Sunday 28 May 2017

Sink your teeth into surreal book about ultimate taboo

Science: Eat Me, Bill Schutt, Profile Books, hdbk, 320 pages, €17.50

Bill Schutt. Photo: Jerry Ruotolo
Bill Schutt. Photo: Jerry Ruotolo
Eat Me by Bill Schutt

Cannibalism, as Bill Schutt points out in this history of the subject, may be one of the greatest taboos in human society. Move to the animal kingdom, though, and it's not frowned upon quite so much.

Of course, we are animals - much as certain ideological, anthropocentric types might deny it - but we're also unique among animals. Humans have self-awareness, morality, language, sophisticated societal structures, a coherent sense of personal identity. Most pertinently of all, in terms of this book, we have culture - and as Schutt says, "culture is king".

Eating other people has long been considered unthinkable, the ultimate no-no, by most cultures: from the Ancient Greeks and Romans, to folk tales, mythology, literature, modern-day movies and TV shows - the general social mores of each time.

Human cannibalism is always portrayed as horrific, malevolent, despicable, grotesque beyond belief. It's used to tell a moral lesson, to shock the audience, or as a particularly "grand guignol" bit of comeuppance for the villain. Anthropophagy is one Very Bad Thing.

Interestingly, Schutt points out, there is at least one quite significant exception to this: China. Because that gigantic land was never greatly influenced by Western or Judaeo-Christian values, they went their own way on cannibalism, as in so much else. Which isn't to say, obviously, that the Chinese are chowing down on friends and neighbours like it's no big deal. But there was a long, albeit still relatively rare, history of the practise in China, officially documented in state records.

The most bizarre reason given for this cannibalism is filial loyalty. We're all aware of that strong seam running through East Asian culture: devotion to one's elders. Here we learn about this being taken to extremis - in cases where parents or grandparents were seriously ill, children would remove part of a limb and feed it to them.

A writer and zoologist, based in the American Museum of Natural History and Long Island University, Schutt subtitles his book 'A Natural and Unnatural History of Cannibalism'. Roughly the first third correlates to the "natural history" part, in that it examines cannibalism in animals. The remainder looks at us: Homo sapiens, that most unnatural member of the natural world, for good and bad.

The wild diversity of sorts of cannibalism in animals is mind-boggling. Schutt details everything from filial and sibling cannibalism, to animals eating their mate after sex, to species of fish and amphibians which allow their young to eat part of their intestines or the lining of their mouth.

A lot of it is fairly hair-raising and skin-crawling stuff (no pun intended), although the great thing about animals is that you know there's no malice, no intent to hurt - no great consciousness, really, of what they're doing. For them, it's just food. It's nice to be reminded, again, that we are not the only type of animal.

But, as I say, we are unique. Schutt begins his humano-centric history of cannibalism by looking at our Neanderthal forebears - perhaps surprisingly, there's little or no evidence that they ate each other.

Similarly, there was little evidence of cannibalism among the Caribbean natives "discovered" by Columbus and the Spanish. But, in one of history's worst crimes, that didn't stop the Conquistadors, when it was convenient, labelling certain tribes as cannibals - and thus giving themselves carte blanche for wholesale slaughter and enslavement. Indeed, the word 'cannibal' comes from the Carib Indians of the Lesser Antilles.

A richly detailed and scrupulously researched book, Eat Me is full of fascinating stories like that (albeit many are gruesome, and some - see the previous paragraph - are inexpressibly sad). The sections on a kuru epidemic in Papua New Guinea, and the related outbreak of BSE in Britain, read almost like a medical thriller.

The late scene, meanwhile, wherein Schutt eats a woman's frozen placenta - cooked osso buco by her husband, in their suburban kitchen while their cheerful kids mill around - is funny, sweet and one of the most surreal things I've ever read. A fitting end to a fine work of popular science.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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