Modern ideas of early cannibalism are entirely wrong; it was a part of the mores of early society. While cannibalism is traditionally horrible to modern civilization, it was a part of the social and religious structure of primitive society. Group interests dictated the practice of cannibalism. It grew up through the urge of necessity and persisted because of the slavery of superstition and ignorance. It was a social, economic, religious, and military custom.
Early man was a cannibal; he enjoyed human flesh, and therefore he offered it as a food gift to the spirits and his primitive gods. Since ghost spirits were merely modified men, and since food was man’s greatest need, then food must likewise be a spirit’s greatest need.
Cannibalism was once well-nigh universal among the evolving races. The Sangiks were all cannibalistic, but originally the Andonites were not, nor were the Nodites and Adamites; neither were the Andites until after they had become grossly admixed with the evolutionary races.
The taste for human flesh grows. Having been started through hunger, friendship, revenge, or religious ritual, the eating of human flesh goes on to habitual cannibalism. Man-eating has arisen through food scarcity, though this has seldom been the underlying reason. The Eskimos and early Andonites, however, seldom were cannibalistic except in times of famine. The red men, especially in Central America, were cannibals. It was once a general practice for primitive mothers to kill and eat their own children in order to renew the strength lost in childbearing, and in Queensland the first child is still frequently thus killed and devoured. In recent times cannibalism has been deliberately resorted to by many African tribes as a war measure, a sort of frightfulness with which to terrorize their neighbors.
Some cannibalism resulted from the degeneration of once superior stocks, but it was mostly prevalent among the evolutionary races. Man-eating came on at a time when men experienced intense and bitter emotions regarding their enemies. Eating human flesh became part of a solemn ceremony of revenge; it was believed that an enemy’s ghost could, in this way, be destroyed or fused with that of the eater. It was once a widespread belief that wizards attained their powers by eating human flesh.
Certain groups of man-eaters would consume only members of their own tribes, a pseudospiritual inbreeding which was supposed to accentuate tribal solidarity. But they also ate enemies for revenge with the idea of appropriating their strength. It was considered an honor to the soul of a friend or fellow tribesman if his body were eaten, while it was no more than just punishment to an enemy thus to devour him. The savage mind made no pretensions to being consistent.
Among some tribes aged parents would seek to be eaten by their children; among others it was customary to refrain from eating near relations; their bodies were sold or exchanged for those of strangers. There was considerable commerce in women and children who had been fattened for slaughter. When disease or war failed to control population, the surplus was unceremoniously eaten.
Cannibalism has been gradually disappearing because of the following influences:
1. It sometimes became a communal ceremony, the assumption of collective responsibility for inflicting the death penalty upon a fellow tribesman. The blood guilt ceases to be a crime when participated in by all, by society. The last of cannibalism in Asia was this eating of executed criminals.
2. It very early became a religious ritual, but the growth of ghost fear did not always operate to reduce man-eating.
3. Eventually it progressed to the point where only certain parts or organs of the body were eaten, those parts supposed to contain the soul or portions of the spirit. Blood drinking became common, and it was customary to mix the “edible” parts of the body with medicines.
4. It became limited to men; women were forbidden to eat human flesh.
5. It was next limited to the chiefs, priests, and shamans.
6. Then it became taboo among the higher tribes. The taboo on man-eating originated in Dalamatia and slowly spread over the world. The Nodites encouraged cremation as a means of combating cannibalism since it was once a common practice to dig up buried bodies and eat them.
7. Human sacrifice sounded the death knell of cannibalism. Human flesh having become the food of superior men, the chiefs, it was eventually reserved for the still more superior spirits; and thus the offering of human sacrifices effectively put a stop to cannibalism, except among the lowest tribes. When human sacrifice was fully established, man-eating became taboo; human flesh was food only for the gods; man could eat only a small ceremonial bit, a sacrament.
Finally animal substitutes came into general use for sacrificial purposes, and even among the more backward tribes dog-eating greatly reduced man-eating. The dog was the first domesticated animal and was held in high esteem both as such and as food.