Perspectives on Cannibalism. A Comparison of William Aren, Beth Conklin and Lindenbaum

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2016 7 Pages

Pedagogy - Science, Theory, Anthropology




The topic of cannibalism in anthropology seems to encompass an unprecedented controversy, owing to the diverse perspectives of different anthropologists. Bell (2013) reaffirms, “The existence of cannibalism has been a widely disputed topic in academia” (p. 1). It has remained as one of the ancient taboos across cultures although it is surrounded by mystery, speculation, myth, fear and symbolism. Historically, the practice of cannibalism is believed to have survived across cultures over centuries to the modern times and, its significance in different cultures varies significantly (Turner, 2008, p. 17). Some cultures considered cannibalism as a revered and sacred custom but, in other cultures, it was considered as a sacrilegious and an atrocious practice (Kantner, 1999, p. 37). It is worth noting that cannibalism seems to have existed among communities, although William Aren’s book: The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology & Anthropophagy, portrayed the seemingly old-age practice as a myth. This literature sparked an unprecedented criticism from a number of anthropologists such as Beth A. Conklin and Lindenbaum who gave contradictory perspectives. Bell (2013) states, “Cannibalism is an undeniable occurrence rooted in antiquity and branching forth to the present-day…, the evidence supporting its existence is abundant and is represented in every medium imaginable, including stories, symbols, legends, writings, archeological evidence and firsthand accounts” (p. 1). Therefore, this essay will give a comprehensive discussion of the different perspectives among Aren, Conklin and Lindenbaum over the issue of cannibalism.

Ideally, the issue of cannibalism was first highlighted by Michael Harner, in 1977 through his book entitled ‘The Ecological Basis for Aztec Sacrifice’, in which he explained the existence of cannibalism as a natural consequence to Mesoamerica. Harner portrayed the Aztec’s ritual of human sacrifice as a distinctive cultural evolution in Mesoamerica, in which he claimed that Aztecs offered human sacrifice as part of their cultural practices. In his literature, Harner noticed the practice of cannibalism among the Europeans was prompted by the need for dietary supplementation, in which they consumed human flesh to acquire proteins for nutritional well-being, shortly after the big game mammals became extinct towards the end of the European Paleolithic era.

In regard to the Aztec’s ritual of human sacrifice, Harner stated that cannibalism was an attribute of the immense population pressures, which characterized the Aztec’s era. He claimed that the Aztecs experienced adverse nutritional deficiency owing to the absence of meat; thus, they reverted to the consumption of human flesh as one of the reliable sources of nutritional requirements, especially with regard to amino acids and animal fats because; their staple diet was maize and beans (Marianne Gillogly, n.d., p. 1). Despite that Harner’s perspectives appealed to an array of anthropologists who believed that cannibalism was a real cultural practice, his literature sparked an unprecedented criticism because; he extrapolated the figure of the Aztec’s human sacrifice, which he cited to as 20,000 people, annually. He also did not address some cultural aspects of the Aztecs such as torture and their bloody nature. Marianne Gillogly states, “Harner [did] not attribute to the Aztecs a maniacal obsession with blood and torture, but strongly adheres to the notions that the basic causality of cannibalism was the cultural necessity to control population size and enhance diet” (p. 1). Therefore, this aspect attracted antagonistic views from several anthropologists including William Aren who denounced Harner’s thesis by presenting counter views to Harner’s claim on cannibalism. Marianne Gillogly reaffirms the unwarranted approach by Aren top Harner’s perspective by stating, “It seemed that he wrote it for the sole purpose of creating an antithesis to Harner’s “Ecological Basis” creation” (p. 2).

However, it is worth noting that Aren’s perspective attracted substantial reference from other scholars. Marianne Gillogly reports, “Aren’s work was seen as more “trusted” by the population at large than was Harner’s, as was seen in the sixty plus articles that cited his book over the next fifteen to twenty years” (p. 2).

Concisely, Aren’s perspective was quite different from Conklin and Lindenbaum approaches who perceived cannibalism as one of the most historical accounts, although Aren had discredited such accounts. Aren’s perspective was that cannibalism was merely a historical myth, although he acknowledged the existence of cannibalism among the Aztec community, which had been discussed by Harner. He claimed that cannibalism was popular propaganda among the Spanish militaries, which emerged in the 15th Century and found its way into the 18th Century across Europe. The wartime propaganda, which was perpetrated by the Spanish friars, caused misunderstanding among the Aztecs who seemed to believe that the Spaniards were cannibals. As a result, the aped the practice of consuming human flesh and, yet the Spaniards used this propaganda to conquer their souls into Christianity. Therefore, the spread of this practice among the Aztecs led to misunderstanding among anthropologists who eventually believed that cannibalism survived over generations of different cultures from the ancient years to the present moment. Aren believed that the culture of cannibalism among the Aztecs emerged accidentally owing to the misleading wartime propaganda of the Spaniards whose principal objective was to spread Christianity but, anthropological investigations indicate that the so-called convertees were individuals with compromised personality because; they were found to have practised adultery, sodomy and cannibalism (Marianne Gillogly, n.d., p. 2). Ideally, such customs were not traced in the Spanish culture and, this revelation seemed to reinforce Aren’s claims.

In contrast to Aren’s perspective on cannibalism, an array of anthropologists has investigated the issue extensively to validate the existence of cannibalism as one of the most significant cultural systems. Cannibalism has been re-evaluated comprehensively from diverse perspectives as a cultural phenomenon, owing to Aren’s sediments in his book. It appears true that cannibalism existed as a ritual practice in some cultures, although myths were popular in some communities, in which cannibalism never existed at all. As a result, cannibalism has been defined differently depending with the contextual implication of the issue among different cultures. For instance, there was ritual cannibalism, in which human sacrifices were offered for atonement and other ritual purposes such as religious customs among different communities (Blick, n.d., p. 2). Other forms of cannibalism include warfare, survival, dietary and symbolic cannibalism. In survival cannibalism, humans were known to consume human flesh for survival, especially at times of ravaging famine. Hunger and starvation have been believed to be the most significant contributory factor, which prompted people to eat human flesh. However, it is worth noting that some life situations such as shipwreck and siege caused starvation owing to the lack of food supply (Lee, 2008, p. 8).

On the other hand, dietary cannibalism, as highlighted by Michael Harner, was as a result of nutritional deficiency, gluttony, dietetic or preferential purposes, in which people consumed human flesh to supplement their nutritional requirements. Historically, dietary cannibalism was one of the principal factors, which led to the emergence of cannibalism among the Aztecs as documented by Harner. In regard to symbolic cannibalism, cannibalism was viewed to as a cultural construction of personhood or a mythical approach to reproduce social order.

It appears that Conklin and Linderbaum differ significantly with Aren because; their perspectives imply that cannibalism warrants historical accounts as one of the most significant cultural phenomena in different cultures. These two anthropologists cite evidence to the existence of cannibalism with outstanding examples, contrary to Aren’s approach, in which he did not cite evidence to his claims; instead, he seemed to discredit Harner’s thesis on a hypothetical basis.

Conklin explained the existence of ritual cannibalism after having studied the cultural history of the Wari community, who are inhabitants of the Amazon forest, in Brazil (Robben, 2009, p. 242). She did not view cannibalism as a barbaric or a degrading practice among humans but, rather a cultural taboo. Salisbury (2001) reinstates Conklin’s statement, “The Wari’ are unusual because they practiced two distinct forms of cannibalism in warfare and funerals […] however, the two practices were very different and had very different meanings” (p. 1). The Wari people practised cannibalism till recently, in 1960s when they shunned that cultural practice, especially after they were forced to abandon the practice by the Christian missionaries and government workers. This community consumed human flesh on two distinct occasions; warfare, in which they expressed their disdain to the enemy by eating the flesh of their captives. They used this approach intentionally to express anger to their enemies (Salisbury, 2001, p. 1). As such, they practiced warfare cannibalism, although this occurred only at rivalry situations and, it was not regarded to as a cultural taboo; instead, it was a form of revenge or punishment to their enemies (McCann, 2001, p. 129).



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Aren Conklin Lindenbaum anthropophagy



Title: Perspectives on Cannibalism. A Comparison of William Aren, Beth Conklin and Lindenbaum