A Brief History of Cannibalism

Steven Shapin, who teaches history of science at Harvard, reviews Cătălin Avramescu’s An Intellectual History of Cannibalism for The Los Angeles Review of Books. The summary is brief, but it’s an excellent primer of how cannibalism has developed (and been misunderstood) over the generations:

Modern condemnations of cannibalism largely set aside questions of moral law or natural law, with their suppositions about the nature of human beings, and thus what is unnatural. These are not assumptions we’re comfortable with these days; chacun à son goût is more to our taste. Formal prosecutions of modern anthropophagists — when they happen — now fasten on attendant crimes, notably, though not necessarily, murder. Cannibalism can be judged a sign of insanity, and the perpetrator locked up not for a criminal act but for mental derangement likely to endanger himself or the community. In 1980, the Poughkeepsie, New York, murderer and testicle-eater Albert Fentress was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a psychiatric hospital. The more famous, but less real, Dr. Hannibal (“the Cannibal”) Lecter was confined to a state hospital for the criminally insane. The cannibal is less and less an actor in the sciences of human nature and culture, more and more handed over to the criminologist, the psychopathologist, and the journalist. The figure of the cannibal is good for selling books and movie tickets, but not particularly important to think about or to draw lessons from. 

But it hasn’t always been this way: Cannibalism was once taken very seriously indeed, and the Romanian philosopher Cătălin Avramescu’s learned and brilliantly told intellectual history of anthropophagy recovers the cannibal’s once central place in formal thought about what it means to be human. Commentators from antiquity through at least the 18th century needed first to establish whether cannibalism actually existed as a collective practice.

On the origin of the word “cannibal” (it surfaced with Christopher Columbus):

It was the discovery of the Americas, and especially Columbus’s voyages to the West Indies, that gave the European imagination more cannibals than ever existed before. Indeed, Columbus discovered cannibals almost at the moment he discovered America: The wordcannibal came into European languages via Columbus’s usage, probably from the Carib people he encountered. Trying to make out both where he was and the identity of the indigenous peoples he encountered, he wrote that “there are men with one eye and others with dogs’ snouts who eat men. On taking a man they behead him and drink his blood and cut off his genitals,” and on November 23, 1492, the word “canibales” appears in his log for the first time. “Cannibal” was the proper name of a defined group of people-who-eat-people that came to designate anyone who ate human flesh. In The Tempest, the name of the wild-man Caliban has been widely understood as a loose anagram of cannibal.

Concluding the review, Shapin writes that the cannibal we know today is a figure of shock, schlock, and sensation: “The modern cannibal is little more than a mental deviant, and the eater of human flesh is for us just a bit player in a theater of perversity. An Intellectual History of Cannibalism describes how that transformation happened.”