Chapter 2: Applying Cultural Relativism to Cannibalism

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

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.

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.

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.

  • 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.

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.

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

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.

  • 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.

  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.

Additional Material

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


Cross, F. L., & Livingstone, E. A. (2005)”Last Supper. The final meal Christ with His Apostles on the night before the Crucifixion.”, . The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev.) (958). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.


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.



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Amanda Zunner-Keating

Amanda Zunner-Keating

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles