Dinner With a Cannibal, by Carole A. Travis-Henikoff

Dinner With a Cannibal

If you’re ever running short of items for your “What the fuck is wrong with people?” file, allow me to recommend Dinner With a Cannibal, by Carole A. Travis-Henikoff.

Dinner With a Cannibal is an overview of the history of cannibalism as practiced by humans (with brief mentions of other species), addressing such matters as the circumstances in which it has occurred, how widespread it has been or not been, and whether we are justified in reacting to it with horror.

There are many types of cannibalism. Among them, not all mutually exclusive, are:

• Jeffrey Dahmer-type individual cannibalism by someone with a severe mental illness.

• Individual cannibalism in extreme circumstances for survival, such as the Donner party, or the survivors of the 1972 plane crash in the Andes.

• Socially approved group cannibalism for survival, when a tribe or other society runs out of food and eats people as a last resort.

• Ritualistic cannibalism within a group, most often as a funerary practice where eating the dead is analogous to another society’s burying the dead.

• Violent cannibalism of the enemy, where cannibalism is a tool of domination or humiliation, akin to the way rape not uncommonly is used as a means of war to demoralize a populace.

• Nutritional or medicinal cannibalism, where parts of the body are eaten because they are believed to be healthful in one way or another.

What surprised me as much as anything—assuming one is to believe the author, which I’m inclined to do given the evidence that the book was extensively researched—is just how widespread cannibalism has been throughout history. Why haven’t I heard more about this?

Travis-Henikoff spends the least time on the serial killer type of cannibalism and the second least on the plane crash type of cannibalism, which I suspect are the only two types most people are aware of. In fact, she says, those are the very rare, fluky kind. What she focuses on are the types of cannibalism that are “normal” in certain societies—honoring your dead family or tribe members by eating them, dishonoring your enemies by killing and eating them, choosing which members of your group are least indispensable and eating them first in times of famine, eating body parts for their health benefits—which turn out to be quite common.

Apparently there is some controversy on that last point, however, with some academics claiming that that kind of socially approved cannibalism is completely or almost completely a myth, that there are no groups we know of that practiced cannibalism in that kind of routine or ritualized way.

They cite the dearth of physical evidence, and note that the case for cannibalism mostly rests on the testimony of Europeans describing the practices of indigenous people, testimony that can be safely dismissed as motivated by a desire to paint the most negative picture they can of indigenous people in order to justify killing them, stealing their land and anything of value on or in it, and/or forcibly converting them to Christianity.

Travis-Henikoff’s response is that the case for widespread cannibalism is overwhelming if you truly base it on the evidence. The problem, she says, is that a large portion of those denying or downplaying cannibalism are instead motivated by political correctness. They know that regardless of whether a given form of cannibalism is defensible in some sense or not, the general public will be appalled by it and regard its practitioners as Dahmer-type monsters, and so it must never be attributed to indigenous people, who have it hard enough as it is without further damaging their reputations.

But as far as the evidence, she says that while there may not be a great deal of physical evidence—fossilized human bones gnawed on by human teeth, fossilized human skulls opened in the manner you would open an animal’s skull if you wanted to dish out the brains to eat, etc.—there is a significant amount.

Furthermore, the eyewitness testimony is not as suspect as it has been made out to be. The amount of it is massive, and it comes not just from Europeans who are hostile to indigenous people, but from Europeans who are sympathetic to indigenous people, and not uncommonly from indigenous people themselves.

The descriptions of the cannibalistic practices are also relevant to understanding why there isn’t as much physical evidence as we might expect, why you don’t find discarded, half-eaten human bones around prehistoric campsites with anywhere near the frequency you find discarded, half-eaten mammoth bones or whatever.

Many of the groups that have practiced cannibalism (or at least for which there is testimonial evidence that they have practiced cannibalism) in recent decades and centuries did so in such a way as to dispose of the entire body and leave no evidence. I’m not saying that leaving no evidence was the reason they cannibalized the way they did—they were typically motivated by religion and ritual—but they consumed everything that could be consumed and then if there was anything left it was dumped in the ocean or whatever. Nothing was left scattered around haphazardly, any more than you’d expect to find cremation ashes scattered around a funeral home haphazardly.

One culture in particular I found quite interesting in that they believed in obliterating a dead person as much as possible. They ate the whole body except the teeth (they pounded the bones into tiny pieces and sprinkled them on their food), but beyond that, everything the person ever made or owned or was associated with was put in a pile and burned.

We tend to treasure memories and the physical objects that trigger them, and if we are artists, writers, craftsmen, etc. we are glad that something of us will live on after we’re gone, but their culture instead believed that the best way to achieve closure and accept someone’s passing was to eliminate everything about him, all evidence that he ever existed.

But anyway, for cannibal societies like that, you wouldn’t expect to find some kind of physical evidence of cannibalism millennia later. We can’t know for sure that it was common in prehistoric cannibal cultures to similarly eradicate all physical traces of a cannibalized person, but why should it have been different from more recent cannibal societies?

OK, one might say, maybe this is a case where “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence,” but surely it’s also not evidence of presence. Why assume cannibalism when you don’t have physical evidence?

But again, Travis-Henikoff would say there isn’t a total absence of the kind of physical evidence we’re talking about here; there’s certainly some evidence of that kind, from many different places and many different historical periods. Plus there’s all that testimonial evidence that she argues should not be dismissed.

But it turns out there’s yet another type of evidence for widespread cannibalism, and that’s a genetic or evolutionary type.

Certain diseases such as mad cow disease and kuru are apparently caused by a certain prion that is more likely to be transmitted if one engages in cannibalism—e.g., cows eating feed made in part from the brains of diseased cows, or the Fore tribe in New Guinea eating their dead. There are certain genes, however, that are quite effective in protecting you from such diseases. If diseases spread through cannibalism were extremely rare, natural selection likely would not have favored this defensive gene, whereas if people faced such diseases often, natural selection would have caused this gene to become more and more prevalent.

Research shows that that gene is in fact very common in humans (that’s why extremely few people died when there was a scary outbreak of mad cow disease in Britain), so common that it has probably been in humans since before they spread around the world. That means, the author says, that cannibalism was probably already common that far back.

She also reports that when you talk to indigenous people themselves today, while some will avoid the subject or express indignation at the mere suggestion that their ancestors were cannibals, there are plenty who will talk openly about the practice and even defend it. In some cases they saw it with their own eyes if not participated in it themselves, and in other cases they were told about it by older family members. It’s not like we’re talking about something a tribe might have done a thousand years ago; in many parts of the world you don’t have to go back any farther than currently living people’s grandparents to find folks who practiced cannibalism as a normal part of their culture.

Consider also how cannibalism—describing it, proscribing it, alluding to it metaphorically, etc.—is extremely common in myths and legends, fairy tales, the Bible, and so on. If there wasn’t a familiarity with it from real life, a memory of it, a fear of it, then it’s doubtful it would come up so much, even as something to condemn.

It’s really not a close call in her mind. Cannibalism has been common since before humans were humans, and in many areas it was engaged in routinely in the very recent past.

The organization of the book I think is just mediocre. There are certain themes that run throughout, but there’s a meandering quality to it, almost like she’s presenting the information in the order in which she came upon it, rather than in a more logical way, or a way that best fits an overall argument.

There are many tangents also, which could be interpreted different ways. One possibility is she really didn’t have enough material to fill the length book she wanted if she had stuck to writing only about cannibalism, so she added some filler. Also at times it seems like she just wants to share other things she came across while researching cannibalism that she thinks readers might find interesting. She especially likes the human interest angle of giving considerable detail about the people she interviewed for the book, for instance what they talked about over dinner as they strayed from the cannibalism topic.

On the other hand, a lot of the tangential material can be interpreted as helping to establish certain broader points that she can then apply to cannibalism.

Much of the book is kind of an overview of practices throughout the world and throughout history that present day Americans would find unusual and often repugnant. Not just cannibalism, but weird foods people eat, scarification, infanticide, human sacrifices, etc.

It’s kind of an Anthropology 101 overview, to impart the lesson that often things are offensive to us only because they’re different from what we’re used to, whereas things we do that other cultures might find appalling seem totally natural to us.

Most of the time I take her to be saying that it’s important not to condemn something in a kneejerk manner due to its unfamiliarity, but instead to judge it on its merits. Or that we should be careful about condemning individuals for engaging in the practices allowed or required in their culture, since it’s so difficult to attain some kind of abstract perspective that would allow one to question the norms in one’s own society, not to mention the consequences of non-conformity if you somehow do come to disagree with a prevailing cultural norm can be severe, up to and including death.

Those points, and points like them that one can pick up from her, I think are totally reasonable.

Typically she doesn’t push things toward the more extreme relativism that I don’t think is reasonable at all. There are a few times, though, when she can be read that way, as implying that a practice can’t be wrong if it’s commonplace in some culture.

For example, she closes the book with a quote from an artist friend of hers that seems to say that all of the supposedly good stuff and all of the supposedly bad stuff in the world are really all the same, all of equal value, because all equally real. Or something like that. But whatever exactly it’s supposed to mean, it seems to be a pretty extreme relativist sentiment about embracing everything in the natural and manmade world equally.

Again, I think the majority of the time what she’s saying is not that there is no right or wrong or that one can never justifiably come to any moral conclusion about a cultural practice, but instead that one should be humble, weigh the evidence carefully, not be overly influenced by the emotional effect of unfamiliarity, appreciate nuance, avoid overly broad conclusions (e.g., that cannibalism is always bad, regardless of the circumstances or any other factor), etc. Which is great. It’s just that here and there she seems to go a bit beyond that onto philosophically much shakier ground.

A lot of the types of cannibalism she discusses probably aren’t objectively all that awful, and certainly are no worse than many practices people in our culture have little or no problem with. She quotes Voltaire, for instance, pondering why we regard a tribe that eats its dead as so far beyond the pale as to be moral monsters, while regarding mass slaughter in war favorably or at least as a necessary evil, when surely massacring people in war is vastly worse than disposing of dead bodies by eating them rather than burying them.

That’s certainly her position, that cannibalism per se is not something horrible, but that often it’s a cultural practice that is not particularly objectionable if you look at it without bias.

I tend to agree.

Toward the end of Dinner With a Cannibal, though, she cites many cases of cannibalism as violence, where cannibalism is one component of a process of torturing and killing in war or civil strife, and these are the cases where I find some form of relativism-based neutrality implausible to the point of being offensive.

This is really the “What the fuck is wrong with people?” part of the book. She gives many examples from the 20th and 21st centuries, each more ghastly than the last.

It’s remarkable just how inventive people can be in their cruelty, how as soon as social order breaks down there is no shortage of people who can’t imagine a better way to celebrate the loss of restraints than to cause a maximum of physical and emotional suffering and humiliation to their fellow human beings. To describe some of these cases as showing the dark side of human nature is a gross understatement.

From the Congo to Sierra Leone to Maoist China during the Cultural Revolution, cannibalism was not just some rare occurrence where a crazy individual serial killer type went berserk, but a part of a system of organized brutality.

Furthermore, when used as a tool of war cannibalism is not just a symbolic humiliation inflicted after a person is already dead, but is typically combined with various forms of torture—e.g., tying a person to a tree and hacking off body parts one by one while he is still alive and making him watch you eat them, forcing a family to eat a loved one you’ve killed before you torture and kill them, etc.

I just have to keep reminding myself that most people most of the time don’t do stuff like this.

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