The Wari people of the Amazon, Brazil, are known for practicing compassionate funerary cannibalism as recently as the 1960’s. It was their cultural norm for the in-laws of the deceased to consume the body at the funeral. Why did they do this? It was not to do with taking on the essence, knowledge or power of the dead. Nor was it nutritional. Nor was it aggressive. Instead it is to do with radically different way that the Wari see the body and a person’s identity.
Last week I wrote a piece debating the extent to which we own our ourselves, particularly our own bodies. Now this wasn’t just some self-indulgent arty nonsense, it was to get people thinking that the way the body is viewed in our society is not the only way.
So, what did the Wari practice? What do they believe? How does it differ from our worldview?
Before contact with Brazilians in the 1960’s, Wari funerals were affairs of compassionate funerary cannibalism. When a person died, word was sent out so that relatives could travel to the funeral. The body was washed and cut up by non-relatives, before being roasted on a grill. The attendant non-kin were asked repeatedly by the kin of the deceased to eat the body, they protested that they could not. Eventually they relented, and the body was consumed using wooden picks, carefully, slowly and delicately.
How do the Wari see the body?
The cultural reasoning behind this funerary behaviour is all to do with the way the Wari believe the body and identity work. They consider that a person’s personality is not held in their spirit, or a consciousness, or in their brain. They believe that a person is angry or friendly or shy, because “that’s the way their body is”. Now this is not simply a difference in where this identity is located, but how it came to be. The Wari believe that a person is formed through a kind of bodily essence. This essence can be exchanged between people through various means. Having sex, breast feeding, and sharing food all cause this exchange. For this reason, a person’s“blood” relations can change.
For example, a man can be “related” to a woman who is genetically unrelated, but who nursed him as a child, because she gave him his bodily essence at a crucial stage in life. Those people with whom you live, sleep, and share food, are those most close to you, because of this frequent exchange of ‘essence’.
So why do the Wari eat their dead?
It is this view of bodily identity that is central to Wari funerals. Although the person is dead, their body, the essence of what makes them who they are, remains. Unlike in the Western world, this is not an empty shell. Therefore the body must be destroyed so that the dead person’s spirit can truly move on, and the relatives no longer have to grieve.
Why must the body be eaten?
The Wari believe that the earth is polluting and cold, and so burial is not an option. While cremation was sometimes considered a suitable alternative, consumption was preferable as it was associated with positive social interactions like sharing and eating, rather than solely death and destruction. The body must be consumed by in-laws as the ‘essence’ of the deceased is so like that of their kin. For the kin to eat the deceased, would therefore be like eating themselves.
So, what’s next?
As you can see, the Wari practice of cannibalism is complex in both the practice itself, and the reasoning behind it. If you’re interested in the Wari, then check out Beth Conklin’s book “Consuming Passions”, I wrote a piece on it and other literature here. As always, if you have questions or comments, please leave a comment for me, and like and follow on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date.