21 of 31 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
'The Man-eating Myth' was very much a book of its time when it was published in 1979, starting with the faux-common man authorship by 'W. Arens,' as if the professor was just another anonymous cog in the machine.
The agenda was to whitewash 'savages' from the charge -- implicitly, the western colonialist charge -- of cannibalism. This was the era when Iron Eyes Cody was the symbol of the idea that Indians lived a life in balance with nature before the evil Europeans arrived with their deadly indoor plumbling.
Even in 1979, this approach required a lot of overlooking. The very first book of reportage, the 'Histories' of Herodotus, included a relation (second-hand, to be sure) of ritual funerary cannibalism. Subsequently, there were plenty of other reports, of varying reliability, of cannibalism.
Arens contended these were all made up, that 'cannibal' was a term every group applied to the people 'on the other side of the hill' the way bloggers label everyone they dislike a 'fascist' or a 'racist.'
There was a grain of truth, a small one, in this assertion. People do unfairly label outgroups cannibals. But it was a logical error to assert, as Arens did, that because some claims of cannibalism were fake, all were.
To support his argument, he set a bizarre standard of proof: to be believed, such a charge would have to be validated by a professional anthropologist. The arrogance of this standard was amusing in 1979, embarrassing by the 1990s.
Science marches on. Tim White, in 'Prehistoric Cannibalism,' used bones from the Mancos site to develop a rigorous set of standards for assessing whether bones had been processed for food. As it turns out, they have been, throughout the Four Corners area of the American Southwest.
The sites prove that, from time to time, the whole population of a village was murdered and eaten. Not merely ritually eaten, as the Polynesians (among others) did to acquire the strength of an enemy, but for nutrition. The Indians went to a lot of trouble to extract the last bit of grease from their meat.
What the Mancos site does not tell us is who ate whom, under what circumstances or how often. It is just barely possible that the Mancos and similar sites are unusual examples of emergency (often called survival) cannibalism.
If Arens' position is read strictly, it could perhaps be argued that his contention has not been disproven. He admitted, grudgingly, that there were some instances of cannibalism, but he made these out to be exceptional and rare.
It's true that the Four Corners sites do not prove regular consumption of human meat, but only because it appears that the eaters ate everybody, leaving no 'stock' to grow and fatten for future meals.
Had Arens had a simpler goal, just to debunk a large body of dubious claims of cannibalism, his book would have been unexceptionable. It was his general claims that got attention in the 1980s, and on those, it is Arens who got debunked.
14 of 26 people found the following review helpful
J. R. Barela
- Published on Amazon.com
Widespread cannibalism may have caused prehistoric prion disease epidemics, Science study suggests
Human flesh may have been a fairly regular menu item for our prehistoric ancestors, according to researchers. They say it's the most likely explanation for their discovery that genes protecting against prion diseases -- which can be spread by eating contaminated flesh -- have long been widespread throughout the world.
The genes, which are mutant versions of the prion protein gene, show key signs of having spread through populations as the result of natural selection, the researchers report in the journal Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Such mutations, or "polymorphisms," could have provided prehistoric humans a better chance of surviving epidemics of prion diseases, similar to modern day diseases such as Creutzfeld Jacob disease, or kuru.
"What we're showing here is evidence that selection for these polymorphisms has been very widespread or happened very early in the evolution of modern humans, before human beings spread all over the planet," said study author John Collinge of University College London. "We can't say which of those it is; but the obvious implication is that prion disease has provided the selection pressure."
Prion diseases are caused by misfolded versions of the prion protein, which cause other prion proteins to misfold and clump together in the brain. Kuru and Creutzfeld Jacob disease, in humans, as well as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, in cows, cause brain degeneration and, ultimately, death.
In a previous study, Collinge and his colleagues determined that people with one normal copy and one mutated copy of the prion protein were somehow protected against Creutzfeld Jacob disease. The mutation consisted of a single amino acid substitution at a certain spot in the gene, and is known as "M129V." Among the Japanese and other populations in the Indian subcontinent and East Asia, a similar mutation called "E219K" has the same protective effect.
This phenomenon, in which heterozygotes have a better chance of survival than homozygotes, is called "balancing selection." (A possible explanation in this case may be that the uniform prion proteins of homozygotes clump together more easily in the brain, increasing the chance of disease in contrast to those of heterozygotes.)
"There are only a handful of examples of genes thought to be under balancing selection. They are thought to offer protection against infectious disease," Collinge said.
From approximately 1920 to 1950, a kuru epidemic devastated the Fore in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. At mortuary feasts, kinship groups would consume deceased relatives, a practice that probably started around the end of the 19th Century, according to local oral history. The Australian authorities imposed a ban on cannibalism there in the mid-1950s.
The same genetic variation in the prion protein that helps protect against Creutzfeld Jacob disease turned out to do the same for kuru. Studying Fore women who had participated in mortuary feasts, Collinge's group found that 23 out of the 30 women were heterozygous for the prion protein gene, possessing one normal copy and one with the M129V mutation.
The researchers sequenced and analyzed the prion protein gene in more than 2000 chromosome samples from people selected to represent worldwide genetic diversity. They found either M129V or E219K in every population, with the prevalence decreasing in East Asia (except for the Fore, who have the highest frequency in the world).
Collinge's team also studied the diversity of sequence variations in a block of DNA containing the prion protein gene, in European, African, Japanese, and Fore populations. The prevalence of the M129V and E219K variations, even when the sequence at other spots was highly variable, indicated that the variations were ancient--more than 500,000 years old, according to authors' estimates.
Finally, the researchers identified a telltale signature of balancing selection in the gene: a greater than average number of highly variable sites, and a smaller than average number of low-frequency variations.
These findings are consistent with other lines of evidence indicating that prehistoric populations practiced cannibalism, such as cuts and burn marks on Neanderthal bones, and biochemical analysis of fossilized human feces.
"There is extensive anthropological evidence that cannibalism is not just some rarity that happened in New Guinea," Collinge said.