Unsurprisingly, Netflix’s Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story has aroused some controversy. The series portrays Jeffrey Dahmer, a white American serial killer whose victims were mostly black. It has long been claimed by mainstream media that “systemic racism allowed Dahmer to continue killing men.”

Dahmer ate some of his victims’ corpses. In the current controversy, cannibalism has not been a topic of discussion. But we may anticipate that it will. For discussions about cannibalism have always been intertwined with race. Post-colonial criticism has long claimed that cannibalism is a figment of the colonialist imagination. As per this narrative, tales of cannibalism were myths designed to justify colonialist projects and the subjugation of people of colour.

Isn’t it ironic —so the argument goes— that the only real cannibals have been racist white monsters such as Dahmer, whereas those people traditionally accused of being cannibals never practiced anthropophagy?

The claim that cannibalism is a colonialist myth was popularized by William Arens in his 1979 book, The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. In it, he reports that he has “been unable to uncover adequate documentation of cannibalism as a custom in any form for any society.” As per Arens’ argument, tales of cannibalism are simply a resource to dehumanize the Other, and this has been common in the history of colonialism. Cannibalism may serve as the excuse to invade and plunder, under the humanitarian guise of saving people from cannibals.

Arens has a point. It is quite frequent for persecuted groups to be accused of cannibalism. As we are now more sensitive to the inner workings of anti-Semitism, we understand that Jews never killed Christian children to drink their blood, even though the infamous mediaeval blood libels claimed as much. We are also aware that if the classical Greek historian Herodotus wrote about headless men roaming around — the akephaloi, then he is not at all reliable in his descriptions of the anthropophagi.

But Arens commits the inductive fallacy that is so common in post-colonial criticism. Yes, there were colonialist crimes, but that does not imply that everything about colonialism is evil. Likewise, yes, some claims about cannibalism have clearly been mythical, but that does not imply that cannibalism never existed.

Consider, for example, the Tupinamba of Brazil. The anthropophagic habits of this tribe inspired Michel de Montaigne to write his famous essay Of Cannibals. There Montaigne makes the dubious, but often quoted, relativistic claim that the Tupinamba are not morally worse than Europeans — “we can indeed call these natives barbarians, as far as the laws of reason are concerned, but not in comparison with ourselves, who surpass them in every variety of savagery”.

More importantly, Montaigne accepts as given that the Tupinamba did eat other people.

How do we know this? Because we have first-hand accounts of captives who escaped that fate. Hans Staden was a German sailor on a Portuguese ship, who visited the Brazilian coast. He was shipwrecked and captured by the Tupinamba in 1550. He wrote a book in 1557 describing how Tupinamba cannibalistic practices and rituals operated. Unlike Herodotus’ fancy accounts, the descriptions of True History: An Account of Cannibal Captivity in Brazil are very plausible, and they do not rely on mere hearsay, but rather, on the author’s first-hand experience.

Yet Arens does not accept the force of this argument. In typical post-colonialist fashion, he goes the distance in trying to discredit any account that represents the brutal aspects of natives’ lives prior to contact with the Europeans. Arens claims that Staden could not be aware of the inner workings of cannibalism amongst the Tupinamba, because his captivity was less than 12 months, and the whole process in preparing the victims lasted longer.

This is not a forceful objection, because Staden reports the conversations amongst the Tupinamba discussing how the entire process worked. Arens then makes a silly claim: “There are also matters of language and ability to recollect to be considered. In one instance, the narrator fully mentions being unable to communicate his plight to a Frenchman who visited his captors’ settlement. Apparently he had no facility in the language of his fellow European. However, Staden is able to provide the details of numerous conversations among the Indians themselves.” Arens seems to believe that the inability to speak a language close to your own precludes the capacity to learn another language. This implies that a person who has English as a first language, cannot learn, say, Arabic, unless she is knowledgeable in German.

Arens is also suspicious of a particular incident described by Staden. The German sailor describes how he recited the Psalm, “out of the depths have I cried unto thee,” to which the Tupinamba natives responded, “see how he cries, now he is sorrowful indeed.” Arens claims that “one would have to assume that the Indians had a flair for languages in order to understand and respond to Standen’s German so quickly.” But Arens wrongly assumes that the natives understood verbatim Staden’s words. The natives may very well have seen Staden desperately crying, and they may have made that remark, without needing to understand the very words pronounced by their prisoner.

Arens also seizes the opportunity to add some feminist criticism of his own. He argues that “Tupinamba women are the worst culprits in Staden’s version. They debase the noble captive who meets his fate at the hands of another male in an honourable fashion.” This misogynistic prejudice, so Arens claims, further adds suspicions concerning the reliability of Staden’s account.

Indeed, Staden narrates that, after the victim is killed by men, women seize the body, butcher it, and run around the village with the limbs. But how is this not believable? We have descriptions of ancient Greek rituals with similar occurrences. Sparagmos was a practice in which the Maenads — women— would dismember an animal as part of ecstatic rituals in honour of the god Dionysus. Admittedly, the victims were animals, but this ritual may well have reflected ancient practices involving human victims.

Be that as it may, as the gender division of labour in traditional societies typically stipulates, women are in charge of preparing meals, so it is quite credible that it fell on Tupinamba women to prepare the human corpse as food.

Fortunately, Arens’ work was never taken very seriously by anthropologists. But given our current Zeitgeist —in which native cultures are defended at all costs— similar views may enjoy a renaissance. These are not merely petty discussions about the past. Ideas have consequences.

How can albinos be protected from cannibalistic assault— a practice that persists in countries such Malawi and Tanzania— if we insist that cannibalism is a colonialist myth? Like it or not, European empires put an end to many of these barbaric practices, and post-colonialist critics must reckon with that fact. Cannibalism is not a figment of the colonialist imagination.

Gabriel Andrade

Gabriel Andrade is a university professor originally from Venezuela. He writes about politics, philosophy, history, religion and psychology.