I have lived among Cannibals, according to a lot of people who claim to know. The number of times that the “tribal” people of the Congo have been called cannibals is too great to be counted, most notably in great literature like The Heart of Darkness but most commonly, I suspect, from the pulpit or soap box by those raising money to spread this or that word. Most Europeans and Americans don’t know it, but many people who live in the Congo are quite convinced that the bazunga … the white foreigners … are cannibals. I’ve listened closely these assertions, made by many individuals, and I’ve lived in both places for considerable time and I can say something about these claims.
They have a case.
At the moment, I’m leaning more towards the Europeans eating their fellow humans than Congolese dining in this manner but I suppose either is a possibility.
And, we should admit right away that cannibalism can be a rather touchy subject. As the subject of food so often is.
One day, while I was camped out to the south of the Rwenzori Mountain, some visitors came by which itself was very odd (that happened twice over five months) and with them a news magazine from Europe with a story from a Greek journalist who had been, just a month or so before, to a village up on the mountain. It was well known at the time that rebels inhabited the slopes of the Rwenzori and passed in and out of the few villages on or near the mountain, which otherwise catered to the very rare tourist-mountain climbers who came to walk among the five glaciers distributed along a line perpendicular to and straddling the equator. The story was macabre.
Rebels, who later were to become the controlling government of the DR Congo, had been in the village, but lookouts warned them that a company from Mobutu’s army was heading their way, so they went to the “poli” … the forest … to hide out. According to the story one of the villagers gave up the rebel position to the soldiers, probably under duress, who then closed in and captured a handful of the dissidents. Later, the army left with their prisoners and the rebels returned to town. A little bit of investigation revealed who the traitor was, and he was summarily executed. The rebels then gathered all the villagers together and forced them to watch as the snitch was butchered and roasted and eaten, by the rebels.
The fact that the story was reported in a European news magazine and reported by a European journalist was supposed to make it true. However, I was not impressed by that.
Listen. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was probably an attempt to convey to Europeans the inhumanity that was the Congo in King Leopold’s day, as opposed to a prurient racist sailor’s yarn. All of his natives were cannibals or reformed cannibals. But he misunderstood native life then about the same amount as short term visitors such as some Greek journalist writing for a French Magazine about the old Belgian Congo would as well. I have met and conversed with dozens of people, some advisers to me, some my advisees, some colleagues, some metaphorical riverboats plundering by in the night, who were full of claims about the Congo but devoid of knowledge. I lived there long enough to have some idea of what I don’t know, while they visited there short enough to think they know a lot. I could tell you stories.
The Greek Journalist claims to have witnessed the cannibalism. Without corroborating evidence I don’t accept it as true or even likely. Efe living in the Ituri more recently claimed that soldiers were killing and eating them. There was an international uproar. When outside authorities including the UN went in and demanded justice, information, and redress the Efe withdrew their stories, and it now appears that it was just that old cannibalism trope showing up again, as it does so often in the Congo. A couple of years before rebels supposedly dined on the snitch, two women in a village to the west of that region were sentenced by a judge to life in prison for eating their husband, who was apparently cheating on them. (Cannibalism was illegal in Zaire, though it is not illegal in most countries.) My good friend who shall remain nameless claimed that while he was a member of the government security police his unit was sent to a remote and illegal forest village to investigate a cannibalistic chief-gone-bad, a mad man who had convinced his villagers to eat their fellow humans, and when my friend and his fellow cops arrived they were horrified to find smoking racks covered with cooking human body parts. The same man, my friend, was also a missionary-trained preacher who had many stories that were rather unbelievable, about a nuclear bomb that went off and created the modern patricians of his people, about some guy who parted the Maji Nyunkunde (“sea of red”) by waving around a stick, about a baby that was born in a manger full of animal shit to a woman who had never had sex. Virgin birth? Parting seas? Cannibalism? Whatever.
William Arens has a point. For the most part, cannibalism is a story, an accusation, a powerful cultural category, a threat, a scary trope, used as a means of control or as a way to convey the worst of insults. Unlike Arens, I will not use the fact that cannibalism is often reported with all the evidence suggesting that it didn’t happen, or no real evidence suggesting that it did happen, to support the conclusion that there is no such thing. And, I have a reason for doing that. Although I know of no direct evidence, in the form of human body parts with a good chain of evidence, to support cannibalism anywhere on the African Continent, there is plenty of such evidence for it globally.
A friend of a friend — no kidding — was on that airplane that went down in the Andes where people ate each other. I had these two other friends who had independently traced their genealogies back to a high mountain pass near the Nevada-California border, where the great, great grand uncle of one had eaten the great, great grand aunt of the other. There is a handful of reasonably well documented, believable cases of context-induced on-the-fly cannibalism-of-convenience. People eating people happens.
The ethnographic record also shows us numerous examples of a different kind of cannibalism, the kind where you eat the dead after they are already dead, and then, usually in some highly ritualized manner. This sort of cannibalism is strictly not cuisine. Again, this is very very rare in Africa where Conrad’s supposed cannibals lived. In New Guinea there are the people with the Kuru, a prion disease you get from eating undercooked grandad brains. In the Amazon there are people who, after cremating the revered elders, save the ashes and eat them as an infusion over a period of months or years. There are people around the world who carry out the middle eastern tradition of eating the body of their spiritual leader in the form of a sort of voodoo doll made of a cracker. And so on. But none of that counts for real cannibalism, the way we usually mean it when we think of it as that icky thing that the natives — or at least, other people do.
The archaeological record gives us more. Human bones with cut marks in the same basic pattern as animal bones, thrown in with the animal bones or sometimes treated separately, have been found in Mesolithic or Early Neolithic sites in southern Europe. Butchered bits have been found extensively among bone remains in the American Southwest. It is hard to tell what these all mean. Was this people eating those dead of other causes? Eating their enemies (there is some evidence for that)? Eating from a larder of some subclass or enslaved group? Eating people who annoyed them? People that they loved and wanted to possess a little too much?
Here’s a question for you. First consider the possibility that a culture … as in a reasonably well defined group of people who live in a certain place, share cultural practices and language and so on (people often use the word “tribe” here but I choose not to for several reasons) could be taken over by a crazy-ass maniac who has beliefs that would normally not become widespread cultural practices, but then those beliefs take hold. Or maybe not a maniac, but perhaps a cultish group of culty people. Then, this “culture group” now has this practice that by and large most humans, most places and most times, would say is wrong, deranged, evil, inappropriate, icky, whatever. But they do it anyway.
So here’s the question: Are (were) groups of humans, cultures, that regularly practice(d) cannibalism of the kind where you kill and eat some other humans now and then (never mind the details) representative of normal human variation that we happen to look askance at today because of our own cultural biases, or are they groups that have been possessed, as it were, of an aberrant belief, an abnormal norm, or a sort of social sickness? Putting this a slightly different way: Is there a human-wide displeasure with the idea of dietary cannibalism because as a species we have gone through a filter, narrowing down our norms to a subset of what is really possible or even common, or has eating people for food always been freakishly weird and preposterous?
I haven’t given you the evidence that Europeans and Americans are cannibals, from the perspective of people of the Congo. I will, but another time. It is not easy to talk about.
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