Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas

The title alone will draw readers into Obeyesekere’s extremely engaging and satirically tinged post-structuralist deconstruction of ethnographic, historical, and seafarer narratives that create a portrait of the “Other” as Savage. He builds upon Peter Hulme’s distinction between anthropophagy (the sacrificial ritual eating of humans in highly prescribed circumstances) and cannibalism (the European mythology of glassy-eyed primitives who eat enemies and kin without distinction and fatten up tasty little children for special occasions). Cannibal Talk is essentially a collection of the author’s previously published essays and lectures on this topic focusing on Fiji and New Zealand and includes a newly written introduction and conclusion.

The text is remarkably compelling. The first chapters introduce skinny, thirsty, and—most of all—hungry British sailors who arrive in Melanesia in the early 1800s in search of proof that cannibals indeed exist and thrive on the other side of the world. Their stories become prime fodder for the British press and public. One incident (quoted in many favorable reviews of this book) involves the shipboard offering of a piece of roasted human face to a Maori man, who eats it with relish and even licks his fingers. Aha. Proof! But Obeyesekere invokes a theory of practical rationality on the part of the natives: British sailors asked incessant questions about local cannibalistic practices and were, perhaps, cannibals themselves! Better to align with their culture than be eaten. And, this is exactly what Obeyesekere proposes—that the British seamen were “shipwreck cannibals” who in times of dark necessity ate those human beings (and sometimes dogs and rats) lower in social rank than themselves. The whole mythology of cannibalism, he says, is a psychological projection and distancing of their own “atavistic” behavior onto a remote Other.

Obeyesekere quite explicitly self-identifies as a Sri Lankan native, one who has endured the (albeit contemporary) mythologizing presence of the British. Also an Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University and powerful spokesman for the decolonization of research, his interpretations of historical narrative reflect exceptional depth of grounding in both psychoanalysis and Buddhism. Cannibal Talk is the capstone to work he began in the late 1980s inquiring into stories of the 1779 slaying, consumption, and apotheosis of Captain James Cook in the Hawai’ian Islands. He has argued widely in print and lecture that the idea that certain European sea captains were gods was a process of mythologizing analogous to that of cannibalism—most notably in Current Anthropology (“CA Forum on Theory in Anthropology: Cook, Lono, Obeyesekere, and Sahlins [and Comments and Reply],” Vol. 38, No. 2 [Apr., 1997], pp. 255-282) and Anthropology Today (a six-month series of comments and replies to an initial article by Marshall Sahlins, “Artificially Maintained Controversies: Global Warming and Fijian Cannibalism,” Vol. 19, No. 3 [Jun., 2003], pp. 3-5).

Obeyesekere does not doubt that anthropophagy and conspicuous anthropophagy (widespread killing and eating of enemies after the arrival of European colonizers) existed; he demands, however, that the European narrative of cannibalism (routine consumption of human flesh) be seen as just that—a European narrative of events that are historically absent.

The middle chapters of Cannibal Talk deconstruct a variety of narratives of post-European contact in the South Seas including global trade, colonization, and the seemingly insatiable European market for heads, trinkets, and body parts of the Other. His deft sarcasm and political critique is astonishingly powerful in a brief section linking head hunting (caput) with capitalism. The book’s final chapter, “On Quartering and Cannibalism and the Discourses of Cannibalism,” proposes that Savagery is a grand attribution of Otherness operating as a cultural stereotype not unlike Orientalism (see Edward Said) by encapsulating both desire for and revulsion towards the Other. “Data” of anthropology and history must be doubted because they evidence a process of this bi-polar mythologizing.

Cannibal Talk demands its own deconstruction as Obeyesekere fails to contextualize the book as the latest in an argument over the past fifteen years with an equally prominent and well-respected anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. Sahlins’ exceptionally thorough ethnographic research and appreciation for a wide diversity of voices (including missionaries, whom Obeyesekere excludes) is prodigious. He believes that these voices add up to a clear picture of cannibalism spread across the South Seas. He refuses the distinction of anthropophagy.

In the article cited above, Sahlins writes: “Emancipatory social scientists and post-modernist types who have been dismantling cultures in the name of various subaltern subjects, deconstructing historical and ethnographic descriptions on the grounds that such ‘facts’ are themselves constructed in the service of some deeper and darker reality such as power or domination, have been taken aback recently by the disingenuous adoption by the political right of the same epistemological tactics…Take pollution and global warming…Bruno Latour tells of…making the lack of scientific certainty about global warming the central issue of debate, in order to divert the public’s attention from the overwhelming testimony of human responsibility for it—thus saving the profits of the industrial polluters. Creating doubts about apparent ‘truths’ by arguing that their status as truths is derived from the regime of power on whose behalf they have been constructed is a tactic…How are we now going to prove, and persuade people to believe, that industrial pollution produces global warming?”

The research community in Pacific studies largely agrees with Sahlins—that there is indisputable evidence from travelers, missionaries, ethnographers, and “native” oral history for cannibalism as a “normal,” highly embedded practice in Melanesian and Polynesian pre-European-contact cultures. In fact, in 2003, the “subaltern” in the form of the chief of people of Navatusila, Viti Levu, Fiji “talked” a public apology for the killing and consumption by their forebears of Rev. Thomas Baker in 1867. The Prime Minister of Fiji acknowledged and used the word “cannibalism” in the proceedings. The London Times essentially mythologized the event and native history by reporting cannibals had tried to boil the minister’s boots and found the soles indigestible, hence, they were now on display in a contemporary museum in Fiji. The contemporary Fijians took considerable exception to the piece saying they were not that stupid! But this entire incident of the subaltern speaking back, contradicting Obeyesekere’s entire premise, is not mentioned in his book.

Damon Salesa (Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 76, No. 1, [2007], pp. 98-99) applauds Obeyesekere’s “dazzling range of comparisons. The rise of the Maori leader Te Rauparaha is explained as a ‘nefarious alliance’ between a group of Maori and European traders like ‘the rise of Mafia’ in ‘modern third world nations and in the former Soviet Empire’ (p. 149).” But why, Salesa asks, has Obeyesekere reverted to “my Sri Lankan experience and knowledge of European quartering” (p. 189) and ignored Fijian native discourse on why certain anthropophagic practices are undertaken? Obeyesekere has constructed a narrative that we want to hear, that feels right, but that does not take into account a vast amount of data on cannibalism that has been collected. By speaking to postmodern academia from the privileged position of Native, he too is mythologizing Other.

The “controversy” is not simple and not over. For example, Patrick Brantlinger (“Missionaries and Cannibals in Nineteenth-century Fiji,” History and Anthropology, Vol. 17, No. 1 [Mar. 2006], pp. 21-38) quotes missionary texts otherwise sympathetic to natives on “unspeakable horrid customs.” Cannibalism, widow strangulation, and infanticide are mentioned; but homosexuality is not. “This fact,” he says, “should dispel any notion that they [missionaries] suffered from a collective delusion [about cannibalism], much less that they conspired to identify all ‘heathens’ in all the world’s ‘dark’ abodes as man-eaters.”

Even Smithsonian magazine has tacitly inflamed the “controversy” with “Sleeping with Cannibals: Our Intrepid Reporter Gets Up Close and Personal with Remote New Guinea Natives Who Say They Still Eat Their Fellow Tribesmen” (Paul Raffaele, Vol. 37, No. 6 [Sept. 2006], pp. 48-60.) Katherine Biber’s “Cannibalism and Colonialism” (Sydney Law Review, Vol. 27 [2005], pp. 623-637) attempts a synthesis, crediting the validity of missionary narratives while at the same time developing an argument that cannibal discourse accompanied European colonial expansion, “wherein distant lands were consumed within the body of the Empire and brought within the jurisdiction of imperial laws” (p. 629). “So long as it is possible and imaginable that [Australian] Aborigines practice cannibalism; it remains necessary to control, correct, and eliminate them…the narratives supplied the justification for force, violence, and dominance” (p. 635).

An irony of this book is perhaps best stated by Steven Hooper in his response to Obeyesekere and Arens (Anthropology Today, “Cannibals Talk,” Vol. 19, No. 6, [Dec. 2003], p. 20). “Emerging DNA evidence is pointing to the worldwide historical practice of anthropophagy.” Witness the highly controversial argument in Man Corn by anthropologist Christy Turner II for ancient cannibalism in the southwest United States—as well as follow-up research by Richard Marlar at the University of Colorado, who has found unmistakable evidence of human myoglobin in both cooking pots and coprolites (ancient, dessicated human fecal material). “More interesting anthropologically than the tired question, ‘Did it really happen,’ would be, ‘Why has this once wide-spread cultural practice largely ceased?'”

Bethe Hagens
Walden University
School of Public Policy & Administration