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Were the Caribs Cannibals?

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A reprint of an article submitted by Dr. I.A.E. Kirby

In the mid-latitudes of Europe all surplus domestic animals were slaughtered at the approach of winter. The meat was salted and hung over the cooking area for smoking which increased the palatability of the meat at a later date. It was discovered that by adding spices and other ingredients to the salt that the curing process was improved and the palatability enhanced.{{more}}

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 Europe was cut off from its supply of spices which came from the east by land.

The Portuguese explorers decided to find the spice lands by going eastward around the Cape of Good Hope and so across the Indian Ocean. The Spaniards not to be outdone embraced the opportunity offered by the persuasive Columbus and outfitted a fleet which was given to his command with the understanding that he would sail westward to arrive at the same Spice islands of India. He appears to have known very well that there was land at a certain distance west of Europe which he made people believe was India; and consequently he perpetuated the myth of India by consistently referring to the inhabitants as Indians.

On arriving in the islands of the New World he found that in the roof of the men’s “Long houses” (Carbets) that they were mummified limbs hanging in the roof which he, with his background of “smoked meat in Europe” immediately thought of as being for a future meal. (I will suggest the probable function of these mummified arms later). This was then the germ of the idea of Cannibalism in Caribs which Columbus was to exploit for his own ends and with which the Caribs were saddled in history.

Columbus knew that it was only a matter of time until the other major European powers would start to investigate and colonize the “new” lands that he had “discovered,” all of these countries were staunch Christian countries; and what better way to discourage a Christian from exploration – than to let him be fully aware of the possibility that he might be killed and cannibalized? No good Christian would want, when Christ returns and calls us back from the grave, to find that a hand, leg or even a brain was missing.

The other effect of his exploiting his idea of Cannibalism was to boost his reputed courage and that of his men in the minds of the people in Europe.

What the writer thinks was the reason for having the mummified human arms in the roof of the Carib Carbet, was for use in a ritual before hunting or going to war. These arms were believed to be the fighting arm or the hunting arm of famous warriors which were cut off at the warrior’s death. It was then mummified by dehydrating in hot sand and kept for these rituals. Before going on a hunt or going to war the men gathered in the Carbet and had a feast at which the smoke of hypnotic herbs was inhaled. The mummified arms were removed from storage place in the roof and passed around to the men who ritually simulated chewing the arm in order to be invested with the prowess of its late owner by sympathetic magic. The arms were then replaced for future similar use. This evidently was what some Spaniards might have witnessed and mistakenly reported it as Cannibalism. On the other hand the Jesuit Priest who lived among them never made an issue of this.

During a battle as soon as one of the outstanding warriors was hurt, he was taken from the scene of battle and taken to a hide-out where he either recuperated or died. In the latter case his arm was then removed and mummified, and his body buried in secret; in order that his arm or other parts of his body could not be used in sympathetic magic by the enemy.

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