“So varied are the modalities of cannibalism, so diverse its real or supposed functions, that we may come to doubt whether the notion of cannibalism as it is currently employed can be defined in a relatively precise manner. It dissolves or dissipates as soon as one attempts to grasp it. Cannibalism in itself has no objective reality. It is an ethnocentric category: it exists only in the eyes of the societies that proscribe it.”—Claude Lévi-Strauss
The following is the title essay from We Are All Cannibals: And Other Essays, by Claude Levi-Strauss. The essay was first published as “Siamo tutti cannibali,” in La Repubblica.
Until 1932 the mountains in the interior of New Guinea remained the last totally unknown region on the planet. Formidable natural defenses prevented access to them. Gold prospectors, followed shortly thereafter by missionaries, penetrated them first, but World War II interrupted these attempts. It was only in 1950 that we began to realize that this vast territory held almost a million people, speaking different languages that all belonged to the same family. These peoples were unaware of the existence of whites, whom they mistook for deities or ghosts. Their customs, their beliefs, and their social organization would open up an unimagined field of study to ethnologists.
And not only to ethnologists. In 1956 an American biologist, Dr. Carleton Gajdusek, discovered an unknown disease in the region. In small populations distributed among some 160 villages over a territory of about 250 square miles, about thirty-five thousand individuals in all, one person in a hundred died every year of a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. It manifested itself as uncontrollable shaking (hence its name, “kuru,” which means “tremble” or “shiver” in the language of the principal group concerned) and a gradual loss of coordination of voluntary movements, followed by multiple infections. Gajdusek, having at first believed that the malady was genetic in origin, demonstrated that it was caused by a slow-acting, particularly resistant virus, which no one was ever able to isolate.
This was the first time that a degenerative disease caused by a slow-acting virus had been identified in humans, but animal diseases such as scrapie in sheep and mad cow disease, which recently ravaged Great Britain, are very similar. And in human beings, another degenerative ailment of the nervous system, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, has appeared sporadically throughout the world. In showing that, as with kuru, apes could be infected with Creutzfeldt-Jakob, Gajdusek demonstrated that kuru was identical to that disease (a genetic predisposition is not ruled out). For that discovery, he received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for 1976.
In the case of kuru, the genetic hypothesis was not a good match for the statistics. The disease struck women and young children much more often than adult men, so much so that in the villages most affected, there was only one woman for two or three, or sometimes even four, men. Kuru, which seems to have appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century, therefore also had sociological consequences: a reduction in the rate of polygamy, a larger proportion of single men and widowers caring for families, greater freedom for women in the choice of a husband.
But if kuru was infectious in origin, the carrier(s) of the virus and the reason for its uneven distribution between the sexes and among different age groups still had to be found. Nothing turned up as a result of inquiries into diet and the unhealthy living conditions of the huts where the women and children resided (their husbands and fathers lived apart from them in a collective house; sexual relations took place in the forest or in gardens).
When ethnologists entered the region in turn, they advanced a different hypothesis. Before the groups that had fallen victim to kuru had come under the control of the Australian administration, they had indulged in cannibalism. The act of eating the corpse of certain close relatives was a means of demonstrating affection and respect for them. The flesh, viscera, and brains were cooked; the bones were ground up and served with vegetables. The women were in charge of cutting up the corpses and of the other culinary operations, and they were particularly fond of these macabre meals. It may be supposed that they became infected while handling contaminated brains and that they infected their young children through bodily contact.
It seems that these cannibalistic practices began in the region around the same time that kuru made its appearance. Furthermore, ever since the presence of whites put an end to cannibalism, the incidence of kuru has steadily declined, and the disease has now almost vanished. A causal link may therefore exist. Caution is required, however, since the cannibalistic practices, described by indigenous informants with a remarkable wealth of details, had already disappeared when the investigations began. No direct observation or experience in the field allows us to say that the problem is definitively solved.
As it happens, in the last few months in France, Great Britain, and Australia, the press has become fascinated with the cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (identical, as I said, to kuru) that broke out following injections of hormone extracted from human pituitary glands (the pituitary is a small gland located at the base of the brain) or grafts from the brain membranes of humans. The first treatment is used to combat growth disorders in young children; the second, female infertility. Several deaths resulting from infertility treatments were reported in Great Britain, New Zealand, and the United States; other fatalities occurred more recently in France, among children treated with growth hormone extracted from human brains, which were probably improperly sterilized. There is talk of a scandal comparable to the one that, on a larger scale, distressed the French public when blood became contaminated by the AIDS virus. As in that case, lawsuits have been filed.
The hypothesis advanced by ethnologists, and accepted by doctors and biologists—that kuru, a disease confined to a few small exotic populations, had its origin in cannibalism—is therefore dramatically illustrated in the Western world. Here and there, similar diseases may have been communicated to women and children who incorporated, by different pathways of course, human cerebral materials. One case does not prove the other, but there is a striking analogy between them.
Some may protest against that comparison. But what essential difference is there between the oral route and the blood route, between ingestion and injection, for introducing into an organism a little of the substance of another? People will say it is the bestial appetite for human flesh that makes cannibalism horrible. They will then have to restrict their condemnation to a few extreme cases and omit from the definition of cannibalism other attested cases, where it is imposed as a religious obligation, often performed with repugnance—revulsion even—expressed as faintness and vomiting. The distinction some would be tempted to make between a barbaric and superstitious custom on the one hand, a practice grounded in scientific knowledge on the other, would hardly be convincing either. Many uses of substances drawn from the human body, scientific from the standpoint of the ancient pharmacopoeia, are considered by us to be superstitions. And after a few years modern medicine itself proscribes treatments, formerly believed to be effective, because they have turned out to be useless if not harmful. The distinction appears to be less sharp than one would like to imagine.
Nevertheless, prevailing opinion continues to see the practice of cannibalism as a monstrosity, an aberration of human nature so inconceivable that certain authors, victims of that prejudice, have come to deny that cannibalism ever existed. It is the invention of travelers and ethnologists, they say. The proof: over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ethnologists produced countless accounts from throughout the world, but nowhere was a scene of cannibalism directly observed. (I leave aside those exceptional cases where people, about to starve to death, were reduced to eating their already-dead companions, since what is being disputed is the existence of cannibalism as a custom or institution.)
In The Man-Eating Myth (Oxford University Press, 1979), a brilliant but superficial book that enjoyed great success with an ill-informed readership, W. Arens attacks in particular the received ideas about kuru. If stories of cannibalism are fables that, as he claims (111–12), emerged from a complicity between researchers and their indigenous informants, there is no more reason to believe that cannibalism was the source of kuru in New Guinea than there would be to believe that Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is transmitted in Europe by the same means: a grotesque hypothesis that no one had ever advanced.
Yet, as we have just seen, it is precisely the indisputable reality of the second case (Creutzfeldt-Jakob) that, though not providing proof, confers increased likelihood on the first.
No serious ethnologist disputes the reality of cannibalism, but they all know as well that it cannot be reduced to its most brutal form, which consists of killing enemies in order to eat them. That custom certainly existed in Brazil—to confine ourselves to a single example—where a few ancient travelers and Portuguese Jesuits, who lived for years among the Indians in the sixteenth century and spoke their language, were very eloquent witnesses to it. Alongside exocannibalism, a place must be made for endocannibalism, which consists of consuming, in large or very small quantities, whether fresh or in its putrefied or mummified state, the flesh—raw, cooked, or charred—of deceased relatives. On the border of Brazil and Venezuela, the Yanomami Indians, the unfortunate victims of abuse from the gold prospectors who invaded their territory, even now consume the bones, ground up beforehand, of their dead. Cannibalism can be practiced to meet nutritional needs (in times of scarcity or because of a taste for human flesh); it can be a political act (punishment for criminals or revenge against one’s enemies); it can have a magical function (assimilation of the virtues of the deceased or,
on the contrary, the casting out of their souls); or it can be part of a ritual (a religious cult, a feast of the dead or coming-of-age ceremony, or a rite to assure agricultural prosperity). Finally, it can be therapeutic, as attested by many prescriptions in ancient medicine and in Europe itself in the not-so-remote past. Injections of pituitary gland and grafts of human brain matter indisputably belong to that last category, as do organ transplants, which have become common practice.
So varied are the modalities of cannibalism, so diverse its real or supposed functions, that we may come to doubt whether the notion of cannibalism as it is currently employed can be defined in a relatively precise manner. It dissolves or dissipates as soon as one attempts to grasp it. Cannibalism in itself has no objective reality. It is an ethnocentric category: it exists only in the eyes of the societies that proscribe it. All flesh, whatever its provenance, is a cannibal food in Buddhism, which believes in the unity of life. Conversely, in Africa and Melanesia, some groups made human flesh one food among others, if not at times the best, the most respectable, the only one, they said, that “has a name.”
Authors who deny the present and past existence of cannibalism claim that the notion was invented to widen the gap between “savages” and the civilized. Supposedly, we falsely attribute to them revolting customs and beliefs in order to clear our consciences and confirm our belief in our superiority.
Let us reverse that tendency and seek to perceive the facts of cannibalism in all their ramifications. Employing extraordinarily diverse modalities and ends, depending on the time and place, the practice always entails intentionally introducing into the bodies of human beings parts or substances from other human bodies. The notion of cannibalism, thus exorcised, will now appear rather commonplace. Jean-Jacques Rousseau saw the origin of social life in the sentiment that impels us to identify with others. And after all, the most simple means to identify others with oneself is to eat them.
In the last analysis, if travelers to distant lands have easily—and not without indulgence—bowed to the evidence of cannibalism, it is because in that generalized form, the only one that allows us to embrace the totality of the phenomenon, the concept of cannibalism and its direct or indirect applications belong to all societies. As demonstrated by the parallel I traced between Melanesian customs and our own practices, we can even go so far as to say that it also exists among us.