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Consuming Grief

Consuming Grief
Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society

An ethnography of mortuary cannibalism in a South American indigenous culture.

July 2001
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320 pages | 6 x 9 | 15 halftones, 3 maps, line drawings |

Mourning the death of loved ones and recovering from their loss are universal human experiences, yet the grieving process is as different between cultures as it is among individuals. As late as the 1960s, the Wari' Indians of the western Amazonian rainforest ate the roasted flesh of their dead as an expression of compassion for the deceased and for his or her close relatives. By removing and transforming the corpse, which embodied ties between the living and the dead and was a focus of grief for the family of the deceased, Wari' death rites helped the bereaved kin accept their loss and go on with their lives.

Drawing on the recollections of Wari' elders who participated in consuming the dead, this book presents one of the richest, most authoritative ethnographic accounts of funerary cannibalism ever recorded. Beth Conklin explores Wari' conceptions of person, body, and spirit, as well as indigenous understandings of memory and emotion, to explain why the Wari' felt that corpses must be destroyed and why they preferred cannibalism over cremation. Her findings challenge many commonly held beliefs about cannibalism and show why, in Wari' terms, it was considered the most honorable and compassionate way of treating the dead.

  • Acknowledgments
  • About the Artist and Illustrations
  • A Note on Orthography
  • Introduction
  • Part I: Contexts
    • Chapter One: Cannibal Epistemologies
    • Chapter Two: Wari' Worlds
    • Chapter Three: Cultural Collisions
  • Part II: Motifs and Motives
    • Chapter Four: Funerals
    • Chapter Five: Explanations of Eating
  • Part III: Bodily Connections
    • Chapter Six: Social Anatomy
    • Chapter Seven: Embodied Identities
    • Chapter Eight: Burning Sorrow
  • Part IV: Eat and Be Eaten
    • Chapter Nine: Predator and Prey
    • Chapter Ten: Hunting the Ancestors
    • Chapter Eleven: Transforming Grief
  • Afterword
  • Appendix A: The Story of Mortuary Cannibalism's Origin
  • Appendix B: The Story of Hujin and Orotapan
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Beth A. Conklin is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University.


"I don't know if you can understand this, because you have never had a child die," Jimon Maram said quietly. "But for a parent, when your child dies, it's a sad thing to put his body in the earth."

His wife, Quimoin, turned away, bowing her head over the baby girl cuddled in her lap. Two years earlier, they had buried the child before this one, a two-year-old son.

"It's cold in the earth," Jimon continued, and Quimoin's shoulders trembled. "We keep remembering our child, lying there, cold. We remember, and we are sad." He leaned forward, searching my eyes as if to see whether I could comprehend what he was trying to explain. Then he concluded:

"It was better in the old days, when the others ate the body. Then we did not think about our child's body much. We did not remember our child as much, and we were not so sad."

Santo André, 1987

"In the old days when the others ate the body . . ."

Jimon and Quimoin's people call themselves Wari' (pronounced wah-REE), though in western Brazil, where they live, most outsiders know them as the Pakaa Nova. When Jimon and Quimoin were children in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Wari' still lived independent of Western civilization, and they disposed of the bodies of their dead as their ancestors had done, by eating the roasted flesh, certain internal organs, and sometimes the ground bones. This book examines how Wari' understood and experienced this kind of cannibalism and explores how this seemingly exotic practice reflects on broad human questions about love and loss, emotional attachments, and how people cope with death and bereavement.

Cannibalism used to be the normal treatment for all Wari' who died of any cause, except for a few circumstances in which bodies were cremated rather than eaten. In some funerals, especially funerals for children, all or most of the flesh was eaten. In funerals for adults and adolescents, often only part of the flesh was consumed (and the rest was burned), because the corpse was not roasted until two or three days of crying and eulogizing had passed, by which time it was nearly too decayed to stomach. Even then, Wari' still considered it important to consume at least some of the corpse. They did not eat their dead because they liked the taste of human flesh, nor because they needed the meat. Rather, they ate out of a sense of respect and compassion for the dead person and for the dead person's family.

The individuals who ate the corpse at a funeral—the "others" of whom Jimon Maram spoke—were mostly in-laws (affines) of the deceased. Except in certain exceptional cases, Wari' did not eat their own close blood relatives or spouses. The people they ate were individuals to whom they were not closely related by blood. The duty of eating the corpse at a funeral was a social obligation among affines, one of the reciprocal services owed to the families with whom one's own kin had intermarried.

At funerals, the people who ate the corpse did so at the insistence of the dead person's close relatives, who urged the others to eat. Wari' emphasize that they did not eat for self-gratification; indeed, the decayed state of many corpses could make cannibalism quite an unpleasant undertaking. Yet even when the flesh was so putrid that it made them nauseous, some individuals would still force themselves to swallow bits of it. To refuse to consume any of the corpse at all would have been seen as an insult to the dead person's family and to the memory of the deceased.

When Wari' talk about their former practice of funerary cannibalism, one of the recurring themes is that consuming the corpse pleased the dead person's spirit. Wari' wanted their own corpses to be eaten, or at least cremated. For dying individuals, the idea of disappearing into fellow tribesmembers' bodies apparently was considerably more appealing than the alternative of being left to rot in the ground. In the 1950s and '60s, when outsiders forced them to start burying their dead instead, Wari' were appalled.


The Wari' stopped practicing cannibalism after they were contacted by government-sponsored expeditions that set up base camps on the edges of Wari' territories with the goal of making contact with the Wari' and persuading them to accept peaceful relations with the national society. Various groups of Wari' entered contact in stages between 1956 and 1969, with the majority of the population entering contact in 1961-62. In each case, interactions with outsiders exposed Wari' to a devastating onslaught of infectious diseases against which they had acquired little or no immunological resistance. As one epidemic of malaria, influenza, measles, mumps, whooping cough, and other diseases followed another, hundreds of Wari' died. Within two or three years after the beginning of sustained contact, about 60 percent of the Wari' population—three out of every five people—were dead.

Constantly sick and traumatized by the sudden loss of so many of their relatives, those who survived the early post-contact epidemics were often too weak and demoralized to farm, hunt, fish, or care for their own sick family members. In order to get the food, antibiotics, and medical care they so desperately needed, they came to depend heavily on aid provided by Protestant missionaries, employees of the government Indian agency, and Catholic priests. Putting an end to cannibalism was a top priority for these outsiders, and they used a combination of persuasion and coercion to pressure Wari' to abandon the practice of eating their dead.

Many Wari' were deeply unhappy about being forced to give up cannibalism. Burial was a horrifying substitute, a practice they considered barbaric. Wari' think of the ground as cold, wet, and polluting. To leave a loved one's body to rot in the dirt was disrespectful and degrading to the dead and heart-wrenching for those who mourned them. Even today, decades after they stopped practicing cannibalism, many elderly Wari' (and even some middle-aged people like Jimon and Quimoin, who were too young to have taken part in eating the dead themselves) still find burial emotionally problematic. They look back upon the cannibalistic funeral practices of their past with a certain nostalgia for what they describe as a better, more loving and compassionate way to deal with death and bereavement.

The Question of Compassionate Cannibalism

Understanding this indigenous concept of compassionate cannibalism is the issue at the heart of this book. In focusing on it, I follow the themes that Wari' themselves emphasize when they explain why they used to eat their dead. Every Wari' elder living today took part in or witnessed cannibalistic funerals, not just once, but repeatedly. Even though they are aware that most outsiders see cannibalism as sin or savagery, most still speak openly about it.

When one asks older men and women, "Why did you eat the dead?" the answer they give most often is "Je kwerexi'" [Thus was our custom]. This statement deserves to be taken seriously. For Wari' before the contact, cannibalism was the norm. It was how their people had disposed of their dead for as long as anyone could remember, and it was considered the proper, most honorable way to treat a corpse. Most Wari' seem to have given no more thought to the question of why their society preferred cannibalism than most North Americans and Europeans give to the question of why our own societies permit only burial or cremation.

When Wari' elders do reflect on the deeper significance of what eating the dead meant to them personally, they tend to talk about this in a remarkably consistent way. In conversation after conversation, older women and men in various villages have independently offered explanations revolving around two related ideas: that cannibalism was done out of compassion for the person who was eaten, and that it also was done out of compassion for the bereaved relatives, as a way to help lessen their sorrow.

Wari' express the notion of compassion in the phrase xiram pa', meaning to feel sorry for someone. Xiram pa' wiriko ko mi' pin na, je para kao' inon [I felt sorry for he who had died; that's why I ate him]. Out of compassion for the deceased, one ate the corpse. Wari' also speak of eating the corpse as an act of compassion for the dead person's family. This was necessary, they say, because a corpse left intact is a painful reminder of the lost loved one, a focus for memories that prolong the grieving process. Making the corpse disappear by eating it was thought to help family members dwell less on memories of the person who had passed away, so they eventually might come to terms with their loss.

When Wari' talk about this felt need to alleviate sorrow by having the corpse eaten, they tend to speak, as Jimon Maram did in the epigraph, not from their perspective as eaters, but from their perspective as mourners who did not eat, as the dead person's close relatives who wanted their affines to eat the corpse. Again and again, older people echoed the idea that, "When the others ate the body, we did not think longingly about the ones who died; we were not so sad."

Today, Wari' speak from the perspective of people who have changed to a different way of disposing of their dead. Burial is now the universal practice, and the younger generation thinks of cannibalism as a curious custom that their grandparents tell about from the old days "when we used to live in the forest." Though Wari' of all ages still hold many of the values and ideas in which the practice of cannibalism was based, it is almost inconceivable that they would ever think of reviving cannibalism in the future. Young people have grown up with other ways of living and dying, and the practice of cannibalism has no part in their images of themselves. Wari' of all ages are keenly aware that people eating would brand them as savages in the eyes of the outsiders with whom their lives are now intertwined. Wari' depend on their relationships with non-Indians to obtain the goods and services (especially medicines, schools, ammunition, and metal tools) that they have come to need and want. At the same time, they want to be left alone to manage their own community affairs, and they know that the slightest rumor of cannibalism would unleash a barrage of prurient curiosity, criticism, and unwanted interference from outsiders.

Yet although no one advocates a return to cannibalism, older people's conversations about contrasts between the past and the present often express the feeling that something useful and meaningful has been lost. Some say that today, when corpses are buried rather than eaten, their thoughts return over and over to their loved one's body lying alone under its mound of dirt in the cemetery outside the village. In the past, when corpses were eaten or burned, one did not think so much about the dead, they say, because eradicating the body removed the most tangible focus for memories and grief.


My interpretation of Wari' mortuary cannibalism traces the conceptual framework behind this indigenous theory of body, memory, and emotion. The assertion that cannibalism made mourning easier reflects the distinctive ways Wari' think about the human body, ideas that make the fate of the corpse a matter of concern and a prime factor in how mourners think and feel about the dead. Like many other Amazonian Indians, Wari' see the human body as a social entity constituted through interactions with others. In the "anthropology of the body" in lowland South American societies, the physical body appears as a primary site where personhood, social identities, and relationships to others are created and perpetuated. Conversely, the body also is a prime site for enacting and marking changes of identity and for terminating or transforming relationships. When native South Americans dismembered and cooked, ate, or burned a corpse, they were acting to transform, not just a physical body, but other aspects of the dead person's identity or social connections as well.

Wari' see the body as something that connects the dead and the living through the ties of blood, flesh, and other elements that close family members share with each other, and through the emotional bonds of memory, especially memories of nurturance and support given and received. Physical bodies are a source of individuation: our bodies separate us from one another. But Wari' also recognize that, through our bodies, we are linked to each other, not just by ties of birth and blood, but also by the many forms of sociality and care giving—the feeding, holding, grooming, cuddling, lovemaking, healing, and work—exchanged in the course of daily life. Such life-supporting exchanges create bonds among individuals that are simultaneously and inseparably both physical and emotional. In the human body, Wari' read histories of social relationships, corporeal records of caring in both meanings of the word.

For Wari', the connections that develop between individuals in the give-and-take of social life are embodied connections in the fullest sense. From the way they talk about loved ones who have passed away recently, it seems apparent that this sense of embodied connectedness does not necessarily dissolve at the moment when a relative dies, but may persist even after the spirit and consciousness that made social interaction possible are recognized to be long gone. Given the body's salience in Wari' sociality, it is not surprising that (as described in Chapter 4), during funerals, expressions of grief and affection focus on the corpse itself.

This sense of the body as a place where relationships are formed and transformed is one key to understanding what eating their dead meant for Wari'. To act upon a corpse to alter or destroy it was to act upon the relationships of which it was comprised. The eradication of the corpse was intended to help loosen ties that bind the living and the dead too tightly. Wari' are keenly aware that prolonged grieving makes it hard for mourners to get on with their lives. Bereaved individuals, they say, must gradually disengage from dwelling on memories of the past. To accomplish this, it helps to eradicate reminders that bring the dead person to mind. The corpse itself is the single most powerful reminder. By removing that material focus for felt attachments, the ritual process of dismembering and eating or burning the dead person's body made it easier, elders say, to think less about the deceased and achieve some degree of detachment and tranquility.

Cannibalism was not just a destructive act; it also was a creative act. Besides eradicating the corpse, the ritual in which the eating of the dead occurred presented mourners with dramatically new images as they watched their loved one's body be cut up and roasted, much like game, divided into pieces that progressively became less and less identifiable, more and more similar in appearance to animal meat. This is another piece in the puzzle of Wari' funerary cannibalism: it made graphic statements about the loss of human identity and the destiny of the human spirit, and about meat-eating and the relations among people, and between humans and animals, through which food is produced and exchanged.

Wari' believe that the spirits of their dead join the realm of animal spirits, from which they return sometimes in the bodies of white-lipped peccaries (a piglike wild animal) that offer themselves to be hunted to feed their living loved ones. Thus, Wari' engaged in a kind of double cannibalism, consuming the flesh of their dead first as human corpses at funerals, and later as animal prey. The cannibalism that took place at the funeral was one step in a larger social process of mourning structured around ideas about transformations and exchanges between living Wari' and the spirits of animals and ancestors.

Relocating Cannibalism in the Context of Mourning

Although today they no longer destroy the corpse itself, Wari' continue to consider it important to remove from their environment everything that might evoke memories of individuals who have died. Just as they did in the past (and as many other South American Indians also do), they burn a dead person's house and all of his or her personal possessions. Wari' also change the appearance of neighboring houses, reroute paths, and burn places in the forest associated with the deceased. References to those who have recently died vanish from conversation as people stop using their names altogether or try to avoid speaking of them as much as possible.

Wari' emphasize that when they used to destroy corpses by eating or burning them, this had the same purpose as burning the house and other acts of destruction aimed at eliminating things that remind mourners of lost relatives. Elders have been bemused and at times rather irritated by anthropologists' apparent obsession with the subject of eating human flesh. "Why are you always asking about eating the ones who died?" one man complained to me. "You talk to me about eating; Denise [Meireles, a Brazilian ethnographer] came here and asked me about eating. The missionaries and the priests always used to say, 'Why did you eat people? Why did you eat?' Eating, eating, eating! Eating was not all that we did! We cried, we sang, we burned the house, we burned all their things." Pointing at the notebook in my lap, he directed, "Write about all of this, not just the eating!"


One of my hopes is that this case study of the Wari' will call attention to the fruitfulness of thinking about cannibalism in relation to questions about how cultural frameworks for mourning guide bereaved individuals or make certain social and symbolic resources available to them in their experiences of mourning. Mortuary cannibalism is, by definition, a cultural response to the loss of a member of one's own group, part of how a certain community copes with a specific person's death. But although it would seem to be an obvious approach, scholars have paid little attention to the question of how the socially constituted symbols of mortuary cannibalism relate to bereavement and processes of coming to terms with the death of a relative or friend. Rather than focus on questions about mourning and individuals' emotions, most ethnographers who have written about mortuary cannibalism have focused on the societal level, analyzing its cultural logic and symbolism, emphasizing how cannibalism fits into collective systems of thought and meaning. Symbolic analyses are essential to understanding endocannibalism, and the rich symbolic resonances of Wari' thought will provide material for anthropologists and psychologists to analyze for years to come, especially as new details emerge that illuminate more aspects of precontact Wari' culture. But an approach that treats cannibalism merely as a symbol located in a system of cultural ideas cannot capture its whole significance. The problem with limiting analysis to the level of ideas and symbols, as many anthropological studies have tended to do, is that this leaves out the very aspects that Wari' themselves emphasize: cannibalism's relation to subjective experiences of grief and social processes of mourning.

My approach has been to begin by taking seriously what Wari' say about cannibalism's relation to experiences of bereavement. I treat the eating of the dead and the acts that surrounded it as pragmatic activities through which Wari' constructed and conveyed values, images, and relationships that individuals could draw upon in dealing with the death of someone close to them. Approaching cannibalism from this direction resonates with the more general anthropological trend toward studying ritual as "practice," trying to understand how people use rituals, symbols, and beliefs to cope with concrete problems in social life. From this perspective, the meaning of a cultural belief or ritual action is seen to be located "not in its pretension to mirror a so-called external world nor in the way it fits into some supposedly static 'system' of beliefs, but in how it carries people into relation with the world and with others, transforming their experience, helping them cope with existence" (Jackson and Karp 1990:20). As institutionalized cannibalism fades out of contemporary human experience, the Wari' offer one of the best, and probably one of the last, opportunities to understand how cannibalism may have served as a symbolic resource for coping with death and mourning.

Mortuary Endocannibalism

Before the contact, Wari' practiced two forms of cannibalism: they consumed the corpses of their fellow Wari' at funerals, and they ate the flesh of enemy outsiders whom Wari' warriors killed. Wari' saw these two forms of eating human flesh as quite distinct from each other, and they treated the corpses of enemies and the corpses of fellow tribesmembers very differently. The manner in which they roasted and consumed their own dead conveyed honor and respect for the person who was eaten. The way they handled and ate enemy corpses explicitly marked the enemy as a non-person and expressed hostility and hatred.

Wari' emphasize that warfare cannibalism and funerary cannibalism conveyed and evoked very different meanings and emotions. They see about as much of a connection between eating their own dead and eating their enemies as we see between burying our dead and burying our garbage.


This contrast between the two forms of Wari' cannibalism corresponds to the distinction that anthropologists often make between exocannibalism and endocannibalism. Exocannibalism means eating outsiders—that is, enemies or other human beings who are not members of one's own social group. Endocannibalism means eating insiders, members of one's own social group. Since endocannibalism usually takes place during funerals or other mortuary rituals, it is commonly called mortuary cannibalism or funerary cannibalism. In this book, I use the terms endocannibalism, mortuary cannibalism, and funerary cannibalism interchangeably.

One reason it is worth listening to what Wari' can tell us about their experiences is that this is some of most detailed information we have about endocannibalism. The ethnographic and historical literatures contain a lot more material on exocannibalism, such as the famous sixteenth-century accounts of the ritual execution and consumption of war captives among the Tupinambá of coastal Brazil and the Aztecs of central Mexico. It may be that exocannibalism was more common than endocannibalism, at least in the past few centuries. For whatever reasons, the information we have on mortuary cannibalism is quite limited, and we are unlikely to obtain much more, since almost all the peoples who used to practice it have stopped doing so, leaving few individuals able or willing to speak about their own experiences with people eating.

The Wari' case is unusual in that so many individuals who are still alive today participated in cannibalistic funerals and have been willing to talk about their experiences with me and other anthropologists, linguists, and missionaries. Wari' elders' testimonies provide one of the richest accounts of endocannibalism ever recorded, and they speak to some of the aspects of cannibalism about which we know least. Their perspectives suggest new insights that might be gained by taking a closer look at the distinctive forms and meanings of lowland South American cannibalism.

Funerary Cannibalism in Lowland South America

The German ethnographer Hans Becher (1968) once called South America "the continent of endocannibalism," for funerary cannibalism seems to have been more widely practiced in lowland South America than anywhere else in the world. Cannibalism was by no means universal; most South American Indians probably never engaged in any form of people eating. Yet funerary cannibalism has been reported at some time in the past in lowland regions ranging from coastal Venezuela and the Caribbean islands in the north to Paraguay in the south. In the early twentieth century, the greatest concentration of surviving endocannibalism practices seems to have been in western Amazonia among native groups located in a broad swath along both sides of Brazil's borders with Peru and Bolivia.

Lowland South American funerary cannibalism mainly occurred in one of two forms: people either consumed the ground, roasted bones or bone ash, or they consumed the cooked flesh. Bone-eating (osteophagy) seems to have been the more common practice. It was concentrated especially in northern Brazil, the Upper Orinoco region of southern Venezuela, and western and northwestern Amazonia. When only the bones were eaten, the preparation of the corpse would begin with the removal of the flesh. Usually this was accomplished by cremating the corpse or by burying it for a while and then exhuming the skeletal remains. Sometimes the corpse was left exposed to the elements until the flesh had rotted away. Stripped of flesh, the bones would be roasted, ground into a powdery meal, and mixed into food or beverages, such as corn or manioc beer, plantain soup or honey.

Flesh-eating seems to have been less common than bone-eating in South America, but it has been reported in several areas. A number of Panoan groups in southeastern Peru reportedly ate the flesh of their dead (Dole 1974:305). In Paraguay, the French ethnographers Pierre and Hélène Clastres collected detailed accounts of flesh-eating at a Guayakí funeral in 1963, at which, the participants told them, almost the entire corpse was consumed (P. Clastres 1974, 1998). The Cashinahua consumed both flesh and bones (McCallum 1996b). The Wari' also practiced both variants of endocannibalism: they always ate the flesh, but sometimes they also consumed the bone meal mixed with honey.

The manner of cooking human flesh varied; some native South Americans roasted the corpse, others boiled it, and some used both methods. Arrangements concerning who ate whom also seem to have varied, though it is difficult to say much about this, because many accounts are not very clear about exactly who took part. Many writers simply noted that the corpse was eaten by relatives of the deceased, without specifying which relatives. Where more precise information is available, factors of age, gender, and kinship usually seem to have determined who did and did not eat. Commonly, corpse substances were eaten only by adults or the elderly, although children took part in the 1963 Guayakí funeral. In some societies, the dead were eaten mostly or exclusively by their immediate blood relatives (consanguines). In others, close kin did not eat, and the task was performed by affines (in-laws) and more distant consanguines. In both societies for which we have the most recent and detailed information on flesh endocannibalism, the Wari' and the Guayakí, close kin did not eat the dead.

Who was eaten and who was not also varied. In some lowland South American societies, such as the Cashinahua (aka Kaxinawá), the honor of having one's bones or flesh eaten was reserved for high-status individuals, such as chiefs and their wives, important religious specialists, or renowned warriors (Kensinger 1995, McCallum 1996b). In other societies, including the Wari', almost everyone who died was eaten, regardless of their age or status.

Although probably only a fraction of Amazonian Indians ever actually practiced cannibalism, it is a prominent theme for many other native South Americans who project images of cannibalism in their myths, cosmologies, and eschatologies (ideas about what happens to a human spirit after death) (see Basso 1995, Sullivan 1988). One common idea is that death itself is a form of cannibalism. Yanomami, for example, think of every death as an act of cannibalism in which the human soul is devoured by a spirit or an enemy (Clastres and Lizot 1978:114-116). The Araweté (Tupian speakers of Pará, Brazil) believe that, at death, human spirits are cannibalized by the gods, then rejuvenated and transformed into gods themselves (Viveiros de Castro 1992). The Kulina (Arawakan speakers of Acre, Brazil) believe that when a human spirit journeys to the underworld, it is ritually welcomed and devoured by the Kulina ancestors, who have become white-lipped peccaries (Pollock 1993). In these Amazonian cosmologies, cannibalism mediates the human spirit's transition from life to death, from mortal human to a new immortal identity in the afterlife.

The predatory imagery in these visions of ancestors attacking and eating human spirits resonates with the notion of the dead as enemies of the living, an idea expressed in a number of societies in the South American lowlands (Carneiro da Cunha 1978:143, H. Clastres 1968, Lévi-Strauss 1974:234, Sullivan 1988:517-519). Where the dead are symbolically equated with enemies or other outsiders, endocannibalism (eating members of one's own group) begins to resemble exocannibalism (eating social outsiders). As many South American scholars have noted, the customary anthropological distinction between endo- and exocannibalism blurs in the face of the complex ways in which native South Americans approach cannibalism in their cosmologies, mythologies, and rituals (P. Clastres 1974:320, Erikson 1986:198, Lévi-Strauss 1984:142, Overing 1986, Viveiros de Castro 1992). Although Wari' drew sharp distinctions between eating enemies or animals and eating their own dead, these two forms of consumption nonetheless had certain elements in common.

One prerequisite to understanding South American endocannibalism is to recognize that eating is not just a process of incorporation (transferring substance into the consumer's stomach). It is also a process of destruction and transformation. The object that is eaten vanishes from sight and ceases to exist as a distinct entity; it becomes something else. Notions of eating as a mechanism of destruction, dissociation, and (meta-)physical transformation are salient themes in many native lowland South American cultures.

Contrasts to Endocannibalism in Melanesia

Aside from South America, the only part of the world where mortuary cannibalism has been widely reported and studied by anthropologists is Melanesia, the area north of Australia comprised of Papua New Guinea, Irian Jaya, and neighboring islands. Much of the information we have about endocannibalism comes from Melanesia, and anthropological interpretations have been heavily influenced by the distinctive features and cultural ideas associated with Melanesian brands of endocannibalism.

In Melanesia mortuary cannibalism most often involved eating small bits from selected body parts, though some groups (such as the Gimi described in Gillison 1993) reportedly consumed larger amounts of flesh. The individuals who ate corpse substances typically included close relatives of the deceased, and endocannibalism generally was not an activity in which most of the members of a community participated. Usually only a relatively small number of people (sometimes only women) consumed corpse substances.

This contrasts markedly with Wari' practices. Whereas Melanesians commonly consumed only tidbits of fellow group members' flesh in mortuary rites, Wari' ate substantial amounts. And whereas the Melanesians who ate corpse substances were most often close blood relatives or spouses of the deceased, among the Wari' these were precisely the people who did not eat. In Amazonian endocannibalism, the consumption of corpse substances (whether flesh or bones) tended to be a public event and a focus of collective ritual activity that most of a community either performed or witnessed. In Melanesia, the eating seems often to have been done rapidly or in secret; when larger amounts were consumed (as among the Gimi), the flesh was cut up and distributed for people to cook and eat in their own homes. In South America, mortuary cannibalism's prominence as a public performance is consistent with the idea that eating the dead was a social obligation considered necessary to ensure or promote collective well-being, not just the well-being of the individuals who ate the flesh.

The ideas and motives associated with South American and Melanesian endocannibalism also differed. Although various Melanesian endocannibalism systems expressed a variety of local cultural meanings, they tended to share two main ideas: the belief that cannibalism primarily benefited the individuals who ate the corpse, and the belief that the corpse contained substances or vital energies that needed to be recaptured and recycled into the bodies of those who consumed it. By eating pieces of the corpse, the dead person's relatives kept these vital elements circulating in their own bodies and kin group, in a kind of closed economy of body elements.

North American and British scholars have tended to look to Melanesia for data on endocannibalism, and as a consequence, their general theories of endocannibalism have tended to emphasize Melanesian cultural themes. In particular, Anglo American theorists have tended to assume that incorporation—the idea of eating a corpse as a way for living people to absorb the dead person's vital energies or body substances—was always the motive behind mortuary cannibalism. In South America, one can find echoes of Melanesian-type notions of incorporation in some writers' comments about endocannibalism in certain societies. But in most native South American societies—notably including the three most recent and best-documented cases, the Wari', Yanomami, and Guayakí—endocannibalism seems to have had little or nothing to do with such ideas about incorporation.

Native South Americans think about persons, bodies, and spirits in distinctive ways that give South American endocannibalism its distinctive orientations. In contrast to endocannibalism in Melanesia, which aimed to preserve, perpetuate, and redistribute elements of the deceased, South American endocannibalism more often had the objective of eradicating the corpse in order to sever relations between the dead person's body and spirit, and between living people and the spirits of the dead.

For Wari', the imperative to distance, destroy, and transform relations to the dead was linked to concerns with memory, mourning, and the human body's role in composing persons and their relationships. Although Wari' ideas resonate with many general themes in lowland South American ethnology, they should not be taken as typical or representative of endocannibalism in South America or anywhere else. I know of no other case in which native people have spoken so directly about cannibalism's relation to memory and its effects on emotional ties between the living and the dead. Yet although one cannot generalize from the Wari' example, it points to issues that may be more widespread than has been previously recognized. Scattered throughout the ethnographic literature on endocannibalism in other societies in South America and elsewhere, one finds mention of native peoples who said that their practice of endocannibalism was motivated by compassion for the deceased, or the desire to save the corpse from decay, or the belief that the eating of the corpse lessened mourners' grief. Presented with such claims, scholars have seldom taken them seriously enough to explore what they meant, but instead have tended to look for other, more exotic psychological motives and symbolic schemes. Paying attention to what Wari' and other native South Americans have said about how their practices of cannibalism related to experiences of memory and mourning points to issues that are ripe for rethinking in the anthropology of cannibalism.

Conundrums of Culture and Experience

This book is about Wari' mortuary cannibalism, not about eating enemies. My choice to limit the scope of my analysis is partly an economy of focus; a comprehensive treatment of Wari' warfare and exocannibalism would require a book in itself. Mostly, it is a matter of intellectual and personal interest. The themes that emerge from Wari' enemy-eating—the notion that cannibalism expressed hostility and symbolically marked the enemy's "otherness," equating enemies with animal prey—are familiar ideas that have been widely recognized in cannibalism theory and in studies from other societies.

Yet if the meanings and sentiments associated with eating enemies appear fairly straightforward, the reasons why Wari' ate their own dead are more difficult to discern. There is no simple answer to this question, though missionaries, priests, and anthropologists have tried for decades to find one. As discussed in Chapter 5, most of the models that anthropologists and psychologists have used to explain cannibalism in other societies and in Westerners' dreams and fantasies do not apply very well to the Wari'. The Wari' did not eat their dead because they needed the protein. They were not trying to absorb the dead person's life force, courage, vital energies, or other substances or qualities. Nor did eating their dead have much to do with acting out anger, aggression, resentment, dominance, or desire to hold onto the deceased. The ideas and emotional and social dynamics associated with Wari' endocannibalism do not fit neatly into any of the major theories of cannibalism. Wari' mortuary cannibalism poses an anthropological conundrum.

There is another, more personal side to this sense of Wari' endocannibalism as something of a mystery. Quite simply, I find it harder to understand than the eating of enemies. While I recoil at the thought of eating human flesh myself, I do not find it difficult to imagine that in warfare people might be motivated to eat an enemy's corpse out of hatred or a desire for vengeance, especially if they regarded their enemies as radically different from themselves or even subhuman. I have more trouble imagining what it would be like to butcher, cook, and consume someone whom I had known intimately, someone with whom I shared a common identity and a history of social interactions.

Mortuary cannibalism brings us up against fundamental questions about human psychology and the way that culture shapes individual experiences and emotions. The sentiments of caring and attachment, and the feelings of loss and insecurity, that Wari' express when they talk about their experiences of bereavement are among the most nearly universal human emotions. Yet Wari' interpret and deal with these emotions through practices grounded in a worldview quite different from our own, in which cultural ideas about bodies, spirits, memories, and the human spirit's post-mortem existence formerly made cannibalism seem to them the most honorable and helpful way to deal with death and mourning. The radical "otherness" of Wari' views of cannibalism challenges us to examine some of our deepest notions about our relations to those with whom we live, the role that our bodies play in these relationships, and how we cope with the ruptures death forces into our lives and emotions.


"I don't know if you can understand this..." Jimon Maram said in the conversation that opened this introduction. He was referring not just to the distance between his cultural perspective and my own, but also to the differences in our life experiences. Jimon Maram spoke as a husband and the father of eight living children and as someone who, as a child, had lived through the mass epidemics that took the lives of his mother and many other relatives. He spoke also, and perhaps most poignantly, as a man who recently had buried a young son and a beloved adult brother.

As I talked with Jimon Maram, Quimoin, and the other Wari' whom I interviewed during my first two years of fieldwork, when I collected most of the data for this study, I could interpret what they said only through the narrow lenses of my own limited life experiences. When I first went to live with the Wari', I was newly wed and childless, and, like many young North Americans, I had had little personal experience with serious sickness and death. The only funerals I had attended were for grandparents and great-aunts who had died, peacefully and not unexpectedly, in old age. I had never dealt with the chaotic emotions aroused by the untimely death of a younger relative or friend, nor had I nursed anyone through a life-threatening illness. This began to change a few weeks after I left the Wari' to return to the United States in July of 1987, when my sister was in a near-fatal car accident. Today, I write from the perspective of deeper experiences with family life and family crises: as one who spent weeks at my sister's bedside confronting in the most pragmatic way the question of what links spirit to body as we tried to bring her out of a coma; as a daughter who is watching her parents' bodies and lives change as they age; as a mother who gave birth to a son and has seen him grow strong and vibrant from the milk of her body and the food and loving care given by his father and others; and as a sister who lost a cherished brother. There is nothing unusual in these experiences; most Wari' have lived some or all of them by the time they are half my age. But these personal events have influenced my interpretation of their ideas and practices, in that they made me listen more closely and take more seriously what Wari' say about their own experiences with illness and death and the part that bodies and caring for bodies and emotions play in family relations.

The way in which personal experiences converge with academic understandings became clearest when I returned to Brazil in 1991, after the death of my youngest brother. I arrived at Santo André to find the Wari' also in mourning for two recent deaths in their community. Wari' friends responded to my grief and drew me into theirs in ways that revealed fundamental differences in how our respective societies treat the dead and those who mourn for them. But we also discovered how much we shared in struggling with our private sorrows.

This is a book about cannibalism. It is also a book about issues that confront us all: our attachments to others and how we deal with our experiences of loss and our memories of those we have loved. The ways in which Wari' have dealt with the problem of bereavement and mourning, which used to involve consuming the corpses of their dead, may appear extreme to outsiders. Yet by looking at cannibalism from Wari' points of view, we are reminded that sometimes it is in the extremes of cultural practices that we most clearly see the dilemmas of social life, and the ways of caring and coping, that unite us as human beings.



“This is probably the most significant ethnography of cannibalism. Period. . . . I expect this book to become a classic, an ethnography of exceptional depth and clarity by an anthropologist whose sensitivity and insight are apparent on every page.”
Donald Pollock, Associate Professor of Anthropology, SUNY Buffalo


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