It can shock, disgust and fascinate in equal measure, whether through tales of starved pioneers or airplane crash survivors eating the deceased among them or accounts of rituals in Papua New Guinea. It is the stuff of headlines and horror films, drawing people in and mesmerizing them despite their aversion. Cannibalism represents the ultimate taboo for many in Western societies—something to relegate to other cultures, other times, other places. Yet the understanding of cannibalism derived from the past few centuries of anthropological investigation has been too unclear and incomplete to allow either a categorical rejection of the practice or a fuller appreciation of when, where and why it might have taken place.

New scientific evidence is now bringing to light the truth about cannibalism. It has become obvious that long before the invention of metals, before Egypt's pyramids were built, before the origins of agriculture, before the explosion of Upper Paleolithic cave art, cannibalism could be found among many different peoples—as well as among many of our ancestors. Broken and scattered human bones, in some cases thousands of them, have been discovered from the prehistoric pueblos of the American Southwest to the islands of the Pacific. The osteol-ogists and archaeologists studying these ancient occurrences are using increasingly sophisticated analytical tools and methods. In the past several years, the results of their studies have finally provided convincing evidence of prehistoric cannibalism.

Human cannibalism has long intrigued anthropologists, and they have worked for decades to classify the phenomenon. Some divide the behavior according to the affiliation of the consumed. Thus, endocannibalism refers to the consumption of individuals within a group, exocannibalism indicates the consumption of outsiders, and autocan-nibalism covers everything from nail biting to torture-induced self-consumption. In addition, anthropologists have come up with classifications to describe perceived or known motivations. Survival cannibalism is driven by starvation. Historically documented cases include the Donner Party—whose members were trapped during the harsh winter of 1846-47 in the Sierra Nevada—and people marooned in the Andes or the Arctic with no other food. In contrast, ritual cannibalism occurs when members of a family or community consume their dead during funerary rites in order to inherit their qualities or honor their memory. And pathological cannibalism is generally reserved for criminals who consume their victims or, more often, for fictional characters such as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

Despite these distinctions, however, most anthropologists simply equate the term "cannibalism" with the regular, culturally encouraged consumption of human flesh. In the age of ethnographic exploration—which lasted from the time of Greek historian Herodotus in about 400 B.C. to the early 20th century—the non-Western world and its inhabitants were scrutinized by travelers, missionaries, military personnel and anthropologists. These observers told tales of human cannibalism in different places, from Mesoamerica to the Pacific islands to central Africa.

Controversy has often accompanied these claims. Anthropologists participated in only the last few waves of these cultural contacts—those that began in the late 1800s. As a result, many of the historical accounts of cannibalism have come to be viewed skeptically.

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