Book Review of the Week: Among the Cannibals

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

One of the most compelling books I have ever read is a new book by Paul Raffaele, entitled Among the Cannibals: Adventures on the Trail of Man's Darkest Ritual. Stunning in its' cultural complexity, Raffaele digs deep into five very different cultures and explores the meanings of one of mankind's most unsettling taboos.

Replete with photos that somehow humanize people for whom we have deep prejudices without even meeting them, Raffaele explores these cultures and practices without ethnocentrism. He's a true reporter in that sense, showing his years of reporting and writing for The Australian Broadcasting Company, Reader's Digest, and the Smithsonian. He's written another book on different cultures, The Last Tribes on Earth: Journeys Among the World's Most Threatened Cultures.

In his newest book, he's outdone himself with objective writing and sharing of something that just makes me cringe. I could not put this book down, and have since told everyone I know to read it - it is that fascinating.

I was so intrigued with the book that I contacted Paul to see if he'd talk about his new book with us. Lucky for us, he was happy to! Here's what he had to say...


Paul Raffaele




WE: Please tell us about your new book, Among the Cannibals.

PR: It's not about psychopaths such as the fictional Hannibal Lecter, but about societies where cannibalism was and is accepted as a normal everyday part of living with no shame attached, and even honour in some cases. Though the book is about these societies, the act of cannibalism takes up at most about 10% of the book while the other is about these unusual cultures. Thus, the section on Tonga has a few pages about my encounters with their famous transvestites, and more pages about my time with their mad king and the weird crown prince. The section on Mexico is as much about the vibrant city and its people as it is about the Aztecs who must have been the world champion cannibals.

WE: Where did you get the idea to pursue the research in this book?

PR: It came from a visit to the Korowai cannibals in a remote New Guinea jungle. My daughter's fiance who is doing a PHD in religious history told me about the Aghoris in India, and thus the idea was born for the book.

WE: I can tell from your writings that cannibalism is deeply disturbing to you (as to most, I imagine), and yet, you were still able to show great intercultural sensitivity and accept others' differences. Was that easy to do, in the moment? I imagine that later, while writing, it would be much easier than when you're right there in the midst of it.

PR: I've been visiting and reporting on tribal people in remote and dangerous locations for four decades, and so I'm well practised in it it. The worst was the Uganda section because it was harrowing to talk to small children who'd been forced to perform unimaginably barbaric acts by a rebel leader. I nominate him as the most evil human on now the planet.

WE: There are so many meanings assigned to cannibalism - from popular cultural views, to each of the 5 cultures/groups and their views as presented in your book. Do those various groups of cannibals have anything in common, in terms of their worldviews on cannibalism?

PR: No, not much. That's what I found fascinating, that cannibalism could become a part of society, not condemned and sometimes honoured, in such widely dispersed locations and cultures, as in the Korowai of New Guinea, Tongans of the South Pacific, Aghoris of India and Aztecs if Mexico.

WE: What was the most disturbing part of your research for this book?

PR: Northern Uganda where the rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army forced many hundreds of young children they'd abducted to kill and eat their playmates. That to me is beyond horror, barely imaginable. What astonished and disturbed me was that the outside world did nothing to stop it even though there were reports in the international media including mine in Smithsonian magazine.

WE: Has writing this book changed your view of people? Of unique cultural customs?

PR: No. It's only intensified my wish to continue seeking out remote peoples and see their pure culture before they are invaded and largely destroyed by Western culture and morals.

WE: Thanks so much, Paul. Once I read this book, I could see how such a difficult-to-understand tradition could come into play. It takes a deeply intercultural person to look beyond things that are personally disturbing, and see people for who they are. Although I could not fathom the cannibalism in the Lord's Resistance Army, the other ones made sense to me, when viewed through those cultural lenses. You are an excellent writer, to have portrayed these cultures and people so clearly.

Paul Raffaele






All photos courtesy and copyright of Paul Raffaele.