Silence of Cannibals

Hurt a person, deceive a person, brutally kill a person, splatter his brains on the wall – but never ever eat another fellow human being. Cannibalism, the ferocious consumption of human flesh has been the source of much disgust and curiosity to the human race. Cannibalism found mention in the early civilizations and it still continues to be heard of.

Many Greek fables have cannibals in them; the most famous being the one-eyed Cyclops who thought it was fun to eat up his guests and who finally got outwitted by Odysseus. Since then, most civilizations have recorded cases of cannibalism. However, it is extremely interesting to note that cannibalistic tendencies are recorded mostly in travelogues and ethnographies where a civilization’s hero faces such situations and then ultimately escapes.

Despite the fact that the eating of human flesh has found mention several times in different eras and different geographical locations, it is still remains a debatable issue. Many recent anthropologists refuse to accept its possible existence due to inadequate proof to back up the claims of having seen actual acts of cannibalism in any civilization.

One of the major reasons for anthropologists’ disbelief is the fact that cannibal races have not been ‘seen’ by people, but they have been mentioned in ethnographies of travelers. And as those who have read travel tales of sailors would know, these tales tend to exaggerate and include a lot of fantastical elements in order to fascinate and show the ‘perils they faced’. After all, traveling far-far away is a bit wasted if nothing happens, isn’t it?

As written by James Q Jacobs, “The circumstances of the cultural contact in which reports of cannibalism are found merit careful attention and analysis. As an example, in one such instance, Captain Cook reported, “a piece of the flesh had been broiled and eaten by one of the Natives in the presence of most of the officers” (Hulme 1998:21). However, the journal of the officer, Lieutenant Clerke, reveals the agency for the act. Clerke cut a piece of a corpse, broiled it, and gave it to the native (Hulme 1998:21-22). Cook himself, “being desirous of being an eye witness,” ordered human meat broiled and given to a Native to eat (Hulme 1998:21-22). Careful analysis by Hulme revealed that Cook’s report is not that of an independent observer reporting an authentic practice of another culture. In this case, an observer might well conclude that Cook and Clerke were involved in cannibalism.”

Furthermore, cannibalistic tendencies have never found mention in the writer/orator’s own civilization. It is always the “other” civilization which shows such signs of savagery. Therefore, cannibalism is also used as a marker to differentiate between civilized human behavior of one’s own race and the bestial, unacceptable behavior of the “Other” – the enemy. In the 19th Century, many colonizers used the topes of cannibalism to prove the savagery of the natives of the other continents which they sough to colonize. Therefore, the White Man could tame, annihilate and enslave their Burden, because all of this was a lesser crime than being a cannibal. By citing cases of anthrophagy in the newer continents, which in all probability were fabricated – the explorers were able to justify to the Rest of the World their process of colonization. Truly amazing – creating a crime so heinous in the Other that one’s own crime seems to pale in comparison; in fact even noble.

The cannibalism hangover seems to have been carried on to this age in the West. In 2002, a man was convicted for having chopped into pieces his homosexual partner who had agreed to himself being slaughtered. The German daily Bild reports that the victim, from Berlin, had seen an advertisement on the internet which said: “Seeking young, well-built men aged 18 to 30 to slaughter.”

A human eating another seemed just to be part of my bedtime stories. However, the more I read about it now; it seems more of a means used by the Colonizer to justify his lebensraum, his own heinous acts. Who knew fables could be so complicated?

Shravya Jain

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