Until you have used a sieve to find the finger bones of a newborn baby in ploughsoil it is hard to explain how small they are – Timothy Taylor, The Buried Soul – How Humans Invented Death, 2002.
There are many dimensions of human behavior, and quite a few of them are unpleasant or inconceivable to modern, western eyes. One stares repulsed or uncomprehendingly at acts that likely would have been much more commonplace across cultures throughout our history. Consider the mourning practices of the Gebusi forager-horticulturalists of New Guinea. Anthropologist Bruce Knauft recounts the aftermath of the death of a man named Dugawe;
The following morning, Dugawe’s body was grossly bloated. His swollen limbs oozed corpse fluid, and his peeling skin exposed putrid yellowgreen flesh. His belly and even his genitals had swelled with the gases of decomposition. The stench was unforgettable; it burned up my nose, down my throat, and into my brain. Equally powerful were the actions of Dugawe’s female kin. With unearthly sobs, they draped themselves physically over the corpse, lovingly massaged its slime, and drew back its skin. They rubbed their arms and legs with the ooze of the body. Corpse fluid on one’s skin is a tangible sign of grief, of physical as well as emotional connection to the deceased—making one’s own body like the corpse. Seeing this, Dugawe’s departing soul was said to know how much they cared for him and ease his anger at having died, at least a little (Knauft, 51).
Knauft describes his own reaction to viewing this behavior; “Prior to fieldwork, the only dead body I had seen was the sedate face of a friend of my parents at an open-casket funeral. Now I was shocked and repulsed by the events surrounding Dugawe’s death. It seemed hideous that his corpse was allowed to decay and that our women friends wallowed in its stench.”
The Gebusi also previously had a practice of killing, cooking, and eating those suspected of committing sorcery. Knauft tells the story of a woman named Mokoyl, who was killed after being accused of sorcery, “Her body was summarily buried in the forest, but villagers from another settlement, knowing she had been killed as a sorceress, dug up and cooked and ate parts of the body before it decomposed. In doing so, they indicated their own support for the killing.”
Traditions of cannibalism often revolve around attempts to control the violent and unpredictable elements of life, as well as the afterlife. In Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System (1986), anthropologist Peggy Sanday writes that,
In many reports, the events associated with cannibalism refer not to hunger but to the physical control of chaos. For example, the victim is cast as the living metaphor for animality, chaos, and the powers of darkness - all those things people feel must be tamed, destroyed, or assimilated in the interest of an orderly social life. Cannibalism is then associated with a destructive power that must be propitiated or destroyed, and the act of propitiation or destruction is directly tied to social survival (Sanday, 6).
As anthropologists Kim Hill and Ana Magdalena Hurtado note of the Ypety Ache of Paraguay, after the death of a particularly hated individual, or if the death was especially violent, they “simply ate the cooked flesh of such cadavers and broke open the skulls to liberate the vengeful spirit rather than cremating the body completely.”
Anthropologist Fitz John Porter Poole described the funerary rites of the Bimin-Kuskusmin horticulturalists, also of New Guinea, writing that, "The wife of a deceased man, if she is still within her childbearing years, is expected to eat a tiny, raw fragment of flesh from her dead husband's penis.” Notably, however, there is good reason to think many Bimin-Kuskusmin themselves found these practices quite unpleasant. “Indeed, most Bimin-Kuskusmin consider this mortuary act to be particularly degrading and disgusting.” Poole considers – but does not necessarily endorse – the idea that “some expressions [of disgust towards these rituals] were shaped by the knowledge that Europeans (government officials and missionaries) were strongly against such practices.”
Other Bimin-Kuskusmin rituals also showed a strong connection to bodily fluids in ways that are largely incongruous with modern western sensibilities. Buried tubes of menstrual blood were used in ritual fertilization of crops considered to be "female" (cultivated by women), such as sweet potatoes. In taro gardens, which are cared for by men, “tubes of semen are placed there to strengthen the finiik spirit believed to inhabit the tubers.” Men of the Arunta foragers of Australia would drink some of each other’s blood under the belief that it would make them stronger and prevent treachery. Anthropologists Francis Gillen and Walter Spencer wrote that, “If [a man] refused to drink the blood, then, as actually happened in one case known to us, his mouth would be forced open and blood poured into it, which would have just the same binding influence as if the drinking had been a voluntary one.” Gillen and Spencer also discuss practices of treating sickness with blood, adding that,
When a woman is very ill and weak, one of her male Umba, to whom she is Mia alkulla – that is, he is the son of one of her younger sisters – may volunteer to strengthen her with his blood, in which case all the women and children are sent away from her. The man draws a quantity of blood from [his] sub-incised urethra, and she drinks part of it, while he rubs the remainder over her body, adding afterwards a coating of red ochre and grease. [italics added]
Beyond funerary cannibalism, and the particular attention given to viscera and bodily fluids in rituals and social practices, cultures the world over have practiced forms of extreme body modification. In Captain James Cook’s journals describing his voyage to the Polynesian Islands, he described the amputation practices of the people of Tonga;
When I first visited these islands, during my last voyage, I observed that many of the inhabitants had one or both of their little fingers cut off; and we could not then receive any satisfactory account of the reason of this mutilation. but we now learned, that this operation is performed when they labour under some grievous disease, and think themselves in danger of dying. They suppose, that the Deity will accept of the little finger, as a sort of sacrifice efficacious enough to procure the recovery of their health. They cut it off with one of their stone hatchets. There was scarcely one in ten of them whom we did not find thus mutilated, in one or both hands; which has a disagreeable effect, especially as they sometimes cut too close, that they encroach upon the bone of the hand which joins to the amputated finger (Cook, 403).
Among several Xhosa-speaking populations, there was another ritual mutilation practice involving fingers, known as ingqithi, which was described by the superintendent of a mission hospital in South Africa in 1964;
The ingqithi custom is a ritual mutilation among several Xhosa-speaking tribes, usually performed upon children of pre-school age, in which the last portion of one of the fingers is amputated. The word is derived from the verb ukuthi qithiqithi, which means “to separate”. Separation, anatomical as well as psychological, is an important element in this custom…The whole family witnesses the ceremony, no outsider being present…the mutilation is not medically an amputation, but an exarticulation. The joint between the middle and the distal phalanx is crossed, the knife not cutting the bone… Special attention is paid to concealing the amputated portion of the finger. A burial place is chosen in the wall of the hut, at the top of which a little hole is made, and the phalanx is wrapped in cow-dung and plastered into that hole. This secrecy is exercised to prevent witches or evil spirits from detecting the piece of finger, as this would be fatal to the child. People say that if witches found it, the wound could swell and become septic.
Among 677 patients at Dr. Jensen’s hospital in 1964, 225 (33 percent) had ingqithi.
In a previous article, I described numerous historical traditions of extracting and displaying human heads, both during warfare and for ritual purposes. Heads would be severed, either in war or after the death of a relative, then in some cases organs would be removed, parts would be eaten, the head would be treated with chemicals and stitched, or defleshed, and prominently displayed. Such traditions have existed all over the world.
Head-hunting, extreme body mutilation, sorcery killings, cannibalism, human sacrifice; these were very real components of many human societies throughout history.
Anthropologist Timothy Taylor writes that the concept of ‘visceral insulation’ “describes the way in which the necessary specialization of the modern world screens or insulates people from 'visceral' things - bodies, blood, death screams, screams in in childbirth, excessive grieving…” He argues that this insulation has its genesis in the development of civilizations with substantial economic specialization;
Within civilizations, dirty and distressing jobs were delegated to people who could become habituated to them. The viscerally immersed specializations of slaughterers, tanners, butchers, embalmers, grave-diggers, and refuse collectors free others to become insulated enough to specialize in the arts and sciences. Without visceral insulation there would have been no Johann Sebastian Bach and no Marie Curie (Taylor 279).
Occupational specialization combined with modern infrastructure, sanitation systems, and medicine leads to most people in wealthy, industrialized societies – most of the time – having a degree of insulation from the violence, death, and disease that has been substantially more common throughout human history. Taylor adds that, “Visceral insulation, in prehistory and history, has led to the creation of a series of increasingly distinct and exclusive comfort zones.”
Being shielded from the violent, the horrifying, and the disgusting elements of life leads to a perspective of human existence that is fundamentally alien to the beliefs and social practices that have come before. Eating the body parts of a hated enemy or a loved one, collecting severed heads, cutting off fingers, or drinking the blood of a relative to cure a sickness, are behaviors that can only make sense among people familiar with the visceral. People who saw one-third of their children die in infancy, who had to regularly hunt, kill, and butcher animals themselves for food, where less than half of children made it to adulthood, and warfare was often fundamentally personal and endemic.
In sanitized environments, the visceral is kept hidden – and represents a much-maligned intruder – yet many cultures had to acclimate to its frequent appearance. If their practices seem strange, it is only because we inhabit societies that have been constructed precisely to shield us from this reality.