Myth-Making in Cannibalistic Portrayals of Native Americans

Keywords: Cannibalism, Native Americans, Hans Staden, Theodor de Bry, William Arens

In sixteenth-century prints, Native Americans were depicted in scenes of cannibalism with hanging body parts or in the act of cooking human flesh. Europeans were already preconditioned to associate the foreign Other with man-eaters when exploration shifted to the New World. Native Americans became exemplars of what was foreign and Other during the sixteenth century. The namesake ‘cannibal’ that derived from the local inhabitants entrenched the association between people of the New World and acts of man-eating. Before contact with the natives, a community of cannibals was primarily relegated to myth and were previously known as anthropophagi (Vaughan 1992, p. 15; Moffitt and Sebastián 1996, p. 115).

Theodor de Bry, ‘Cannibalism in Brazil in 1557 (as described by Hans Staden)’, illustrated in Theodor de Bry, Americae tertia pars: memorabile provinciæ Brasiliæ historiam contines, 1592, p.178

Demonstrated in a series of prints created by Theodor de Bry (1528-1598), cannibalistic scenes became a common motif of Native Americans during the sixteenth century, based upon stories told by explorers such as the recollections by Hans Staden from Hesse (c. 1525-1579), who claimed to have spent nine months captured in Brazil by cannibals who ate his fellow companions (Staden 2008, p. 10). He described them as ‘wild, naked, and savage man-munching people’ (Staden 2008, p. 5). In one print, Native Americans are depicted chewing on distinctly human body parts, while the rest of the flesh roasts above a fire. However, close contact did not necessarily mean the stories and accompanying images were more accurate. Staden’s Warhaftige Historia or ‘True History’ (1557) had a ghostwriter who may have taken creative liberties with certain aspects of the tale (Neuber 2007, p. 741). The images in Staden’s Frankfurt edition were also originally designed for Varthema’s 1515 Augsburg edition portraying travels in Africa and Asia (Koudounaris 2004, p. 43).

Such imagery in both textual and visual sources were inspired by European practices of cooking over a fire or hanging salted meat, something that French explorer, Jean de Léry (1536-1613) dismissed as not a practice of Native Americans (specifically the Tupinambá peoples of the Brazilian coast) (Léry 1990, p. 126). The natives portrayed by de Bray did not actually grill over a raging fire, which further gives the impression of linking the iconography of hellfire to cannibalism (Mason 1990, p. 52). The grill resembles depictions of the martyred St. Lawrence (c.225-258) who died by being grilled alive and thus underscores their opposition to Christianity. The natives portrayed by de Bry as grilling over a raging fire was therefore a European construction. Andrew Warnes argued that it was an attempt by Europeans to portray the Native Americans as savage in his monograph Savage Barbeque (Warnes 2010, pp. 3, 6-7).

Rather than reflecting the reality of people found in America, the motif of man-eating foreigners recycled old stereotypes and folklore of cannibalistic outgroups to portray the natives as sub-human despite first-hand contact. For example, Peter Martyr’s (1457-1526) Oceani decas (‘Decade of the Ocean,’) (1511) stated:

They are accustomed to castrating male prisoners just as we do with rams, capons and bulls so they become fatter for slaying. The old men, however, they directly consign to slaughter. They devour the intestines, together with the outer limbs, as a fresh delicacy. […] They sustain the female prisoners for the purpose of breeding as we keep hens for eggs, but the old women they set to toil and servitude.

(Cited in Davies 2016, pp. 91-92).

This passage was similarly reproduced by Landsknecht (German soldier), Ulrich Schmidel (1510-1579) when referring to the people of Carios in the New World (Schmidel 2010, p. 20). Therefore, these descriptions of cannibalism were not based on empirical evidence but a set idea of people of the New World. Such reiteration of myth was likely due to the desire to sell their wonderous adventures and gave the public what they expected. In consequence, these motifs made all foreign people appear interchangeable to the Western viewer and became composites of what was foreign and ‘Other.’ The sensationalised stories brought back by travel writers reinforced conceptions of otherness and marginalised them as dangerous external out-groups.

Dominican missionary, Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566), treatise In Defense of the Indians (1552-3), which reinforced commonalities such as law, religion, and customs was written in response to Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1494-1573) who called for the enslavement of Native Americans because of their cannibalism and ignorance of Christianity (Las Casas 1992, pp. 42, 54; Bartelson 2009, pp. 78, 79). Sepúlveda argued: ‘they were making war continuously and ferociously against each other with such rage that they considered their victory worthless if they did not satisfy their monstrous hunger with the flesh of their enemies (Sepúlveda, ‘Apologia del libro de las Justas causas de la guerra’, cited in Hanke 1974, p. 85). Associating Native Americans with cannibalism also served early conquistadores purposes as Queen Isabella wrote in a 1503 letter commanding that the natives not be treated cruelly unless they were cannibals who could be enslaved (cited in Williams 1963, pp. 62-3). Therefore, it would have not only benefitted portraying Native Americans as barbaric cannibals, but depicting them as animalistic as possible. This would have rendered them natural slaves according to Aristotle (Aristotle 1984, p. 36 (Book 1, chapters 2, 1252bl)). As a consequence, more and more regions and islands in South America and the Caribbean were regarded as the land of the cannibal. The image of the Native American also changed from their original portrayal as timid, recalling the discovery of innocent peoples before the Fall in Earthly Paradise to savage cannibals (See Moffitt and Sebastián 1996, pp. 57-103).

It is likely that publishers were motivated by reaffirming stereotypes of barbarous people in distant lands to sell fantastical stories to a buying audience. Spain did not have the same visual tradition as Germans who colonised Venezuela in 1528. This could be the result of Spain’s continued contact with the Americas, where Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, and Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) took hundreds of captured natives with them back to Spain (Vaughan 1992, p. 12; Doggett 1992, p. 38; Honour 1975, pp. 60). On the other hand, natives remained an exotic cultural symbol in Germany where distance often breeds fear as well as fascination of the Other.

Myth-Making of a Cannibal

Initially argued by William Arens and subsequently by Anthony Pagden and Gananath Obeyesekere was the idea that the cannibalistic ‘savage’ had little basis in reality (Arens, 1979, pp. 9, 22-6; Obeyesekere, 2005, pp. 1-2, 15; Pagden, 1986, p. 83). Rather, cannibalism was primarily a preoccupation of early modern Europeans, who had varying political and religious motivations of their own to portray the Other as savages. For example, Arens stated that cannibal myth-making in relation to colonisation: ‘Western culture has congratulated itself for putting a stop to this cultural excess through colonial “pacification” and introducing Christianity to once-benighted natives (Arens 1998, p. 41).’ Arens’ arguments have especially been the subject of misrepresentation. Michael Palencia-Roth, for example, described Arens as the ‘most strident of these anticannibalists,’ and claimed that Arens denied any form of acts of cannibalism existing at any time or place (Palencia-Roth 1993, p. 22). However, Arens and company did not refute the existence of acts of cannibalism. They challenged the traditional idea of cannibalism as a daily custom of killing and eating people as part of their preferred diet (Arens 1979, pp. 22-6, 9; Arens 1998, p. 41; Obeyesekere 2005, pp. 1-2, 15). In this way, there is a difference between acts of cannibalism and defining a culture as cannibals, which was how Native Americans were portrayed.

Arens’ prime objection to cannibalistic myth-making was the practice of relying on second-hand accounts. If cannibalism was as rampant as claimed, then it should have been observable (Arens 1998, p. 42). One example of relying on second-hand accounts was by Frank Lestringant, a Professor of Renaissance Literature, who relied primarily on the writings of French nobles such as Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). Montaigne also based his notable essay On Cannibals primarily on second-hand accounts. Lestringant also credited Christopher Columbus with the discovery of the cannibal in the New World who admittedly never witnessed acts of cannibalism himself (Lestringant 1997, p. 15). Columbus and his crew claimed they were told stories from the indigenous population (the Arawaks) of cannibalistic dog-faced people, located on islands he did not step foot upon (Christopher Columbus 1991, p. 177). The island named Cariba (as in the Caribbean) by the locals is thought to have been confused by Columbus with the Latin canis (‘dog’) and therefore associated it with the cynocephali. This is because Columbus believed he had arrived in India, thus associating the New World with the monstrous cynocephali that he had read about in the works of Marco Polo (1254-1324) and John Mandeville, which Columbus’ exploration and hopes to discover the wealth of Asia were based upon (White 1991, p. 63; Phillips and Phillips 1992, p. 157). Columbus believed that the Americas inhabited the dog-headed race he read about because that is what he expected to find.

Arens evaluated the unreliability of alleged first-hand accounts, including those by Columbus and Hans Staden (Arens 1979, pp. 22-26, 28). They had both unconvincingly claimed to have been able to understand the language of the natives from first contact. This included Staden’s claim that the natives expressed a desire to eat him despite being able to escape unscathed nine months later (Staden 2008, p. 64). Even today, from a Euro-centric perspective, people are more likely to believe that indigenous populations were cannibals, rather than groups such as European Jews and women accused of witchcraft. Personal testimony or first-hand empirical observation of acts of cannibalism by modern anthropologists does exist, particularly in acts of rituals, which is not being dismissed here (Poole 1983, pp. 11, 15-17). Since acts of cannibalism in certain circumstances can occur today, there is no reason to doubt that it could also happen during the early modern period. However, the staunch objections to Arens’s theory on cannibalism fail to appreciate the myth-making and obsession early modern Europeans had with the idea of the cannibal both at home and abroad that they would see them even when they did not exist (For a further break-down of the controversy springing from Arens see Salmon 1996, pp. 129-45). Acts of cannibalism does not discount the mythologising or exaggeration of these acts.


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