While Europeans ate “mummy” to cure their physical ailments, the same culture sent missionaries and colonists to the New World to cure New World indigenous people of their purported barbaric cannibalism, some of which was entirely fabricated as a rationale for conquest, Bowdler says. “It’s certainly possible that Europeans were consuming more human flesh at the time than people in the New World,” Sugg says.
“It’s a big paradox,” Noble adds. The term cannibal was being used to describe someone inferior while the “civilized in Europe were also eating bits of the human body,” she says.
The word cannibal first entered the English language in the mid-16th century by means of Spanish explorers, says Carmen Nocentelli, a 16th-century comparative literature and culture scholar at the University of New Mexico. It derives from the Spanish word Canibales, which was used by Columbus in his diaries to describe indigenous people of the Caribbean islands who were rumored to be eaters of human flesh, Nocentelli says. In his diaries, it is clear Columbus didn’t initially believe the rumors, she adds.
But the name stuck: Cannibal became a popular term used to describe people in the New World. It was certainly sexier than the Greek and then Latin word “anthropophagi,” which a 1538 dictionary defines as “people in Asia, which eate [sic] men,” Nocentelli says.
Because there’s evidence that colonists exaggerated accounts of cannibalism in the New World, some scholars have argued that all cannibalism reports in the colonies were fictitious. But the balance of evidence suggest some reports were certainly true, Bowdler says, namely, from human blood proteins found in fossilized feces at American Southwest sites to first-hand reports from reliable sources about cannibal practices among Mesoamerican Aztecs and Brazilian Tupinambá. “One of the reasons cannibalism is so controversial is because we have few detailed accounts of how it worked in society,” Bowdler adds.
Bowdler has been compiling a list of well-documented accounts of worldwide cannibalism that she will present at the conference this weekend. In particular, she’ll discuss categories of cannibalism where consuming human flesh is “not considered out-and-out bad” in the society where it is practiced, she says.
One such category is survival cannibalism, where people consume each other out of absolute necessity, such as the 16 survivors of a 1972 plane crash in the Andes mountains or the members of Sir John Franklin’s failed 1845 expedition to the Arctic.
Another category is mortuary cannibalism, the consumption of the dead during their funeral rites, practiced through the 20th century in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea and the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon. “This is not, as we may instinctively imagine, morbid and repulsive,” notes the University of Manchester’s Sarah-Louise Flowers in her conference abstract, “but is instead an act of affection and respect for the dead person, as a well as being a means of helping survivors to cope with their grief.”
As some conference attendees compare culturally acceptable categories of human consumption with nefarious cases of cannibal serial killers, other conference presenters will pick apart the presence of cannibals in pop culture, such as the episode of revenge cannibalism in the animated sitcom South Park, the blockbuster popularity of the vampire romance novel series Twilight and the emergence of the Call Of Duty: Zombies video game.
With talk titles like “Flesh-Eaters in London: Cosmopolitan Cannibals in Late 19th-Century Fiction and the Press,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Inside the Mind of the Cannibal Serial Killer,” and “Bon Appetit! A Concise Defense of Cannibalism,” one can only hope the conference canapés are vegetarian.