Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts



First Advisor

Linda Cool




cannibalism, western, observed, practice, anthropology


For centuries, Western explorers, missionaries, and travelers have been bringing home tales of cannibals, which became the earliest documentation of the practice. Modern anthropology, however, has identified a serious concern with such early “documentation” in light of the rise of the ethnographic tradition: the authors of early reports did not consider the contexts in which the events they observed occurred. This thesis, in the anthropology of knowledge tradition, explores the debate over the Western idea of cannibalism by posing the question: why are we so determined to believe that evidence supporting cannibalism reflects an experiential reality, despite abundant proof of its unreliability? To consider the degree to which reports of cannibalism are accurate accounts of the observed practice requires the reexamination and reinterpretation of a number of factors and concepts that drive contemporary studies of cannibalism. To begin, the primary categories of thought that influence how cannibalism in non-Western cultures is perceived demonstrates the basis of our Western cannibal obsession, which dictates the prominent discourse on cannibalism. This discourse has played a fundamental role in impacting the sources of evidence for cannibalism available to anthropologists, and ultimately the nature of anthropological studies on the topic. Additionally, it is important to recognize the cultural exchange in which observations of cannibalism occurred, considering both the role of the Western observer and the perception of the culture observed. Together, all of these factors reveal broader conclusions about the nature of cannibalism as we define it, and suggest a possible revision to how we conceptualize the practice of consuming human flesh.