|Saturno devorando a su hijo - Francisco de Goya(1819-1823)|
Dark night in the mountains and no drums beating. No flute music like birdsong from the forest above the village — the men controlled the flutes and this was women’s business, secret and delicious, sweet revenge. In pity and mourning but also in eagerness the dead woman’s female relatives carried her cold, naked body down to her sweet-potato garden bordered with flowers. They would not abandon her to rot in the ground. Sixty or more women with their babies and small children gathered around, gathered wood, lit cooking fires that caught the light in their eyes and shone on their greased dark skins. The dead woman’s daughter and the wife of her adopted son took up knives of split bamboo, their silicate skin sharp as glass. They began to cut the body for the feast.
By the time Dutch, German and English ships began to anchor at the mouths of the island’s great tidal rivers, in the mid-nineteenth century, it was common knowledge among Europeans that the savages of New Guinea were cannibals. But there are cannibals and cannibals: warriors who eat their enemies, hating them, but also relatives who eat their kin in a mortuary feast of love. Fore women ate their kin. “Their bellies are their cemeteries,” one observer remarks. “I eat you” was a Fore greeting.
Down in the garden in the flaring firelight, the dead woman’s daughters ringed her wrists and ankles, sawed through the tough cartilage, disjointed the bones and passed the wrinkled dark hands and splayed feet to her brother’s wife and the wife of her sister’s son. Slitting the skin off the arms and legs, the daughters stripped out muscle, distributing it in dripping chunks to kin and friends among the eager crowd of women. They opened the woman’s chest and slack belly and the smell of death wafted among the sweet-potato vines. Out came the heavy purple liver, the small green sac of the gallbladder cut carefully away from the underside and its bitterness discarded. Out came the dark red heart gory with clotting blood. Out came the looping coils of intestines, dully shining. Even the feces would be eaten, mixed with edible ferns and cooked in banana leaves.
The crowd of women and children got busy at collecting and chopping as the body of the dead woman diminished. (Her name survives as a discreet abbreviation in a medical thesis: Tom. Tomasa?) One of the daughters doing the butchering cut around the neck, severed the larynx and esophagus, sawed through the cartilage connecting the vertebrae, disjointed the spine and lifted the head aside. The other daughter skinned back the scalp skillfully, took up a stone ax, cracked the skull and scooped the soft pink mass of brain into a bamboo cooking tube. Their cousins, the North Fore, cooked bodies whole with vegetables in steam pits lined with hot stones, but the South Fore preferred mincing the flesh of the dead and steaming it with salt, ginger and leafy vegetables in bamboo tubes laid onto cooking fires. They ate every part of the body, even the bones, which they charred at the open fires to soften them before crumbling them into the tubes. The dead woman’s brother’s wife received the vulva as her special portion. If the dead had been a man, his penis, a delicacy, would have gone to his wife.
…the isolated highlanders…wore beaded and feathered headdresses, nose bones, necklaces of pig tusks and aprons of woven bark or grass and smeared their bodies with fire char and rancid pig fat against the insects and the cold. Men carried stone axes or longbows. Some of them affected phallocarps instead of aprons — braggadocio penis sheaths made of great curving hornbill beaks or ornate sea shells traded up from the unknown coast. Women wore grass skirts and went bare-breasted. They cut off finger joints in mourning, wore mourning necklaces of the dried hands of lost babies, carried a husband’s rotting head in a woven bag, a bilum, on their backs for months after his loss, suffering the stink.
Eating the dead was not a primordial Fore custom. It had started within the lifetime of the oldest grandmothers among them, at the turn of the century or not long before. They learned it from their neighbors to the north. It spread to a North Fore village and word got around. “This is sweet,” an anthropologist reports the Fore women saying when they first tasted human flesh. “What is the matter with us, are we mad? Here is good food and we have neglected to eat it. In future we shall always eat the dead, men, women, and children. Why should we throw away good meat? It is not right!” The meat was sweet and so was the revenge the women took thereby against the men who claimed the best parts of pig — pigs the women had sometimes suckled at their own breasts. They did not eat lepers or those who died of diarrhea, but the flesh of women killed by sorcery they considered clean. Dying Fore asked to be eaten and assigned their body parts to their favorites in advance.
The Fore admitted their cannibalism freely to the first Europeans who questioned them, though they gave it up when missionaries and Australian police patrols pressed them to do so in the late 1950s — Sputnik was beeping overhead — and deny it today. Whatever its connection with ritual, cannibalism in New Guinea was also a significant source of protein, two American anthropologists have calculated: “A local New Guinea group of one hundred people (forty-six of whom are adults) which obtains and eats some five to ten adult victims per year would get as much meat from eating people as it does from eating pork.”
The women at their mortuary feast butchered and cooked down in the garden, but they ate in private, carrying the steaming bamboo tubes back to their separate women’s houses, sharing the feast with their children. A young American doctor who came a few years later to live and work among them thought their eating habits almost as surreptitious as the toilet habits of Westerners. It wasn’t that they were ashamed of eating the dead — they were just as surreptitious with pig. Eating meat was orgiastic. The men said that the women were insatiable, wild, like the forest. When the men pulled the wild grass at the edge of the forest they said it was women’s pubic hair. Marriage barely tamed them.
Lately, more and more Fore women had been dying of sorcery, which only men practiced, a fatal bewitchment they called kuru. Kuru meant shivering — with cold or with fear — and by 1950 it was claiming women in every Fore village. The Fore men earned a fearsome reputation across the highlands as sorcerers. Once the shivers of kuru began, the bewitchment progressed inexorably to death. Women bewitched with kuru staggered to walk, walked with a stick and then could no longer walk at all. Before losing the ability to swallow they got fat and the flesh of those who died early of pneumonia was rich meat.
- From Deadly Feasts: The "Prion" Controversy and the Public's Health
by Richard Rhodes. Originally found on the beautiful Ellamorte
by Richard Rhodes. Originally found on the beautiful Ellamorte
|The Last Cannibal Supper - Greg Semu, 2010.|
The dying person would normally express their wishes as to how their body was to be disposed of; otherwise the family would decide. In the kuru-affected region, all methods of disposal of the body involved being eaten. If the body was buried it was eaten by worms; if it was placed on a platform it was eaten by maggots; the Fore believed it was much better that the body was eaten by people who loved the deceased than by worms and insects. By eating the dead, they were able to show their love and to express their grief. The ritual allowed the aona and yesegi to be recycled within the family and for the loved ones to receive blessings from the ama, which would strengthen their aona. The eating removed doubts about family or community loyalties as the kwela would attack any woman who ate whose family had been involved in the death of the deceased. By the eating of the body, the danger of the kwela during the period of what would have been decomposition was averted as the kwela was confined inside the anagra who ate the body, thus protecting the family. By performing the obsequies correctly, the relatives ensured that the souls of the deceased departed to kwelanandamundi and the deceased was reborn as an ancestor.
In the morning the women took any remaining meat, the bones and stones from a river bed to the fireplace that had been used the previous day to cook the body. They then performed an obsequy called ikwaya ana during which the rest of the body was eaten. The bones were dried by the fire so that they broke easily without sharp edges. Concave stones were placed on the ground containing a breadfruit leaf and a wild grass called igagi; the bones were placed on this with more igagi on the top and then crushed with another stone. This technique was used to ensure that none of the bone was lost during the process as it was important that the whole body was consumed. Once crushed, the bones and grass were placed in bamboo tubes, cooked and eaten. Finally, all the utensils used over the preceding 2 days were burnt on the fire. Sometimes the ashes from the bamboo utensils were mixed with wild green vegetables and eaten to ensure that the whole body was consumed. The exceptions were the jaw bone and collar bones, which were normally kept and worn by women in memory of the deceased and by men as a portal to request help from the ama of the deceased. In the evening, the women returned to the widow's house and continued to eat the body until it was all consumed.
- From Mortuary rites of the South Fore and kuru
Much later, Alpers, who had always felt discomforted by the term cannibalism — “you don’t like to call your friends cannibals” — would invent a new term for the Fore ritual: “transumption”. It borrowed from the lexicon of Catholic doctrine around the Eucharistic transubstantiation of bread into the body and blood of Christ. He defined the Fore custom as “incorporation of the body of the dead person into the bodies of living relatives, thus helping to free the spirit of the dead”. It was a final act of love by the grief-stricken. Yes, as anthropologists had insisted, there was a gastronomic element: people had given ready testimony that humans were delicious, especially their brains. But this was a perk, not a driver, of the practice, Alpers insisted, in papers citing the secrets shared with him and others over decades.
- From The Last Laughing Death by Jo Chandler