People Who Eat People

By Steven ShapinMarch 7, 2012

An Intellectual History of Cannibalism by Catalin Avramescu

EATING PEOPLE IS WRONG. But why? People of different sorts, at different times, expressing their views in different idioms, have had different answers to that question. Right now, our culture isn’t obsessed with cannibalism, though we are still unwholesomely fascinated enough to buy books and go to movies about anthropophagy among the Uruguayan rugby team that ran out of food after their plane crashed in the Andes; or about “the Milwaukee cannibal,” Jeffrey Dahmer; or Armin Meiwes’s successful, internet-mediated search for a voluntary victim (and meal) in Germany in 2001; or, most famously, about the (still controversial) dietary practices of the Donner party stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1846.

Our modern idioms for disapproving of cannibalism are limited. There is a physical disgust at the very idea of eating human flesh, though it’s not clear that this is necessarily different from the revulsion felt by some people confronted with haggis, calf brains, monkfish liver, or sheep eyes, the rejection of which rarely requires, or receives, much of an explanation. It is widely thought that cannibalism is in itself a crime, but in most jurisdictions it isn’t. (It is criminal to abuse a corpse, so eating dead human flesh tends to be swept up under statutes mainly intended to prevent trading in human body parts or mutilating cadavers. 

Modern condemnations of cannibalism largely set aside questions of moral law or natural law, with their suppositions about the nature of human beings, and thus what is unnatural. These are not assumptions we’re comfortable with these days; chacun à son goût is more to our taste. Formal prosecutions of modern anthropophagists — when they happen — now fasten on attendant crimes, notably, though not necessarily, murder. Cannibalism can be judged a sign of insanity, and the perpetrator locked up not for a criminal act but for mental derangement likely to endanger himself or the community. In 1980, the Poughkeepsie, New York, murderer and testicle-eater Albert Fentress was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a psychiatric hospital. The more famous, but less real, Dr. Hannibal (“the Cannibal”) Lecter was confined to a state hospital for the criminally insane. The cannibal is less and less an actor in the sciences of human nature and culture, more and more handed over to the criminologist, the psychopathologist, and the journalist. The figure of the cannibal is good for selling books and movie tickets, but not particularly important to think about or to draw lessons from.

But it hasn’t always been this way: Cannibalism was once taken very seriously indeed, and the Romanian philosopher Catalin Avramescu’s learned and brilliantly told intellectual history of anthropophagy recovers the cannibal’s once central place in formal thought about what it means to be human. Commentators from antiquity through at least the 18th century needed first to establish whether cannibalism actually existed as a collective practice. Everyone knew of spectacular acts of individual cruelty littering the historical record and populating folk memory. In Greek myth, there was the multicourse meal Atreus served his brother Thyestes, payback for cuckolding him. Very tasty, said Thyestes, whereupon Atreus had the last course brought in: the heads of Thyestes’s children, whose bodies had gone into the other courses. However, from Antiquity, most interest historically centered on nations or races routinely engaging in anthropophagy. Ancient Greek and Roman writers knew that the Scythians and the Issedones — peoples living to the north and east of the Black Sea and in Central Asia — were man-eaters, and Herodotus referred to a people known as Androphagi to the north of the Scythians: “their manners are more savage than those of any other race. They neither observe justice, nor are governed, by any laws … They are cannibals.” In the fourth century, it was later reported, St. Jerome saw with his own eyes a people called the Scots (“a British race”) “eating human flesh,” and related how,

when these men came in the forests upon herds of swine and sheep, and cattle, they would cut off the buttocks of the shepards and paps [breasts] of the woman and hold these for their greatest delicasy.

It was the discovery of the Americas, and especially Columbus’s voyages to the West Indies, that gave the European imagination more cannibals than ever existed before. Indeed, Columbus discovered cannibals almost at the moment he discovered America: The word cannibal came into European languages via Columbus’s usage, probably from the Carib people he encountered. Trying to make out both where he was and the identity of the indigenous peoples he encountered, he wrote that “there are men with one eye and others with dogs’ snouts who eat men. On taking a man they behead him and drink his blood and cut off his genitals,” and on November 23, 1492, the word “canibales” appears in his log for the first time. “Cannibal” was the proper name of a defined group of people-who-eat-people that came to designate anyone who ate human flesh. In The Tempest, the name of the wild-man Caliban has been widely understood as a loose anagram of cannibal.

Were the Caribs, or any other “savages,” really anthropophagists? In most cases, almost certainly not, although academic historians of European encounters with the New World have eaten each other alive over just this issue. But the idea that there were people who supposedly ate the flesh of their own kind raised a whole host of questions: Did such beings really count as human? Did any other animals eat their own species? How did cannibals think about what they did? Could cannibalism ever, under any circumstances, come to seem morally innocuous, even normal? And what consequences — of body and soul — followed from these horrible practices? These concerns resulted, as Avramescu shows, in a grand European research project to collect, collate, and interpret a natural history of morals. The accounts of travelers, and the discussions of what their accounts meant, were structured as if they were responses to a centrally designed questionnaire about the extremes of human behavior at the world’s margins: Do these newly encountered people believe in God and what conception do they have of the divine nature? Do they have government, and, if so, is that government monarchical? Do they run around naked and know no shame? Are they promiscuous? Are they sodomites? Do they have private property? And, finally, do they eat people? The cannibal was the prize specimen in a cabinet of human curiosities, and it is hard to imagine how we ever sought to understand the shape and trajectory of European moral, legal, and political thought without a leading role for the anthropophagist. It is one of the notable achievements of Avramescu’s sparkling history of thought about natural and moral law to rescue the cannibal from the pathological margins of culture, where we have now placed him, and to show his significance in long-standing traditions of thinking about what kinds of beings we humans are.


The cannibal was a protagonist in political philosophy, too. From the Renaissance through the 18th century, talk of cannibalism was a way of addressing the matter, form, and power of the state, or of the nature of the social order. Whenever thinkers juxtaposed the notion of the state with the state of nature, they placed a bet on what primitive, pre-social human conduct was like. If the state of nature was very cruel, then the state needed to be very powerful; if, however, human beings in a state of nature were cooperative and kind, then there was little justification for a strong sovereign authority. 

There were two courses open to these types of social theorists: You could hypothesize a state of nature which you conceded you could never actually know, or you could reckon that you had encountered it in the Americas. The latter is the context for the conclusions of so many early discoverers that the New World was teeming with cannibals and rife with the most spectacular forms of cruelty. If such were the case — and the number of stories about savage American anthropophagists served to establish it — then human nature needed to be restrained by the strongest possible government. Although Thomas Hobbes had almost nothing to say about cannibalism per se, he famously described the pre-social state of nature as one of constant war. It was the “war of every man against every man,” a stateless state in which each person presumed a right to secure his person and augment his interests by taking anything from anyone, a picture which he supported by diffuse gestures at “the brutish manner” in which live “the savage people in many places of America.” That is one conception of natural law: a universal principle of self-preservation and self-aggrandizement from which human beings had to be protected by a state strong enough to restrain those natural dispositions.

Not all political philosophers concluded that pre-social humankind was cruel and lawless. A century after Hobbes’s Leviathan, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued in his treatise Émile, or On Education that natural man was in fact good, gentle, and peaceful. He cherry-picked the travel literature, trumping stories about the cannibalism of American savages with appeals to anatomical authorities who took the view that the human frame was built for eating fruits and grains, not animal flesh. Far from glorying in cruelty and lusting after bloody human flesh, natural man was vegetarian, and the primitive diet was milk (which Rousseau did not consider animal matter), fruit, vegetables, and maybe just a little grilled meat, “without seasoning or salt.” Government was not a necessary restraint upon brutish bloodiness; it was seen, as Avramescu puts it, as a “usurpation.”

While the cannibal was a prize specimen for theories of the state and human nature, he also posed a grave problem for doctrines of Christian salvation. Supposing that a wolf tore off a strip of your flesh and ate it: What were the consequences for the Christian doctrine of resurrection, when the “dead shall be raised incorruptible”? We are promised that we shall be raised entire, but how can God distinguish, disentangle, and accurately reassemble the bits of human flesh that have become the flesh of beasts? These were difficulties enough, but they were nothing compared to the problems posed by cannibalism for the Christian promise of resurrection. In order to save the doctrine of physical resurrection, “an entire arsenal of theological and philosophical concepts” was mobilized against the cannibal. A starving man eats the flesh of another, whereupon the flesh of the eaten is transformed into that of the eater. At the Resurrection, how will the bodies of each be made whole and rise up entire? If this problem could not be satisfactorily addressed, one Church Father wrote, critics could rightly “draw the conclusion that the resurrection cannot take place, because it is not possible for two men to be resurrected with the same flesh at the same time.”

Solutions to this problem exercised some of the greatest theological, philosophical, and scientific minds of the period from early Christianity to the Enlightenment. One response was just to deny the existence of cannibalism completely, since, if the practice didn’t exist, there was no special difficulty for the doctrine of resurrection. Supposing, however, that reports of cannibalism were true, the trouble it made for the resurrection of the body might be dealt with by invoking God’s absolute power: Just because we can’t see how species of flesh could be sorted out, that did not mean that God couldn’t do it. But that seemed to some a dodge too far, and theories of the digestion and assimilation of foodstuffs were then enlisted. You could deny that what cannibals, or man-eating beasts, took into their guts ever became part of their own substance, and thus there was no disentangling to do. Not everything that was eaten was nourishing, and Divine Providence had intended only certain foods to be transmutable into certain sorts of flesh.

So, one could dispute the facts of the matter about man-eating men or insist that the bits of human flesh eaten by the cannibal passed through him without ever being assimilated. Commentators were disturbed by reports that at least some cannibals found man-meat delicious, but accounted for the preference as a special form of depravity. They were reassured by widespread revulsion at the very idea of eating people, disgust that was taken as an index of God’s will that such foods should never become part of us. Nausea, Avramescu writes, “has an eschatological virtue”: The retch-reflex when presented with a roasted leg of man is not the upshot of mere social convention, it is a divinely designed mechanism by which we keep non-nourishing aliment out of our bodies. We either reject it, or we regurgitate it; and, even if we do happen to ingest it, the flesh passes right through us unchanged.

And that’s a very good thing, because one major source of anxiety was the idea that we are all cannibals, whether we intentionally eat people or not. Sailors drown in the sea and martyrs are thrown in the Tiber, from which we take and eat the fish. Our corpses crumble into dust: some dissolve in their graves, where they nourish the plants that we eat; others fall on battlefields, from which their dust blows on the winds and finds its way into our bodies. We do not intend to eat our ancestors, but we inevitably do. The moral odium that attaches to intentional cannibalism does not extend to involuntary anthropophagy, but the physical and theological awkwardness for the doctrine of resurrection remains.

The resources of the new corpuscular and mechanical science of the 17th century were enlisted to save Salvation. The chemist and natural philosopher Robert Boyle argued that the ultimate corpuscles of matter mingled, but could always be disentangled. Chemists were familiar, for instance, with gold dissolving in acid and then being made to precipitate out again in metallic form. The plant and animal worlds were full of examples illustrating how substances might pass through many stomachs while preserving their essential natures. Modern science, far from eroding the credibility of physical resurrection, showed how natural processes might make it possible.

But this appeal to the ordinary mechanisms of nature betrayed a justified nervousness about the authority of the doctrine of resurrection. Hostility to the dogma was emerging in the 17th and 18th centuries, and secularizing critics used the figure of the cannibal to turn proponents’ argument on its head. Claims about the indigestibility of human flesh were judged implausible. Why not just give up the doctrine of an exact physical resurrection of the body — crucial as it had been to Christian belief up to this point — and try to preserve some notion of personal identity independent of any momentary fleshly embodiment? God’s task becomes at once simpler and immeasurably more difficult. While, before, human philosophers could at least conceive of what it might be to keep a ledger of the position and history of all the particles of matter, God’s job had now become inconceivable by the human mind: He must, Avramescu says, “become a psychologist, in order to examine the inner feelings of each person and apply His power to a fragment of them.” He must know our minds as we ourselves cannot know them. He must canvass our myriad shifting forms and evaluate the authenticity of each. 

Enlightenment skepticism about physical resurrection, then, was at once an early warning sign of the death of God and of the diminishing intellectual significance of the cannibal. The cultural projects which had propelled cannibalism to center-stage — conceptions of human nature with a special relationship to divinity and to the source of ultimate morality; justifications of the social order by way of a real or theorized state of nature; a search for moral absolutes and universals; a concern for the fate of our bodies in eternity — were losing their cogency. What remains, as Avramescu shows, is the cannibal we know today: a figure of shock, schlock, and sensation. The modern cannibal is little more than a mental deviant, and the eater of human flesh is for us just a bit player in a theater of perversity. An Intellectual History of Cannibalism describes how that transformation happened.

LARB Contributor

Steven Shapin is Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. He joined Harvard in 2004 after previous appointments as Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego, and at the Science Studies Unit, Edinburgh University. His books include Leviathan and the Air- Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton University Press, 1985 [new ed. 2011]; with Simon Schaffer), A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (University of Chicago Press, 1994), The Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 1996; now translated into 16 languages), Wetenschap is cultuur (Science is Culture) (Amsterdam: Balans, 2005; with Simon Schaffer), The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation (University of Chicago Press, 2008), Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), and several edited books.

He has published widely in the historical sociology of scientific knowledge, and his current research interests include historical and contemporary studies of dietetics, the changing languages and practices of taste, the nature of entrepreneurial science, and modern relations between academia and industry. He writes regularly for the London Review of Books and has written for The New Yorker. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his awards include the J. D. Bernal Prize of the Society for Social Studies of Science (for career contributions to the field), the Ludwik Fleck Prize of 4S and the Robert K. Merton Prize of the American Sociological Association (for A Social History of Truth), the Herbert Dingle Prize of the British Society for the History of Science (for The Scientific Revolution), a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. With Simon Schaffer, he was the 2005 winner of the Erasmus Prize, conferred by HRH the Prince of Orange of the Netherlands, for contributions to European culture, society, or social science.  


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