Cannibalism is one of the last real taboos of modern society. As such, it evokes a powerful mixture of fascination and revulsion. So strong are these preconceptions, in fact, that both the public and the scientific community have repeatedly fallen prey to them. “We assume that cannibalism is always an aggressive, barbaric and degrading act,” objects Beth A. Conklin, an associate professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University. “But that is a serious over-simplification, one that has kept us from realizing that cannibalism can have positive meanings and motives that are not that far from our own experience.”
Conklin’s perspective is based on an intensive study of the Wari’, a group of native people who live in the Amazon rainforest. Her fieldwork provides detailed confirmation about how and why the Wari’ practiced an elaborate form of cannibalism until the 1960s, when government workers and missionaries forced them to abandon the practice.
“The Wari’ are unusual because they practiced two distinct forms of cannibalism in warfare and funerals,” Conklin says. “However, the two practices were very different and had very different meanings. Eating enemies was an intentional expression of anger and disdain for the enemy. But at funerals, when they consumed members of their own group who died naturally, it was done out of affection and respect for the dead person and as a way to help survivors cope with their grief.”
Conklin has focused on the less understood practice of funerary cannibalism in her new book, Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society [University of Texas Press]. “I hope that this book will make people think more deeply about the meanings that the body has in human relationships, and to consider that other cultures may have understood those in ways that made the destruction and transformation of the body through cannibalism seem to be the best, most respectful, most loving way to deal with the death of someone you care about.”
From 1985 to 1987, the anthropologist spent 19 months living in Wari’ communities plus seven months collecting data at an indigenous health clinic and in national archives. Return trips in 1991, 1999 and 2000 allowed her to confirm her information and interpretations. The case for Wari’ cannibalism is based on the testimony of the Wari’ themselves, corroborated by accounts of missionaries and government officials who said they had witnessed cannibalism at Wari’ funerals in the 1950s and 1960s.
Conklin interviewed dozens of older Wari’ who remembered life before contact and talked freely about observing and participating in funerals in which cannibalism was practiced. At about the same time two Brazilian scientists—Aparecida Vilaça, from the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro and Denise Meireles from the University of Brasilia—conducted independent research among the Wari’, producing findings that closely correspond with Conklin’s.
During her discussions with older people, Conklin learned that some were uncomfortable with the practice of burial, considering it to be a less respectful and less comforting way to treat the passing of someone you care about. “In the past, the idea of leaving the body of a loved one in the dirt and letting it rot was as repulsive to the Wari’ as the idea of eating human flesh is to us,” Conklin explains.
As she began exploring these attitudes, Conklin found that the models developed by anthropologists and psychologists to explain cannibalism did not fit. The Wari’ did not eat human flesh because they needed the protein. They were not trying to absorb the dead person’s life force, courage or other qualities. They were not acting out aggression, dominance or a desire to hold onto the deceased.
Instead, Conklin concluded that the practice was deeply rooted in the world view of the Wari’ and their understanding of how memories affect the grieving process. Like a number of other groups in South America, the Wari’ have rituals designed to help bereaved relatives cope with their sorrow by eliminating things associated with the dead, which provoke sadness by reminding survivors of their loss and also may attract the dead person’s ghost.
To loosen attachments between the living and the dead, Wari’ burn all the dead person’s possessions, including the house he or she lived in. They stop speaking the person’s name and change the appearance of the village and other places where the dead person spent time.
“Consuming the body is part of this process as well,” Conklin says. “Far more than we do, the Wari’ see the body as a place where personality and individuality reside, and so, of all the things that remind you of dead people, the corpse is the strongest reminder. So they believed it was important to transform the corpse in order to help transform survivors’ memories of their dead relative.”
This transformation also involved developing new images of the dead person joining the animal world. According to their traditional beliefs, the spirits of dead relatives go to an underground world from which they return in the form of wild, pig-like animals called peccaries that are a major source of meat for the Wari’.
The ancestor-peccaries seek out hunters from their own families and offer themselves to be shot, ensuring that their meat will go to feed the people they love. This special relationship with peccaries is part of a native cosmology centered on ideas about communication and transformations between humans and animals.
To us, cannibalism looks like an extreme, exotic practice. “By stepping outside our own cultural framework to try to understand cannibalism from the Wari’ point of view, however, we can see some of the realities of social life, especially the ways of caring and coping, that unite us all as human beings,” she says. “Thinking about cannibalism as a way to cope with grief and mourning gives it a more human—even humane—face,” Conklin says.
Materials provided by Vanderbilt University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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