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  Cannibalism (derived from Canibales, the original old-Spanish name for the Caribs, a native people of the Caribbean) arouses a more extreme and instinctive response than almost any other human activity. To the people who ate other people—they seem, on available evidence to have been concentrated in the Southern hemisphere, in places as widely separate as Papua New Guinea, some parts of Polynesia, the Indonesian islands, southern Central Africa and Central America—it was probably a way of dealing with the Other: by eating other people, you took over their being, made them part of you. (Certainly economic necessity seems not to have been a compelling reason for the practice.) Cannibalism absorbed the strength of one\'s enemies; it was a way of simultaneously obliterating them from the world and celebrating their departure. In the cases of cannibalism widely reported in the West during the 1980s and 1990s, serial killers who were cannibals reported a similar kind of satisfaction: eating all or part of their victims was a form of possession, which some described in almost sexual terms.

Although in the abstract one might argue that eating human beings differs only in degree from eating any other animals, in practice cannibalism has been one of the longest and most widely-held of all taboos. Perhaps one reason is a kind of reverse of the Other theory: if we eat our Others, we are in a sense consuming part of our own selves. Extensions of this are the views in many religions that human beings are created in the image of God or the gods (so that consuming them will bring down supernatural wrath), or that the spirit is separated from the body at death (and therefore that eating the body will deprive the spirit of wholeness in the afterlife, and so bring its wrath down on the eater or the community). There is also a belief that dead people belong to other worlds, and that to consume them is to trespass where no living mortal is allowed. The rationale is complex, but the results are simple: almost every community, of almost every ‘advanced’ religious practice, has outlawed cannibalism.

Religion sanctions us to kill other people in war or by judicial execution, but once they are dead their bodies are to be disposed of with reverence—and for some reason (possibly displaced guilt) that reverence does not extend to eating them. The English author Barry Norman wrote a novel (End Product) about a future society in which one group of people (whites, as it happened) ‘farmed’ another group (blacks) for food, but took enormous care to remove their reasoning faculty (by lobotomy) soon after birth, so that they became a kind of sub-species, human-animal. It is a macabre premise, but focuses all the confused arguments about meat-eating in general and cannibalism in particular. For most people in the world, cannibalism has been a taboo for so long that it is no longer possible to explain it. Abhorring it seems not so much a willed act as part of our nature, part of what makes us human. (Other animals happily consume their own species, even their own offspring.) A corollary of this is that cannibals themselves are often regarded as in some way deficient, sub-human—a view which, however sympathetic, totally lacks logic. KMcL



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