(a) Contemporary attitudes to cannibalism

(b) Evidence of cannibalism by Homo antecessor 800,000 years ago click here

Contemporary attitudes to cannibalism

On 28 February 2009 Survival International included the following item in their regular bulletin to members.

Amazon Indian ‘cannibalism’ reports 'false' and 'slanderous'

World experts on the Amazon tribe accused of killing and eating a white settler have denounced the accusations as ‘false’ and ‘slanderous’. The tribe’s supposed cannibalism has been reported by media all around the world ... (Their full article appears below.)

I sent them the following e-mail in response:

Dear Survival International

There has been historically in some cultures actual ritual eating of human flesh (with or without relish/enjoyment; with or without premeditated killing), there are cannibalistic traditions (possibly without actual eating, but confined to stories, myths, cautionary tales), and there are examples - like the Fore in the Eastern Highlands of Kuru fame - where the eating was a tradition that was just a few generations old. There was a case in Germany a few years ago of a German man who (apparently) willingly sacrificed himself to be eaten by another man who wanted to eat human flesh.

I don't see it as a big issue and take a relativistic position on it. To me the issue centre more one on murder or, in the case of the Fore, hygiene. If the cannibalism actually occurred, I am mildly curious about why it occurred and how it was perceived by the participating individuals and non-participating individuals in the same social group, and why other people perceive it as a big issue. But that's about it.

In our culture, certain groups/segments/individuals are, for some reason, inclined to find cannibalism especially repulsive. Or it may be that they feel the need to express their repulsion publicly and, in some cases, to use accusations of cannibalism to denigrate other people.

By featuring this story, I think Survival International is playing into the hands of those in our society who will not be swayed by reason, evidence or commonsense. Their revulsion is an expression of their failure to accept the membership of all of us to the species Homo sapiens, with all its wide variety.

Why did Survival International jump in with its usual knee-jerk, ideological reaction?

Perhaps you should have a page on your website devoted to cannibalism, incest, infanticide, suttee, Chinese foot-binding and other culturally maladaptive practices which certain Westerners in particular find repulsive. You should include on this page practices of certain Westerners which other cultures find repulsive. You could refer all enquirers to this page, which should not be given home-page prominence, and update it as new information, perspectives and ways of presenting the issue objectively became available. Present it as "no big deal".

The reply from Survival International is pasted below.


Experts denounce Amazon Indian cannibalism reports as 'false' and 'slanderous'
(Original article here)

19 February 2009

World experts on the Amazon tribe accused of killing and eating a white settler cast doubts today on the authenticity of the accusations. The tribe’s supposed cannibalism has been reported by media all around the world.  

Dr Donald Pollock, Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said, ‘The Kulina have no history or tradition of cannibalism, and have often expressed disgust at the notion. I am confident that the current charges will prove to be false when they are fully investigated.’

Members of the Kulina (or Culina) tribe have been accused of killing a man, variously reported as a handicapped student and cattle farmer, and eating his heart and thighs in a ‘cannibalistic ritual’. The Kulina live in the remote Amazon forest – some in Brazil, others in Peru.

Domingos Silva, an anthropologist at Brazil’s Federal University of Santa Catarina, said, ‘During all the years when I studied and lived with the Kulina they never gave any sign of practicing cannibalism.’

Dr Daniel Everett, Chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Illinois State University and author of the best-selling book ‘Don’t sleep, there are snakes’, said, ‘I have worked with every group of the Arawan family, of which the Kulina are a member. I am not aware of any evidence that the Kulina or any other Arawan group have ever engaged in cannibalism.’

The source of the reports appears to be limited to the mayor of a nearby town, who told police he was informed by a member of the tribe that the ‘ritual’ had taken place.

Ivar Busatto, co-ordinator of the non-governmental organisation OPAN, which has worked with the Kulina for years, said, ‘Facts have been attributed to the Indians without prior investigation. They are being pre-judged, as part of a wider campaign of slander which has hidden interests.’

FUNAI, the Brazilian government's Indian affairs department, released a statement saying, 'The practice of anthropophagy [eating people] does not exist among indigenous peoples in contemporary Brazil'.

For more information please contact Miriam Ross at Survival International on (+44) (0)20 7687 8734 or (+44) (0)7504 543 367 or email  

Reply from Survival International

Dear Mr Thomas,

Many thanks for your email addressed to Miriam and for your interest in Survival.

The reason we reported on this story, and went a long way towards refuting it, is because: 1) it was gaining a lot of attention both in Brazil and internationally and we felt it important to set the record straight; 2) it fits into the contemporary Brazilian context of the political/business elite trying to roll back indigenous rights, and using 'barbaric' Indian stories, largely invented, to move public opinion in their favour (with potentially catastrophic effects for Indians); and 3) it is extremely unlikely to be true (if it is, it is a lone case of deviancy).

Whatever you and I think, the media always picks up on any stories of cannibalism and they do induce revulsion in a very large number of people.

I do not understand why you think we have a 'usual knee-jerk, ideological reaction'. We are reporting the beliefs of many experts on the people in question who simply don't believe it (we couldn't find anyone who does).

We look at Amazonian infanticide here for more or less exactly the same reasons as above.

Interestingly, when this piece on infanticide was first distributed, a US zoologist contacted us asking why we were denying that Amazon infanticide took place. This was baffling because the piece explicitly says that it does.

Sometimes I think people assume we say things that we in fact neither say nor believe. We don't, for example, defend infanticide, genital mutilation etc., whether practised by tribal peoples or 'ourselves'.

Your view that we should make this more explicit is right. We'll have a think. Many thanks.

Best wishes.

Yours,    Back to my e-mail to Survival International

(b) Evidence of cannibalism by Homo antecessor 800,000 years ago

First Europeans were cannibals: experts

(This report was compiled from four different sources, predominantly AFP, on 2 July 2009)

The remains of the "first Europeans" discovered at an archaeological site in northern Spain have revealed that these prehistoric humans were cannibals who particularly liked the flesh of children.

"We know that they practised cannibalism," said Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro, one of the co-directors of the Atapuerca project, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A study of the remains revealed that they turned to cannibalism to feed themselves and not as part of a ritual, that they ate their rivals after killing them, mostly children and adolescents.

"It is the first well-documented case of cannibalism in the history of humanity" he said. The remains discovered in the caves "appeared scattered, broken, fragmented, mixed with the remains of other animals such as horses, deer, rhinoceroses, all kinds of animals caught in hunting" and eaten by humans, he said. “These fossil animals have traces of stone knives, cutting, combining all the elements of an accumulation of bones butchered by human beings,” he explained. "This gives us an idea of cannibalism as a type of gastronomy and not as a ritual because they did not have the symbolic capacity that human beings have today,” he adds.

The remains date back around 800,000 years. They probably correspond to the first humans who reached Europe, known as Homo antecessor, after the Latin word for pioneer or explorer.

Homo antecessor, who lived before Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, probably came to the caves of Atapuerca after many generations of migration from Africa and through the Middle East, northern Italy and France.

It is a particularly good site for human settlement, at the confluence of two rivers with a comfortable climate and rich in fauna and flora, de Castro said. The area at the time was heavily forested, with oaks, chestnut trees and junipers and abundant with bears, lynxes, panthers, European lions, irish elk, foxes and hyenas.

They found water and food in abundance, could hunt wild boar, horses, deer, "which means that they did not practice cannibalism through a lack of food. They killed their rivals and used the meat," said research co-director, Eudald Carbonell. "We have also discovered two levels that contain cannibalised remains, which means that it was not a one-off thing but continued through time," he added.

"Another interesting aspect is that most of the eleven individuals that we have identified were children or adolescents".

Atapuerca, situated on the edge of Eurasia, allowed Homo antecessor to develop in an isolated and distinct way, with characteristics that were both archaic and modern.

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Page added on 28 February 2009    Page updated 2 July 2009