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Hutton distinguished ten different motives for the eating of human flesh — It may be a matter of piety towards the dead; it may be associated with some doctrine of reincarnation; or it may be actuated by some rather crude philosophy as to the nature of life, life-matter, or soul substance. A cannibal feast may be in the nature of a sacrament; it may be a kind of a judicial proceeding; or it may be merely instigated by anger and a desire for revenge. Human flesh may be eaten, or human blood drunk, merely medicinally, or as a result of exceptional limitation in the matter of diet, or under the dictate of hunger or for pure greed


Recent History

January 2, 1801

The Savage Country - Rum, Women, and Rations


The fur traders of the Nor West Company often faced starvation and hunger and would have to boil animal skins for nourishment. However, when even this was unavailable, they could eat herbs or a rock lichen called tripe de roche. When eaten in excess, it weakened the body and led to violent vomiting and acute spasms of the bowels.

More difficult than finding a wife in the pays d'en haut to cook one's rations was the problem of obtaining an adequate and dependable supply of food itself. It was one of Henry's problems at Pembina; it was one that extended right up to Headquarters. The vast organization of trading posts, supply systems, and communications known as the North West Company existed, of course, for only one thing: beaver. But you couldn't eat beaver - or, at least, their pelts, or the hats into which they were finally made. And how to feed a thousand-odd men and their families in more than a hundred posts, and on their long wilderness journeys, was one of the Concern's biggest worries.

With the fur trader himself, it wasn't so much a question of how well he ate as of whether he ate at all. He was often on short rations, and the dread of famine hung over every post. Scattered through every trader's journal are such routine phrases as, "We were reduced to eating the parchment bille of our windows." or "We dined on a pair of leather breches." or "We were obliged to take the hair from the bear skins and roast the hide, which tastes like pork."

The eating of one's leather garments , sometimes broiled, sometimes boiled up into a glutinous broth - was so common in times of dire need, in fact, that it received no more than casual mention in the Nor'westers' journals. Thus, W. F Wentzel, writing at his post on the Mackenzie River, said what he and twelve others lived for two months on nothing but dried beaver skins: "We destroyed in order to keep alive upward of three hundred beaver skins besides a few lynx and otter skins . . . We have a meal now and then; at intervals we are still two or three days without anything. All my men are dead of starvation, viz: Louis Le mai dit Poudrier and one of his children, François Pilon and William Henry, my hunter."

Other last resorts in the way of food were the old bones of animals or fish, which were cracked open and boiled; the spawn of fish, beaten up in warm water; and various herbs, low in food value, but capable of sustaining life, such as the often mentioned choux-gras of the prairie. Daniel Harmon tells of subsisting on rosebuds, "a kind of food neither very palatable nor nourishing . . . They are better than nothing, since they would just support life."

But the standard emergency ration of nature, mentioned by the very earliest missionaries and explorers, was a rock lichen called tripe de roche. It was necessary to close one's eyes while eating it, an early father remarks, but it filled the stomach, if nothing else. The elder Henry describes its preparation, "which is done by boiling it down into a mucilage, as thick as the white of an egg."

The distressing results of eating tripe de roche are vividly pictured by the free trader John Long: "Tripe de roche is a weed that grows to rocks, of a spongy nature and very unwholesome, causing violent pains in the bowels, and frequently occasions a flux. I am informed that traders in the Northwest have often experienced this disorder, and some of them in very severe weather have been compelled to eat it for fourteen days successively, which weakened them considerably. When the disorder does not terminate in a flux, it occasions violent vomiting, and sometimes spitting of blood, with acute spasms of the bowels."

Hardly the sort of dish one would care to serve often - yet it was not the last extremity of desperate men. For, as the elder Henry darkly hints, cannibalism was not unknown in the fur country. John Long, anything but a squeamish reporter, again tells of a starving voyageur who killed and ate not only a harmless Indian who had brought him food, but one of his two companions as well. Tricked into a confession of his guilt, he was summarily shot through the head by his bourgeois.

January 1, 1906

The Natives of Australia


A girl was killed, when she was bathing with several others, by a native, who decoyed her away. She was very plump; the object of killing her was to acquire this desirable quality. A big fire was made, and after removing her intestines, two natives carried her round the fire a few times in an upright position, the others meanwhile singing in a low voice. Then the body was put in the heart of the fire, where a space had been cleared, covered with ashes and cooked like a kangaroo.

Before leaving the subject of animal food we must say a word or two on cannibalism. Human flesh is nowhere a regular article of food ; some blacks undoubtedly kill to eat, others only eat those who are killed in battle, or have died of disease. Sometimes there is a magical idea attaching to the use of human flesh or fat, especially kidney fat, which is cut out before death has taken place : it is held to convey to the eater the courage of the victim. Sometimes it is the bodies of enemies which are disposed of in this way ; in South Queensland it was the recognised method of giving honourable burial to your friends. In many parts both sexes and all classes eat human flesh ; elsewhere it is only the men who will do so. There are no special ceremonies connected with cooking or eating in most districts, and most parts of the body are eaten, the thighs being the bonne bouche. In West Australia, on the Gascoyne River, some ritual is found in connection with eating human flesh. A girl was killed, when she was bathing with several others, by a native, who decoyed her away. She was very plump ; the object of killing her was to acquire this desirable quality. A big fire was made, and after removing her intestines, two natives carried her round the fire a few times in an upright position, the others meanwhile singing in a low voice. Then the body was put in the heart of the fire, where a space had been cleared, covered with ashes and cooked like a kangaroo. One of the participants in the feast was a companion who had been bathing with her. 

In the Turribul tribes ceremonial combats follow the initiation ceremonies. If a man is killed in one of these his body is eaten. Each tribal group sits by its own fire, and a great medicine man singes the body all over till it turns copper coloured. Then the body is opened, the entrails and heart are buried, and pieces of the flesh cut off and thrown to the different parties ; the fat was rubbed on the faces of the principal medicine men, and the skin and bones were carried by the mother for months. The grave in which were the heart and other parts was so sacred that none save a few old medicine men would approach it ; it was marked with blackened sticks tied with grass. Near Maryborough the skin was taken off, and the body distributed to the men and old women, the father or father's brother officiating as carver. The kidney fat was rubbed on the spears, and the kidneys themselves stuck on the points ; this was to make the weapons deadly. The meat is stated to look like horseflesh and smell like beef when it is being cooked. Statements have been made that a girl was sacrificed in South Queensland to some evil spirit ; there is no evidence to show that this was the case, and it may be dismissed as an invention.

January 3, 1906

Natives of Australia - Disposal of Dead


Mr. Gason, not a very reliable authority, says that the fat of the corpse is eaten.

Further to the north-east, on the Gulf of Carpentaria, the tribes eat the flesh of the dead man, and then, after some elaborate ceremonies, bury the bones. In the Binbinga tribe a fire is made in a hole in the ground, the head is cut off, the liver taken out, and the limbs dismembered. No woman may take part in the cannibal feast. The bones are taken to the camp of the dead man's father, and he puts them in a parcel : a stout stick is placed upright in the ground, and in the fork of this the parcel is placed ; a fire is lighted in a clear space round it, and in the smoke of this fire is supposed to be seen the spirit of the dead man. Only his father and mother may approach the fire. After a time the bones are placed in a log, and this in the boughs of a tree overhanging a water-hole, to be finally disposed of by a great flood or some similar catastrophe. 

South of the Arunta are the Dieri. After a death they wail for hours at a time and smear their bodies with pipeclay. Tears course down the cheeks of the women, but when they are addressed the mourn- ino- stops as if by magic. As soon as the breath leaves the body of the sick man, the women and children leave the camp, the men pull down his hut so as to get at the body, and it is prepared for burial by being tied up. The great toes are fastened together, and the thumbs are secured behind the back ; this they say is to prevent 'walking.' Eight men take the corpse on their heads, and the grave is filled, not with earth, but with wood, in order to keep the dingo at bay. The space round the grave is carefully swept, and the camp is moved from its original situation, so as to evade the attentions of the spirit if it should happen to get back to its old haunts. Mr. Gason, not a very reliable authority, says that the fat of the corpse is eaten ; the mother eats of her children, the children of their mother, brothers-in-law eat of sisters- in-law and vice versd ; but the father does not eat of his offspring, nor they of him.

January 2, 1908

Some Notes on Cannibalism


Human kidney fat was used by cannibals in the belief that it conferred magical qualities on the recipient. and they were "fond of the fat of a dead foe, which is not only eaten as a delicacy and as a strengthening food, but is also carried as an amulet."

The utilization of kidney fat in the belief that it conferred magical qualities on the recipient seems to have been practised in both the northern and southern halves of the survey area. In the Maryborough district, after the flesh had been eaten, the kidney fat was rubbed on the points of spears and the kidneys themselves affixed thereon to make the spears more deadly.'*'' 

Mrs K. Emmerson 48, now residing at Chinchilla, relates that when she was living near the Bowen River in 1908, an Aboriginal employee of her father was killed by members of a local tribal group and his kidney fat eaten. 

An instance was reported 49 in the wild country between the headwaters of the Herbert and Burdekin Rivers as recently as 1934. In fact fat in general was highly regarded for its magical powers. Howitt 50 recorded how Aborigines of the "Turrbal tribe" rubbed it over their bodies; Thomas 51 that it was rubbed on the faces of the "principal medicine men". Duramboi left behind an account 52 of how an Aborigine would hold a receptacle under his portion of flesh in order to catch the melting fat, which he then imbibed. Lumholtz 53 reported that the Aborigines of the Herbert River were fond of the fat of a dead foe, which is not only eaten as a delicacy and as a strengthening food, but is also carried as an amulet. A small piece is done up in grass and kept in a basket worn around the neck, and the effect of this is, in their opinion, success in the chase, so that they can easily approach the game.

47. Howitt, A. W.: op. cit. P. 753. 

48. Letters from Mrs K. Emmerson to the writer. 

49. Registry of Northern Supreme Court, Townsville. Cases 370 and 371 of 1934. In the case of the two North Queensland instances reported on Page 27 where Aborigines were killed and their kidney-fat eaten, the writer considers that investigations could be made with advantage of the belief by local white residents, that the two victims had been so treated because of their alleged violation of tribal laws relating to women. 

50. Howitt, A. W.: op. cit. P. 752. 

51. Thomas, A. W.: op. cit. P. 110. 

52. Lang, J. D.: Cooksland. P. 427. 

53. Lumholtz, C. op. cit. P. 272.

January 2, 1911

The Passing of the Aborigines


Infant cannibalism was practised, where it could not be prevented—as it still is among all circumcised groups. One of the old men, Bully-bulluma, having been an epic meat-hunter in his day, had eight wives.

The Trappists led a life of rigorous poverty, intensified in this barren remote land to the point of starvation. There were cattle on the station, but meat was excluded for religious reasons, and the monks existed on one meal a day of pumpkin and rice, and a little beer they had made from sorghum grown in the garden. Rising at 2 a.m. they kept vigil in the dark chapel till dawn, then worked till daylight’s end, speaking no word save in necessity, and closing the day with some hours on their knees on the bare earth. I was the first white woman to appear among them at the Mission, and the first that the natives of the region had seen.

From the newly arrived stores, Brother Sebastian had provided a strange and varied meal for us according to his lights, extraordinary stews and puddings served in any order and all strongly flavoured with garlic; milkless tea in a huge jug that was both teapot and cups for us all. Poor Brother Sebastian may have been a paragon of piety, but he was no cook. In my keeping today is a fragment of petrified bread roll he made for me in 1900! It has been mistaken for a geological specimen, and, always carried with me in loving memory, it has survived, without losing a crumb, thousands of miles of rough transport.

Perhaps the first woman in history to sleep in a Trappist bed, I was allotted the abbot’s bag bed and seaweed pillow, and the sawn-off log for my chair or table. I woke to hear the natives singing a Gregorian chant in the little chapel near by. Half clothed and, for all the untiring work of the missioners, still but half-civilized, they comprised the Nyool-nyool tribe, of the totem of a local species of snake. Most of the women and men had their two front teeth knocked out, and some still wore bones through their noses. Infant cannibalism was practised, where it could not be prevented—as it still is among all circumcised groups. One of the old men, Bully-bulluma, having been an epic meat-hunter in his day, had eight wives. Another, Goodowel, was dressed in trousers and shirt, one stocking, his face painted red with white stripes from each corner of his mouth in broad lines. A red band was round his head, the hair drawn back to form a tight knob, and stuck in the knob was a tuft of white cockatoo feathers and a small wooden emblem. I know now that he was in the sixth degree of initiation.

Although they had tried their hardest, with prayer and precept, to teach these natives cleanliness and Christian living, giving their very lives to the work in torture and privation, those Spanish priests could hope for little headway in the first generation. There was one terrible manifestation of savagery that I can never forget.

A man had been found dying of spear-wounds out in the bush, and carried to the Mission as he was breathing his last. I watched two of the lay brothers bearing the stretcher to one of the huts, a horde of natives following. I noticed that they held their burden curiously high in the air. Suddenly, as it was lowered for entry to a doorway, the natives crowding round, to my horror, fell upon the body of the dying man, and put their lips to his in a brutal eagerness to inhale the last breath. They believed that in so doing they were absorbing his strength and virtue, and his very vital spark, and all the warnings of the “white father” would not keep them from it. The man was of course dead when we extricated him, and it was a ghastly sight to see the lucky “breath catcher” scoop in his cheeks as he swallowed the “spirit breath” that gave him double hunting power.


The women quite frankly admitted to me that they had killed and eaten some of their children—they liked “baby meat.”


Baby cannibalism was rife among these central-western peoples, as it is west of the border in Central Australia. In one group, east of the Murchison and Gascoyne Rivers, every woman who had had a baby had killed and eaten it, dividing it with her sisters, who, in turn, killed their children at birth and returned the gift of food, so that the group had not preserved a single living child for some years. When the frightful hunger for baby meat overcame the mother before or at the birth of the baby, it was killed and cooked regardless of sex. Division was made according to the ancestral food-laws. I cannot remember a case where the mother ate a child she had allowed, at the beginning, to live.


It was no unusual sight to see anything up to 100 of these cannibals, men, women and children, several of them but a week in civilization, climb aboard an empty truck and go off to an initiation ceremony farther up the line. I use the word cannibal advisedly. Every one of these central natives was a cannibal. Cannibalism had its local name from Kimberley to Eucla, and through all the unoccupied country east of it, and there were many grisly rites attached thereto. Human meat had always been their favourite food, and there were killing vendettas from time immemorial. In order that the killing should be safe, murderers’ slippers or pads were made, emu-feathers twisted and twined together, bound to the foot with human hair, on which the natives walk and run as easily as a white man in running shoes, their feet leaving no track. Dusk and dawn were the customary hours for raiding a camp. Victims were shared according to the law. The older men ate the soft and virile parts, and the brain; swift runners were given the thighs; hands, arms or shoulders went to the best spear-throwers, and so on. Those who received skull, shoulder or arm kept the bones, which they polished and rounded, strung on hair, and kept on their person, either as pointing-bones or magic pendants.

Every one of the natives whom I encountered on the east-west line had partaken of human meat, with the exception of Nyerdain, who told me it made him sick. They freely admitted their sharing of these repasts and enumerated those killed and eaten by naming the waters, and drawing a line with the big toe on the sand as they told over in gruesome memory the names they dared not mention.

My first words to them were always “No more man-meat.” From the weekly supply train, I would procure part of a bullock or sheep and show them the game food areas, mallee-hen’s eggs, rabbits and so on, that must be their meats now, with as many dampers as I could provide, and a drink of sweetened tea.

One morning very early, the news came that Nyan-ngauera had left the camp, taking a fire-stick and accompanied by her little girl. No one would follow her or help to track her. For twelve miles I followed the track unsuccessfully, but Nyan-ngauera doubled many times and gave birth to a child a mile west of my camp, where she killed and ate the baby, sharing the food with the little daughter. Later, with the help of her sons and grandsons, the spot was found, nothing to be seen there save the ashes of a fire. “The bones are under the fire,” the boys told me, and digging with the digging-stick we came upon the broken skull, and one or two charred bones, which I later sent to the Adelaide Museum. A grown man will never avenge the death of his own child, nor will he, under any circumstances, share the meal.

The late Frank Hann, on a survey exploration, conferred the name of Mount Daisy Bates upon a height a little south of Mount Gosse. I discovered that it was the area of one of the worst groups of cannibals in the Centre.

Ancient History


Man the Hunter


January 1, 1968

Man the Hunter
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