Man Is a Wolf to Man
Homo homini lupus est. Human solidarity is a fragile accomplishment. Habits of cooperation quickly evaporate under anarchy, as men exploit one another. The violent bear away the prize: survival. Hobbes looked to strong government to save the human race from self-destruction. Without government, the weak face the strong with no protection. In a state of nature, men devour one another.
How literally true this is has only recently been realized. For a time, anthropologists dismissed travelers’ tales of cannibalism as an invention stemming from prejudice against “savages,” i.e., non-Europeans. But recent discoveries at Neanderthal sites and in the American Southwest indicate that cannibalism has been far more frequent than anyone had imagined. Men devoured one another for millennia.
Limited or ritual cannibalism has been long attested. Starvation among the Donner party in the nineteenth century and among the survivors of a plane crash in the Andes in the twentieth led to cannibalism, as have wars and sieges throughout history. Some tribes ate portions of ancestors to express communion, or of enemies to absorb courage. Chinese history is marked by recurrences of cannibalism, most recently in the Cultural Revolution, during which villages were torn apart and class enemies killed and eaten. This expressed utter contempt for the victims, who were not even seen as human, just food.
Neanderthal sites in France and Croatia, sites separated by a thousand miles and scores of millennia, show strong evidence of cannibalism. Neanderthal man completely disappeared from the genetic map; DNA research indicates that no Europeans have Neanderthal ancestry. Our ancestors chose to have nothing to do with Neanderthal man, who may have regarded both them and fellow Neanderthals as candidates for supper. Cannibalism does not help a species reproduce; in fact, it leads to the spread of bizarre diseases, like Mad Cow disease.
In North America, the disappearance of the Anasazi is a mystery. These peoples lived in the now-deserted mesas and canyons of the Southwest and were probably the ancestors of the current Zuni, Hopi, and Pueblo Indians. They built their villages in increasingly isolated locations, which were far from water but easily defensible. One day in the thirteenth century, they got up and walked away. They left behind everything—pots, jewelry, agricultural tools, sandals on pegs, food cooking over fires—yet there were no signs of violence. We know only their Navajo name, Anasazi, “ancient enemies.”
Archeologists formerly suspected famine or drought as the cause of the sudden exodus, but no clear evidence of these has shown up. Suspicion now focuses on something like a mass religious conversion. The walls of inhabited Anasazi canyons contain pictograms, including those of tropical birds found only in Mexico. Traders from Mexico brought pottery, copper bells, and macaws, and it is thought that they may also have brought new, exciting ideas, including cannibalism.
Archeologist Christy Turner’s Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest gives the evidence for cannibalism. Turner theorizes that the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon in what is now New Mexico subjugated the surrounding villages and ate their inhabitants. But in the thirteenth century, a new religion spread throughout the Southwest: the religion of the Kachinas, the benevolent spirits of ancestors and nature.
Most cultures have no separate word for religion—it is simply what life is. When the Spanish brought Christianity to the Southwest, the native peoples did not so much convert from the religion of the Kachinas to Christianity as fuse the two religions together. From the Kachina religion they learned of the Great Spirit and of the subsidiary spirits, the angels and saints through whom the Great Spirit exercised his care for man and animals. They saw no contradiction between this and Christian beliefs and so continued to practice both religions—to the horror of the Irish priests who came and started fights over what they saw as paganism. It may have been paganism, but it was also a natural revelation that was completed by Christianity. And it was far different from that other, earlier paganism, which the Anasazi themselves appear to have rejected in one of those mysterious preparations for the gospel that God works in history.
If the Anasazi totally rejected in horror their old religion—its way of life and its cannibalism—they might well have abandoned everything they owned to start over again. The Hopis, Zuni, and Pueblo Indians are peaceful and preserve no memories of their Anasazi ancestors. They want to forget. But we all share the great disgrace of being descended from Adam and Eve, who were given Paradise and nonetheless rejected God. Yet that common descent creates a solidarity among men that those without knowledge of historical revelation often fail to acknowledge.
The Enlightenment thought that the unity of the human race was a self-evident truth. It is not; it is an heirloom of Christianity. Without that solidarity, other human beings can become mere objects, to be used as animals or things. Is there an essential difference between using the stem cells of aborted fetuses to prolong life and using the bodies of those who belong to another tribe as nourishment? Our descendants may one day redden with shame at what their ancestors did to stay alive—if, that is, they have not blotted us out of their memories entirely.
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“Man Is a Wolf to Man” first appeared in the January/February 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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