Once Were Cannibals; August 2001; Scientific American Magazine; by Tim D. White; 8 Page(s)
It can shock, disgust and fascinate in equal measure, whether through tales of starved pioneers and airplane crash survivors eating the deceased among them or accounts of rituals in Papua New Guinea. It is the stuff of headlines and horror films, drawing people in and mesmerizing them despite their aversion. Cannibalism represents the ultimate taboo for many in Western societies-something to relegate to other cultures, other times, other places. Yet the understanding of cannibalism derived from the past few centuries of anthropological investigation has been too unclear and incomplete to allow either a categorical rejection of the practice or a fuller appreciation of when, where and why it might have taken place.
New scientific evidence is now bringing to light the truth about cannibalism. It has become obvious that long before the invention of metals, before Egypt's pyramids were built, before the origins of agriculture, before the explosion of Upper Paleolithic cave art, cannibalism could be found among many different peoples-as well as among many of our ancestors. Broken and scattered human bones, in some cases thousands of them, have been discovered from the prehistoric pueblos of the American Southwest to the islands of the Pacific. The osteologists and archaeologists studying these ancient occurrences are using increasingly sophisticated analytical tools and methods. In the past several years, the results of their studies have finally provided convincing evidence of prehistoric cannibalism.