Have Some Compassion For Modern Cannibals

One remote civilization is playing catch-up to our own mistakes.

Have Some Compassion For Modern Cannibals

Duke Harten

Paul Garnier/Getty

One remote civilization is playing catch-up to our own mistakes.

In 2006, Smithsonian Magazine published “Sleeping With Cannibals,” an account of writer Paul Raffaele’s time spent with the Korowai tribe of Indonesian New Guinea. At first blush, the tribe seems similar to many others you might read about in National Geographic: Nestled deep in the jungle, they live in straw huts and hunt with bows and arrows. But they also eat people. All the time.

The ritual comes from the Korowai’s belief in something called a khakhua, or a netherworld-dwelling witch who infects and possesses the bodies of the tribe’s men before ultimately killing them. In the Korowai’s belief system, the khakhua is blamed for mysterious deaths — or rather, those caused by invisible disease or natural causes . In other words, deaths that nobody saw coming. Before a man dies, his family gathers near his deathbed and listens as he identifies the man he believes to be the khakhua. Once the culprit is IDed, he’s rounded up and dragged off to his death (often begging for mercy and asserting his innocence). Adult members of the tribe behead the khakhua and consume his entire body, except for the gross parts: bones, teeth, hair, nails and genitals. They believe eating the khakhua is the best way to avenge their dead relative.

(Note: Some say that police encounters in the more accessible parts of the jungle have quelled cannibalistic practices in recent years. But according to guides who interact with the more isolated Korowai — those who still live in tree houses deep in the jungle — the practice is anything but finished.)

Brutal and barbaric as this ritual may seem to the civilized world, the Korowai consider it just the opposite. To them, it’s a justice system predicated on their genuine belief that a witch has murdered one of their own. To not kill the “witch” would be tantamount to letting a convicted murderer go free. When asked whether the tribe eats human flesh for any other reason, a man named Boas replied:

Of course not. We don’t eat humans, we only eat khakhua.

Sound familiar? Let’s Doc-n-Marty back to Salem Village in 1692, a “civilized” place soon to be driven mad. Two young girls begin having fits that include “violent contortions and uncontrollable outbursts of screaming.” This lights the fuse that will eventually see 24 innocents die for imagined crimes.

According to the good folks over at the History Channel, the mechanics of the witch hunt relied on only two things:

  1. A medical diagnosis of bewitchment (which we now know to be ballyhoo).
  2. The afflicted person pointing a finger.

Now, let’s examine this with a critical eye. We now know that witches don’t exist, which means that the diagnosis, of course, was wrong. (Much like the Korowai, we simply screwed up the science.) But the more troubling thing is the willingness of one person to single out another even though they know they’re making it up.

I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t begin to fathom the gears that must turn for a Korowai tribesman to say “Hey, it’s that guy who’s responsible for my dysentery.” Nor can I wrap my mind around what it took for children to single out upstanding Salem adults and say “They’ve bewitched me and must be hung.”

I’m not endorsing the Korowai’s cannibalism. I’m just saying that if you step back a couple centuries to our own history and ask the same question — Do you hang innocent people for any other reason? — you might get a similar answer:

Of course not. We don’t hang innocent people. We only hang witches.