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Book Review 233: Cannibalism, Headhunting and Human Sacrifice

May 4, 2012 - Harry Eagar
CANNIBALISM, HEADHUNTING AND HUMAN SACRIFICE IN NORTH AMERICA: A History Forgotten, by George Franklin Feldman. 249 pages, illustrated. Alan C. Hood paperback, $20

Considering all the cannibalism and human sacrifice in Mesoamerica, it is odd that a notion could ever arise that these things were unknown north of the Rio Grande. Yet it has, and is of a piece with the idea that the Indians had to learn scalping from the Europeans or that they fought for ritualistic reasons (counting coup) rather than to kill.

This nonsense is widespread and is taught in the schools, so anytime a reasoned counterattack on nonsense comes along, it is welcome. G.F. Feldman's “Cannibals and Headhunting” is both reasoned and humane and unsparing of anyone.

The practices of the Euro-Americans were no better, if only occasionally cannibalistic; but have been even more deeply submerged than the brutality of the Indians. If you go, for example, to Plimouth Plantation, a tourist attraction where the guides mimic actual settlers (using old records) to the extent of pretending never to have heard of, say, electricity, it might seem obsessively authentic. But true authenticity would require rotting Indian heads on poles at the gates, and these are lacking.

Not all Indians were cannibals and headhunters, but virtually all were raiders and slavecatchers, and they fought – or, for preference, ambushed – with the savagery that accompanied precivilized warfare everywhere. (The book does not cover Hawaii, but the same phony claims about peaceful Hawaiians are made at, eg, the University of Hawaii.)

Feldman describes about a dozen examples, from Florida (Calusa) to California (Yuki), Michigan (Ojibway) to the Four Corners (Basketmakers). The main virtue of the book is that he quotes at length from the early accounts of warfare, torture and mayhem, judiciously evaluating how trustworthy each is.

The “Jesuit Relations,” for example, are highly reliable for cannibalism among the Iroquois.

eldman acknowledges the leading figure among the deniers, the anthropologist William Arens (“The Man-eating Myth”), but not by name and not very thoroughly. He dismisses Arens's book in a sentence.

Rightly so, too, as in recent years tests of myoglobin in Indian coprolites in Colorado prove that feces were dropped by the person who had just eaten the corpses whose bones were found next to it.

Feldman tells of touring Four Corners sites with a tourist group, where he pointed out a rock carving of a head trophy, complete with carrying handles.

Oh, no, a woman in the group told him, the Indians didn't hunt heads. Later, he says, the woman went to the trouble to email him and report that she had consulted a professor who assured her she was right.

She was wrong. Feldman's book sets out to debunk “sanitized history, a bane of modern education.” He's only wrong in thinking that sanitized history is only modern, but he does a good job of correcting the liars.


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