibalistic area. The Fan (or Fang) tribes, north of the Congo mouth, were reputed to engage in an extensive trade in captives to eat, fattening them for the market, but the reports seem exaggerated. Ritual cannibalism occurred in central Nigeria, where flesh from trophy heads was eaten. Among the Ovimbundu (or Mbundu) of Angola, slaves were eaten ceremonially at the accession of a new king. The filing of front teeth to points for self-beautification, not uncommon in central Africa, erroneously led to accusations of man-eating. However, there is no relation between the two practices.
Cannibalism was widespread in northern South America and the West Indies at the time of discovery, and extended to the Gulf Coast tribes of the present United States. It flourished especially in three regions: among the Carib of the Lesser Antilles and the Orinoco, the Tupi-Guarani of eastern Brazil and the lower Amazon, and the Chibcha of northern Colombia. Half-cooked human flesh, left by Caribs, was found by Columbus' party on Guadeloupe Island. The Arawak of Puerto Rico seem not to have been man-eaters at the time, but adopted the practice in revenge against their Carib enemies.
The Tupinamba of the Brazilian coast elaborated the procedure for feasting on a war prisoner. He was kept captive for a period of a few months to several years, and during this time he was allowed to marry a local girl. Finally he was taken to the plaza to be tormented, in song and dance, with his impending fate and would reply with similar taunts. He was then allowed to defend himself against the appointed executioner. When the victim was struck down, the whole community rushed to the body, at least to dip their fingers in the warm blood.
In the Cauca Valley of Colombia, the Chibchan tribes reveled in the custom of eating their prisoners, and even consumed the flesh raw. On a single occasion, under Spanish eyes, 100 captives were devoured; on another, the 4,000 native auxiliaries of the Spaniards were reported to have eaten 300 enemies. On a more modest scale, cannibalism was known sporadically southward as far as Chile, where it was practiced by the Araucanians.