In general the image that we have of a cannibal has been dictated to us by popular culture and by popular culture I mean the media. Hollywood for the most part has presented the cannibal to us as a person of the darker hue standing around a pot ready to eat white people. Famous cannibal Hannibal Lecter is white but is presented as an oddity and the hit television show The Walking Dead is framed in the context of science fiction so it’s not to be taken literally. Historically however when the cannibal is depicted in popular culture it is usually a caricaturized person of color, and this image is what is fixed in the popular imagination. American cultural icons from Tarzan and Mickey Mouse to King Kong and the “lovable” Shirley Temple are all guilty of presenting the cannibal as either an African or a person of color. All of these representations present a very racist and narrow vision of the image of the cannibal.
In Shirley Temple’s movie a “Kid in Africa” she is on a mission to civilize the African cannibals. If anyone can civilize an African cannibal of course it’s Shirley Temple. Hollywood has always presented Shirley Temple as a little white girl who berated strong grown black men as a way to emasculate the very images they found threatening. Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan is often seen battling it out against cannibals like the secret society of the Leopard Men who are of course a group of Africans. Tarzan movies for this reason and the idea of a white man as the dominating savior on an African continent always made me cringe. Even Walt Disney got in on the act releasing “Cannibal Capers” and “Trader Mickey” complete with all of its African caricatures.
All of this misrepresentation in popular culture essentially worked as propaganda and created and reinforced the idea of what a cannibal is supposed to look like. All of this begs the question was this image true, was it lies, or was it an oversimplification? Let us now use history as a springboard to take a closer look at cannibalism. What I found out was that Hollywood did not have to travel miles around the world into some distant jungle to find cannibalism in fact one of the greatest secrets is that cannibalism could be easily found in Europe’s own backyard. In prehistory the Neanderthals were always known as violent cannibals. Many Neanderthal sites show their bones with battle wounds as well as bones split open so that they could easily eat the marrow. It is ironic then since scientist have recently unlocked Neanderthal DNA proving that they share kinship with many modern Europeans, suddenly Neanderthals have now been given a makeover. We are now to focus on the Neanderthal’s softer kinder side, as Dreamworks Animation recently did with their movie The Croods.
The Greeks were some of the first to mention cannibalism in their mythologies. In fact it is in Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus’s men are eaten by the one eyed Cyclops. There is also the story of Cronos the Greek Titan who eats his children. Zeus and Rhea trick Cronos into eating a stone and the Greek god Zeus makes his escape. Folklore and legend is always based in some fact, so it is not surprising that there are real cases of cannibalism in Europe.
The Greek Historian Herodotus for which we get the word “history” recorded that there were a group of warriors known as the Scythians who ate the people who they defeated, and would use their skulls as drinking glasses. Indeed skull cups have been found by archaeologist in Goughs Cave in England. Possible sites for human sacrifice and cannibalism have even been found among the Greeks themselves at places like Knossos and Anemospilia. It is not a shock then that cannibalism shows up in many of the original European fairy tales. In an older version of Little Red Riding Hood the wolf does not swallow the grandmother he cuts her body up putting the meat and blood in jars, and then feeds it to the unsuspecting Little Red Riding Hood as food and wine. In the story Hansel and Gretel the witch wants to fatten them up so she can eat them. In an older version of Sleeping Beauty we find that the Evil Queen sends a Huntsmen to kill her, but the Huntsmen has a change of heart tricking the Evil Queen by presenting a boar’s liver and lungs instead of Sleeping Beauty’s. The Evil Queen proceeds to become a cannibal and eats the liver and lungs believing it to be Sleeping Beauty’s.
All of this cannibalism in children’s stories may make parents think twice about what they are actually reading to our children in school. But could these stories be somehow connected to an older tradition of cannibalism in Europe. It most definitely is. The Druids the famous priest magicians from the British Isles which instantly bring to mind Merlin, Dumbledore or Gandalf if your into that sort of thing are guilty of committing not only human sacrifices but cannibalism based on archaeological finds at Lindow Moss and Alveston England. In 60 AD the Romans were invading the last stronghold of the Druids desperate to defeat the Romans they sacrificed bodies and ate them. In fact Julius Caesar always stated this about the Druids “Unless the life of a man be offered, the mind of the immortal gods will not favor them.”
There was also a phenomenon in Europe known as medical cannibalism going back to the Greek physician Galen who believed that if a sick person drank blood and ate body parts they would be cured of any aliments.
No wonder then we find in Europe a period of time when the sensation of consuming "mumia"caught on. Mumia was a term for Egyptian mummies, corpses really that were ground up and sent to Europe for consumption. Needless to say none of this "medical cannibalism" actually cured anything, but is rather just one of many interesting footnotes in the gory history of European cannibalism. One need not stay in Europe to find cannibalism it can easily be found right here in the United States. There are documented cases of cannibalism in Jamestown Virginia. This dark period in Jamestown’s history is known to historians as the “starving time” because the colonist were not disciplined farmers they soon did not have enough food to eat, and what happened next is they started eating each other in order to survive. Somehow this did not show up in Disney’s Pocahontas movie I wonder why? One Jamestown resident even ate his wife. This is what John Smith said about the event “Nay, so great was our famine that a salvage we slew and buried the poorer sort took him up again and eat him…..and one amongst the rest did kill his wife, powdered her, and had eaten part of her before it was known.”
All of this isn’t to say that cannibalism is not found among other people around the world though; however, it must be stated that it was exaggerated and fabricated among conquistadors like Columbus as justification for enslaving and invading lands. But to be fair cannibalism did exist among the Aztec if we are to trust their own artwork and science has proved a connection between a disease called Kuru and cannibalism in Papa New Guinea. Recently human rights watch groups have claimed cannibalism has taken place in Liberia and the Congo as wars broke out there. Whether these are claims of real cannibalism or a form of psychological warfare to scare the enemy I will leave that to the anthropologist and investigative reporters. One need not shy from any connection of cannibalism with people of color. I am a firm believer that if it can be documented history should be honest. The problem is when we present to the world a version of cannibalism that only African or people of color participate in. Not only is it historically dishonest as we have proven, but it creates stereotypes that reinforce racism and prejudice.
Bill Schutt. Cannibalism. 2017. Workman Publishing.
William Arnes. The Man-Eating Myth. 1979. Oxford Press.
Richard Sugg. Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History Of Corpse Medicine From The Renaissance To The Victorians. 2011. Routledge.
Donald Bogle. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History Of Blacks In American Film. 1973. Continuum International Publishing.