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Among the Cannibals: Adventures on the Trail of Man's Darkest Ritual

Among the Cannibals: Adventures on the Trail of Man's Darkest Ritual - Paul Raffaele I was of two very different minds about this book.

Australian Paul Raffaele is a feature writer for Smithsonian. He has covered many parts of the globe in his work for that venerable institution. And he travels far for this work, looking into that darkest of human activities. He investigates special meat-eaters in New Guinea, India, Tonga, ancient Mexico, and Africa.

The book offers interesting, surprising, and very disturbing information about a practice most of us (certainly me) thought had vanished from human behavior. The reasons for chowing down on such forbidden fruit vary. High on the list is to degrade and strike fear into one’s enemies. Another is to honor close relations. Some even consider eating human flesh a form of religiousity. The Korowai people of New Guinea justify their practices by maintaining that victims had already been killed by evil spirits and it was only the evil spirits that had taken over the body that was being devoured. The practice is supposedly a thing of the past in New Guinea, but I would not like to place too high a wager on that. Raffaele’s looks at the practice in Tonga and Aztec Mexico are more firmly planted in the past. Unfortunately, there are still people-eaters today. A small Hindu sect considers it part of their religious obligation to partake. Raffaele reports some particularly unnerving things about those folks, at least on par with anthropophagy. But there is worse to come. His report on the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army of northern Uganda takes the eating of human flesh to whole new level of depravity, a true heart of darkness. This information is the stuff of nightmares. Very disturbing.

I have a major gripe with the book. The cover is sprightly. It shows a hand reaching up out of a large cooking pot writing the book title. Lower down on the page is an icon that repeats inside as a section divider, a skull and crossbones in which the crossbones have been replaced with a knife and fork. One might get the impression that the information contained within would fulfill the silly graphics. We know that even such darkness can produce smiles. Sweeney Todd, for example, probably the only Broadway musical to have cannibalism as a central focus, and my personal favorite all-time Broadway show, was rather dark, but still maintained a significant level of humor.

Todd: What is that?
Lovett: It’s Priest. Have a little priest.
Todd: Is it really good?
Lovett: Sir, It’s too good at least.
And of course it don’t commit sins of the flesh
So it’s pretty fresh
Todd: Awful lot of fat
Lovett: Only where it sat
Todd: Haven’t you got poet or something like that?
Lovett: No you see the trouble with poet is how do you know it’s deceased. Stick to priest.

And so on…

The light touch promised by the cover art for this book does not deliver as promised. There is nothing at all amusing about children living today who are forced to eat human flesh under pain of death. In that way the book offers a bait and switch, promising a light touch, but delivering a deep gouge.

I also found the author at times personally off-putting. While in Tonga, he felt it necessary to comment on his translator’s physical attributes in a way that came across as salacious.
Waiting outside and holding aloft my name printed in marker pen on a pad is a round-faced, bright-eyed girl who looks to be in her early twenties. She is clad in a Congo-style ankle-nudging cotton dress that fits tightly about her neatly rounded thighs, and a short-sleeved top printed with a spray of red orchids that clings to her firm high breasts. She has woven her hair in to strands festooned with colored beads. Unlike most of the women at the airport who are laden with fat and boasting the enormous bottoms that most African men are said to lust for, she is sleek and silky.
Either his editor was not doing a good job, or the author exercised an ill-advised veto.

Raffaele does not come across as a particularly deep thinker and this is not a scholarly investigation of a very dark side of humanity. There is only passing mention of the Catholic sacrament of Communion, in which practicing Catholics consume the body and blood of Christ. There is even less on the sundry cannibalistic psychopaths who have come to public notice.

Among the Cannibals definitely offers new and intriguing information. BE forewarned that you will need a strong stomach to get through it all. But, because it was so much not what was expected, it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.