Dinner with a Cannibal
by Carole A. Travis-Henikoff
Dinner with a Cannibal - The Complete History of Mankind's Oldest Taboo
by Carole A. Travis-Henikoff  •  Foreword by Christy G. Turner II


by Christy G. Turner II - Was Regents Professor of Anthropology, Arizona State University, Author of Man Corn.

Dinner with a Cannibal is a terrifically well-written, exhaustively researched, and frequently chilling story of humankind's ancient and modern murderous consumptive behavior. Inspired by her master chef father, and plentifully versed in human prehistory, Carole A. Travis-Henikoff previously wrote a highly praised cookbook, followed, naturally it seems to me, by this more anthropological dietary account. Such accounts have, until recently, usually been shrouded by a heavy-blanketing of taboo.

It has often been said in various ways that we are all prisoners of our own experience. That which we know little or nothing about is commonly disbelieved, and sometimes considered a dangerous and taboo subject. Of all the taboo topics at one time rarely discussed in an open fashion - cancer, death, sexual behavior, witchcraft, many others - the topic of cannibalism remains among the last to shed its taboo imprisonment. Human cannibalism is rarely talked about except briefly in some college level anthropology classes, although it has long been a subject for cartoon art depicting fat, pith-helmeted jungle explorers about to be cooked in a large iron pot - usually a racist jibe at tropical Africans. While I know of some other recent book-length writings on cannibalism, Dinner with a Cannibal is the broadest and most up-to-date work to break the hold taboo has on the subject. Oddly, starting in 1979, its taboo status actually increased because of an anthropologist named William Arens. Arens claimed cannibalism has never been witnessed by reliable observers, and therefore likely occurred only in occasional starvation or sociopathic situations. That claim has since been refuted over and over in recent years but just in rather inaccessible scholarly journals. Certainly none of these publications can be found in street-corner or airport bookstands. It is this body of recent and earlier scholarly literature that is broadly and carefully synthesized by the author.

The taboo surrounding even the use of the "C" word is itself remarkable. I have a few archaeology colleagues who can barely bring themselves to use the C word. Instead they refer to my findings, excavated at numerous prehistoric southwestern U.S. sites, which show clear evidence of cannibalism, as "extreme processing," a politically correct euphemism if ever there was one. Another Southwest archaeologist has reportedly proclaimed that use of the C word should cease altogether. Politically correct efforts at word excommunication have a long history, some rightfully so - as in the case of racial or ethnic slurs - others, simply foolish or patronizing, as in the above two examples concerning the word "cannibalism."

The modern form of the cannibalism taboo is linked to political correctness and the neutering of the relevant language. I predict that all the protestations surrounding the study and discussion of cannibalism will be swept away after the general public and interested scholars read Carole A. Travis-Henikoff's Dinner with a Cannibal. Why do I feel this way?

Well, for starters, the author has a deceptively well-crafted and witty writing style that carries the reader along as effortlessly as with the best whodunit. In fact, DWAC is a fascinating scientific whodunit: who ate whom and why? Travis-Henikoff sees cannibalism as an ancient and natural adaptive strategy that kept early humans alive until seasonally scarce food resources improved. Travis-Henikoff is not alone in her "hunger hypothesis" for cannibalism. Famed psychologist Lewis Petrinovich (The Cannibal Within) documented similar starvation situations. Equally famous paleoanthropologist Tim White made a compelling case for nutritional cannibalism in his study of butchered and cooked prehistoric human remains excavated near Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. And Travis- Henikoff's scholarship is excellent, although it never gets in the way of an engaging read.

Secondly, as mentioned, Travis-Henikoff has done her homework. I found myself repeatedly taking notes on references that I had missed in my 40 years of researching the subject of cannibalism. I missed most of the literature on cannibalism detailed in biblical and other religious writings. This oversight prevented me from appreciating how important human sacrifice and cannibalism were in the early ceremonies and practices of the Judeo-Christian religions. This information has led me to think that the Spanish proclamation against Aztec cannibalism was not just a way to dehumanize the Mexicans so that they could be colonially exploited, as some historical reconstructionists would have us believe, rather there were ancient cannibalized skeletons in the Christian closet. Needless to say, DWAC is a taboo-buster, and its comprehensiveness and clarity of explanation are equal to the best popular anthropological writing of today - Brian Fagan, Roger Lewin, Jared Diamond, and others. It contains much food for thought, and it is meaty enough to satisfy even the hungriest of graduate students.

The story of human consumption is made all the more acceptable with the author's review of cannibalism in the nonhuman animal world. Various invertebrates, fish, amphibians, and mammals are naturally or situationally cannibalistic. As for the human story, Travis-Henikoff guides us around the world in an in-depth tour of recent, prehistoric, and ancient incidents of cannibalism practiced by diverse cultures in Oceania, Australia, East Asia, Africa, the Americas, and yes, even in pre-Christian and Christian Europe. No major human group escapes her eye for documentary detail, history, and types of cannibalism practiced. Cooking methods, organ preferences, and other culinary facts could only be professionally detailed by someone well acquainted with the art of high cuisine. Her story is based on news reports, ethnographic accounts, documentary reconstructions, ancient writings,and fossil and sub-fossil human bone processing (cut marks, perimortem breakage, burning, cooking, etc., similar to the bone damage seen in butchered game animals). Total consumption and skeletal destruction leave not a gram of evidence in some groups, hinting that prehistoric cannibalism in those areas will not be easy to come by.

Europeans were rather good at cannibalism (including a widespread medical variant), along with the torture, rape, and burning of witches, and werewolf hunts. Cannibalism was specifically outlawed by royal Spanish decree following the initiation of the Spanish church and state inquisition in 1481. With the Inquisition came the legal enforcement of the cannibalism taboo. But, as Travis-Henikoff relates in much detail, the taboo has been violated throughout twentieth-century Eurasia in politically driven episodes of starvation in the Soviet Union (i.e., Stalin), in large scale outbreaks of politically-motivated Chinese cannibalism (i.e., Mao), and by commanding thousands of unsupplied Japanese military troops to fend for themselves following their invasion of China. Her details about cannibalism during World War II in the Pacific paint an even grimmer picture of modern human cannibalism. Stories about isolated, starving Eskimo groups eating their dying or dead elders are trivial by comparison.

The author notes that today we and the media generally associate cannibalism with sociopathic and psychopathic individuals, invariably male loners. She notes that this sort of mentally disturbed cannibalism is very rare, and most contemporary and recent cases of cannibalism involve starvation or a culturally determined pattern of consumptive acts that often were associated with feelings of loss and grief for the consumed person. She uses Beth Conklin's recent study of the South American Wari tribe to exemplify cannibalism and cultural patterning.

Travis-Henikoff is very well versed in anthropology, especially paleoanthropology, and is personally acquainted with many of the scholars who practice this science of very ancient human life and evolution. Hence, she is able to paint a highly credible picture of human cannibalism that goes back hundreds of thousands of years. This information from bones, when coupled with genetic data on prion disease, leads to a reasonable hypothesis that proposes our ancestors were all cannibals. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Cannibalism has been one of the "tools" in the human tool kit that has enabled us to be here today, and not extinct as was the fate of so many stronger, larger, and more numerous species at the end of the last ice age when humans had spread to all parts of the world except the deep Pacific.

I predict that the reader will enjoy this book as much as I did. Who other than a gastronomic enthusiast could write such an entertaining and enlightening book on cannibalism? But it isn't just about cannibalism, and that adds to the flavor of this delightful mental morsel.