Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia





  [This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[To Europeans of the early Modern period, nothing was more shocking than reports of cannibalism among Amerindians. More than anything else, these reports justified the tag of " savages " that Europeans used to describe North American natives and compelled Europeans to "civilize" them, to teach them "proper" ways and beliefs. Few were like Montaigne who was able to see the foibles in his own culture and, therefore, to judge in a more benign way the culture of others. The text below makes an attempt to put the issue of cannibalism into proper perspective and contains an interesting discussion of the subject. Please complete the examination of this issue by reading the article on cannibalism at the Wikipedia Encyclopedia and the articles in the National Review by John Miller and Martin Gardner in the Skeptical Inquirer .]



In one form or another cannibalism has been practised among probably all peoples at some period of their tribal life. In America there are numerous recorded references to its occurrence within historic times among the Brazilians, Carib of northern South America , the Aztec and other Mexican tribes, and among many of the Indians N. of Mexico. The word itself, now more commonly used than the older term anthropophagy, is derived from Carib through Spanish corruption. Restricting treatment of the subject to the tribes N. of Mexico, many evidences of cannibalism in some form are found - from the ingestion, perhaps obligatory, of small quantities of human flesh, blood, brain, or marrow, as a matter of ceremony, to the consumption of such parts for food under stress of hunger, or even as a matter of taste. Among the tribes which practised it, in one or another of these forms, may be mentioned the Montagnais, and some of the tribes of Maine; the Algonkin, Armouchiquois, Micmac, and Iroquois; farther w. the Assiniboin, Cree, Foxes, Miami, Ottawa, Chippewa, Illinois, Kickapoo, Sioux, and Winnebago; in the S. the people who built the mounds in Florida, and the Tonkawa, Attacapa, Karankawa, Kiowa, Caddo, and Comanche (?); in the N. W. and W, portions of the continent, the Thlingchadinneh and other Athapascan tribes, the Tlingit, Heiltsuk, Kwakiutl, Tsimshian, Nootka, Siksika, some of the Californian tribes, and the Ute. There is also a tradition of the practice among the Hopi, and allusions to the custom among other tribes of Arizona and New Mexico . The Mohawk, and the Attacapa, Tonkawa, and other Texas tribes were known to their neighbours as "man-eaters."


Taking all the evidence into consideration, it appears that cannibalism N. of the Mexican boundary existed in two chief forms. One of these was accidental, from necessity as a result of famine, and has been witnessed among the Huron, Micmac, Chippewa, Etchareottine, and others. In most of such instances recourse was had to the bodies of those who had recently died, but cases are recorded in which individuals were killed to satisfy hunger. The second and prevalent form of cannibalism was a part of war custom and was based principally on the belief that bravery and other desirable qualities of an enemy would pass, through actual ingestion of a part of his body, into that of the consumer. Such qualities were supposed to have their special seat in the heart, hence this organ was chiefly sought, though blood, brain, marrow, and flesh were in many instances also swallowed. The parts were eaten either raw or cooked. The heart belonged usually to the warriors, but other parts were occasionally consumed by boys or even by women and children. In some cases a small portion of the heart or of some other part of an enemy might be eaten in order to free the eater from some tabu (Grinnell). The idea of eating any other human being than a brave enemy was to most Indians repulsive. One of the means of torture among the Indians of Canada and New York was the forcing of a prisoner to swallow pieces of his own flesh.


Among the Iroquois, according to one of the Jesuit fathers, the eating of captives was considered a religious duty. Among the Heiltsuk, and recently among the Taimshian and Kwalciutl, cannibalism formed a part of one of their ceremonies. Several instances are recorded in which cannibalism was indulged in by individuals while in a frenzied state. Finally, it seems that among a few tribes, as the Tonkawa, Iroquois, and others, man-eating, though still with captives as the victims, was practised on a larger scale, and with the acquired taste for human flesh as one, if not the chief, incentive; yet the Tonkawa, as well as some men long associated with them, declared that the eating of human flesh by them was only ceremonial.


Indian mythology and beliefs are replete with references to man-eating, giants, monsters, and deities, which point to the possibility that anthropophagy in some form was a practice with which the aborigines have long been acquainted.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 77-78.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College