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Cannibalism, once widespread across many cultures and throughout history, always manages to incite our fascination and fear. It features in the childhood tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, the stories of the Olympian gods Zeus and Cronus, the Greek myths of Medea and Thyestes, Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and is central to Freud’s interpretation of the origin of religion as elaborated in “Totem and Taboo” (1913). On the ground, the Anasazi tribe of the 12th Century American South West is just one example of cannibalism for the archaeologist or anthropologist.
The term “Cannibales”, a corruption of Carib, was coined by Christopher Columbus. It was not based on observation but the testimony of the Arawak tribe who were quick to defame their neighbours. Just over a hundred years after Columbus set sail, the early colonists in the first permanent English settlement of Jamestown, Virginia (1607) would turn to cannibalism as a means of survival during the “Starving Time” of 1610. The same sense of hopeless is also seen in the Crusader accounts of cannibalism at the siege of Ma’arra in 11th century Syria. We are told by the chronicler Fulcher of Chartres, in his “Historia Hierosolymitana” [“History of the Expedition to Jerusalem”] that “the besiegers more than the besieged were tormented” by their actions. It was the “madness of excessive hunger” that drove the Crusaders to, “cut off pieces from the buttocks of Saracens already dead there which they cooked and chewed and devoured with savage mouth”.