The possibility of cannibalism has been an object of thought and imagination in virtually every society. The idea of consuming human body substance as food or for symbolic purposes invokes emotionally charged cultural and psychological concerns with boundaries between self and other, persons and nonpersons, the meanings of food and ingestion, and the limits of a moral community. Many societies, both Western and non-Western, have seen cannibalism as a marker of negative difference between peoples, a quintessential symbol of otherness, savagery, and subhumanity. Others have treated it as a form of exchange or as a mechanism of transformation, regeneration, or reproduction through transactions between ontological categories such as kin and enemy, mortals and deities, human and animal.
In Western thought, two uses of the idea of cannibalism have been recurring themes: as a negative stereotype of exotic "others," and as a metaphor for reflexive questioning, critique, and parody of Western culture. Especially in the politics of colonialism, accusations of cannibalism have been deployed to denigrate non-Western peoples, assert colonizers' moral superiority, and legitimize the takeover of native lives and lands. Only recently have scholars called attention to socially approved cannibal practices in Western history, such as the tradition of using human body substances as medicines, which flourished in Europe until the eighteenth century.
The stigma associated with cannibalism in Western thought makes any assertion that certain people engaged in it politically sensitive. Since the 1970s, especially in the United States, anthropologists and historians have debated where and to what extent cannibalism was an institutionalized, socially accepted practice (as distinguished from its occurrence as an aberrant, individual act motivated by starvation or psychological deviance). These arguments mostly involved historical and retrospective evidence, since under the impact of colonialism and modernity, any former practices of institutionalized flesh-eating had largely disappeared by the 1970s. Major controversies focused on Michael Harner's and Marvin Harris's interpretation of human sacrifice as a response to dietary shortages among the Aztecs of fifteenth-century Mexico; the role of funerary cannibalism in epidemics of the neurological disease kuru in the New Guinea highlands; the ongoing debate between Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere over allegations of cannibalism among South Pacific islanders and after the death of Captain James Cook; and the interpretation of archaeological finds from Europe and the southwestern United States that show dismemberment, mutilation, and cooking of body parts.
A major impetus to debates over the reality of cannibalism came from William Arens's The Man-Eating Myth (1979), which examined selected accounts from some non-Western societies. Finding a lack of hard evidence and no credible eyewitness accounts by Western experts, Arens expressed doubt that cannibalism ever existed anywhere as a socially approved practice. He argued that cannibalism is best understood not as a cultural practice but as a projection of Western fantasies, racism, and political propaganda. Although presented as a critique of Orientalist prejudices, the argument reified negative colonial stereotypes with its implicit assumption that the act of ingesting human substance is in all cases repulsive and morally indefensible. Arens's critique of the supposed bias and credulity of those who have written about cannibalism as social practice found some scholarly receptivity, particularly within cultural studies.
In anthropology, Arens's book drew criticism for its methodology, sensational rhetoric, and unreasonable and inconsistent empirical standards. The controversy had the positive effect of stimulating ethnographers and historians to reassess historical and ethnographic evidence. While debates continue over the evidence in specific cases, most anthropologists accept the idea that normative, institutionalized practices of consuming human body substances did occur in some times and places in the past.
Recent anthropological work has sought to contextualize local cultural practices by elucidating their social, symbolic, religious, and ritual significance. A few scholars, such as Eli Sagan and I. M. Lewis, have proposed universal explanations interpreting flesh-eating in all contexts, from warfare to funeral rites, as expressions of similar impulses such as hostility, ambivalence, or desires for dominance. The stronger trend has been to recognize diversity and the many different kinds of practices with distinctive cultural meanings that have been lumped together under the rubric of "cannibalism." Ethnographies from Melanesia and the South Pacific have highlighted how cannibalism, as practice or idea, was linked to cultural ideas about ethnicity and gender, the uses of flesh and food to define spheres of morality and exchange, and human reproduction and the circulation of vital energies or substances contained in the body. Lowland South American ethnography has emphasized cannibalism's role in the production of personhood and alterity and indigenous notions of its role in metaphysical transformations and exchanges between enemies and between the living and the dead, humans and animal, mortals and immortals. There has also been new attention directed to native peoples' images of Europeans or other foreigners and their descendants as "white cannibals." An implicit agenda in much recent scholarship is to undermine negative stereotypes and deexoticize the subject of cannibalism by expanding humanistic understandings of how, within local systems of cultural meaning, some peoples may have felt that consuming human flesh or bones was a positive, morally acceptable thing to do.
Over the past five centuries, numerous writers, from Michel de Montaigne to Jonathan Swift and Ruth Benedict, have used cannibal imagery to express critical perspectives on Western culture and as a rhetorical device for inverting conventional boundaries of civilization and morality. In Brazil in 1928, Oswaldo de Andrade's "Cannibal Manifesto" launched the avant-garde Antropofagia movement, which reclaimed cannibal imagery from native Brazilians' early encounters with Europeans and asserted that the key principle of Brazilian modernity is assimilation of foreign influences. Latin American artists and intellectuals continue to find cannibalism a fertile metaphor for Euro-American culture and exploitative political economic relations.
Since the 1970s, there has been a trend among scholars, artists, and culture critics in the United States and elsewhere to deploy cannibalism as a metaphor for Western civilization itself. Globalization, capitalist consumer culture, and cross-cultural appropriation in tourism, art, media, and museums have been portrayed as forms of cannibalism. Richard King criticizes the Occidentalism in analyses that treat "the West" as a single, undifferentiated entity while perpetuating negative stereotypes, trivializing cannibalism as a real experience and embodied cultural practice, and deflecting attention from its meanings in specific social-historical contexts. As one of the last real taboos in contemporary cosmopolitan society, cannibalism's attention-getting power to shock ensures that it will continue to be a theme and source of fascination in popular culture and scholarship.
Beth A. Conklin