Interpreting cannibalism is complex due to our own Western assumptions about the practice, a lack of attention to context of the acts, and the diverse reasons for its occurrence. Cannibalism occurs for a number of reasons in a number of ways: people consume other humans when they are foreigners or from that culture, it can be for veneration or violation, or it can be as a source of sustenance. The consumption of outsiders is done either for food or as a form of violation, and the consumption of insiders is done more as a funerary or ritualistic rite. While it is known from ethnohistoric, archaeological, taphonomic and osteological datasets that cannibalism occurs in Fiji, the context and purpose is not known. A new article by Jones, Walsh-Haney and Quinn (2012) explores the underlying causes and contexts of cannibalism by integrating osteological, taphonomic, archaeological and stable isotopic data.
Archaeological and ethnohistoric accounts of the inhabitants of Fiji and Polynesia have interpreted cannibalism primarily as nutritive exocannibalism due to dietary stress. Other studies have demonstrated that it also may have been ritualistic behavior between warring tribes. Traces of endocannibalism appear, but these have been argued to have been traces of mortuary practices and not cannibalism. Ethnohistory supports that cannibalism in these cultures was a way of violating, not venerating, the deceased. One recurring myth states that during times of war, the chief of the winning army would consume the losing chiefs and famous warriors of the opposition. However, there has been little exploration whether cannibalistic marks could be a sign of veneration, a form of ancestor worship. It is this that the researchers aim to explore.
In order to determine whether individual bones have been cannibalized there are six criteria: deliberate bone breakage, presence of human tooth marks, cut-marks, evidences of cooking (pot marks and change in bone color), abrasions caused by anvils, or crushing of vertebrae to extract fat and marrow from the vertebral bodies. To determine if its for nutrition the bones are compared against butchery cut-marks, long bone breakage and discard patterns that are known for animal food sources. Stable isotope analysis can be used to determine diet; since humans are high in the trophic level, consumption of them would increase N15 and C13 levels. All of these factors are considered in this study.
There are 24 archaeological sites examined in Fiji, 14 of which have human remains, and 2 are cemeteries. They examine bones from middens, domestic sites and the funerary contexts. These remains were compared against a collection from the Fiji Museum. In total 20 individuals were examined. Of the archaeological collection, 12 of the 15 individuals displayed sharp force trauma associated with cannibalism. They were primarily found in trash middens and ovens. From the museum, 10 of 20 individuals had cannibalistic trauma marks. For both samples the cutmarks were focused around the joints and are indicative of defleshing. Stable isotope analysis of 9 of the 15 archaeological remains showed a very low probability of human flesh consumption, and rather emphasizes a marine and plant diet.
Since there are no percussion marks and the bones don’t display a butchering pattern similar to animal remains the researchers argue that this represents non-nutritive and likely non-violent form of flesh removal. Human flesh didn’t make up a substantial part of the diet. Bones from the cemetery show signs of portions of flesh being removed, and the bones from middens are quite small. This means it was ritualistic, perhaps associated with ancestor worship.
This study is quite interesting as it attempts to examine assumptions about cannibalism in Fiji by introducing new forms of data. However, there are many unknown factors. The study would have been aided by a closer study of foreigner versus local, and a larger sample is definitely needed. I would have also liked to have seen a comparison of the animal bones versus the human ones. Finally, it would help to see the patterns of other types of trauma in order to determine if the individuals being cannibalized are associated with warfare as discussed in ethnographic accounts. This is a great start to an analysis, and I love the integration of different datasets… it just needs to take the analysis a little farther.