Chapter 2: Applying Cultural Relativism to Cannibalism

How do anthropologists understand cannibalism?

An image of a skull, shown in black and white, with a black background.
Photo by Ahmed Adly on Unsplash.

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2.1 What is kuru?

Remember that the principle of cultural relativism is central to this course. Cultural relativism is the principle that we cannot judge or understand another culture’s beliefs or practices based on our own, culturally specific logic. But that, rather, we must examine other cultures based on their culturally-specific logic and understanding of the world around them . While this isn’t always easy, close, holistic research can lead us to new ways of understanding those who appear to be different from us. Let’s practice this skill with the example of cannibalism.

In 1961, a team of anthropologists traveled to a remote region of Papua New Guinea to investigate the cause of a fatal disease called kuru (Lindenbaum 2015). They were able to connect the illness to the practice of cannibalism, but was cannibalism the cause of kuru? The answer is no. Eating flesh does not cause disease.

Eating healthy human flesh is not, itself, unhealthy. In fact, eating human flesh as a human being can be nutritious because the flesh would already contain the nutrients needed by humans.

To be clear: eating flesh does not cause disease. But eating DISEASED flesh causes disease.

Kuru spread among the Fore when a member of the community ate the diseased flesh of another member of the community. This disease functions similarly to Mad Cow Disease. Eating cow meat doesn’t automatically give you Mad Cow Disease, but, eating the flesh of a cow who had Mad Cow Disease would then also give you the disease.

Both Mad Cow Disease and Kuru are caused by prions. Prions are proteins that can infect living tissue, but prions are unlike viruses because they do not contain any genetic material (Lindenbaum 109). These proteins can affect other proteins in living tissue causing brain damage and death.

2.2 How do we mourn?

We call the Fore, “endocannibalistic anthropophagers.” The term, “endocannibalistic anthropophagers” refers to a community that eats their own dead (Stein 9). Please note, endocannibalistic anthropophagers do not kill people to eat and they do not eat the dead of another community. They do not hunt down humans or farm humans for consumption. This type of cannibalism is specific where the members only eat their own, already dead members.

This practice of eating your own dead is a mourning ritual for the Fore (pronounced “for-ay”) or, what anthropologists call a “death ritual.” A death ritual is a cultural practice designed to help people grapple with and cope with the death of a community member. If you have ever suffered the pain of losing aloved one, you know that that loss is painfully jarring to the mind and to the spirit. For example, when a person dies, it takes the brain quite a long time to remember to stop referring to that individual in the present tense and to transition to past tense. When a community member dies, the fabric of the community is torn apart and the gaping hole left needs to be addressed in some way. Human societies develop death rituals to address the painful experiences caused by loss.

The way that we mourn changes from culture to culture and from place to place. Every culture has their own idea of what kind of “mourning” is appropriate or inappropriate and we develop cultural norms surrounding this (Stein 177–183). For example, many of us typically believe that crying in public is not an acceptable behavior but, when someone has very recently experienced great loss, we change our belief and allow those individuals to cry publicly. That being said, we likely don’t allow someone to cry publicly for an indefinite amount of time. We may, sometimes quite cruelly, expect a person who has experienced loss to stop crying in public after about a week or two. You’ve certainly had your own experiences with loss and mourning and you understand that we are all somewhat restricted in how we are allowed to mourn or how we are expected to mourn.

In some Jewish communities, the mourning period is considered to last for a full year and individuals are expected to avoid certain activities during this time. For example, some Jewish people in mourning will not listen to or play music for the full year after a close family member has died.

The death rituals of our communities may be restricting, they may be empowering, or they may be both at the same time. Consider this example: one of the reasons why the Ebola outbreak of 2013–2016 in West Africa was so difficult to control was because some of the sacred mourning and death rituals in the region allow mourners to touch, wash, dress, and cry over the bodies of their lost deceased loved ones (Manguvo and Mafuadze). It is believed that connecting physically to a loved one’s body connects you in the afterlife and giving up this mourning practice impacts eternal life (ibid). Unfortunately, Ebola is highly contagious immediately after a person has died and it’s estimated that 60% of infected individuals contracted Ebola during a mourning ritual (ibid). In these cases, individuals were willing to die for a bigger purpose and using scientific evidence that only impacts life on Earth is simply not sufficient to change the cultural practices. Like all of us, these individuals weighed all of the evidence before them and made the decision that reflected their most sacred needs.

This West African mourning practice is empowering because it allows mourners special rights to express their grief. It is also restrictive because it impacts their own health. As an anthropologist, it’s important to examine these issues through a variety of perspectives in order to understand the complete reality of the cultural practice and its implications.

2.3 Death Rituals

Death rituals (also referred to as funerary practices or funerals) are very diverse. Two common forms of death ritual are: burial and cremation. The Ancient Egyptians mummified their dead and placed them in tombs (the grander the tombs; the more wealthy and powerful the deceased was). There are still new death rituals emerging in our modern era: companies are offering ways to turn your loved ones cremated remains into a diamond that you can wear, into a tree to plant, or into fireworks for a celebration of life.

Another fascinating example of a death ritual is the Buddhist practice called, “Tibetan Sky Burial.” These rituals are typically reserved for Buddhist monks who, after passing, have their flesh removed from their bones to be eaten by vultures (Martin 1996). It’s believed to accrue good karma for those who remained vegetarian in life (meaning they never took a life) and to then allow their flesh to nourish other living beings after they are gone (meaning they help others live).

Because we live in a diverse society, we are accustomed to cultural conflict. This conflict usually arises when a group of people expect another group to conform to their own, culturally-specific practices. We can prepare ourselves to examine the plight of the Fore by first examining the two popular forms of death ritual embraced by many societies and by asking ourselves why they are preferred in each contect. Consider each:

  • Christianity is a diverse religion (like all others) and there is not one universal belief about burial in that community. But, burial commonly considered to be the best way to dispose of a dead body because, in many Christian communities, the body needs to remain intact in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ. Burying preserves the body and allows the body to be resurrected upon Jesus’ return.
  • In Hinduism and Buddhism, it’s preferred to cremate a body because it’s believed that cremation allows the soul to be freed from the body. In this case, the soul may be reincarnated in a new life or it may achieve the higher existence of “samsara” where it is freed from all suffering.

Both communities are concerned with rebirth and with caring for the eternal soul of their loved ones. Christians want their souls to be reborn by their God upon his return, while Hindus and Buddhists want the soul to have a chance to be reborn in a new life. We can see that these two religions share a core value but that they seek to achieve it in mutually exclusive ways. Asking a Christian to cremate a body would prevent them from achieving salvation and asking a Hindu or Buddhist to bury a body would prevent them from achieving peace. We can practice cultural relativism to see that these two, mutually exclusive cultural practices both make perfect sense in their own, culturally-specific contexts.

2.4–2.6 Research on Death Rituals

Before continuing, please read and take notes on the following materials:

2.7 Cultural Relativism and Cannibalism

Remember that anthropologists take a holistic approach when examining a cultural practice. If we don’t examine a community’s “big picture” worldview, we cannot make sense of their cultural practices and beliefs. As a student of anthropology, ask yourself, , “what would need to be true for this cultural practice to make sense?” Then earnestly try to discover the answer whenever you encounter a cultural belief or practice that is different from what you expect or are comfortable with in your own culture.

Remember that anthropologists practice objectivity, and therefore are:

  • not interested in making moral judgments
  • not interested in creating a cultural hierarchy

Anthropologists understand that moral judgments and cultural hierarchy are subjective concepts. It is not necessary for anthropologists to agree with or adopt a subjects’ mode of behavior or belief system, but rather to understand and appreciate it.

Cultural anthropologists know that what is “moral” is culturally-specific and that concepts like “better” or “worse” are also culturally-specific. We cannot judge another culture against our own ideas of morality, but we can strive to learn another culture’s idea of morality in order to understand them.

Let’s practice this with the Fore. The Fore believed that eating the body of their loved ones’ guarantees that the loved one’s soul will travel into the afterlife successfully while blessing the family who consumed their body (Whitfield, Pako, Collinge, Alpers 3721). They believe that your body will, ultimately, be eaten by something (worms if you are buried and maggots if you’re not buried; Ibid 3722) and they believe that the best place that your body should ultimately rest is within the bodies of those who loved you. This process is called transumption, and the Fore believe that eating your family moves their soul into the afterlife (Ibid).

In the Fore worldview, your body becomes the fuel that sustains life for your children and then causes you to live on through them. But, it’s not just one person who lives on in this way because, as each generation has consumed their parents and grandparents, your body contains the entire ancestral line. To the Fore, burying a loved one in the ground would be a cruel fate that would separate the loved one, trap them forever in their dead body, and end the ancestral line.

At this point, you don’t need to morally agree with endocannibalism nor do you have to want to practice it yourself. But, as an anthropologist, you need to stretch your mind to be able to understand this unique cultural practice in its own terms. Soon, after you complete all of the work associated with this topic, you will get to decide how to analyze this cultural ritual. We will closely examine the Fore’s form of endocannibalism and, in the end, you should develop your own ideas about this practice based on the evidence presented.

There is one final element to address: gender and power. As you read before, in the Fore community, the women and children were more likely to die from kuru because they are more likely to eat the diseased flesh. While anthropologists do not like to judge another cultural practice against their own belief systems, we are interested in examining how these cultural practices are experienced differently by the groups with less power. As lower status members of the community, women, and children may not have the ability to protest the cultural practice of eating diseased flesh (this is hard to comment on without a study on the matter). According to Whitfield, Pako, Collinge, and Alpers, the women eat the diseased flesh as a sacrifice to the community and are later rewarded for doing this. According to Rebecca and Phillip Stein, women are given undesirable meat because they are less powerful in society. As always, please practice critical thinking and cultural relativism in order to develop your own ideas about this cultural practice.

2.8 Researching Kuru

Before continuing, please read and take notes on the following work:

2.9 Cultural Requirements for Cannibalism

For Westerners in modern society, the concept of cannibalism can be seen as aberrant and taboo. For Westerners, the idea of cannibalism conjures up frightening or upsetting images. However, when the consumption of human flesh is part of societal religious practices, what does it really entail and what does it mean? In order to better understand the diversity and meaning behind the practice of cannibalism, we can examine cases of cannibalism as a societal practice — that is a mode of consuming humans that is an accepted practice in society. These practices are seen in many cultures around the world and are associated with ritualistic and religious beliefs that are deeply embedded in society. Please note that, in this course, we are not examining the aberrant forms of cannibalism (i.e. criminal) in Western society.

For cannibalism to be an accepted societal practice, the culture practicing the religion believes that partaking of the body or parts of the deceased ensures that the deceased person’s spirit lives on through them. For ritual cannibalism to be accepted, there has to be:

  • A belief in a supernatural human spirit
  • A belief that the spirit can live on after death
  • A cultural acceptance of the cyclical nature of life

2.10 Cannibalism in Catholicism/Christianity

In the New Testament of the Bible, the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke detail what is known as the “Last Supper” of Jesus (i.e. Christ) which occurs during the Jewish tradition of Passover, before he is sentenced to death and crucified.

During this shared meal, Jesus goes through various ritualistic gestures as he breaks bread and shares wine with his followers. Specifically, in this story, he states the following as he passes bread to his followers, “Take, eat, this is my body.” Later in the meal Jesus takes a cup of wine, and gives it to those present, saying “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

This practice is commemorated during religious services today in Christian services around the world. In Catholic traditions, this is known as the Eucharist. This ritual is not symbolic, but it is actually literal in beliefs, Catholic doctrine dictates the doctrine of “Real Presence” which established the belief that the bread and wine are actually Jesus’ flesh and blood.. The doctrine of Real Presence states that Jesus Christ is literally present in the Holy Eucharist and the wine that is transfigured into the blood of Jesus Christ as it is consumed. A full one-third of Catholic Christians alone — worldwide have a firm belief in the Real Presence of the Eucharist.

So, here from an anthropological perspective, we see a few concepts unfolding.

  1. First, the firm belief in the practice of cannibalism.
  2. Second, a person who sacrifices themselves to be consumed as the ultimate sacrifice.
  3. Third, a belief that the consumption of the sacrificed person unifies them spiritually with the sacrificed person, so that the sacrificed person’s spirit lives on.

2.11 Revenge Cannibalism

The Korowai Tribe of Papua New Guinea practice a type of revenge cannibalism. The Korowai have a strong traditional belief in sorcery, witchcraft, and the belief of curses and revenge. These beliefs permeate the society and act as a sort of social sanction.

Anthropologists use the phrase “social sanction” to refer to a cultural practice that utilizes positive or negative feedback from others in order to enforce a standard of “proper” behavior. When we deny people access to social life in response to their “bad” actions, we are utilizing social sanctions.

For the Korowai, the belief in magic and sorcery works as a social sanction because “abnormal” behavior can cause one to be accused of being engaged in sorcery. People strive to get along with their community in order to avoid societal punishment. However, these fears become so heightened that tensions can run high until fights and acts of revenge occur.

The Korowai reside in an area of the world with little access to modern medicine which leads the community to explain Illness and death in their own, culturally-specific way. In fact, until the 1970s when British Anthropologists visited them, the Korowai had no idea there were any other people that were unlike themselves. These ailments are seen with suspicion and are explained as the action of an evil sorcerer. Before dying a victim may state that they had a vision and they know who the sorcerer is that put a curse on them. If a child is dying, a child or an adult relative might name their sorcerer.

After death, with rage, fear, and sadness, typically male relatives of the deceased person will go and find the named sorcerer, make them stand in a clearing, shoot them with arrows and then cook and eat the sorcerer. The parts and bones of the sorcerer are dismembered and put on branches to warn other would-be sorcerers of retribution.

What religious beliefs would support this action? The Korowai strongly believe that the sorcerers are cannibals. The Korowai believe that illness and death in a loved one is the result of the sorcerer magically. The Korowai believe in a practice called “remotely eating” which believes that a shaman literally eats the soul of a person from a physical distance; they call this practice remote eating (this results in their death).

The Korowai claim they do not want to eat sorcerers. The Korowai say that human meat tastes terrible and that ‘normal people should not eat each other’. However, in order to prevent the sorcerer from eating people, the Korowai must eat them in retribution.

Why would these religious actions from these two case studies be supported by society? Rather than take a purely religious or spiritual approach. Let’s take a functional approach.

Functionalism is a theoretical approach that views certain functions of society as serving a concrete purpose. In order to perpetuate them (because they may be uncomfortable, challenging, or otherwise contradictory), morals, codes, and spiritual or supernatural ideas are ascribed to them as a way of ideologically enforcing this conduct. Oftentimes, the functional reason becomes lost many generations removed — and only the ideology remains. Take a moment to reflect on some of the cultural traditions that your community holds dear and ask yourself, “What might be the function of this practice? What beliefs might be reinforced through this cultural tradition?”

Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon — among others — have therefore have proposed that ritualistic cannibalism is a way for groups of people to obtain dietary nutrients they otherwise would not have — particularly those members of society that may need them most. Of course, this practice is not limited to the Korowai. The Yanomamo people of Venezuela sometimes crush up bones which are then mixed into a drink. In the case of the Yanomamo, they are consuming a source of calcium they otherwise may be lacking.

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Additional Material

Before moving on, please read the following short pieces on death, burial, and mourning:

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Bibliography

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“The Eucharist and the Mass: Catholics Come Home.” The Eucharist and the Mass, Catholics Come Home, 2020, www.catholicscomehome.org/your-questions/church-teachings/the-eucharist/.

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About

This is part of “Beliefs: An Open Invitation to the Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.” This chapter is written by Amanda Zunner-Keating and Laurie Solis (College of the Canyons). Recorded by Amanda Zunner-Keating for Los Angeles Valley College. Edited by Brian Pierson (Pierce College). Photo by Ahmed Adly on Unsplash. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles