cannibalism (kănˈĭbəlĭzəm) [key] [Span. caníbal, referring to the Carib], eating of human flesh by other humans. The charge of cannibalism is a common insult, and it is likely that some alleged cannibal groups have merely been victims of popular fear and misrepresentation. Nevertheless, archaeological research suggests that ancient societies did practice cannibalism, and it has been observed in Africa, North and South America, the South Pacific islands, and the West Indies. Widespread cannibalism is usually not found in state-level societies, which have the means to tax and control surplus labor. Nevertheless, one of the most famous cases of cannibalism is that of the Aztecs, who sacrificed their prisoners of war and undoubtedly ate some of them. According to available evidence, most authorities consider the partaking of human flesh almost always to be a ritual practice. A minority of anthropologists, however, believe cannibalism emerged as a cultural response to chronic protein shortages. In modern Western society, cannibalism is commited only by the deranged or by people who otherwise face death from starvation (see Donner Party). In contrast, various traditional cultures are known to have encouraged their members to eat part of their kinsmen's corpses out of respect for the deceased in a practice known as endocannibalism. For example, Foré women of New Guinea, who dispose of the dead, ritually ate their deceased relatives' brains. Some anthropologists believe that head-hunting evolved from cannibalism. Among a few peoples the head of the enemy is preserved and the rest of the body or selected parts of it are eaten; this may represent a connecting link between cannibalism and head-hunting. The term cannibalism is also used in zoology to describe species who prey upon their own kind, such as lions, crabs, ants, and some kinds of fish.
See P. Brown and D. Tuzin, ed., The Ethnography of Cannibalism (1983); A. W. B. Simpson, Cannibalism and the Common Law (1984).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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