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February 09, 2004

To crave "man-flesh"

On a thread below the issue of cannibalism and Chinese propensity toward such behavior is mooted. This book argues that "...cannibalism is an evolutionarily derived instinct that arises as a survival strategy in extreme circumstances such as chronic famine or acute starvation and not a pathology that erupts in psychotic individuals." We know from genetics that ancient human populations likely engaged in cannibalism frequently enough for it to have shifted relative fitness between individuals. We also know from history that a wide variety of cultures also practiced cannibalism, often in a ritual context[1].

One thing that seems notable: as one moves up the ladder of social complexity, cannibalism tends to go into disrepute. Perhaps this is because large social systems buffer humans from famine more efficiently, rendering cannibalism an outmoded practice. It may be that complex human societies require much more face-to-face interaction with strangers, and so there is a tendency toward more out-group morality. By this I mean it is easier to eat humans when you de-humanize the source of meat, something that might be natural in small hunter-gatherer groups who have miniscule social networks. In any case, the historical record shows that civilizations like the ancient Greeks and Chinese often tended to smear barbarians as "cannibals," and had folk-tales that indicate that cannibalism was an ancient, if outdated practice, of their own cultures. Even more frequently mentioned, and more difficult to expunge, was the handmaid of cannibalism, human sacrifice. Societies in the recent past that we know have practiced cannibalism and/or ritual sacrifice tend to lay along the same point in social complexity as ancient pre-classical Greeks or Shang era Chinese.

Now, to a second point, are the Chinese more prone to cannibalistic behavior in dire nutritional straits? I am somewhat skeptical, but, I would like to add that I believe it is a fact that the Han people tend to have fewer food taboos than say the European Christian peoples, and to the extreme, South Asians (in particular the upper castes of the Hindu religion). I would for instance argue that if India had had its own Maoist revolutionary phase, one would be hard-pressed to convince upper caste Hindus to consume the flesh of other human beings without great incentive, simply because upper caste Hindus place such a priority on ritual purity and dislike "pollution," which cannibalism would seem to imply[2].

So I suppose I'm saying (perhaps): A) we're all somewhat cannibalistic in inclination given the context, B) social constraints probably differ cross-culturally[3].

fn1. See godless' & Dienekes cites. Or child cannibalism among the Minoans and ritual cannibalism among the Aztecs. If you want to go far back, cannibalism is associated with Peking Man. And we all know about recent cannibalistic societies in the Pacific.

fn2. My personal experience as someone of South Asian Muslim origin is that we are far more picky about what we will eat than Arabs or other Muslim peoples, and will often say that exotic meats are haram, when a quick google search will show little comment in any of the hadiths (these sort of disputes would be comical at mosque when Arabs or other Muslims groups brought food that South Asians assumed must be haram-but were reluctant to contradict Arabs on this point of religious practice). Rather, it seems clear that Hindu tendencies toward extreme food taboos have been imported into the Muslim religion.

fn3. But I am pretty convinced that the Chinese do not make aborted fetuses into soup.

Posted by razib at 05:42 PM