Social scientists have tried hard to deny that cannibalism can be the normal behavior of a society, rather than just the acts of some sick individuals. It’s western arrogance, they say, to call people cannibals. These intellectuals talk about cannibalism’s ritual importance, while scoffing at the idea that it’s a regular source of food.
But the proof of the existence savagery of cannibalism is unavoidable, regardless of the arguments used to deny or trivialize it. Accounts by witnesses, and indisputable archaeological evidence testify to its widespread presence as a normal social practice in the Americas, the southwest Pacific and elsewhere.
Sometimes it’s only symbolic, as the cannibal dancers of the west coast Kwakiutl Indians. Sometimes, it’s the result of desperate hunger. Although the Inuit of northern Canada might eat the flesh of the already-deceased, they considered it a horrible thing to do; an act of extreme desperation. The person who did so was considered polluted, an object of pity. Or you can have the cannibalism of the Aztec, who, according to some experts, consumed the equivalent of five percent of the population per year.
Sometimes it’s a political statement. A Syrian rebel leader was proud of the video showing him eating a heart. In an interview with the BBC he said “I didn’t want to do this. I had to. We have to terrify the enemy, humiliate them, just as they do to us. Now, they won’t dare be wherever Abu Sakkar is… If we don’t get help, a no-fly zone, heavy weapons, we will do worse. You’ve seen nothing yet.”
The consumption of human flesh in the novel Quantum Cannibals is adapted from the account of a mid-twentieth century witness. In the twenty-first century, they are embarrassed by the practice. “We’re Christians now,” they explain.
Is it ethnocentric to make moral judgments about cannibalism in non-western societies? Perhaps. But it’s inhuman to excuse the practice, whether it takes place on the streets of Milwaukee, the mountains of Melanesia, or the killing fields of Syria . Sometimes, moral judgment is an imperative.
We now know that Syrian cannibalism is not an isolated practice. Kuru, a rare affliction, a variant of Mad Cow or Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease has been appearing among the rebels. This disease was previously known only in an isolated population of New Guinea, who consumed the brains of their dead. Kuru (Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy) is always fatal, and is only a result of cannibalism.