Among the Cannibals: Adventures on the Trail of Man’s Darkest Ritual by Paul Raffaele casts doubt on itself in the very beginning. Cannibalism is controversial in more ways than one. One controversy is over whether or not it exists at all. To Mr. Raffaele’s credit he acknowledges this controversy in the opening chapters of Among the Cannibals with a review of William Arens‘ book, The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy which makes the case that anthropologists have largely misdiagnosed cannibalism throughout history by relying on the unverified testimony of one group of people with an ax to grind against another. To Mr. Raffaele’s detriment, this had the effect of making me even more suspicious of his own claims that cannibalism was widely practiced until recently. I am not an authority on the subject by any means, so I’ll leave this question here. I will say that I am now very interested in reading Mr. Arens‘ book.
Among the Cannibals is a highly readable account of Mr. Raffaele’s travels to five locales throughout the world where cannibalism was recently or is still practiced. The story can’t help but be a bit grisly; however, with one exception, it’s surprisingly easy to take overall. Mr. Raffaele presents a frank account that reads, at times, like a boy’s adventure book, but he’s not nearly as gross as some readers might expect with such a subject.
He starts with what is probably one of the last, hopefully one of the last, cannibal tribes in New Guinea, the Korowai. His account of their culture and how it has faced contact with the modern world is fascinating reading. According to Mr. Raffaele, the Korowai have a long tradition of cannibalism connected to their belief that evil spirits that inhabit humans are the cause of other humans deaths. Before one person dies from illness he points out who has become possessed by an evil spirit. That person is then captured, ritually executed and eaten. The Korowai are one of the last remaining stone age tribes on earth and have much to offer besides cannibalism, their tree house dwellings are something to see, and Mr. Raffaele does take the time to paint a fairly full picture of their culture. It’s likely that this culture, for better or worse, will not survive into the next generation, it may already have basically vanished by now, because the temptations of modern living are very difficult for anyone, let alone the young, to resist.
Once he leaves New Guinea, Mr. Raffaele heads to the city of Benares along the Ganges River in India where he finds an unusual cult of Hindu’s, Aghoris, who believe that the eating of human flesh, among other unpleasant actions, actually makes them more holy and brings them closer to achieving moksha, or release from the cycle of reincarnation. Mr. Raffaele interviews several Aghori practitioners who are an interesting group, but not one I would invite over to dinner.
After a visit to Tonga in the South Pacific Mr. Raffaele heads to Uganda where he talks with several former child soldiers who were forced to practice cannibalism by the rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. I was a bit bothered by the inclusion of this section in the book. I can see the argument in favor of including it–cannibalism was widely used by the Lord’s Resistance Army as a means to subjugate and terrorize their enemies much like it was once done by the Tongans, the Aztecs, who end the book, and by other groups through history. But the overall tone of Among the Cannibals is that of an armchair adventure which is uncomfortable alongside a truly tragic story like that of the child soldiers of Africa. Should this story follow several chapters about Tonga with its bad hotels and enormous banquets? With the other sections one could argue that cannibalism was a part of the culture at one time, something that need not be regarded as monstrous in that context. I’m not saying you could make a successful argument, but you could try. The leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army act outside of their culture; they are criminals who should not be considered as anything more than the psychopathic murderers Mr. Raffaele otherwise avoids in Among the Cannibals.
I first published this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009. I’m still in the process of moving my old reviews over to this new blog. I recall reading and enjoying Among the Cannibals, though I never did read the Arens book. I read Among the Cannibals as part of the Dewey Decimal Challenge. I don’t know if this one is still going somewhere, but it was a really fun challenge. The idea was to read one book from every century in the Dewey Decimal System, which most public libraries in the U.S. still use. This one was from the 300’s. It was fun to just wonder down that particular aisle in the library, looking for a book. How often do we really do that, just wonder a particular aisle looking for something that strikes us as interesting?