Among the Cannibals: Adventures on the Trail of Man's Darkest Ritual

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It's the stuff of nightmares, the dark inspiration for literature and film. But astonishingly, cannibalism does exist, and in Among the Cannibals travel writer Paul Raffaele journeys to the far corners of the globe to discover participants in this mysterious and disturbing practice. From an obscure New Guinea river village, where Raffaele went in search of one of the last practicing cannibal cultures on Earth; to India, where the Aghori sect still ritualistically eat their dead; to North America, where evidence ...

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Among the Cannibals

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It's the stuff of nightmares, the dark inspiration for literature and film. But astonishingly, cannibalism does exist, and in Among the Cannibals travel writer Paul Raffaele journeys to the far corners of the globe to discover participants in this mysterious and disturbing practice. From an obscure New Guinea river village, where Raffaele went in search of one of the last practicing cannibal cultures on Earth; to India, where the Aghori sect still ritualistically eat their dead; to North America, where evidence exists that the Aztecs ate sacrificed victims; to Tonga, where the descendants of fierce warriors still remember how their predecessors preyed upon their foes; and to Uganda, where the unfortunate victims of the Lord's Resistance Army struggle to reenter a society from which they have been violently torn, Raffaele brings this baffling cultural ritual to light in a combination of Indiana Jones-type adventure and gonzo journalism.

Illustrated with photographs Raffaele took during his travels, Among the Cannibals is a gripping look at some of the more unsavory aspects of human civilization, guaranteed to satisfy every reader's morbid curiosity.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Post
“Travel writer Raffaele’s adventures in search of real cannibals…Curl up with this book and a nice Chianti.”
Peter Carlson
“Raffaele is a fun writer who has proved his ability to illuminate the oddness of the world. Maybe it’s time for Smithsonian’s editors to bring him in from the boondocks and set him loose in the USA.”
Peter Nichols
“[A] modern, non-fiction version of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World: a time-warp glimpse into man’s most primordial nightmare; exciting, fantastic, horrific - and a very well-written travel narrative.”
Associated Press
“Simply fascinating… Raffaele’s book is worth devouring.”
Associated Press Staff
“Simply fascinating… Raffaele’s book is worth devouring.”
Publishers Weekly
Australian Raffaele's quest for cannibals sent him around the world from the New Guinea highlands to the streets of Mexico City. Along the way he encountered necrophiliac Indian holy men, the brutalized child-victims of Uganda's civil war, and the iron-pumping king of Tonga. Raeffele's primary goal is to explore exactly what leads different cultures to violate one of humanity's greatest taboos. Yet Raffaele (a Smithsonian feature writer) is not above taking detours and his itinerary includes lessons in Tantric practices, drinking bouts with Tongan transvestites, and a tour of a Frida Kahlo exhibition. Raffaele is a competent adventure writer and has no problem asking questions along the lines of: "Have you eaten human flesh?" Unfortunately, he displays a less-than nuanced perspective, leading him to statements such as: "He is a mass killer whose humanity seems to have been almost entirely sucked out of him."' The fact that a number of the cultures he investigates haven't engaged in cannibalism in centuries makes his quest often seem misguided. Raffaele also needlessly tries to force the drama by phrasing his issues in the most lurid terms imaginable. What could have been a serious investigation of the most extreme varieties of human experience becomes a kind of cannibal farce.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Those seeking tales of serial killers à la Hannibal Lecter will be disappointed in these books, as both authors favor in-depth examinations of cannibalism across a wide variety of cultures. Likewise, both discredit the conclusions of William Arens's The Man-Eating Myth, instead asserting that cannibalism has been a very real human practice around the globe. Travis-Henikoff (coauthor, Star Food Revisited), a scholar of paleoanthropology, covers the phenomenon's many raisons d'être, from survival to politically motivated terror. Her perspective as a gastronomist helps to situate cannibalism within a wide range of global culinary practices from the Amazon to the American Southwest to Polynesia. Some sections, e.g., those on archaeological dating and on the Inquisition, could have been shorter, but the book's range is impressive.

Raffaele (Smithsonian magazine) focuses on cannibalism in a few particular regions: New Guinea, the Ganges basin, Tonga, and Uganda. He meets with cannibals, the locals who condemn them, and descendents of other known cannibals. His beautiful descriptions of life among these cultures show that cannibalism is a local belief that, unlike the rapidly changing landscape, is still going strong in some places. Unlike Travis-Henikoff, Raffaele maintains that cannibalism not related to survival is an "evil" act, yet his portraits of cannibals show their essential humanity. Both books are highly recommended for public libraries; endnotes and a bibliography additionally recommend Travis-Henikoff.
—Dan Harms

Kirkus Reviews
Smithsonian writer Raffaele travels around the planet to study "the most repugnant and forbidding" violation of society's taboos. Unsurprisingly, the more exciting and disturbing places he visited were the ones where cannibalism was still an ongoing concern. In New Guinea, Raffaele journeyed far upriver to the Korowai, a Stone Age tribe whose belief in khakhua (malign spirits causing disease) obligated them to kill and eat purportedly khakhua-possessed tribemates. He found the Korowai a lovely people, actually, unlike the Aghoris, a creepy Hindu cult whose holy men fed on the remains of corpses that had been cremated and dumped in the Ganges. Raffaele's narrative becomes truly horrific, though, when he describes venturing into northern Uganda, where rebel factions regularly kidnapped children, then forced them to kill and eat their compatriots. In the author's portraits of rehabilitation camps holding hundreds of spiritually shattered children, his book reaches beyond adventure anthropology and achieves a tone of urgent humanity. Next to that, trips to Tonga (whose famously hefty islanders were once feared warrior-cannibals) and Mexico City (to examine the debate over whether the Aztecs were cannibals) seem like little more than sideshows. Raffaele isn't afraid to toss himself into the mix here, hamming up the role of devil-may-care travel writer and citing his preference for "walking along the edge of every cliff I encounter in life." This swashbuckling attitude makes for a swift read and some shallow thinking. "Eating human flesh, unless you have no prospect of other food and are starving to death, is an evil act," the author writes at one point, "and no amount of religious mumbo jumbocan sanctify it"-true enough, but also blindingly self-evident; Raffaele himself refers to "the taboos placed upon [cannibalism] throughout much of human history."Not deep, but a dark thrill ride to the extremes of behavior. Agent: Matthew Guma/Guma Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061357886
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/3/2008
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 9.22 (w) x 10.88 (h) x 0.99 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Raffaele has scored many world scoops for such magazines as Reader's Digest, Parade, and Smithsonian, including stories on North Korea, Saharan slave traders, and East Timor's fight for independence. He lives in Sydney, Australia.

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Read an Excerpt

Among the Cannibals

Chapter One

For almost three hours the Indonesian jet has been crossing the Banda Sea high above the clouds. We departed from Bali at 5 am, and the drone of the engines has lulled me into an uneasy slumber, until my neighbor, a soldier in camouflage fatigues, nudges me in the ribs. He points out the window to a turquoise coastline fringed with gardens of coral. Beaches and mangrove swamps give way to dense jungle that flows inland for several miles to be met by steep hills. Beyond the jungle rises an enormous spine of purple mountain, a towering massif crowned with jagged chunks of slate. The mountain is an omen; distant, elusive, dangerous. We are crossing the coastline of the world's second biggest island, a place once thronged with cannibals and headhunters.

"Papua," the soldier says in a soft voice that belies his hard dark eyes and grim smile, using the name for the province that forms the western half of New Guinea.

It is like returning home, because I came to New Guinea for the first time in 1961 as a youngster and have been back many times, lured by the seductive opportunity for adventure among the great island's fierce tribes. But this trip will be unique because I come in search of the last cannibal tribe on Earth.

Beyond the coast, New Guinea is a land of massive sheer-sloped mountains soaring as high as sixteen thousand feet, rammed together for hundreds of miles on end, and swathed in jungle. I keep glancing out of the window at the purple mountain, gripped by its majestic power. But banks of cloud drift in from the north-east and, with a suddenness that surprises me, the mountain disappears, leaving only thecoastline and a thick cover of cloud that stretches from just above the jungle canopy to the top of the sky.

I have come to this distant place to revisit the tribe of cannibals known as the Korowai, who live in treehouses in one of the island's most far-off jungles. Ten years earlier, led by a guide, I had encountered the cannibals along a remote river one hundred miles in from the southern coast. But because it was too dangerous to go much further into their tribal territory, my guide would only take me a few hours' walk into the jungle to a Korowai treehouse. I spoke with the clansmen there, but as they had been in contact with Dutch missionaries for several years, they were familiar with the horror outsiders feel about cannibalism. They would not show me any evidence that they had killed and eaten other men.

Nothing is holding me back this time. I am going to trek deep into Korowai territory, far upriver where there are clans who have never seen an outsider. For four decades I have roamed some of Earth's most remote places, seeking out people still living in what anthropologists call the Paleolithic era, but have never found a tribe that has not yet seen Europeans. I am perversely intrigued to discover whether the cannibals will welcome me with smiles or with arrows.

The Korowai tree-dwellers are among the most isolated people on Earth. They live in a country that was ruled by the Dutch for more than a century, but has been wrapped in the rough and often violent embrace of Indonesia since 1963. Their ferocity and the rugged terrain have warded off outside influences.

Most Korowai still live largely as they have for millennia, with little or no knowledge of the outside world, apart from the Citak headhunters who inhabit the rivers that sweep around the cannibals' jungles. When they were not fending off attacks by the Citak, who were ever eager to lop off heads, the Korowai have been constantly at war with each other, killing and eating with gusto male witches they call the khakhua.

An hour after crossing the coast, the jet descends over a wide lake dotted with straw-hut fishing villages and lands at Sentani, the airport of the provincial capital, Jayapura, in the shadow of an emerald mountain. The jet drops onto a concrete strip that General Douglas MacArthur ordered laid down in 1944 as a vital stepping-stone in his push to dislodge the Japanese from the islands they occupied to the north.

The airstrip has a forlorn look with cracks in the tarmac and gardens of weeds thriving around its edges. The potholed road into Jayapura winds by green mountains with plunging slopes and coastal inlets where children splash in the bay, diving from straw huts perched on long poles over the water. Near the town, I begin to see the Indonesians, immigrants and carpetbaggers who flocked to Papua following its takeover.

The takeover happened more than four decades earlier, when, in a cynical Cold War romance, John F. Kennedy wooed the flamboyant Indonesian president Sukarno away from the Soviet Union and into the embrace of the United States by promising the dictator control of what was then Dutch New Guinea. Kennedy pressured the United Nations to transfer control from the Dutch to Indonesia. With a stab of the pen the mighty UN betrayed the one and a half million tribes-people from Biak in the far west to Merauke in the far south.

Most Papuans, like the Korowai, lived in the jungle hinterland, and had no idea that their land had been grabbed by a ruthless outsider in a grubby international deal. But the educated elite, who mostly lived by the coast, felt betrayed in their desire for full independence or amalgamation with their Melanesian cousins across the border in Papua New Guinea. They never wanted one colonial overlord replacing another.

The Indonesian army terrorized the new province into a reluctant acceptance of its new masters. Jakarta then accelerated plans to tame, exploit and populate its timber and mineral-rich frontier province, prompting fortune seekers to pour into the province from hopelessly overcrowded Java and other islands. Over three hundred thousand transmigrants settled in Papua, but they hugged the coastlines, rarely venturing into the jungles.

Among the Cannibals. Copyright © by Paul Raffaele. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 3, 2008

    Very good

    This book was very good in many ways. One because i learned many new things about other cultures i didnt know about. Two because i thought the writing was very good and lastly because it was very intertaining. So if you want to read a very good book about other cultures then try this one.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2008


    The author has no respect for other cultures' way of life. The book was actually rather infuriating in his blatant disregard for other standards of living. If you're looking for something that will give you a cursory glance at other places and people, and can ignore his moments of lechery and his humor at the expense of others, go for it. If you're actually looking for something more sociology-oriented, skip it.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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