issue 248 - October 1993
...that have always intrigued you about the world will appear in this,
your section, and be answered by other readers. Please address
your answers and questions to ‘Curiosities’.
I suspect that cannibalism is a racist myth. Did Idi Amin have to eat people other than for the benefit of our tabloid press? Can anyone provide me with evidence of cannibalism – either way?
I firmly believe that cannibalism is a myth, but it is not a racist myth in the sense that I think the questioner means.
Rather, accusations of cannibalism rate alongside ‘there be dragons’: they fill in the blank spaces in the world beyond our own ken. So western tales of cannibals spread from the Aztecs of the ‘New World’ to the ‘Dark Continent’ of Africa to the impenetrable jungles of Borneo and New Guinea as European contact spread in those directions and in that order.
Cannibalism is the ultimate symbol of Otherness accorded through ignorance to people ‘not like us’. And the accusations fly in all directions; Europeans have been questioned by Africans on whether they really ate human babies.
For an overdone argument that cannibalism has existed you could read Cannibals and Kings by M Harris. For a concise and meticulous debunking you can do no better than to read The Man-eating Myth by W Arens.
Human beings do have a propensity for relishing the goriest stories, which may be why the idea of cannibalism still persists.
Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
The book Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser has an a excellent chapter on cannibalism – its reasons, attitudes, manners. But why should cannibalism be racist? Does not Christian culture have symbolic cannibalism in Holy Communion? And what about organ transplant? Is that not a form of cannibalism too?
I have no doubt that accusations of cannibalism are often used to disparage other groups. Nevertheless, I do have evidence of its existence. In the mid-1970s I lived in the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea and knew many Kamano (Kafe) people well. The recollections and stories of people then middle-aged and elderly contained many matter-of-fact references to their own consumption of enemy bodies in their youth. I don’t think I did or said anything to encourage invention of such stories. I was not particularly interested in the topic and did not, and do not, find cannibalism any more shocking than any other means of disposing of dead bodies.
The reader who raised this topic should perhaps consider to what extent his question reflects his own view that there is something uniquely horrible about eating human bodies.
Lewes , UK
A number of years ago I heard that an Israeli team was researching the promotion of camel’s milk to combat malnutrition because camel’s milk is said to stay fresh longer than cow’s and is easier to digest. Does anyone know what happened to this idea?
Can you please tell me more about a US Protestant sect whose adult members systematically beat their children ‘in order to drive out the devil’? As I understand it, this is intended as preventative rather than punitive action.
Did or did not Pol Pot give centralized orders to kill opponents? Was or was not the evacuation of Phnom Penh due to shortages caused by US bombing?
Why is debt so rarely mentioned as a cause of poverty either in the media or during international charity fundraising events?
I have recently tried gunpowder tea which is a delicious, traditional, green tea, steamed and rolled in balls. Can anyone tell me if it is rolled by hand and, if so, who does it and are there any health risks incurred? And finally, is this tea machine- or sun-dried?
Does anyone know the origin of the belief that a stork brings a new baby? Why should storks be associated with childbirth?
If you have any questions or answers please send them to Curiosities,
New Internationalist, 55 Rectory Road, Oxford OX4 1BW, UK,
or to your local NI office (click here for addresses).