Paul Raffaele,
Among the Cannibals: Adventures on the Trail of Man's Darkest Ritual
(Smithsonian, 2008)

Looking for an open-minded and thought-provoking consideration of cannibalism across cultures? Put Among the Cannibals down at once. Better yet, don't pick it up in the first place.

Author Paul Raffaele is not an anthropologist. Nor is he a philosopher. Instead, he is a self-described adventurer who tramples into foreign lands, ogles topless native women, makes cheeky comments at sages, chants Latin liturgy to convince natives he has magic powers and comes right out and says it on page 123: "Eating human flesh, unless you have no prospect of other food and are starving to death, is an evil act."

It's almost eerie how well Raffaele channels a typical white, male, 19th-century traveler in his condescension, cultural insensitivity and intolerance. By the end of the first chapter, you may find yourself wishing one of the Korowai cannibals in the book -- or any cannibal -- would just eat him. No such luck. He lives to smirk at the sadhu sages of India, poke fun at tubby Tongans and root around Tenochtitlan, pestering his local guides with the same question, "Is he a cannibal? Is she a cannibal?"

Throughout his travels, Raffaele revels in the how, briefly contemplates the why and ultimately dismisses cannibalism in each case as immoral. For the most part, he ignores the philosophical, mythological and anthropological factors behind eating people. He doesn't even satisfactorily answer the eternal question: what does human flesh taste like?

To be fair, Raffaele avoids the worst of the sensationalist cannibalism hearsay by building his case on the testimony of multiple people within any reputedly cannibalistic culture -- although he always seems to be a little (or a lot) too late to see cannibalism in action. He's at his best and least insufferable when discussing the forced cannibalism taking place in Uganda ... which isn't technically cannibalism at all.

There isn't much to redeem Among the Cannibals. Raffaele, who is consistently praised and seen as special by the natives he comes in contact with, is surely the most egotistical and least likable of narrators. It is hard not to conclude that either this is someone's idea of a bad joke (supported by the hilariously posed photos throughout) or the Smithsonian is really hard up for money.

review by
Jennifer Mo

19 December 2009

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