Dinner with a Cannibal : The Complete History of Mankind’s Oldest Taboo

Dinner with a Cannibal : The Complete History of Mankind’s Oldest Taboo
Carole A. Travis-Henikoff
March 2008
Reference & Social Sciences
6 x 9

“A careful and scholarly look at cannibalism, filled with humor, history, and fascinating facts; a totally delectable delight to read.”
—Ralph L. Holloway, professor of anthropology, Columbia University
One of Choice Magazine’s Outstanding Academic Titles of the Year!

Publishers Weekly Starred Review!

Dinner with a Cannibal presents the history of cannibalism in concert with human evolution, taking its readers on an astonishing trip around the world and through history. The work examines its subject from every angle in order to paint the incredible, multifaceted panoply that is the reality of cannibalism.

At the heart of Carolee A. Travis-Henikoff’s book is the question of how cannibalism began with the human species and how it has become an unspeakable taboo today. At a time when science is being battered by religions and failing teaching methods, Dinner with a Cannibal presents slices of multiple sciences in a readable, understandable form nested within a wealth of data.

With history, paleoanthropology, science, gore, sex, murder, war, culinary tidbits, medical facts, and anthropology filling its pages, Dinner with a Cannibal presents both the light and dark side of the human story; the story of how we came to be all the things we are today.

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Foreword by Christy G. Turner II

How We Got to Where We Are
1. The Incredible Foods We Eat
2. Ubiquitous Food
3. Inner Workings
4. Feet to Meat
5. Cannibalism, Disease and Genetics
6. Dinner with a Cannibal

As You Believe, So Shall It Be
7. Religious Acts
8. Murder and Medicine
9. Mesoamerica
10. The Lost Culture of the Wari
11. Through a Distant Window
12. Infanticide
13. Skeletons in Our Closets

Cannibalism: Past and Present
14. Man the Warrior
15. Keep the River on Your Right
16. Coming to the Americas
17. Politics and the Color Red
18. Africa: Then and Now

Finale: Looking Back to the Present
19. It’s a Wrap—Film at Eleven


Foreword by Christy G. Turner II

Dinner with a Cannibal is a terrifically well-written, exhaustively researched, and frequently chilling story of humankind’s ancient and modern murderous consumptive behavior. Inspired by her master chef father, and plentifully versed in human prehistory, Carolee A. Travis-Henikoff previously wrote a highly praised cookbook,followed, naturally it seems to me, by this more anthropological dietary account. Such accounts have, until recently, usually been shrouded by heavy-blanketing taboo.

It has often been said in various ways that we are all prisoners of our own experience. That which we know little or nothing about is commonly disbelieved, and sometimes considered a dangerous and taboo subject. Of all the taboo topics at one time rarely discussed in an open fashion—cancer, death, sexual behavior, witchcraft, many others—the topic of cannibalism remains among the last to shed its taboo imprisonment. Human cannibalism is rarely talked about except briefly in some college-level anthropology classes, although it has long been a subject for cartoon art depicting fat, pith-helmeted jungle explorers about to be cooked in a large iron pot—usually a racist jibe at tropical Africans. While I know of some other recent book-length writings on cannibalism, Dinner with a Cannibal is the broadest and most up-to-date work to break the hold taboo has on the subject. Oddly, starting in 1979, its taboo status actually increased because of an anthropologist named William Arens. Arens claimed cannibalism has never been witnessed by reliable observers, and therefore likely occurred only in occasional starvation or sociopathic situations. That claim has since been refuted over and over in recent years but just in rather inaccessible scholarly journals. Certainly none of these publications can be found in street-corner or airport bookstands. It is this body of recent and earlier scholarly literature that is broadly and carefully synthesized by the author.

The taboo surrounding even the use of the “C” word is itself remarkable. I have a few archaeology colleagues who can barely bring themselves to use the C word. Instead they refer to my findings, excavated at numerous prehistoric southwestern U.S. sites, which show clear evidence of cannibalism, as “extreme processing,” a politically correct euphemism if ever there was one. Another Southwest archaeologist has reportedly proclaimed that use of the C word should cease altogether. Politically correct efforts at word excommunication have a long history, some rightfully so—as in the case of racial or ethnic slurs—others, simply foolish or patronizing, as in the above two examples concerning the word “cannibalism.”

The modern form of the cannibalism taboo is linked to political correctness and the neutering of the relevant language. I predict that all the protestations surrounding the study and discussion of cannibalism will be swept away after the general public and interested scholars read Carolee A. Travis-Henikoff’s Dinner with a Cannibal. Why do I feel this way?

Well, for starters, the author has a deceptively well-crafted and witty writing style that carries the reader along as effortlessly as with the best whodunit. In fact, DWAC is a fascinating scientific whodunit: who ate whom and why? Travis-Henikoff sees cannibalism as an ancient and natural adaptive strategy that kept early humans alive until seasonally scarce food resources improved. Travis-Henikoff is not alone in her “hunger hypothesis” for cannibalism. Famed psychologist Lewis Petrinovich (The Cannibal Within) documented similar starvation situations. Equally famous paleoanthropologist Tim White made a compelling case for nutritional cannibalism in his study of butchered and cooked prehistoric human remains excavated near Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. And Travis-Henikoff’s scholarship is excellent, although it never gets in the way of an engaging read.

Secondly, as mentioned, Travis-Henikoff has done her homework. I found myself repeatedly taking notes on references that I had missed in my 40 years of researching the subject of cannibalism. I missed most of the literature on cannibalism detailed in biblical and other religious writings. This oversight prevented me from appreciating how important human sacrifice and cannibalism were in the early ceremonies and practices of the Judeo-Christian religions. This information has led me to think that the Spanish proclamation against Aztec cannibalism was not just a way to dehumanize the Mexicans so that they could be colonially exploited, as some historical reconstructionists would have us believe, rather there were ancient cannibalized skeletons in the Christian closet. Needless to say, DWAC is a taboo-buster, and its comprehensiveness and clarity of explanation are equal to the best popular anthropological writing of today— Brian Fagan, Roger Lewin, Jared Diamond, and others. It contains much food for thought, and it is meaty enough to satisfy even the hungriest of graduate students.

The story of human consumption is made all the more acceptable with the author’s review of cannibalism in the nonhuman animal world. Various invertebrates, fish, amphibians, and mammals are naturally or situationally cannibalistic. As for the human story, Travis-Henikoff guides us around the world in an in-depth tour of recent, prehistoric, and ancient incidents of cannibalism practiced by diverse cultures in Oceania, Australia, East Asia, Africa, the Americas, and yes, even in pre-Christian and Christian Europe. No major human group escapes her eye for documentary detail, history, and types of cannibalism practiced. Cooking methods, organ preferences, and other culinary facts could only be professionally detailed by someone well acquainted with the art of high cuisine. Her story is based on news reports, ethnographic accounts, documentary reconstructions, ancient writings, and fossil and sub-fossil human bone processing (cut marks, perimortem breakage, burning, cooking, etc., similar to the bone damage seen in butchered game animals). Total consumption and skeletal destruction leave not a gram of evidence in some groups, hinting that prehistoric cannibalism in those areas will not be easy to come by.

Europeans were rather good at cannibalism (including a widespread medical variant), along with the torture, rape, and burning of witches, and werewolf hunts. Cannibalism was specifically outlawed by royal Spanish decree following the initiation of the Spanish church and state inquisition in 1481. With the Inquisition came the legal enforcement of the cannibalism taboo. But, as Travis-Henikoff relates in much detail, the taboo has been violated throughout twentieth-century Eurasia—in politically driven episodes of starvation in the Soviet Union (i.e., Stalin), in large scale outbreaks of politically-motivated Chinese cannibalism (i.e., Mao), and by commanding thousands of unsupplied Japanese military troops to fend for themselves following their invasion of China. Her details about cannibalism during World War II in the Pacific paint an even grimmer picture of modern human cannibalism. Stories about isolated, starving Eskimo groups eating their dying or dead elders are trivial by comparison.

The author notes that today we and the media generally associate cannibalism with sociopathic and psychopathic individuals, invariably male loners. She notes that this sort of mentally disturbed cannibalism is very rare, and most contemporary and recent cases of cannibalism involve starvation or a culturally determined pattern of consumptive acts that often were associated with feelings of loss and grief for the consumed person. She uses Beth Conklin’s recent study of the South American Wari tribe to exemplify cannibalism and cultural patterning.

Travis-Henikoff is very well versed in anthropology, especially paleoanthropology, and is personally acquainted with many of the scholars who practice this science of very ancient human life and evolution. Hence, she is able to paint a highly credible picture of human cannibalism that goes back hundreds of thousands of years. This information from bones, when coupled with genetic data on prion disease, leads to a reasonable hypothesis that proposes our ancestors were all cannibals. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Cannibalism has been one of the “tools” in the human tool kit that has enabled us to be here today, and not extinct as was the fate of so many stronger, larger, and more numerous species at the end of the last ice age when humans had spread to all parts of the world except the deep Pacific.

I predict that the reader will enjoy this book as much as I did. Who other than a gastronomic enthusiast could write such an entertaining and enlightening book on cannibalism? But it isn’t just about cannibalism, and that adds to the flavor of this delightful mental morsel.


“Man, a domesticated animal still extensively raised, one wonders why, since it is rarely eaten nowadays.”—Waverley Root, from his book Food

Few people believe their ancestors practiced cannibalism, and some scholars deny its existence altogether, but the truth is . . . we all have cannibals in our closets.

Cannibalism is the ingestion of others of one’s own species and is practiced throughout the animal kingdom, from one-celled organisms to humans. The reason for cannibalism’s ubiquitous nature lies in its antiquity. Recent finds of species-specific tooth marks on dinosaur bones prove occurrences of cannibalism dating back to the Mesozoic era.

Today, many people see themselves as standing outside the realm of the animal kingdom, but as living creatures with functional brains, we are not only animals, but the dominating force that holds sway over the magnificent puzzle of global biota that exists on planet Earth. We, Homo sapiens sapiens (“really smart man”), are the most intriguing piece of that magnificent, global puzzle; a piece that once fit neatly within the framework of the whole.

From our very beginnings, human cannibalism has been practiced for numerous reasons, many of which have been labeled. Starvation brings on “survival” cannibalism, while the ingestion of dead relatives is known as “endocannibalism” or “funerary” cannibalism. “Exocannibalism” refers to the eating of one’s enemies, whereas “religious” cannibalism relates to the actual or simulated partaking of human flesh as part of a religious rite. For example, the Aztecs practicing cannibalism to keep the sun from dying versus Christian Communion.

In “ritual,” or “token,” cannibalism, a specified part of an adversary, ruler, or family member is consumed, as in the eating of an enemy’s heart, or the eyes of a previous chief eaten by an incoming chief, or the drinking of a family member’s cremated ashes mixed in a watery broth—though many would label the drinking of ash-broth funerary.

“Medicinal” (iatric) cannibalism is one of the most fascinating, as none of the medical or apothecary journals ever saw fit to identify the ingestion of physician-prescribed medicines made from human cadavers as being acts of cannibalism. Nevertheless, human flesh is human flesh, and the consuming of it by another human constitutes an act of cannibalism.

With “gastronomic” cannibalism, human flesh is dealt with and eaten without ceremony (other than culinary), in the same manner as the flesh of any other animal. The most reliable sources state that human flesh resembles beef, though it is lighter in color and texture, and, according to some, the most delicious of meats. The commonly known moniker “long pig” will be discussed in the text, but Pacific Islanders related the taste of human flesh to pork for the simple reason that prior to contact with the rest of the world, the only meat-producing mammal of reasonable size available to them was the wild pig.

Autophagy (to eat of one’s self) ranges from the little boy who picks his nose to torture-induced self-consumption and truly disturbed individuals who cook and eat pieces of their own flesh.

One other form of cannibalism should be noted as it graces the pages of this book. It is referred to as “benign” cannibalism because the diner has no knowledge of what kind of meat he is eating . . . or has already eaten.

As individuals, we are a summation of our unique genetics, all we have experienced, and what we have been taught to believe. If the people within the society to which you were born practice cannibalism, burn people at stakes, make war, promote terrorism, or scarify their bodies, chances are you will do the same.

This volume investigates not only the subject of cannibalism, but when and why people ate those of their own kind and continue to do so to this very day. The why of cannibalism forces the examination of many surrounding subjects, from the many foods we eat, to the caves of our ancient past, to what makes us human. How do belief systems affect our lives? Are we different today from our ancestors of yesteryear? Do the memes of the societies we live in dictate our beliefs and our actions? Where do religions fit in? Are religions more powerful than kings, queens and governments? Do governing bodies use religions and/or belief systems to control the masses? Do we function instinctually, or are we mere tools of our societies? How did we get to where and how we are today? How different are we, one society to another? And how do we differ from our most ancient ancestors?

Dinner with a Cannibal presents the history of cannibalism in concert with human development, making note of religions and societies that either condoned or outlawed the practice. Through the following pages we will look at cannibalism from every angle in order to gain comprehension of the incredible, ancient/up-to-the-minute, multifaceted panoply that is the reality of cannibalism.

The interpretation of human cannibalism used in this volume is the ingestion of any part of the human form, including fluids or matter emanating from the body.

Information for this book was gathered over a seven-year period from authoritative primary sources. Research materials and investigations used for accepting the fact that human cannibalism was and is real and not uncommon, include scientific reports; firsthand accounts; anthropological and archaeological evidence; historical, anthropological and archaeological writings; recent news reports; and the analyzing of belief systems. Advice, editing, readings and contributions from leading professors, paleoanthropologists, archaeologists and scientists from multiple fields, plus physician specialists, directed and tightened the work.

I have used the names of various tribes and peoples only when the literature has been highly publicized or those listed are deceased. The main thrust of this book is to consider the human condition rather than to present a litany of everyone known to have practiced cannibalism.

Bon appétit.

Carolee A. Travis-Henikoff