When we think of cannibalism in North America, we often envision worst-case scenarios of cultural practices, as in the case of the Aztecs, where eating fellow humans held spiritual significance, or survival, as practiced by the desperate Donner Party. Today, the popular press often takes full advantage of cases where the hunger for human flesh is driven by psychosis as in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer.
But first, semantics. Most dictionaries define cannibalism as the eating of human flesh by another human. Despite its initial application to humans, the term was co-opted by zoologists and is now defined more broadly as the eating of the flesh of an animal by another of its own kind, or intraspecific predation.
Here are a few historical examples of cultural – and survival – cannibalism in North America.
1492: The New World
On Day One of this continent’s recorded history, the very word cannibal was given birth by Christopher Columbus who referred to the natives of Haiti and Cuba as canibales, a variant of Carib, the name they gave themselves. Whether or not the Caribs were actually cannibals is disputed, but fifteenth-century observers accused them of such behavior and the name stuck.
1519 – 1521: Mexico
The Aztecs are perhaps the most widely studied ancient New World peoples. It’s true that ritual cannibalism took place in the context of human sacrifices, but the thesis that human flesh was a significant portion of the Aztec diet is not widely supported. And given European sensitivities on the practice, the following testimonies could have been exaggerated.
Hernan Cortez wrote in one of his letters that an Indian ate a piece of flesh taken from the body of an Indian who had been killed. The first Mesoamerican ethnographer, Sahagun, published an illustration of a captured Aztec being cooked by an unknown tribe.
A sacrificed victim was sometimes given to the warrior responsible for the capture. He would boil the body and cut it to pieces to be offered as gifts to important people in exchange for presents and slaves. Some human parts made their way to markets near present day Mexico City.
Bernal Díaz saw young men in cages ready to be sacrificed and eaten. He said Aztec warriors were so confident of victory against the conquistadors in an upcoming battle, that, “…they wished to kill us and eat our flesh, and had already prepared the pots with salt and peppers and tomatoes”. In temples, Diaz found large pots where the human flesh of sacrificed natives was boiled and cooked to feed the priests. He also said he witnessed human meat for sale; thick wooden cages full of Indian men, women and boys who were fattened, then eaten. Díaz’s testimony is corroborated by other Spanish historians.
2000 B.C. – 1700: The American Southwest
Scientists have developed criteria that provide a post-death signature of cannibalism for skeletal remains. Evidence of human consumption has been found near Polacca Wash, First Mesa Hopi villages, in present day Arizona, where thirty bodies showed extensive evidence of violence, butchery, and likely cannibalism. In the Mesa Verde region of today’s Colorado, Anasazi (the Ancient Ones) cannibalistic activities are supported by bone evidence, blood residue, and the presence of human coprolite (petrified poop).
Archeologists continue to dig for further evidence of humans eating humans in the American Southwest. I suspect more gustatory evidence will be found just beneath the surface.
1527: Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and the Karankawa
The journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca remains one of the most amazing feats of exploration in the Americas. In early 1527, he left Spain for North America and landed near Tampa Bay, Florida. The party soon overstayed its welcome with local Indians. Pursued by the natives and suffering from numerous diseases, the surviving members of the expedition were reduced to huddling in a coastal swamp and living off the flesh of their horses. In late 1528, they built several crude rafts from trees and horse-hides and set sail hoping to return to Cuba. A hurricane dumped de Vaca, and eighty of his companions, on the Gulf Coast near what is now Galveston, Texas.
The local Karankawa, reputed cannibals, welcomed de Vaca. For the next four years he, and a steadily dying number of his comrades, lived in the complex native world of what is now East Texas. Legends say the Karankawa ate captured enemy warriors and leaders after battle to ingest magic power, but not for food. Other Texas Indians were also accused of similar ritual eating, but de Vaca reported the opposite. He saw no cannibalism in the natives. In fact, the Indians were furious at the Spaniards for eating human flesh during the winter of 1528. In October 1534, Cabeza de Vaca escaped with the three remaining Europeans, and made his way west and south to Mexico and safety.
16th Century: Iroquois Nation
In Ameria’s Northeast, the Iroquois nation practiced human cannibalism to appease the appetite of a war god who demanded that captives be taken, tortured and eaten. The evidence for Iroquoian cannibalism comes from historical accounts of Jesuit missionaries who worked with the Iroquois and the warring Huron nations. There are also numerous Dutch, English, and French accounts of captives witnessing the fates of their comrades who were tortured, cut up and eaten in front of them. The Iroquois were reported to practice cannibalism until 1756.
17th Century: American Mid-west/North –Windigo (or Wendigo)
What about the thought that eating one person may lead to eating others? Such is the windigo creature, a legendary, half-beast of the Algonquian people along the Atlantic coast and Great Lakes region of the US and Canada. The windigo possesses characteristics of a human or a monster and suffers from what is now called the disputed modern medical term, Windigo Psychosis. This condition features symptoms such as an intense craving for human flesh and a fear by the sufferer he/she is a cannibal. Two men were tried for acts supposedly driven by this psychosis. In 1878, Swift Runner, a Canadian Cree, and his family were starving. Twenty-five miles away from emergency food supplies at Hudson Bay, Swift Runner butchered and ate his wife and five children. He was executed the next summer. Another well-known case was that of Jack Fiddler, an Oji-Cree chief known for his powers at defeating windigo by killing them. Fiddler and his brother Joseph were arrested by the Canadian authorities for murder. Jack committed suicide, but Joseph was tried and sentenced to life in prison, then granted a pardon three days before he died.
1874: Alferd Packer
In the winter of 1874, Packer left with five others for an expedition in the Colorado mountains prospecting for gold. Two months later Packer returned alone. When questioned of the whereabouts of the men that had been with him, Packer said he ha killed them in self defense and was forced to eat their remains in order to survive the elements. His story was not believed. After two signed and separate confessions, Packer was given a forty-year sentence. At trial, lore has it, the judge admonished Packer by saying, “Alferd Packer, you son-of-a-bitch, there were three Republicans in this county and you ate two of them.” Amazingly he was later granted parole because sufficient doubt remained about his innocence.
His name lives on. The University of Colorado’s student union eatery, the Alferd Packer Restaurant & Grill, offers everything from salads to burgers in home-style comfort, plus lots of grab-n-go items for that quick stop between classes or meetings. Maybe winter mountain gold hunting?
1847: Donner Party
The Donner Party has become synonymous with cannibalism in the United States. The Donner Party (or Donner-Reed Party) set out for California by wagon train in May 1846. Delayed by a series of mishaps and mistakes, they spent the winter of 1846–47 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada near Truckee (now Donner) Lake, high in the mountains. Their food supplies ran extremely low, and by mid-February, forty-eight of eighty-seven survived to reach California, many of them having eaten the dead for survival. Historians have described the episode as one of the most bizarre and spectacular tragedies in Californian history and western-US migration. Here, the driving force was self-preservation and the preservation of close kin, especially children. About half of the party could not overcome their deep-seated feelings against cannibalism, however, and claimed that they never participated in the act. Women survived the ordeal better than men for several reasons, including having a smaller body size, a slower metabolic rate, and more body fat; expending less energy procuring firewood, primarily a man’s task; and for some, having strong maternal instincts that drove them to keep themselves and their children alive at all costs. Although at the end, half of the party succumbed to extreme hunger and cold, fewer would have survived had they not chosen to eat their dead comrades.
The grizzly story of cannibalism in America is long and far more common than one would imagine. As repulsive as it is, cannibalism has a constant presence in history, whether motivated by hunger or psychosis, and is here to stay.