Letter: Eat your words on cannibalism, Marina Warner

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The Independent Online
Sir: Marina Warner's Reith lecture ('Cannibal tales', 24 February) was intended to be provocative, but she has strayed into territory which has betrayed her selectivity. She makes two pivotal statements: 'But empirical support for cannibalism as a routine form of sustenance has never been found.' And later: 'Cannibalism has taken place and has been - and is - very widely and deeply experienced. In the imagination.'

Captain Cook has never been accused of exaggeration. Indeed, he is credited as being one of the founders of the science of empirical observation. On arriving in New Zealand in 1769 he records:

In the afternoon some of the officers went on shore to amuse themselves when they saw the head and bowels of a youth, who had lately been killed, lying on the beach, and the heart stuck on a forked stick which was fixed to the prow of one of the largest canoes. One of the gentlemen picked off the head and brought it on board, where a piece of flesh was broiled and eaten by one of the natives, before all the officers and men.

Marina Warner talks about the Aboriginals and says that rumours of their manhunts are still repeated 'with no evidence whatsoever'. Daisy Bates, who lived with the Aborigines for 40 years, talks at length about their cannibal practices in her book The Passing of the Aborigines.

Finally, Ms Warner quotes Montaigne's 'On Cannibalism'. She neglects to include the following:

After having treated their prisoners well for a long time and given them all the ragales they can think of, he to whom the prisoner belongs invites a great assembly of friends. On this happy occasion, the prisoner having been tidily dispatched, they roast him and eat him amongst them, and send some chops to their absent friends.

Montaigne was in love with the idea of the Noble Savage, but he didn't think him any less noble just because he ate his enemies.

For people who have been brought up with a concept of 'education civilitrice', it is almost impossible to imagine that other people might have found the taste of human flesh, not only delicious but also full of eucharistic power. It is difficult for them to imagine that there arepeople who find their habits of eating pork or beef equally disgusting.

Yours sincerely,


London, W6