Uncertain scales

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There has been talk about cannibalism on this weblog before. A school of anthropologists have been trying to argue for a few decades that legends of cannibalism are simply myths that are used to dehumanize the “Other.” Some scholars, like Jared Diamond, disagree with this assessment very strongly and assert that the analysis is not only faulty, but biased by the tendency of some anthropologists to see noble savages where there aren’t any. The cannibalism-is-a-myth thesis has some appeal, Martin Gardner, contributor to The Skeptic, found the idea plausible. I say “found” because I suspect that Gardner was convinced (I don’t know if he’s commented on the topic of late) by the genetic evidence which suggests selection for prion resistence could be detected in many human populations. This is a nice way that genetic evidence can be used to supplement the discourse in other disciplines, especially in fields where the exchanges are somewhat value-laden and emotionally explosive. Another example would be the likelihood that the crypto-Jews of New Mexico might actually have non-trivial Jewish ancestry. The contrarian skeptical bent in cultural anthropology was to explain these stories as myths generated by particular social biases and the relicts of attempts by Seventh Day Adventists to convert Latinos in the American Southwest in the early 20th century (ergo, Jewish ritual traditions). This explanation received featured space in The Atlantic Monthly in the late 1990s, and I accepted it simply because it seemed less sensational than the alternative.

Nevertheless science doesn’t have the surety of God. A new paper disputes the findings in about the history of cannibalism in regards to the magnitude of the practice, though I think the general thrust (that cannibalism is not a myth) remains standing from what I can see (link via Abhi). I’ve uploaded the file as “cannibal” in the forum, jump to the discussion to see what I mean by rejecting the extent but leaving open the plausibility of this practice locally.

Related: Researchers Find Mutation In Lincoln’s Family.


  1. I agree with J Diamond, Pidgin English dies not have the word “long-pig” for nothing! In case you were wondering, the New Guinea Highlanders say human tastes like pork, hence long-pig.

  2. There are stories of cannibalism from nineteenth-century Taiwan, when the Chinese were fighting the indigenous peoples. The stories are told by Chinese, and the Chinese were the cannibals. There’s the possibility that someone was pulling the anthropologist’s leg, but it isn’t a case of slander by foreigners.  
    There are a lot of things that routinely happen, but which people don’t normally talk about. One anthropologist found out one day that a grandmother he knew, a pillar of the community, had worked as a prostitute in her youth. There’s less stigma about that there than here, but nonetheless this was not common knowledge in her village.

  3. There is massive evidence for the existence of cannibalism in many societies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was common enough to induce anti-prion adaptations. So any evidence against such adaptations doesn’t disprove cannibalism. No-one supposes that cannibalism was an everyday thing – it would be an occasional ritual when enemies were captured, etc.

  4. PNG is where Gajdusek did his Nobel Prize winning work on Kuru among the Fore cannibals. Since Diamond has spent a great deal of time there, it is understandable that he is critical of the cannibalism-is-a-myth thesis.  
    Tim White has written the book  
    on how to evaluate the physical evidence of cannibalism.