The Good, the Bad, and the Cannibals

The cannibal hungrily carved muscle from the girl’s body; then he broke “Jane’s” skull open to scoop out brain matter. But it was neither in New Guinea nor in the Amazon jungle that her corpse was plundered; it happened in old Jamestowne, Virginia, just two miles from home.

"Jane's" skull

“Jane’s” skull

Her four hundred year-old remains have been on display at the Historic Jamestowne center since their discovery was announced, rather conveniently at the start of this year’s tourist season.  After the story broke I visited the center jostling with visitors eager to see the spectacle in a glass cabinet.  Old bones seldom attract much attention, except those of famous personages, but as a victim of cannibalism “Jane” has drawn more public curiosity than had she been just another victim of murder most foul. Suddenly the forgotten teenager has become a historical celebrity, like King Richard III whose skeleton was recently exhumed in the English Midlands.

I wonder why the consumption of human remains should attract so much more attention than the dire circumstances endured by people like “Jane” during their lives? And since modern society approves of dissecting cadavers for medical education and research, I am puzzled why we are so repulsed by eating them to save life? Perhaps I am straying into the treacherous territory of becoming an apologist for cannibalism, but sometimes the practice gets an unfair rap!

When “Jane” arrived in Jamestowne in 1609 after a perilous sea voyage from England she joined a pioneer colony, then numbering only a few hundred souls. The following winter was so hard it was remembered as the “Starving Times”. With bad weather preventing ships from resupplying the colony, ignorance about indigenous food, and deteriorating relations with the Indians, the inhabitants of Jamestowne fort starved. Only a quarter survived to the following summer. It is hard for us who have never been in wont of food to imagine what it feels like to starve, or to understand how it undermines character. After the colonists had supped their last meat and vegetables, they were so desperate that they began eating boot leather and some fell ravenously on deceased neighbors, including the girl. One of them even killed and ate his pregnant wife. According to George Percy, one of the community leaders:

And now famin beginneinge to looke gastely and pale in every face that notheinge was spared to mainteyne lyffe and to doe those things wch seame incredible.

Stories about people eating people still turn up in modern times. In a true account that was made into the movie, Alive (1993), an airplane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the Andes. When search parties failed to find the wreck, the survivors starved after exhausting the little food on board. That any survived the four month ordeal, and that two successfully hiked out of the mountains for help, was due to their overcoming a natural revulsion against eating the dead, who were their friends and team mates. The survival impulse trumps civilized taste and etiquette.

Animals have no such scruples about eating their own. There are numerous examples ranging from sexual cannibalism in spiders and mantises to stress cannibalism in mammals and even “tribal” cannibalism in chimpanzees. You may have seen pet mice or rats eating their own pups. At first sight it seems so utterly perverse, but as a reaction to disturbing their nest or other threats it makes biological sense to recycle valuable nutrients for creating a new litter when conditions are more propitious. A far stranger case is when babies eat each other before they are even born.

Female sand tiger sharks are promiscuous, with mating starting with a dominant male.

Sand tiger shark. Photo by Jeff Kubina

Sand tiger shark. Photo by Jeff Kubina

Eventually they become pregnant with embryos from a series of ovulations and different fathers. The first embryos develop ahead of the rest, one in each of the twin forks of the uterus, and when the mother’s nutrient supply becomes strained the pair eat their siblings (they grow teeth precociously). Of the two embryos surviving to birth, researchers found they are almost always fathered by a dominant male. Evidently cannibalism in utero has an evolutionary advantage in this species because it guarantees that only the fittest genes will be represented in the next generation. It is hard however to find any merit in eating human flesh except to preserve life.

Cannibal feast, New Hebrides, by Charles Frazer (1863-1899). Private collection

Cannibal feast, New Hebrides, by Charles Frazer (1863-1899). Private collection

Everyone knows that cannibalism and head-hunting were practiced in New Guinea into modern times. It was in the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea that Daniel Gajdusek discovered in the 1960’s the first prion disease (kuru), which was transmitted by eating the brains of deceased relatives (kuru is related to mad cow disease). When I made plans for a couple of solo visits to the Highlands of the other (Indonesian) half of New Guinea in the 1990’s, some people felt they should discourage me, otherwise I might become “fresh meat on the mountain for uncivilized brutes.”  I had long doubted tall tales I had heard were brought home by returning travelers to impress eager listeners, but I never imagined the people I would meet there would be as kind and hospitable as anywhere on Earth.

My 1997 visit coincided with a dreadful famine in the Highlands caused by the effects of El Nino. People were dying of starvation, if not driven to the extremes recorded in Jamestown. Although I was visiting ostensibly to see birds-of-paradise, a missionary friend urged me to report back about the food supply in remote villages so he could arrange to drop sacks of rice from the air where necessary. I set off into “cannibal country” more embarrassed at being a well-fed Westerner than feeling trepidation.

West PapuaThe “old” man in the picture was the first traditional Dani tribesmen I met in the bush, and one of the better-nourished.  He greeted me with “Na-yak” and the long Highland hand-shake. I guessed the parang (machete) carried in the other hand was used for tending his garden of sweet potatoes. We shared my tin of sardines and some candy before heading over a mountain pass, for which I sometimes needed his helping hand in the thin equatorial air. As we climbed, the string tied around his waist jangled a suspended horim (penis sheath) and waggled a large leaf covering his rear cleavage. Among other traditional dressers I soon felt the old man out, especially when a lady in a grass skirt fell into fits of laughter when she saw me. I was the strange object to stare at.

Nights were spent in uncomfortable shelters and the most memorable one was in a communal men’s hut after struggling on a journey for which I was naïve and poorly-equipped. Despite being just skin and bone they shared a cook-up of sweet potato greens (the few tubers were inedible from blight), and I wished I had brought more provisions. We bedded down on the packed earth around a flickering fire, sleepless eyes flashing inquisitively at each other. My eyes watered from smoke that failed to rise through the roof hole, or perhaps it was the emotion of a grateful traveler. Joy springs from wonder, and is the beginning of love.

So many years later, I still think about those people, even say a little prayer for them. I never found out when that village had its last cannibal feast, and it seemed crass to inquire when I got back to the missionary base. If anyone asks me where is cannibal country today I would not show them my travel log, I’d gaze out the window towards Jamestown Road and say, “You’re living in it.”

Next Post: Seventeen year anniversary

About Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in human and animal reproduction & embryology. Academic career spanned from Cambridge and Edinburgh to McGill and Cornell's Weill Medical College in Manhattan where he was Professor & Research Director. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America, he retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and to recover from 'nature deficit disorder'
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