Debate on cannibalism gnaws Australian experts

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MYTH or main course? The idea of cannibalism has divided anthropologists for decades but for one Australian expert, there's no doubt human flesh has been consumed with gusto in many parts of the world in recent years.

Australian National University historian and anthropologist Chris Ballard said ritual cannibalism had been practised in parts of the Pacific and Central America, and most recently in Papua and PNG, where human flesh had been eaten within living memory.

''If you hunted single-mindedly, you could probably find someone who has eaten someone in New Guinea,'' he said. Yet the practice had almost certainly ceased, he added, largely because of the influx of missionaries into remote areas.

Other anthropologists scoff at the very idea of cannibalism, saying it is a legend of Western culture, often constructed to justify conquering primitive peoples and grabbing their land.

Dr Ballard is undeterred. Eating an enemy's corpse, or the body of a loved relative, was a traditional ritual among some Papuan tribes, he said, including the Miyanmin, the Fore, Asmat, and Citak peoples.

The Fore people's practice of eating human brains had led to the flowering of a disease called kuru, which has been likened to mad cow disease. ''The Fore saw it as an act of great piety,'' Dr Ballard said. ''If you absolutely loved a relative, you consumed part of his brain.''

The Kombai people have referred to other tribes as ''jungle pigs'', according to some reports, and the notable Australian scientist Tim Flannery has said he lived with a reputedly cannibal tribe -- the Miyanmin -- in PNG, where the village chief referred to another tribe as his ''fridge''.

Human flesh had also been consumed in Fiji, the Solomons and Vanuatu within the last couple of centuries, and in Mexico in the 16th century, Dr Ballard said, yet many experts scoffed at the evidence.

Since the 1980s, he added, cannibalism had been at the centre of a concerted anthropological debate between those academics who argued there was no direct proof of human flesh-eating, and those who believed there was adequate evidence to substantiate the practice.

Michael Stevenson, a social and cultural historian with Monash University, has written on cannibalism, and said he remained a confirmed sceptic.

Cannibalism was a myth, he said, perpetuated by the West to justify otherwise unjustifiable imperialism. ''The notion that human beings eat other is an ancient history, and it's actually an ancient fantasy,'' he said.

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