Among the Cannibals by Paul Raffaele

Perhaps not for the overly squeamish, Paul Raffaele’s book, Among the Cannibals, is sure to entice readers seeking an interesting travel narrative. Raffaele’s treatise on cannibalism is, in part, an evidential response to William Arens’ 1980 book “The Man-Eating Myth,” but also a lively, entertaining travelogue. While Arens claims that cannibalism is a myth borne of prejudice, Paul Raffaele, a writer for the Smithsonian Magazine, goes the distance in making the case that cannibalism did – and does – exist in some cultures.

Beginning in Papua-New Guinea, Indonesia, Raffaele visits a Papuan tribe, the Korowai, in an attempt to prove (or disprove) a culture of cannibalism. There he found settlements of the indigenous Korowai people, some of whom, despite attempts to lure them out, have never left the jungle. He spoke with many tribesman, some of whom, through somewhat gruesome accounts, admitted to killing and eating fellow tribesmen they believed had turned into dangerous khakua (witch-men). The Korowai believe that any man can be inhabited by a khakua who then eats him from the inside out. “When the khakua eats a person, the people eat the khakua.”

Raffaele then travels to the holy city of Benares, by way of Bombay, in search of the Aghori Indians and their holy men who purportedly eat the cooked flesh of the dead in an effort to achieve/maintain enlightenment. The holiest of the Aghori are known as sadhus or saints. Down by the cremation ghats along the Ganges River, Raffaele is told that “the Aghoris believe in practicing the most base acts possible as a sign of their holiness.” Among other things, this includes drinking lots of whiskey (out of a human skull) and eating leftover flesh from cremated bodies.

Raffaele proves himself a thorough researcher when he accidentally falls into the filthy Ganges River, a submersion sought by millions of devout Hindus every year. But his accessible recounting of personal conversations and unique shared experiences across the globe will prove interesting to more than students of anthropology.

In Nuku’alofa, the capital of the South Pacific Island of Tonga, Raffaele searches for proof that until a few generations ago, canibalism was part of the Tongan culture.  This quest leads him to the rotund King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV as he works out at a gym, a dance club full of Tongan fakaleitis (“men who think they are women”) and a local bar where he tosses back more than a few drinks with the Crown Prince Tupouto’a. At one point he asks the Crown Prince if his recent ancestors were cannibals. “Yes, and so were yours somewhere back in time,” is his answer.

Raffaele uncovers particularly horrifying accounts of people being forced to eat human remains in Uganda. His prediction that his Ugandan research will be traumatic proves true at the Acholi province on the Uganda/Sudan border. There, the Lord’s Resistance Army (“LRA”), led by Joseph Kony, has abducted “more than 25,000 children…according to UNICEF…turning many of the girls into sex slaves for the officers and the boys into merciless child soldiers.” In fact, Raffele’s translator/guide tells him:

“The LRA has so terrorized the Acholi people that more than 90 percent of the population of almost two million have abandoned their villages and fled for protection to government concentration camps, where they’ve lived for many years in misery.”

Through children’s drawings, interviews and photographs, Raffaele depicts a culture rife with criminality, terrific cannibalistic acts and unbelievable tragedy. This was clearly the most unsettling stop on Raffaele’s “adventures on the trail of man’s darkest ritual,” incidentally, an appropriate subtitle for Among the Cannibals. Northern Uganda bears a continuing horror that was not lost on Raffaele, and won’t be lost on his readers.

Mexico City provides the backdrop for the last research leg of Raffaele’s trip. There he listens to the tales and truths of locals that support the theory of cannibalism. By this point in the book, he has drawn on the works of William Arens, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Mariner, missionaries, historians; and firsthand encounters with the Korowai, Aghori sadhus and the children of northern Uganda to prove the realities of cannibalism. But it is the forensic analysis of a Mexican anthropologist/taphonomist, Alejandro Terrazas Mata, which offers Raffaele the most compelling evidence that, for revenge or as ritual, somewhere, some time, humans ate the flesh of their brothers.

Among the Cannibals: Adventures on the Trail of Man’s Darkest Ritual
Publisher: HarperCollins, June 2008
288 pages


3 thoughts on “Among the Cannibals by Paul Raffaele

  1. I agree with what you were saying to me earlier, that his need to describe all the women he met got a little distracting. It definitely made me like him less as a person, since he seemed so chauvanistic. However, his story was interesting enough (minus the part in Mexico)that I still really enjoyed the book.

    Posted by Devourer of Books | 28 July, 2008, 6:26 pm
  2. Surprised me that he found that many cultures still participating. I had heard a well-known anthropologist say ten years ago that human culture had eradicated cannibalism and would soon eradicate incest. Based on my court appearances in custody cases over the last thirty years, I think we are further behind on the incest than that academician would like to think. Partly due to the over-emphasis humans place on personal sexual satisfaction and titillation. Doesn’t sound like cannibalism exists in that realm, thank God.

    Posted by Sarah Collins Honenberger | 11 August, 2008, 8:27 am
  3. i loved this book, diana, and even interviewed the author, paul raffaele:

    i was so surprised by the book, but extremely impressed with his intercultural sensitivity to such a horrific (to us) cultural context.

    Posted by jessiev | 6 July, 2009, 9:33 am

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