Fact or Fiction: a Critique of the Man-Eating Myth: Anthropophagy and Anthropology

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The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropophagy and Anthropology by William Arens (1979) examines the evidence or lack thereof in determining what constitutes cannibalism or anthropophagy. Throughout history anthropologists as well as other “explorers” have encountered numerous peoples throughout the world. During their fieldwork they have gathered data which suggest the practice of cannibalism within the communities. There have been countless documents which have substantiated the claim of cannibalism in distant countries. This data has been accepted as fact but in actuality these assumptions contain more fiction that validity. Arens has addressed this issue by scrutinizing these documents and providing secondary information that sheds light on the initial discoveries. Anthropophagy has been an ongoing topic for thousands of years. Cannibals are viewed as exotic, barbaric people whom lack the civilization to realize their customs are inane and fundamentally wrong. Due to this fact, foreign communities have been labeled cannibals to justify ethnocentric views and actions: “This avenue of inquiry has led to the conclusion that our culture, like many others, finds comfort in the idea of the barbarian just beyond the gates.”(p.184)

Anthropologists, for this reason, have substantiated accusations of cannibalism or anthropophagy without concrete evidence supporting these statements. “…and almost every anthropologist considers it a sacred duty to report that the people studied and lived among were in the past or just recently eaters of their own kind.”(p.8-9) This agenda is detrimental in finding the actual characteristic of a people because the researchers’ views become clouded by the cannibalistic fascination. Anthropologist began to formulate ficticous accounts of anthropophagy by combining previously submitted documents along with miniscule true accounts: “…we are to judge by the eye of reason, and not from common account.”(p.9) First person evidence is the only credible way of substantiating or refuting the argument of cannibalism. Hearsay is only circumstantial in finding the truth on the subject. Arens’ experience with the tribal people in Tanzania added more depth to the anthropophagy debate. While in the field, Arens notice the Tanzanian people referring to him as Mchinja-chinja. Curious of the meaning, Arens asked his guide what the meaning was. Arens was told the meaning of Mchinja-chinja was blood-sucker. “… I learned early on that the majority of the inhabitants either had suspicions or were convinced that I consumed human blood.”(p.12) This evidence gives rise to the assumption people do not require ample evidence to conclude that a person or a group of people foreign to themselves is or was a cannibal. “… their belief in this common variation on the cannibalism theme without a shred of concrete evidence.”(p.13)

The reason this generalization is prevalent is because everyone is an “other” to someone. “In contrast to this critical position, the idea that Africans, Polynesians, New Guineans, American Indians are or were man-eaters until contact with the benefits of European influence is assumed to be in the realm of demonstrated fact.”(p.19) The theory of “others” is associated heavily with anthropology because it helps justify the agenda of “explorers”. Being an “other” helps substantiate the assumptions made by travelers arriving in distant lands. The explorers encounter new lands inhabited by people who possess things of value. The easiest way to relinquish them of their possessions is to prove they do not deserve them. Being barbaric and uncivilized was reason enough to strip a people of their belongings, to conquer and assimilate them to western civilization. This mindset causes the accepted documentation to be skewed and inaccurate; creating a pattern of savagery for future generations to reference.

An example of this is seen in Hans Staden’s story of his journey. Hans Staden, a 16th century...
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