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Setting the Record Straight About Native Peoples: American Indian Cannibals

Q: Were Native Americans cannibals?
A: Not for the most part, no, but there were some groups who were. The Aztecs were notorious for ritual cannibalism (warriors would eat a strip of flesh from enemies they had slain in combat). Some people dispute this, but the Aztecs' own written and oral histories seem to support it as the truth. The Karankawa tribe of southeast Texas was also said to practice ritual cannibalism on defeated enemies. There were a few Amazonian tribes who practiced funerary cannibalism (family and friends would eat part of a dead tribal member's body as a religious ceremony at the funeral). Finally, the Carib people of South America were said to kill and eat prisoners of war, though it's been pointed out that the Spaniards who made this claim were lining their own pockets by doing so (Queen Isabella had forbidden her subjects from selling Africans, or Indians, as slaves unless they were cannibals).

None of the other 1200 Native American cultures engaged in culturally sanctioned cannibalism at the time of European contact. That doesn't mean cannibalism never happened--there were certainly stories in the American Indian oral history about cannibalistic incidents (a hunting party trapped in a snowstorm who fell to eating each other, a war chief who taunted captives by striking them in the face with their leader's heart and then taking a bite out of it.) Such incidents also occurred in American and European history under similar starving-in-the-wilderness and war-atrocity circumstances (a company of Crusaders, for example, bragged of having grilled and eaten a Saracen; a Jamestown settler was executed for cannibalizing his wife during a famine). Cannibalism should not be considered part of American Indian culture on this account any more than it would be considered part of European or American culture--it was culturally unacceptable behavior. The Sioux considered cannibalism a sin, the Cree considered it a mental illness, the Algonquin and Ojibwe considered it a sign of possession by an evil spirit. In almost all cases, American Indian cannibals--just like European or American cannibals--were put to death as soon as they were discovered.

Q: But weren't they cannibals before that--in ancient times, before European contact?
A: Most of them definitely were not. It's been suggested that the pre-Iroquois Mohawk and the ancient Anasazi may have practiced group cannibalism. This is possible, though it has not been proven. The Mohawk were called "man-eaters" by their Algonquian enemies on account of this belief about their lurid past. Some Mohawks think it was probably true, others that you shouldn't give too much credence to slurs people's enemies cast at their ancestors. The claim about the ancient Anasazi came more recently, when anthropologists found a burial site with skeletons whose flesh had apparently been hacked off the bones after their death. Personally, I'm not too impressed by that evidence. Even if those bodies were cut up for cannibalistic purposes, we're talking about one anomalous site with only seven bodies in it. Of the hundreds of ancient Indian burial sites exhumed by archaeologists--including dozens of Anasazi ones--this was the only one with this strange appearance. For all we know it was the work of some Anasazi psychopath. We can't assume ancient Anasazi culture included cannibalism from this one unusual case any more than we could say American culture includes cannibalism because of Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer.

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