In Defense of Cannibalism

Glenn Morton (
Sun, 02 Nov 1997 17:40:57 -0600

No I am not starting a Jeffrey Dalhmer fan club. I have been having a
private discussion with a gentleman who correctly took exception to my
misstatement "All modern defleshing practices are linked to religious

Obviously, if one thinks about it, not all modern defleshings are linked to
religion. The cannibalism by the soccer team in the Andes plane crash was
not linked to religion. Thus, my statement was in error. This gentleman
has then apparently concluded that because not every defleshing is
associated with ritual and religion, one does not have to believe that the
Gran Dolina cannibalism or defleshing was evidence of spirituality.
Technically, he is correct that one cannot prove any given example was
either cannibalism or linked to religion. But I will present here a
probabalistic link between defleshings, cannibalism and spirituality in the
paleoanthropological record. This argument will be based upon analogy with
what we see in modern human behaviors.

Definition. Defleshing is the intentional removal of human flesh from the
human body, either while alive or dead. I will use the term defleshing rather
than cannibalism, because one can only prove defleshing not that the flesh
removed was eaten.

Is there a way to differentiate defleshing which occurs during periods of
extreme hunger, like as the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD from ritual? I think
there is. First, during hunger induced defleshings, there is no reason to
separate heads from the rest of the body. There would be no reason to
collect the meat-sparse heads. Secondly, there would be no reason to
arrange the body parts after the feast. Third, scalps would be nutritionally
poor and thus unlikely to be a special target for removal. Fourth, marrow
rich bones split longitudinally is a sign of human cannibalism. The bones
are split and the marrow removed and eaten.

The term cannibal has an interesting etymology. Askenasy (1994, p. 13)

"When Christopher Columbus first landed in the Bahamas, he was
apparently shocked to discover that the native Carib Indians ate all their
male prisoners of war. The admiral himself ventured no farther than into
one of the Carib houses, where he saw a number of skulls hung from the
ceiling and some baskets full of what he presumed to be men's bones. He
called them caribales, which came to be pronouced canibales,, thus giving
their name both to the Caribbean Sea and to the custom of eating human

Modern Reasons for defleshing

Swanson (1960, p. 122-123) speaking of the belief that the soul is a
substance inherent in the body. A vital force if you will. He says,

"A similar rationale usually underlies the taking of scalps or heads or the
eating of an enemy's flesh. A report, like Linton's that the Marquesans ate
their dead foe because they liked the flavor of human meat, is indeed rare.
The usual. reason for these customs lies in the belief that, by owning or
ingesting part of a man, one gains his services or his talents. The belief of
some primitives that killing or eating a lion imparts the beast's strength,
stealth, stamina, lordliness, or courage typically rests on the same
conception. True, the warrior who takes a scalp may receive no benefit
from his deed until, when he dies, he has his victim as a slave in the
afterlife, but the principle appears to be the same. By owning or controlling
a part of a man's body, one gets the benefit of that man's powers
andpotentialities. In fact, among some peoples, scalps and heads can be
transferred, even sold, and the recipient of the gift or the purchase falls heir
to supernatural benefits attached to these human remains. Likewise, it is
not uncommon that such rewards go to all who eat of an enemy's corpse,
not just to the person who killed the foeman."

2 Sam 23:20-21 might reflect this type of belief in David's day.

Lissner (1961, p. 28-29) writes:

"Except where men have turned to cannibalism in dire emergency--and this
has so far been found only among a few Eskimos who were entirely cut off
from supplies of food--the eating of human flesh has always and
everywhere been a sacramental act. It is, curious as it may sound, a sign
of advanced culture. Cannibalism has been identified among tribes who
were already plant growers and thus culturally much more developed than
the simple hunters and food collectors of the Pithecanthropus pekinensis

Askenasy gives several other reasons for modern ritual defleshing, (1994,
p. 108)

"If, however, you were a Marind-Aanim of New Guinea, you could not
become a sorcerer unless you drank cadaver juice (water and other body
fluids). The South African Xosa believe our flesh to be the most potent
means to bewitch others."

Further (Askenasy, 1994, p. 111)
"To gain courage and strength the Menado-Alfuren cook a bouillon made of
their slain enemies' heads; the Ife make a stew of man, antelope, and some
medicine; As late as 1895 the Chames of Cochin-China drank brandy mixed
with the gall of their dead opponents;..."

Askenasy (1994, p. 17) further says that man has been eating man for the
past 2 million years.

This will impress the Francophiles among us who enjoy French cuisine.
Neolithic Frenchman, who are anatomically modern men engaged in
cannibalism leaving a characteristic set of cut marks on the bones of their
human repast. (Shreeve, 1995, p. 229)

But then the British, who are bad cooks, also engaged in such behaviors.
Mithen (1996, p. 196) notes that there was a "defleshing of human corpses
at Gough's cave in Somerset, England, 12,500 years ago, which were
discarded in the same manner as animal carcasses."

Cases of Heads separated from the bodies.

Now, concerning the criteria suggested above, to evaluate ritual defleshing
in the past, there are many cases of bodiless heads in the fossil record.

Campbell (1985, p. 404-405) writes of Java man:

"Ritualistic motives appear more likely at another ancient feast on
human flesh. The evidence is in the group of skulls excabated on the
banks of the Solo River in Java. Though eleven skulls were dug up, no
other skeletoal parts were found, except for two shin bones. The facial
bones had been smashed off every skull, and not a single jaw or tooth was
left. The bodiless isolation of the skulls is enough to hint at some ritual
intent. Even more suggestive is the treatment of the opening at the base of
the skull. The foramen magnum is normally about an inch and a quarter in
diameter. In all but two of the Solo skulls, it had been widened
considerably by hacking with stone or wooden tools. similar mutilation of
skulls was carried out at choukoutien, as we have seen, and has been
observed among cannibals of the present day, who widen the opening so
they can reach into the skulls to scoop out the brains."

A similar thing occurred with Peking Man, Tattersall (1995, p. 61-62) writes:

"By 1939, moreover, Black's successor, the German anatomist Franz
Weidenreich, had added the less attractive traits of murder and cannibalism
to the relatively anodyne pursuits of tool and fire use. Weidenreich noted
that the remains of almost forty human individuals, fifteen of them children,
had been found in the cave, but that there was not one complete skeleton.
Indeed, the fossil human remains were overwhelmingly cranial, and all were
fragmentary. Many bearing apparent evidence of physical trauma while still
covered in soft tissues: witness to their bearers' having 'suffered violent
attacks'. All of hte Zhokoudian bones, human and non-human alike, were
thought by Weidenreich to be the remains of Sinanthropus's meals.
Further, the bases of all the human crania were broken, presumably for
cannibalistic removal of the brain within."

Above that, the scarce postcranial bones which are found at Zhoukodian,
were broken open longitudinally by human hands. They were broken in a
fashion consistent with how marrow is removed from animal bones.
(Montagu, 1969, p. 60)

Ritual arrangement of body parts

In Circeo Italy a Neanderthal skull was found surrounded by a circle of
stones with the base of the skull broken open as was done at Zhoukoudian
(Falk, 1992, p. 181-182).


Tattersall (1995, p. 244) notes that the Bodo cranium from Ethiopia had
some characteristic cut marks which are consistent with scalping. Johanson
and Edgar (1997, p. 93) note that the skull was also broken open while the
bone was fresh. While this is not cannibalism, it is consistent with a
religious belief.

Marrow extraction

We saw above that a long bone at Zhoukoudian was split for marrow. The
same thing seems to have occurred at Krapina, Yugoslavia. Johanson and
Edgar, (1997, p. 211) relate:

"Some of the breakage may have come from falling rock debris, but
falling rocks cannot explain why only the elbow ends of the humeri are
present and not the shoulder ends of this marrow-rich upper arm bone.
Meaty and marrow-filled femora are missing frm the sample, except for one
shaft fragment from a child. And there is no sign of carnivore chewing on
the bones that remain. In addition to obvious cut marks, some bones show
concoidal scars, the rippling fracture pattern that is a distinctive
signature of
blows from a human stone artifact, further evidence that human bones
were actively processed for the nutrients they contained."


While I can not prove that the Gran Dolina, Atapuerca, Spain, hominids
actually engaged in Cannibalism, even their evidence is quite consistent
with such a view. Fernandez-Jalvo et al, (1996, p. 277) relate,

"Additional studies of the lower Pleistocene human fossils, recently found in
level 6 (TD6) of the Gran dolina cave site at Sierra de Atapuerca provide
evidence of anthropophagy. Striations on the small temporal bone fragment
ATD6-16 (4 by 3.5 by 4.5 centimeters) were noticed during excavation, and
subsequent analyses after careful cleaning have revealed similar marks on
two podial phalanges. Scanning electron microscope analysis of replicas
obtained from these human bones show clear features characteristic of cut-
marks. Comparison with marks on faunal remains indicate similar features,
probably created by an identical type of stone tool raw material.
"The temporal bone exhibits about 12 parallel striations on the
mastoid crest where the sternoceidomastoid muscle was attached.
Identical placement of cut marks on human skulls has been reported in
Neolithic assemblages with extensive evidence of cannibalism. The
proximal pedal phalanx (ATD6-30) has five striations on the dorsal surface
of the proximal shaft, where the medial pedal phalanx (ATD6-33) shows two
striations that affect the attachment area of the flexor digitorum brevis
muscle. Faunal remains exhibit similar patterns of butchering techniques,
which suggests that human and animal carcasses were similarly
processed, with no special or ceremonial treatment to humans, indicating,
therefore, cannibalism."

Furthermore the animal remains were treated the same(Fernandez-Jalvo, et
al, 1997, p. 277)!

"Herbivore and human age and size were similar, with a high
number of infant and juvenile individuals and a predominance of less than
50 kilograms of body weight. These features suggest that hominids
transported bone remains to the cave."

If scalping, headhunting and cannibalism usually reflect a spiritual life, then
the above evidence, at the very least presents a probabalistic link for an
early development of spirituality. I would suggest that scalping presents
probably the best case for spirituality, since it seems difficult to explain
based upon hunger. The Bodo Cranium dates to around 600,000 years ago
(Johanson and Edgar, 1997, p. 194). If scalping, indicative of religious
belief, occurred that long ago in Ethiopia, is there really a reason to
disallow spirituality in the case of the Atapuercan cannibalism at 780,000
years ago?


Askenasy, Hans 1994. Cannibalism: from Sacrifice to Survival, (Amherst:
Prometheus Books)

Campbell, Bernard, 1985, Humankind Emerging, (Boston: Little, Brown
and Co.)

Falk, Dean. 1992. Braindance,(New York: Henry Holt and Co.), p. 181-182

Fernandez-Jalvo et al,Yolanda 1996, "Evidence of Early Cannibalism,"
Science 271(Jan 19, 1996), p. 277-278, p. 277

Johanson, Donald C. and Blake Edgar, 1997. From Lucy to Language,
(New York: Simon and Schuster)

Lissner, Ivars, 1961. Man, God and Magic, (New York: G.P. Putnam's

Mithen, Steven 1996. The Prehistory of the Mind, (New York: Thames and

Montagu, Ashley, 1969, Man: His First Two Million Years, (New York: Dell

Shreeve, James R. 1995. The Neandertal Enigma, (New York: William
Morrow and Co., 1995).

Swanson, Guy E., 1960. The Birth of the Gods, (Ann Arbor: University of
Michigan Press)

Tattersall, Ian, 1995. The Fossil Trail, (New York: Oxford University Press)


Foundation, Fall and Flood