Friday, May 3, 2013

Eat (their) heart out! Civilized cannibals?

Well, the Brits have not been very highly reputed as gastronomes, even though pub food is now better than it was a few decades ago.  However, the latest Hot News Real Science story in the BBC today is the shocking archeological evidence of a British gastro pub operating as long ago as the early 1600s, in the Jamestown colony in what is now Virginia.
Newly discovered human bones prove the first permanent British settlers in North America turned to cannibalism over the cruel winter of 1609-10, US researchers have said.
We don't know the name, and the scientists involved apparently didn't find the usual British pub-sign board hanging outside the eatery that they excavated.  But that, in itself, was not the critical discovery.  No, the critical discovery was about the cookery.  They were cannibals!

Early EuroAmerindian fusion cuisine
 (from the cited BBC story)
We are not qualified to  evaluate the credibility of the evidence, though we can see the intellectually rigorous reasons why it garnered headlines on the Beeb's front page as the day's hottest science news (rather than their cookery section).  There was no menu, so we can't know about the sauce, garnish or sides (probably neeps and mash).  We know that the meal seemed to be served, as you can see, on the half-shell (i.e., the missing bit of the cranium), but we don't know how many were served, nor whether they were invited to some sort of celebratory event, or if this was just a routine day in the Olde Friends' Meeting public house.  Indeed, we don't really know from the report how old the olde friends may have been at their time of (initial) excavation (of the brains).

Actually, we don't mean to make light of the famine that apparently led to the cannibalism that has just been announced.  That, and all the suffering and death, and indeed the decision to eat their kin were surely horrific.  But it is odd that, for some reason, despite all the stuff we are willing to eat, including some of our closely related species friends, like cows, deer, goats, pigs (and undisclosed horsemeat now and then), we seem particularly squeamish about consuming two sorts:  insects, and people.  For insects, maybe it's the crunch that seems disturbing.  In any case, cannibalism may for some reason be the ultimate horror, since we don't seem so squeamish about bombing, warring, shooting each other, and other similarly trivial acts.

This is not new.  Cannibalism drew horrified breaths at least back into the middle ages where, on medieval maps, unvisited locations referred to as Terra Ingognita were pictured as inhabited by cannibals.  It was occasionally mentioned in the classics (though it is not included in a Roman cookery book that we have).  Interestingly, even if the eaten were enemies, we recoil.

As far as the science goes, we just have to wonder about the reason for the shock.

No comments: