The Other I

February 19, 2011

A small dispute about cannibalism

Cannibalism has appeared in the news several times recently.  First is the evidence that cannibalism may have been developed to a rather high art among humans in Britain about 15,000 years ago.

The second appearance is rather more recent.  The book just published about the 33 miners in Chile suggests that the idea of cannibalism had occurred to some of the men as they moved into their third week trapped underground.  The miners were reduced to a single spoonful of tuna every three days with no assurance yet that they would be found.  In the end, actual cannibalism did not become an issue before day 17 when the drill bit broke through.

I suggested to my husband that cannibalism, even when it was not motivated by outright starvation, was not necessarily dehumanizing.  I said I thought it quite possible that eating parts of another human being was a sacred ritual in which the survivors were symbolically incorporating the best of the deceased person into their own lives.  I pointed out that hunting societies frequently saw the killing and eating of animals as a sacred act, and that these activities were often accompanied by ritual.  Perhaps this also motivated a group of modern cannibals discovered some years ago in Papua New Guinea who ate the heart and the brain of the loved one in carefully prescribed rituals.   

My husband disagreed.  His view is that cannibalism is dehumanizing, and does not reflect some sense that we are all part of the same world.

Some time later I wondered if my Roman Catholic upbringing, in which I was taught that the bread and the wine consecrated during mass literally became the flesh and blood of Jesus, explained my sense that consuming the flesh of another human being could be a sacred act.

Not, of course, that I ever thought of receiving the Eucharist as cannibalism.

But then, my point is that I think cannibalism isn’t always cannibalism in the terms we in the modern world generally understand cannibalism.



  1. when the spirit has departed the body – you have a lump of meat – it either is burnt in a furnace, rots in the earth or 14,000 years ago is the difference between your death and survival – this story does not horrify me – the find illustrates that life was all important and that unsubstantiated promises of an after life had not been invented.


    Comment by lairdglencairn — February 19, 2011 @ 3:31 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for this. It sounds as if you find the invention of another world that’s purportedly better than life in this universe as alienating as I do. I personally think it was one of the worst ideas humanity has come up with.


      Comment by theotheri — February 19, 2011 @ 4:44 pm | Reply

  2. May I throw in another aspect besides sacred rituals and dehumanizing a dead body? Try waste.
    Here is a wonderful hunk of animal protein to be either buried, rotting, or fried to a unusable crisp. I think we are all only a certain amount of time (hundreds of years? Thousands?) away from using this hunk. Some day we will have eaten all dogs, cats, farmyard
    animals and wild animals.


    Comment by budavar — February 20, 2011 @ 1:53 pm | Reply

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