Ritual Cannibalism: Past and Present

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Why does the ancient and "primitive" act of cannibalism continue in these modern times? What is the connection between human perception, eating the dead, and spirituality? This article explores this fascinating subject.

Most anthropologists today believe the practice of cannibalism has been part of human behavior since long before recorded history. 

Oral traditions and world literature are brimming with fascinating accounts of headhunting cannibals of the African jungles, heart-devouring tribes of the Amazonian rainforest, highly elaborate ceremonies surrounding the consumption of human flesh among Papua New Guinea aborigine, and dining on the dead among the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon in the Four Corners region of the U. S. Southwest. 

Cannibalism is, in fact, deeply embedded in the romantic lore of mankind’s evolution--tied to mythology, religion, witchcraft, vampirism, and strangely perhaps, to heroism.

Still, the very thought of one human eating another--regardless of the circumstances--sends cold chills up and down the spines of most “civilized” people today.

Even so, it compels us to ponder why the flesh of the dead can provoke such overpowering cannibalistic urges; why many believe the dead can be transformed literally and symbolically into ritual gifts for the living, and why a cannibalistic equation seems to characterize many death rituals around the world--both past and present-day.

Ritual cannibalism has been ethnographically documented among numerous modern-day tribes including the Gimi of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, the Wari tribesmen of western Brazil, and several indigenous groups of the Congo, Indonesia, and even certain sects of Japan. The perpetuation of this ancient practice has spawned a number of theories as to why it persists.

The Gimi

Among the Gimi of Papua New Guinea, for example, cannibalism is rooted in ancient mythology where the “mother” figure is depicted as a punishing deity.

The Gimi commonly attribute such problems as male impotence, lack of milk in new mothers, and female infertility to the “mother” robbing vital energy from the dead--thus leaving less for the living.  Accordingly, Gimi cannibalism is primarily a female ritual whereby women eat the bodies of their own children, husbands, and parents as a way to counteract the life-draining powers of the mother deity.

The Wari

Similarly, following the death of a Wari tribesman of Brazil, family members will mourn and wail inconsolably over the corpse for several days until it begins to putrefy. 

Then it is ritualistically cut into small pieces--initially, the brains, heart, and liver--then roasted, placed on clean ceremonial mats, then distributed among the relatives--the choicest pieces going to the parents and elders.  The Wari believe they consume the animal essence of their loved ones which in turn contributes to their own inner strength.

The Aghori

One of the more striking modern examples of ritual cannibalism occurs among a Hindu sect of India known as the Aghori, a group of ascetics believed to have existed for at least 1,000 years. 

Occasionally glimpsed wandering the Indian countryside nearly-naked either alone or in pairs, this highly reclusive mystical sect has been the subject of many speculative accounts over the past century, but was most conclusively documented by British anthropologist Henry Balfour in the late 19th century in his remarkable primer, Life History of an Aghori Fakir.

Known for their ritual habit of eating the physical remains of dead animals and human flesh, drinking human blood and urine, and for the human skull they use for ritual practices, they are considered primitive scavengers, lower than the lowest caste, and are loathed by most modern Indians.

Unlike most Hindu sects which are vegetarians and never partake of alcohol, the Aghori frequently consume meat and routinely include alcohol in their daily rituals. It is their belief that eating the dead will give them a direct pathway to god, avoiding reincarnation.


Many psychologists explain cannibalism as the human perception that human flesh is life-generating food, thus consuming it reaffirms the meaning of existence for those who partake of it. 

Another view suggests that cannibalism exemplifies the instinctive human desire to gain control over death--to get the better of it--and ultimately, triumph over it. 

And as it is apparently regarded in some remote areas of current-day Mexico, eating an enemy is still seen as a viable strategy to acquire that individual’s charisma--that indefinable quality that separates leaders from followers. 

But while no single theory seems to satisfactorily explain the continuation of this seemingly "barbaric" behavior, a common thread does seem to pass culture to culture, belief system to belief system, keeping this practice alive.


•CAMPOS, Mônica Soares de. Estudo da correlação mercúrio-selênio em amostras de cabelos de índios Wari. São Paulo

Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft, Stein and Stein

Hunting the Ancestors: Death and Alliance in Wari'cannibalism

"Perimortem Damage to Human Skeletal Remains from Wupatki National Monument, Northern Arizona," The Kiva, Turner, C. G. and J. Turner

Puebloan Witchcraft and the Archaeology of Violence, Walker, W. H.

images via www.uh.edu and Wikipedia.org

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