When we think of our irreconcilable differences, we could do worse than consider the issue of cannibalism. This taboo practice seems like a perfect example of the ways in which people are separated by cultural gulfs. But, as it turns out, cannibalism and human sacrifice are a human inheritance, practiced by different people around the world–just not at the same times.
When the Spaniards landed in the New World in the early decades of the sixteenth century, they were soon confronted with the spectacle of human sacrifice and cannibalism. If one believes the accounts of conquistadores, such as Bernal Diaz and others, this was widespread. Diaz told of temples smeared with blood, reeking of murder, of rituals that involved the opening of a prisoner’s chest and the ripping out of his heart.
It is hard not to share the Spaniards’ revulsion at what must have been truly shocking scenes. In reality, however, the cannibalism issue is more complex. Diaz himself seemed unawares of the irony when, having described such shocking scenes, he goes on to describe how the Spaniards nonchalantly cut the fat off a dead indian to use in kindling their fires. Some concern for human dignity!
Aberrant as cannibalism may have appeared, human sacrifice and cannibalism have been constants in human history—not for everyone at all times, but for some at some times. “One particular form of eating—that of cannibalism—is a distinctive, even a defining feature of humanity.” Until the 1960s the Gimi women of Papua New Guinea ate their dead men, for cultural, not sustenance reasons, not wanting to “leave them to rot.” Similarly, the Indian sages who met Alexander the Great (and berated him for being a nuisance) told him that they ate their dead out of respect, to honor them, instead of burying or burning. Others eat humans to benefit from the attributes of the dead individuals, to absorb their power or virtue, just as one eats spinach to get the iron. This “aligns cannibals with their real modern counterparts: those who follow particular diets in pursuit of self-improvement.” “They say,” reported Ibn Battuta, of fourteenth century African cannibals, “that eating a white man is harmful because he is unripe.”
In the Spanish case, not only do modern historians generally not believe Bernal Diaz and his colleagues completely, understanding the propagandistic nature of much conquistador writing, but when compared with medieval and early modern European culture, the bloodthirstiness of the Aztecs becomes a question of scale not type. Europeans had been performing public executions, beheadings, hangings and quarterings for centuries by the time they reached the New World. When the Spaniards arrived, they forgot their own gory habits and expressed utter disgust at those of the Aztecs’. Future generations of European imperialists worldwide also forgot their bloody past, and used native “barbarism” as an excuse for colonizing indigenous peoples everywhere, even while, by the late nineteenth-century, they were exterminating them with the Maxim gun.
Furthermore, recent historical research has shed light on how what had been a Mesoamerican practice of bloodletting and ritual human sacrifice for perhaps millennia, under the Aztecs—just one competing ethnic and political group in the Valley of Mexico— in the fourteenth century, became a specific, political tactic to terrorize and conquer their enemies, and as such was “amped up” considerably. What the Spaniards witnessed, therefore, was not so much a part of deep, historical Mesoamerican or Mexican culture, but a contemporary aberration with specific political motives. The Aztecs had taken a regional cultural trait and made it their signature, wielding it to pursue regional dominance.