When I say “cannibals” the image that comes to your mind probably isn’t a group
of white European settlers.
Maybe it’s because most images feature groups of darker-skinned natives, deep in the wilderness,
and if you’ve watched too many cartoons, they’re probably dancing around a boiling pot.
But what you might not expect is that the myth of the “savage cannibal” played a
a crucial role in the colonization of the Americas and was repeated for centuries as a justification
for genocide and slavery.
And who started this fear of rampant cannibalism?
Christopher Columbus
Now, I just laid out a pretty big claim that the myth of cannibals had a major impact on
the colonization of the New World.
But is that actually true?
Well, the first and most obvious part of this question seems to be: does cannibalism actually
exist as a practice?
Here’s a quick review:
In his book Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History Bill Schutt notes that there are second
hand and anecdotal accounts from scholars that report instances of cannibalism around
the world as a part of various rituals and customs, such as funeral rites.
In his book Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History Bill Schutt notes that there are second
hand and anecdotal accounts from scholars that report instances of cannibalism around
the world as a part of various rituals and customs, such as funeral rites.
And Archeologists think that prehistoric humans were eating people to meet protein demands
and to kill off their enemies.
But as a source of nutrition, cannibalism isn’t that efficient.
Researchers estimate that while animals such as beavers and boars average 1,800 calories
per pound of muscle, humans only carry about 650 calories per pound of muscle.
Think of it as the difference between eating a double bacon cheeseburger with fries and
a drink, vs. getting just the burger in a sad lettuce wrap.
On top of that, humans are pretty tricky to catch, making us difficult to hunt unless
we’re already weak or sick.
So while human meat may be one of the original components of the paleo diet, it just isn’t
that filling.
And like most of the Paleo food I see on Instagram, “diseased human meat” sounds gross.
Okay, so we’ve established that instances of people eating people are comparatively
rare as a dietary measure, which indicates that cannibalism is probably more myth than
a day to day reality.
But what does Christopher Columbus have to do with any of this?
When he first, accidentally landed in the Caribbean in 1492, Columbus arrived and met
the friendly Arawaks.
They promptly said that their enemies the Caribs were man-eaters.
Now this is the first recorded meeting of these two groups, so the accuracy of the translations
(on both sides) is a pretty important question to keep in mind.
He writes in his journal on November 4th, 1492 that he’s been told that “along
distance from here there are men with one eye, and others with dog snouts who eat men”
Later on November 23rd, 1492 he first wrote the word “cannibals” in his journal as
another term for the supposed dog snouted Carib people.
Now based on what he wrote in his journals, at first Columbus wasn’t sure if he should
believe the Arawaks or not.
However, he eventually became convinced because he met what he described as a “really scary,
unattractive Carib” whose tribesmen attacked his sailors over a trading argument.
He then decided, quote “without doubt, the people here are evil, they are from the island
of Carib, and they eat men.”
All this…without seeing them eat…men.
Oh and he thought they were hoarding lots of precious metals.
Important note.
On his way back to Spain in 1493, he wrote a letter (which was the status update of its
He said, “Thus I have found no monsters, nor had a report of any, except in an island
Carib…which is inhabited by people … who eat human flesh.”This letter was published
across Europe and was basically the 15th century equivalent of a viral meme, short on facts
and big on flash.
In 1494 Columbus went back to the Caribbean, and this time he was cannibal crazy.
In his journals, he claims that the islands that were most populous were filled with cannibals.
So, he decided that for the “good of the souls of said cannibals, the greater number
that is sent over to Spain, the better.”
And by sending over to Spain, he means, enslaving them and selling them, in Spain.
For money.
So he did that.
Convenient, because he wasn’t finding much gold, and he needed to recoup a lot of money
for his investors.
Especially since for his second voyage they gave him 17 ships!
He took 500 native people back to Europe to sell as slaves.
200 died on the ride over.
But, Spanish Queen Isabella wasn’t super keen on slaves and sent some of the natives
Unlike Columbus, Isabella found stealing people and selling them as slaves a bit “unchristian”.
But within ten years she changed her tune, all thanks to you guessed it: “Cannibal.”
In 1503 she decreed that all native inhabitants of the newly colonized territories should
be “protected from capture or injury, except for a certain people who are called cannibals…they
may be captured and.. be sold”.
For money
A few years later..
Pope Innocent IV got in on the Cannibal craze and supported Isabella’s decree, stating
that Christians were able to punish cannibalism through brute force.
Which is a little ironic, considering the Catholic church believed in transubstantiation
at the time, which is the idea that people were literally eating the body of Christ and
drinking his blood during communion.
So what do we get when we add this all up?
Well it looks like Cannibals are real, but in this case, European explorers may have invented
them to their serve own purposes.
Colonial adventurers were grappling with how to deal with native populations.
Their base instincts were to dehumanize them to justify forced labor, enslavement, or slaughter.
But their professed “Christian values” of how all “humans” should be treated denied
a clear moral justification for the atrocity.
So it doesn’t really look like a coincidence that around the time Columbus was calling
indigenous Americans cannibals, Queen Isabella and the Pope came up with the equation that
cannibals weren’t human, and therefore could be enslaved . . . For Money.
That’s up for discussion…but, not much discussion.
And while no historical argument is ever 100% It seems like cannibalism may have been a
pretty convenient justification so everyone could keep making money from slavery.
Especially, when you consider modern archeological evidence has found little to nothing to support
his claims of Cannibalism in the Caribbean.
Now, there is a certain amount of irony here.
Remember at the very beginning of the episode when we said when you think of Cannibals
it’s probably not “white European settlers?”
Well, it turns out a lot of colonists got pretty desperate.
Recent evidence has surfaced that the Jamestown colonists in Virginia resorted to cannibalism
in 1609
In 1838, crew members of the whaling ship Essex that sailed from Nantucket Massachusetts
murdered other crew members for food.
Additionally, the Donner Party resorted to eating each other during their ill-fated trip
to “settle” the Western portion of what is now the United States.
So although cannibalism was often cited as the reason for the need to “civilize”
and “colonize” other populations, colonization itself often led to real, verified instances
of cannibalism.
So what do you think?
Do you think “cannibals” were an important part of early colonization?


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