Welcome to Designing from Bones where we use the realities of the past to unearth the fiction of tomorrow.
Today, we begin a three part series on the dainty subject of Cannibalism. The roots of this practice predate written history and examples of it can be found in every culture from the primordial mists right up to the modern day. For the weak of stomach or those disposed to a gentler view, I’ll do my best to keep the discussion – tasteful, by approaching cannibalism from three writerly angles – as an aspect of culture, as an aspect of character and thematically. Culture first. Grab a napkin.
Cannibalism’s History in Culture
Neanderthal’s, Homo Sapiens hooting cousins, were known practitioners of cannibalism, both of their own kind and of the other human branches. Some studies believe that this activity was a key factor in their extinction through the action of degenerative diseases associated with the practice of eating human flesh.
However, the hairy hunters were not alone. Neanderthal bones found in France show the marks of butchery by stone tools – the same type of marks left by ancient humans on rendered deer carcases. While not conclusive, in at least a few locations, humans likely dined on Neanderthals as well. Dinner invites were a different experience in the distant past – be careful what you RSVP.
It is important to remember two key ideas while exploring cannibalism’s menu.
First, until recent times it was believed that a person’s power was stored in one or more organs or the flesh itself. The ancient Greeks, Romans and nearly every culture out there believed in this ideal.
Second, while this may bother our modern sensibilities, meat is meat, regardless of its source. Now before you run off, let me say that studies of modern Western diet have proven that due to the fillers, chemicals and other sundry things they pack into our food, eating us would prove toxic to practically any other life form. Which is an interesting survival strategy as long as the other guy isn’t carrying Pepcid and an antibiotic.
Culturally speaking, most cannibalistic practices have been of the first variety – ritual (eating for power or religious reasons) rather than homicidal (killing and eating as food).
And herein lies the great ethical divide. While it may make ones skin crawl to watch the witch doctor in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom take a bite from a human heart as part of a magical religious ritual, it is a whole different thing to consider the same scene shot in Jeffery Dahmer’s kitchen at dinner time. Hannibal Lector anyone?
No culture is one-dimensional, each, historical, existing or fictional culture defines the acceptability and/or laws that govern cannibalism based on their own needs, beliefs and understanding. And yes, some still partake of the taboo practice today, such as the Korowai tribe of Papua among a few others.
Cannibalizing Fiction or A Little Take Out for Writers
To discover how cannibalism can be applied and used as part of a fictional culture it is important to consider all the factors governing the subject objectively. Here are a few key questions to ask that will lead to a rich and diverse culture that includes cannibalism among its traits. Note that these will overlap on occasion.
- Who are the practitioners? A small tribe, like the Korowai, or an empire, like the Aztecs? Are they isolated from the rest of global society or a recognized political power? The Aztecs were separate for a long time, even though they were an empire.
- Who is allowed to participate? Only priests, members of a family or any member of the society? Each of these factors points to the potential method, reasons and societal acceptance of the practice.
What type of cannibalism? There are two primary forms: Endocannibalism (eating those from ones own community) and Exocannibalism (eating those from other communities). Endo was notable among the Aghoris of northern India (to gain divine power) and some indigenous Australian tribes (to honor a deceased family or tribe member). Exocannibalism’s famous example is the Aztecs who ate the hearts (and sometimes more) of enemies as part of a religious ritual to claim the defeated ones powers before the gods.
- Where and when are cannibalism allowed? If it is anytime, anywhere, then it is a rare, but not unheard of, example. The most common reason was as part of a religious or burial ceremony. Other examples of “when” would be: Sacred dates (equinox, solstice, star alignments) or at the ascension of a new king or shaman over an expired one (where eating the heart or brain transferred power). Two things to consider for where and when are: a) the rules that allow for acceptable cannibalism in the society, and, b) the main method of cannibalism used (ritual – already dead OR homicidal – dying to be eaten).
- Why is cannibalism practiced? Is cannibalism part of the long term culture or only a phase? For some Pacific Isle and African tribes it was a common running practice (run faster). However, famine is a common historical reason as well. Remember, meat is meat to a starving person. Examples of this include the Sieges of Jerusalem in 70 CE and Leningrad during World War II, where things became so desperate for the living that basic survival instinct overrode ethical and/or moral sensibilities.
How is cannibalism practiced? This would be the method itself. Is the deceased laid on the table with an apple in its mouth? Prepared through a special ritual? The method should be in line with the other reasons for the practice and the broad beliefs of the culture.
- How is cannibalism used by non-practitioners? It was used by the Spanish to determine what Caribbean peoples could be enslaved (and is also how the word came into existence thanks to Columbus). It offered the British, French and others a justification to conquer peoples throughout Africa, India, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Isles. It was a reason used by the United States for their suspension of rights and treatment of the American Indians during the 1800’s (of which many tribes either practiced or were accused of cannibalism).
Full yet? Cannibalism is a part of human culture. From blood-drinking vampires to flesh-eating zombies to Aerosmith’s “Eat the Rich”, it is pervasive, just under the skin. Visceral. And that, my friends, is what makes for powerful fiction. Remember, if it makes you squirm it will probably thrill your audience – when done tastefully.
And now, for those of you that made it this far, I’d like to know what YOU are interested in. People, places, subjects, concepts, hoaxes, mysteries, potential truths, you name it – if you think it is worthy of a future DfB post or series drop the idea in the comments and I’ll put it on the list for consideration. Heard about a race of flying cat people that ruled an obscure island featured on a Blackbeard treasure map – let me know about it. If I use the idea for a post I’ll credit it back to whomever brought it to me first.
I look forward to your comments and suggestions.