The Ethnography of Cannibalism

The idea of people eating their own kind has a long, if not precisely honorable, history in the intellectual and folk traditions of the West. As a prospect likely to horrify, fascinate, darkly amuse, or otherwise engage the imagination, cannibalism figures prominently in our myths, legends, and fairy tales. As a foil to our moral sense of ourselves, it has been a vehicle for social and political satire and for soul-searching literary studies into the extremities of human action. Until about one hundred years ago, knowledge of actual cannibal practices rested on a heap of travelers' tales, missionary testimonies, conquerors' apologetics, diplomatic and administrative reports, and the like. In general retrospect, the accuracy and objectivity of many of these accounts is open to doubt; but, from the standpoint of a modern anthropological inquiry into cannibalism, there is another, equally serious disability surrounding the early records, including those which appear most reliable. Those observers, because they preceded the advent of an ethnographic tradition, typically did not give much account of the social and cultural contexts in which institutionalized cannibalism occurred. However factual their reports might be, cannibalism remained for them an object of curiosity.
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