Were cannibals really so bad?
Few things frighten us more than the idea of being eaten by another human being.
Some years ago, the American Film Institute conducted a survey of more than 1,500 actors, directors, and critics to determine the greatest movie villain of all time. The winner? Hannibal Lecter, the charismatic cannibal psychiatrist played by Anthony Hopkins in the 1991 film “Silence of the Lambs.” Lecter boasted of eating the liver of a census taker “with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” Toward the end of the movie, he declares, “I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.”
One year after the “Silence of the Lambs” premiered, the real-life serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was convicted of murder in a Wisconsin court. Dahmer, a sex offender, had confessed to killing 17 men and boys. However, another detail dominated news coverage: Dahmer admitted to cooking and eating the body parts of his victims. This earned him the nickname “the Milwaukee Cannibal,” a moniker that captioned mugshots in newspapers around the world.
While cannibals are now a ghoulish staple of movies and true-crime TV, cannibalism used to play a much larger role in the Western imagination, from ancient Greece to the Industrial Age. When Christopher Columbus arrived on the island of Hispaniola, he encountered a group of native people who, he claimed, had animal characteristics. But he also gave them another label — “cannibal” — that would haunt them and other non-European tribespeople for centuries to come.
To this day, attaching a lurid term to unfamiliar populations remains a powerful rhetorical device. At a roundtable event earlier this month, President Trump said, “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.” Trump was responding to a comment from a California sheriff about the gang MS-13, but critics accused him of blurring the distinction between that group and the broader community of Central American immigrants. Trump’s past comments labeling Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists” communicate a similar message — one that Columbus might recognize.
In the explorer’s day, it was the term “cannibal” that defined the limit of what it meant to be human — and, as zoologist and author Bill Schutt explains in his book “Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History,” placed many people outside that limit. “If they’re cannibals,” Schutt says in an interview, “then all bets are off, and you can do anything you want with them.”
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In Greek mythology, cannibalism was seen as an abominable practice that divided the civilized and savage worlds. Cannibals were often depicted with deformed physical features to match their evidently deformed powers of reason. One famous example is the unnaturally large cyclops who eats Odysseus’ men in Homer’s “Odyssey.”
However, another cannibalistic creature has had an even greater impact on world history. In a text known as the Indica, from the 5th century BC, the Greek physician Ctesias claimed that in India there lived a civilization of 120,000 dark-skinned, dog-headed people who ate raw meat. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that they lived not in India, but on the eastern side of Libya, while the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder placed them in Ethiopia.
In these accounts, cannibalism occurred in faraway lands. But beginning in the 1st century AD, Romans, concerned about the rise of a new religious movement, turned their accusations against a much closer group: Christians. The doctrine of transubstantiation states that the bread and wine offered at Communion are literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ, and opponents of the early church zeroed in on that belief.
The church denied the accusation that its sacred ritual was tantamount to cannibalism and, indeed, came to insist that cannibalism was not just a crime against people but a crime against God. As Christianity replaced the Roman Empire as the dominant power in Europe, it accused other groups of this now-sacrilegious act.
During the Middle Ages, European Jews were the first group to be targeted as cannibals, ostensibly for kidnapping, slaughtering, and consuming the blood of Christian children — a repeated set of rumors known as blood libel. Though they had no real evidence, those in power tortured and murdered those accused of the crime. These accusations against Jews exemplify the widespread belief that non-Christians were prone to “unnatural” behaviors, the most heinous of which was eating human flesh.
Europeans carried these perceptions of cannibalism with them as they explored new lands. While describing his travels to the Andaman Islands, located in the Bay of Bengal, the 13th century Venetian explorer Marco Polo wrote about people who had “heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes likewise,” and would “eat everybody that they can catch.”
Marco Polo’s travelogue became the most popular book in Europe. Two centuries later, in 1492, Christopher Columbus brought a heavily annotated copy with him on his accidental journey to the Americas.
Upon his arrival in Hispaniola, he met the Arawaks. (My account of this history draws heavily on Schutt’s book.) Columbus said that they told him of a man-eating tribe, the Caribs. Columbus used the terms “Caribs” and “Canibs” interchangeably to describe this tribe. In his journals, he coined the term “cannibalism.” Columbus believed the closeness of the terms “Canib” and “great khan” proved that he was in Asia and close to the gold Marco Polo described.
Of course, he wasn’t in Asia, and he didn’t find gold. So, says Schutt, “he looked for the next best thing. And those were humans.”
Columbus wanted to sell the humans he found in the Caribbean, but Queen Isabella of Spain, who helped to finance his voyage, condemned slavery as an un-Christian practice. Yet after hearing Columbus’s reports about the violent Carib tribe, she made one exception: any cannibal unwilling to convert to Christianity and become subject to the Spanish crown could be captured and sold.
Columbus seized on this exception. Upon his return to the Americas, he began describing all native peoples as savage cannibals. Schutt says, “these formerly nice, compliant, potential Christians were labeled as subhumans to be exterminated [and] enslaved. Their cultures [were] utterly destroyed. They were hunted like animals. And he had complete justification to do this because they weren’t really human. They were cannibals.”
From Columbus’s arrival in 1492 to 1880, between 2 million and 5.5 million native people were enslaved in the Americas. Slavery, along with warfare and new European diseases, resulted in the death of 90 percent of the indigenous population.
Among European readers, tales of Christian explorers who conquered the savage cannibal were tremendously popular. Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel “Robinson Crusoe” was seen as an instructional text for young boys on how to handle the dangers of the untamed New World. The book’s titular character rescues a native man from the cannibalistic Caribs. He names the man Friday, and teaches him to speak English, to be a good Christian, and, perhaps most importantly, to not eat people. Crusoe keeps Friday as a servant, implying that the best way to civilize a savage is to subordinate him.
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Westerners used the label of cannibalism as a weapon against the people they colonized. But ironically, historians know more about cannibalism in Europe and colonial America than elsewhere.
For example, in 1820, the stranded sailors of the American whaleship Essex drew lots to decide who would be killed and eaten. They were following what was known as “the custom of the sea,” a practice commonly adopted when ships capsized and food ran out.
Corpse medicine was a European practice that involved using body parts from deceased human beings to heal the sick and wounded. “This wasn’t something that only people out there in the far sticks practiced,” says Emily Anderson, curator of the “Cannibalism: Myth & Reality” exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man. “This was cutting-edge medicine theorized by the leading scientists of their time.”
The Europeans who practiced corpse medicine consumed the bodies of human beings, but corpse medicine wasn’t called cannibalism. Neither was “custom of the sea.” “Cannibal” was a label reserved to denote a savage, un-Christian practice — and thus savage, un-Christian peoples.
To this day, we still respond viscerally to that stereotype, as a key moment in Marvel’s blockbuster hit “Black Panther” illustrates.
The film primarily takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a secret society of advanced technology and peace. One of the Wakandan tribes, the Jabari, is initially portrayed as more brutish and savage than the neighboring tribes. Like the dog-headed cannibals in European myth, the Jabari tribe bark, wear simple furs, and threaten to consume human flesh.
Toward the end of the film, several Wakandans are in the Jabari throne room with CIA agent Everett Ross, one of the film’s few white characters, and the head of the Jabari tribe, M’Baku. When Ross interrupts M’Baku, the Jabari bark loudly. M’Baku roars, “You cannot talk! One more word, and I will feed you to my children.”
The line plays to thousands of years of accumulated stereotypes; because the Jabari tribe lack modern technology, they are savages in the eyes of Agent Ross and their fellow Wakandans — and of the film’s audience. But after a few tense seconds of silence, M’Baku says, “I am kidding. We are vegetarians.”
The entire history of cannibalism suggests that we should be cautious about the terms we apply to people from other cultures. The wrong label — whether it’s “cannibal,” “animal,” or something else — can threaten a group with real harm. Labels themselves can be more dangerous than the behavior they seek to describe.
Pallavi Kottamasu is a San Diego-based producer for the podcast Ministry of Ideas and associate producer for Neon Hum Media. Ministry of Ideas is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and ministryofideas.org.