American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image


Title: Myth of savage natives
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
The ritually sanctioned consumption of human flesh by North American indigenous peoples is a widely debated subject among scholars in anthropology, ethnohistory, and Native studies. In fact, a vast amount of the secondary literature on the subject deals with debates regarding whether the practice ever occurred in the Americas. For decades ritual cannibalism (anthropophagy) was uncritically accepted either as an indicator of Native ferocity and savagery (and therefore justification for missionization and exterminative practices on the part of colonizers) or as one aspect of Native peoples' deeply ceremonial practice of warfare. William Arens' 1979 book, The Man-Eating Myth, called into question the anthropological assertion that cannibalism in Native North America was a frequent and large-scale socially sanctioned practice, and thus it opened up the discourse on the act of cannibalism as both practice and symbol. Other scholars contend that ritual or ceremonial cannibalism was a regular part of many indigenous American societies.

Many scholars maintain that, because the history of North America depends so heavily on written sources that largely represent the colonizer's point of view, any discussion of cannibalism must consider the Eurocentric bias inherent to the primary sources from which much of our information is drawn. From Christopher Columbus's first writings in America onward, cannibalism appears to have been an act Europeans expected to find among the newly encountered indigenous peoples. While use of the word "anthropophagous" to refer to the consumption of human flesh dates to antiquity, "cannibal" has its origins during the invasion of the Americas. The term evolved from Carib/Canib, the name applied by the Arawaks to their apparently ferocious neighbors and subsequently used by Europeans. This idea spread, appearing in works from Columbus to Shakespeare, such that, by the early eighteenth century, "cannibal" and "anthropophagus" were synonyms (Hulme, 1986, 67–73). "Cannibal" came to denote any person or group who ate human flesh.

Some scholars, including Arens, agree that whatever actual cannibalism may have occurred in the Americas was very likely exaggerated by the European worldview that expected to find cannibalism everywhere (Barker et al., 1998, 42). Numerous books that were widely read in medieval and early modern Europe, including those by Augustine, Pliny, John Mandeville, and Marco Polo, created a vast catalogue of grotesque qualities, placing cannibals alongside dog-headed men and amazons, labels ready to be applied to America's exotic indigenous "others" (Hulme, 1986, 21).

Arens suggests that no convincing first-hand eyewitness accounts of indigenous cannibalism exist in the historical or ethnographic record (Barker et al., 1998, 21). Further, Ward Churchill's (Cherokee/Metis) 2000 review article in American Archaeologist asserts that institutionalized cannibalism among Native groups was an invention of Eurocentric scholarship meant to systematically defile preinvasion Native cultures (Churchill, 2000, 278–280). Alternately, opponents of Arens and Churchill suggest that ritual cannibalism was a regular part of many North American indigenous societies. Some scholars assert that the human flesh of warriors often was consumed in order to incorporate the warrior's bravery. Peggy Reeves Sanday suggests that the Hotinonshonni (Iroquois) "were indiscriminant in their search for torture victims to appease their war god" (Sanday, 1986, 127).

However, Wendat (Huron) historian Georges Sioui allows that some ritual cannibalism occurred among his Wendat and other Hotinonshonni (Iroquoian-speaking) peoples. Sioui maintains that this practice occurred only in cases of extreme grief, when a (usually male) captive would be executed and small amounts of the person were eaten, in order to both honor the captive and to engage in collective healing on the part of the captors (Sioui, 1999, 173–174). Sioui's indigenous perspective presents a useful middle ground on the historical debate surrounding cannibalism. Anthropological, ethnohistorical, and Native studies evidence suggests that cannibalism likely occurred in ritual settings to varying degrees across the Americas. However, the point that these occurrences may have been exaggerated in the European-authored literature to exaggerate Native ferocity and therefore to justify colonization remains a key issue, and something of the utmost importance when considering the veracity of primary sources.

Daniel Morley Johnson

Further Reading
Arens, William. 1979. The Man-Eating Myth. New York: Oxford University Press.; Barker, Francis, et al., eds. 1998. Cannibalism and the Colonial World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.; Churchill, Ward. 2000. " Man Corn." (Review) In North American Archaeologist 21, no. 3: 268–288.; Hulme, Peter. 1986. Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492–1797. London: Methuen.; Sanday, Peggy Reeves. 1986. Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.; Sioui, Georges. 1999. Huron-Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle. Translated by Jane Brierley. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen's University Press.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer