Jared Olar: We are such civilized cannibals
On a visit to a used book shop in Wisconsin about 25 years ago, I snapped up a 1948 edition of the classic 1854 Marsden-Wright translation of “The Travels of Marco Polo the Venetian.”
Last month I decided it was about time that I sat down and read it straight through, rather than merely consulting it for research now and then. So I did.
The medieval Italian Catholic Marco Polo’s descriptions of the exotic Asian lands and peoples he encountered in his travels are often memorable and striking. One passage in particular that sticks in my mind is Marco Polo’s account of the people who lived in the area of the Indragiri River on the island of Sumatra (which he calls the kingdom of Dragoian on the island of Java Minor). With a word of caution for those with weak stomachs, here is what he says:
“They observe this horrible custom, in cases where any member of the family is afflicted with a disease: — The relations of the sick person send for the magicians, whom they require, upon examination of the symptoms, to declare whether he will recover or not…. If the decision be that he cannot, the relations then call in certain men, whose peculiar duty it is and who perform their business with dexterity, to close the mouth of the patient until he be suffocated. This being done, they cut the body in pieces, order to prepare it as victuals; and when it has been so dressed, the relations assemble, and in a convivial manner eat the whole of it, not leaving so much as the marrow in the bones. Should any particle of the body be suffered to remain, it would breed vermin, as they observe; these vermin, for want of further sustenance, would perish, and their death would prove the occasion of grievous punishment to the soul of the deceased. They afterwards proceed to collect the bones, and having deposited them in a small, neat box, carry them to some cavern in the mountains, where they may be safe against disturbance of wild animals. If they have it in their power to seize any person who does not belong to their own district, and who cannot pay for his ransom, they put him to death, and devour him.”
I hope it’s obvious why this disturbing passage would stick with me. There is, however, a further reason why it stands out in my memory. Around the same time that I was reading Marco Polo’s account of the cannibals of Dragoian, I came across an article about modern-day cannibalism in the Daily Mail of London. The headline reads (again, a warning for those with weak stomachs):
“Thousands of pills filled with powdered human baby flesh discovered by customs officials in South Korea.”
“The capsules are in demand because they are viewed as being a medicinal ‘cure-all,’” the report says. “The grim trade is being run from China where corrupt medical staff are said to be tipping off medical companies when babies are aborted or delivered still-born. The tiny corpses are then bought, stored in household refrigerators in homes of those involved in the trade before they are removed and taken to clinics where they are placed in medical drying microwaves. Once the skin is tinder dry, it is pummelled into powder and then processed into capsules along with herbs to disguise the true ingredients from health investigators and customs officers.”
Further on, the article says, “There have been disturbing reports that some babies were those who had perished in China’s notorious ‘dying rooms’ where youngsters are deliberately left to die because they were born into families that already had the limit of one child in country areas.”
The morally sane recoil in horror and disgust at such degenerate practices. But we enlightened moderns can hardly claim to be morally better than Marco Polo’s Sumatran cannibals. Many of us approve of voluntary euthanasia (“physician-assisted suicide”), which is legal and acceptable in Washington state and parts of Europe. We’ve made vaccines and have taste-tested soft drinks using the remains of aborted babies. We also suck the microscopic guts out of embryonic human beings for stem cell research.
Tell me how that’s morally different than the customs of Dragoian, and then ask yourself, “Do I know and can I articulate what makes cannibalism immoral?”
Jared Olar may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the newspaper.