The Skeleton in the Human Past

Among the least appetizing aspects of primitive warfare is cannibalism. Cannibalism implies the existence of warfare since the victims do not voluntarily place themselves on the menu.

Anthropologists and archaeologists have long resisted the idea that cannibalism took place in the peaceful past. In his 1979 book Man-EatingMyth, William Arens, an anthropologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, argued that there was no well attested case of cannibalism and that most reports of it were propaganda made by one society to establish its moral superiority to another. Christy G. Turner, an archaeologist at Arizona State University, met only disbelief when he first proposed that the cut, burned, and defleshed bones of 30 individuals at a site occupied by Anasazi Indians were the remains of an ancient cannibal feast. His critics attributed the cuts on such bones to scavenging animals, funerary practices, the roof falling in—anything but anthropophagy. Though some accounts of cannibalism may well have been fictive, Turner and Tim White of the University of California at Berkeley have now found cannibalized human remains at 25 sites in the American southwest. Turner believes these are the work of Anasazi Indians who dominated the area between AD 900 and 1700 and used cannibalism as an instrument of social control. Cannibalism has been reported from Central and South America, Fiji, New Zealand and Africa. The Aztecs made a state practice of sacrificing captives and their civilization has furnished a recipe for human stew. A common belief that accompanies ritual cannibalism is the notion that by eating particular parts of the victim, often a slain warrior, the consumer absorbs his strength or courage. The frequency of reports of cannibalism by societies in all regions of the world suggests, Keeley concludes, "that, while hardly the norm, ritual consumption of some part of enemy corpses was by no means rare in prestate warfare."

Could cannibalism in fact have been so widespread and so deeply embedded in human practice as to have left its signature in the human genome? This gruesome possibility has emerged from the work of English researchers trying to assess the likely extent of the outbreak of mad cow disease among Britons who had eaten tainted beef. Mad cow disease belongs to a group of brain-eroding pathologies caused by misshapen brain proteins known as prions. Contrary to the expectations of British agricultural officials, prions can cross species barriers; cow prions, which rot cows' brains, can also rot human brains if the cow's neural tissue is eaten.

Even more effective at rotting the human brain are human prions. People are at risk of exposure to human prions when they eat other people's brains. This was a regular practice among the Fore of New Guinea who, sometime around the year 1900, adopted the novel funerary practice of having women and children eat the brains of the dead. By about 1920, the first case of a brain-wasting disease they called kuru appeared. A very similar disease, called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or CJD, occurs at low incidence in many populations of the world. CJD is caused after a spontaneous mutation causes brain cells to make the misshapen form of the protein instead of the normal form. Kuru presumably started when the brain of a deceased Fore with a natural case of CJD was eaten by his relatives. Once kuru got a foothold in the Fore population, the disease progressed relentlessly until some villages became almost devoid of young adult women. The epidemic quickly subsided after Australian administrative authorities banned the Fore's mortuary feasts in the 1950s.

A research team led by Simon Mead of University College, London, recently looked at the genetics of Fore women aged over 50. All these survivors had attended many funeral feasts and presumably must have possessed some genetic protection against the disease. Mead's team analyzed the DNA of their prion protein gene and found that more than 75% had a distinctive genetic signature.^ Every person in Britain infected with mad cow disease, on the other hand, had the opposite genetic signature.^

Having identified this protective signature, Mead's team then analyzed other populations around the world. They found that every ethnic group they looked at possessed the signature with the exception of the Japanese, who had a protective signature of their own at a different site in the gene. Various genetic tests showed that the protective signature was too common to have arisen by chance, and must have been amplified through natural selection. Other tests suggested the signature was very ancient and was probably present in the human population before it dispersed from Africa. Under this scenario the Japanese presumably lost the signature through the process known as genetic drift, but developed a new one instead because it was so necessary.

So why has the British epidemic of mad cow disease proved not nearly so deadly in that nation of beef-eaters as was initially feared? It seems that Britons have been in part protected by their ancient cannibal heritage. That the British and other world populations have maintained the protective signature many generations after their last cannibal feast is an indication of how widespread cannibalism may have been in the ancestral human population and its worldwide descendants. The frequency of cannibalism in turn attests to the prevalence of warfare among the earliest human populations.

"There is an innate predisposition to manufacture the cultural apparatus of aggression, in a way that separates the conscious mind from the raw biological processes that the genes encode," writes the biologist Edward O. Wilson. "Culture gives a particular form to the aggression and sanctifies the uniformity of

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