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A Savage Fascination (Part Two)
In the first part of this special we talked about cannibals, but also more generally about the concept of the Savage, object of contempt and fascination in the 19th century.
We analyzed a fictional tale and pointed out how the indigenous people were often used as pure literary devices to titillate the reader’s voyeurism. The tone of superiority is akin to the one that can be found in many reports of authentic expeditions of that time.
If this approach has disappeared today, at least from the most evident narratives, the presumption of some kind of Western supremacy over the supposed backwardness of traditional societies remains, at least in part. No luck in trying to “dispel the myth that in ‘primitive societies’ there is a subsistence economy that can hardly guarantee the minimum necessary to the survival of society“(1)The quote comes from this interesting article (in Italian) by Andrea Staid on so-called ‘primitive’ societies, taken from his book Contro la gerarchia e il dominio. Potere, economia e debito nelle società senza Stato (Meltemi 2018).; another common idea about these communities is that they live in a more ‘natural’ way.
The use of this adjective may seem positive, even a form of admiration or appreciation, but we know that opposing Nature to Culture — one of the tenets of Western thought — often conceptually serves the purpose of distancing (our own) civilization from (other people’s) barbarism.
As we said, those tribes which harbor traditional elements are still the object of enormous curiosity. I myself have spoken extensively about them over the years, although I have tried to describe their customs in a detailed and detached way.
One thing not many are aware of, however, is that today many tours are organized in remote areas of the globe, for those who can afford them; they offer to discover (I quote from a brochure) the “world’s last intact systems of tribes, clans and rituals“.
It is perhaps one of the few chills left in the great machine of global tourism, the extreme frontier of exoticism. Exclusive trips with a more or less marked ethnological background, whose participants, however, are not anthropologists but tourists: to a cynical observer, it would seem the appeal lies in taking selfies with the natives, or in those traditional dances staged by tribe members for the benefit of white men’s cameras.
But one should not make the mistake of judging (or worse, being outraged) on the basis of some photos found on the internet. What are these tours really like, how are they organized, what activities do they offer? What is their underlying philosophy? Who takes part in these expeditions, and why?
Marco is a long-time reader of Bizzarro Bazar, and he happened to try one of these organized tours just this year. After following with interest the report of his adventure trip on social media, I asked him to tell us its implications in more depth. The interview he gave me is therefore a unique opportunity to find an answer to these questions.
(Note: from this point on, all the beautiful photos you will see were taken by him.)
Can you tell us in a few words what kind of person you are, what do you do, what are your interests?
My name is Marco Mottura, I’m thirty six years old and I’m from Busto Arsizio. In everyday life I am a graphic designer, and as a second job (or you could call it a paid hobby) I am a videogame journalist. Video games have obviously always been one of my greatest passions, along with board games, horror movies, crossover music and my beloved Juventus.
I am fascinated by all that is strange, dark and macabre. I am a convinced atheist. I always wear black or gray. Cannibal Holocaust is my all-time favorite movie. I am obsessed with Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.
How did you find out about the possibility of this trip?
Actually the fault is indirectly yours, dear Mr. Cenzi. Thanks to Bizzarro Bazar a few years ago I discovered The Last Tuesday Society in London, and after visiting Viktor Wynd’s wunderkammer during one of my trips to the City I could not help but follow the eccentric millionaire on Instagram. A year ago I saw some of the pics he posted while he was in Papua New Guinea to attend the passing ceremony in which the young people of the Sepik River tribes turn into Crocodile-Men. I asked him some questions about such an unusual and bloody ritual, and at the end of our chat Wynd’s reply was: “In 2019, however, I will be returning over here, if you want you can come with me.” He was serious about it, I was too… and so I really left.
What were the travel options?
You had to choose between two different trips, eleven days each, or purchase the complete package (which was far beyond my budget). The first part was focused on nature, with birdwatching and floral-themed excursions, while the second half was undoubtedly more extreme, and culminated with a visit to the very remote mummies of Aseki. No need to specify which of the two I opted for.
What did you expect from this experience? What motivation led you to embark on this adventure?
I found myself in a particular phase of my life, in a moment of deep personal crisis after a period of depression and many other hardships. Following my girlfriend’s advice, I decided to do something for myself and myself only: seeking that extreme exoticism that fascinates me so much (all those Mondo movies I’d seen during adolescence must have left their mark), I decided to go for an adventurous and potentially risky trip. Even in the worst-case scenario, dying in a real-life B-movie plot looked like the perfect ending for the type of existence I’ve always tried to live.
The prospect of escaping from my everyday life, the idea of staring into an unknown and distant universe and experiencing a cultural shock fascinated me. Before this experience I had never even been camping!
Tell us briefly how the journey took place.
The expedition was open to ten people from all over the world, plus the two leaders. The first group leader was the aforementioned Viktor Wynd, the eccentric English dandy and artist (2) I dedicated a chapter of my guide London Mirabilia to Viktor Wynd and his London wunderkammer. president of the Last Tuesday Society, while the other one was Stewart McPherson, a naturalist among the world’s foremost experts on carnivorous plants: an authority in his field, with 35 species discovered and 25 books published on the subject.
Eight of the participants were men, four women: a total of eight British, two Americans, one South African and myself to represent Italy. The youngest was twenty-eight, the oldest forty-five.
We met at the airport of the capital, Port Moresby, and from there we immediately left for the Trobriand Islands. We spent three nights there, then we moved to Lae, then we went by jeep to the region where the mummies are (stopping at Bulolo, an isolated city of miners, and spending one night in a village lost in the mountains). Then we went back to Lae again and then straight to Madang, where the journey ended. All in all we traveled many, many miles — often on almost impassable roads—, took four internal air flights and encountered many different landscapes and cultures along the way, for this nation has the greatest biodiversity on Earth.
What were the experiences and details you found most striking?
It is difficult to summarize such an adventure in a few words: what’s really striking is the powerful sensation of being out of regular time and space. The absolute darkness of night in the forest, the starry sky so bright and breathtaking that it doesn’t even seem like your own sky, the sunset colors, those peculiar huts that can be seen here and there. But also the moments of pure horror — the fishing and quartering of a sea turtle we witnessed as soon as we lay foot on the pier in Trobriand (over there they live on a subsistence economy, what is captured is eaten and used to make crafts), or the giant spider that sneaked into my room on the very first evening — these things immediately threw me into the atmosphere I expected from Papua New Guinea.
One of the most magical moments was seeing the “shark callers” of the village of Kaibola, who within five minutes with a coconut rattle literally drew the sharks to themselves, and then caught them using a simple line with their bare hands. Only a few dozen people in the world are still able to perform that strange and very effective ritual, entering into full communion with the sea to charm their prey. Returning to the shore we were surrounded by a herd of playful dolphins, we ate the freshly caught shark, and then explored an underground cave until we reached a source of fresh water. All within a couple of hours.
Of course, mummies were also an unforgettable sight, as well as the aforementioned night spent in a village in the Aseki region, inside a hut without electricity, without running water or anything else (but with a lot of booze brought along by our English companions!) .
Was there a cultural difference that stood out and surprised you more than the rest?
Definitely seeing the effects of the Betel nut on the people’s mouth condition. Anyone from 6 to 99 years old is accustomed to chewing the kernel of this green fruit, the size of an apricot, mixing it with a mustard plant and with a powder made from burnt shells they call lime. The combination of these three elements determines a strongly alkaline chemical reaction, which stains their teeth and gums with a very intense blood red color… in addition to corroding the entire inside of the mouth, often with carcinogenic results. Despite this, they continue to take Betel nut for its energizing effects: I did try this awful-tasting kernel, and the result was halfway between alcohol and amphetamines.
Another peculiarity lies in the different customs, namely the way of approaching others. An example: for many remote villagers, brushing their teeth is an unusual and incomprehensible practice. While I had a toothbrush in my mouth, I found myself surrounded by some twenty people, all gathered a few meters away to observe my strange ritual: at that moment I felt like an animal in a zoo.
Was there any unpleasant episode during the trip?
Absolutely none. Indeed, the kindness of these people was touching and even sort of unsettling. People literally have NOTHING yet never skimp on a smile, a courtesy, a gesture of good heart. They act out of a pure sense of hospitality, without expecting anything in return: they just seem happy to meet someone different, odd-looking, coming from who knows where, so they welcome strangers in their homes very naturally. People will get in a line just to shake your hand; I’ve seen folks of all ages stop any activity they were doing to chase our van for a few meters.
These are situations that make you reconsider the way you look at the world — and that’s true even for a convinced nihilist like me, who seldom sees any hope for the present and the future: the context here is so different from what we are used to in our ‘civilized’ society.
What was the relationship between your party and the indigenous people you met? What was their attitude towards you? Have you ever felt uncomfortable?
Papua New Guinea is a vast country, in which 850 languages are spoken, and it’s inhabited by many microscopic communities with extremely limited means, but in general it is not as savage as perhaps one could imagine. Even in the mountains of Aseki, in the middle of the jungle, several hours by car from the city, you may come across some solitary hut displaying Coca-Cola billboards or ads for Digicel, the local telecom provider.
Of course, there are still some particularly inaccessible areas, and populations that may have remained somewhat isolated, but it was certainly not our intention to venture in such areas (it would have been dumb, disrespectful and irresponsible). Having said that, it still made us smile to hear the Trobriand inhabitants talk about the ‘2019 explosion of tourism’ as they were referring to a total of seventy people (including us!) who have come from those parts since the beginning of the year.
I was amazed to see how little the locals were interested in our technology: everyone knows what a smartphone or a camera is, and while getting a picture taken still arouses a minimum of interest, no one seemed impressed by our hi-tech gadgets. Ironically, my famous toothbrush interested them far more than a smartwatch.
The only moment in which I felt I was not in control of the situation, happened on our arrival in the Trobriand Islands: we found ourselves on the main pier and all the locals were obviously curious, and ran towards us to see the dimdim (foreigners) up close. All of a sudden we saw ourselves surrounded by a few hundred people who were trying to attract our attention to sell us food and artifacts. I did not actually feel threatened, of course, but I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t at least a little bit scared that it could degenerate at any moment. In fact, I think the only tension was in our minds, given the truly exquisite ways of the inhabitants of that province.
Let’s get to the critical part. We talked about it, and you know that I have some issues with this type of organized travels. They seem to be a late-capitalist version of 19th/20th century colonialism: we no longer use muskets and whips, of course, but it is difficult to lift the suspicion that we are still taking advantage of these poor areas, cloaking this exploitation under exotic narratives and selling the “thrilling adventure” package to bored Western tourists. What do you think about it?
Let’s not fool ourselves: extreme exoticism, the element of risk, a fascination for lost paradises (without forgetting the collective image of these places created by horror movies) are all undeniable parts of the equation. I would be lying if I said an alternative destination would have been just as exciting: the peculiar cult of the dead of the Aseki region, the mummies, the idea of getting so close as to touch them, these are all factors that drew me towards this journey. So yes, there is a nuance of dark tourism, no sense in trying to deny it.
Having said that, rather than a squalid revision of some colonialist enterprises, I believe this has more to do with the incurable nature of the thrill-seeker: no indigenous person has been ‘exploited’, on the contrary, I believe that in some cases it was us westerners who got a little ripped off! In order to access the mummy site in the village of Angapena, after exhausting negotiations we had to pay: $3,000 in cash, one power generator, two Samsung Galaxy phones, plus a whole lot of food supplies. In short, the locals are certainly not naive people eager to be exploited, and indeed they seem to have understood very well how to do business.
Well, honestly, it seems to me that exchanging smartphones for the mummies of ancestors is the perfect example of that logic — Mark Fisher called it ‘capitalist realism’(3)”The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value. Walk around the British Museum, where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft, and you have a powerful image of this process at work. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts.” (Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, 2009) — in which everything becomes monetizable and even the sacred is turned into a simple product. On the other hand this is not surprising if, as you pointed out, Coca-Cola advertising is present even in the thick of the jungle.
Regarding your presence there, what was the organizers’ approach?
I can assure you their approach was one of rigorous respect for local populations, cultures, flora and fauna (McPherson, a naturalist, was extremely attentive and diligent regarding all environmental aspects): the infamous cannibalism was never mentioned, not even once, and the word ‘cannibal’ was never brought up by anyone. Because it is alright to seek strong emotions, or to be charmed by macabre or bloody traditions; but the reality of Papua New Guinea certainly does not require further fabrications. To give you an example, the killing of a poor pig by smashing sticks on its head was an almost unbearable sight, impossible for us to understand. There was no need to add cannibalism lore to it.
Judging from what you wrote on social media, before leaving you were convinced that the trip could be very dangerous. You even made a will! In retrospect, was there really an element of danger or was the journey safer than you expected?
Flying over those lands is objectively much more dangerous than elsewhere, due to climatic conditions. All in all it was a tough experience, and sometimes physically stressful (although never really impossible); it is certainly not as hard as climbing Mount Everest, but if you opt for a similar destination it means you’re willing to test your limits. As far as I was concerned, I had taken into account every possibility, and was ready to accept even a tragic outcome with great serenity. The excitement in not being sure of coming back was a reflection of some self-destructive tendencies that I won’t deny.
Having returned home safely, I can say that the journey turned out to be infinitely less dangerous than I expected. But then again, Stewart McPherson and his organization never presented the trip as a one-way ticket for would-be suicides. If anything the only true psychological terrorism, fueling false myths, came from much more official sources such as the site of the Farnesina Crisis Unit: Papua New Guinea might be poor and have plenty of problems, but it’s unfair to describe it (like they do) as an ‘all-round dangerous country’, and to advise against any type of unnecessary travel. The reality I have seen with my own eyes is quite different.
What is the most beautiful thing or feeling you came away with?
Such an experience is quite hard to explain to those who have not lived it. I wanted to take a leap into the dark, but in the end I came back with a wealth of emotions, memories, sensations that really turned my life upside down. Certain situations make you come to terms with your limits, kicking you out of your comfort zone, and you immediately bond with those close to you: it is unsettling to find yourself in a universe that is still your own, but is not your own. You cannot come back from such a journey exactly as you were before leaving: some things are bound to get under your skin and affect you. And in the end these feelings are so powerful that you might find you never have enough, a bit like the Betel nut.
I believe this chat provides interesting food for thought: in a globalized world, nothing really remains ‘intact’. Does it make sense to worry about it, or is it part of an unstoppable process of change? Do these tours bring our sensitivity closer to that of distant peoples, thus reducing prejudices, biases and misinformation — or do they perpetuate an essentially ethnocentrist Western vision?
I’ll leave you readers with the task of forming your own idea. For my part I thank Marco again for his kindness and helpfulness (you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram).
|↑1||The quote comes from this interesting article (in Italian) by Andrea Staid on so-called ‘primitive’ societies, taken from his book Contro la gerarchia e il dominio. Potere, economia e debito nelle società senza Stato (Meltemi 2018).|
|↑2||I dedicated a chapter of my guide London Mirabilia to Viktor Wynd and his London wunderkammer.|
|↑3||”The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value. Walk around the British Museum, where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft, and you have a powerful image of this process at work. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts.” (Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, 2009)|
A Savage Fascination (Part One)
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
(Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden, 1899)
Let’s go back to a topic we discussed several times on these pages: the relationship of the Western world with “primitive” tribes.
This will be a double post. In this first part we shall examine a 19th-century tale, and in the second an exotic journey that took place this very year.
Two perspectives very much apart in time and nonetheless marked by an element of continuity: Western obsession for the “savages” and for cannibalism.
I must start by saying that both articles owe a great deal to two followers and friends of Bizzarro Bazar: in the first case I have to thank Giulio, of Mala Tempora Studio, who passed on to me the story we will examine in this post; in the second case, my thanks go to Marco, the crazy guy who made that exotic journey.
So let’s begin with the extraordinary gem discovered by Giulio.
The #28 issue of Giornale Illustrato dei Viaggi (1923, published by Sonzogno) boasts one of the most incredible covers ever. It’s got it all: shipwrecks, cannibals, fetuses in formaldehyde and anatomical preparations.
The gruesome episode is described in detail in the magazine. This is the ending of the short story:
What is left for me to add, gentlemen — continued Dr. Stephenson — goes beyond the limits of the unlikely. The three huge chests, containing the anatomical pieces, were opened in the blink of an eye, and the contents appeared in the eyes of the marauders, who certainly did not expect such a spectacle. They believed it to be our own food supply, and that we, sharing their taste for human flesh, had jealously hidden this treasure.
You know that anatomical pieces are prepared to produce a complete illusion.
What followed was more than a plunder, it was a true cannibalistic orgy. They furiously tore apart those pieces, which were dry like papier-mâché and no longer having the appearance of flesh. Eager to satisfy their monstrous tastes as soon as possible, they lit half a dozen braziers, on which they soon placed the whole pieces, staring at them with a mix of jealousy and admiration for the skillful butcher who had prepared them.
Under the influence of heat, this unusual roast softened somehow, but the injected fluids melted down and dripped into some large mother-of-pearl shells that those skilled and far-sighted cooks had placed underneath.
I shall leave it to your imagination, to think what that sauce could taste like!
To top it all off, Ben’s corpse, which we had buried at the foot of a myrtle shrub, was brutally exhumed, and cut into pieces in a few minutes with stone knives and with rare skill.
We also owned half a dozen brains, and a complete set of fetuses, stored in 75° alcohol. A new discovery, which was accompanied by gorilla-like contortions. With great caution, almost religiously, they opened the enormous jars that contained them, and they drank the conservative liqueur with an incomparable gluttony. That infernal liquid, which must have burned their stomachs, brought their drunkenness to the highest level, and they swallowed like brandied oranges those unfortunate leftovers, which science alone has the right to study and mutilate without commiting profanation.
Happy and drunk, those abominable savages staggered, shouted loudly and beat their bellies in a deep state of bliss.
Finally they fell asleep like seals.
The next day, in the perfumed hour, when the morning sun rises from the greenery shaking his golden hair above the giant forest, the chirping of parrots woke those brutes. They stretched their limbs like satisfied dinner guests awaking from a peaceful sleep, and rose fresh and happy, scampering around like young kangaroos. If not for the presence of some macabre bones scattered across the place, no one would have suspected such a horrible feast had happened the previous day.
What a wonderful organ the Australian stomach must be! …
Faithful to their commitment, despite our fault, they led us to Ballaratre, where we arrived completely empty-handed.
The last words we heard from those unworthy children of nature were to warmly solicit a new shipment of “small whites in firewater”.
We did not deemed it appropriate to respond.
Three days later we were in Melbourne!
Now, a little background. The Giornale Illustrato dei Viaggi e delle Avventure di Terra e di Mare (‘Illustrated Journal of Travels and Adventures on Land and Sea’) was a weekly magazine founded by Edoardo Sonzogno and published in Italy since 1878. The magazine was clearly mimicking the Journal des Voyages et des Aventures de Terre et de Mer, founded the year before in Paris by Charles-Lucien Huard, as it also reproduced some of its original articles and reports.
Like its French counterpart, the Giornale Illustrato featured tales of geographic exploration and adventure fiction, and in its last years of publication it even presented sci-fi and horror short stories.
In 1931 the magazine was discontinued, and it merged with Il Mondo.
As for the 1923 cover, it was actually the copy of an illustration by Horace Castelli for the serialized fiction novel À Travers l’Australie: les dix millions de l’opossum rouge by Louis-Henri Boussenard, a picaresque tale of Australian adventures published in 1878 on the Journal des Voyages and then in 1881 on La Récréation.
This inventive little episode, as we have seen, is centered on the expedient (which is not devoid of genius) of combining two classic 19th-century fixations: anatomy and cannibalism.
The anatomist was indeed a recurrent character in romantic literature (from the works of Scapigliati to naturalists), at a time when authors looked at the new positivist science, and anatomy in particular, with a mixture of exaltation and morbid interest. In this case the narrator is indeed a scientist, even if the “aseptic” patina of his academic report is soon forgotten to leave room for the more macabre and sensationalist tones.
The other obsession emerging here is the endless fascination for cannibalism and the myth of the “savage”. It is an obsession with a dual nature: first, it serves to highlight the superiority of Westerners, who have freed themselves from the “bestial” state.
The 19th-century explorer’s colonial arrogance is reflected in the contemptuous tone reserved for the indigenous people (‘abominable savages‘, ‘monstrous tastes‘, ‘brutes‘), often seasoned with animal comparisons (‘like seals‘, ‘gorilla-like‘, ‘like young kangaroos‘) and references to a pre-cultural state (‘those unworthy children of nature‘).
At the same time, however, this fixation is tinged with an ill-concealed envy for the freedom of customs shown by these “primitive” people. It’s no coincidence that these narratives insist so much on morbid tones, and that the portrayed “savages” are often nothing more than function characters, inserted in stereotyped situations — the perfect excuse for the writer (his hand trembling, of course, as he barely dares to proceed to the next horrible scene) to describe orgies, assorted violence and nudity.
Upon reading these fantastic reports, one gets the impression of being confronted not so much with anthropophagy (which, far from being orgiastic, actually followed rigorous rituals, was often carried out within the tribe itself and was limited to the assumption of small parts of the body of a deceased relative as a sign of respect) but rather with a repressed impulse of breaking free from social norms.
As I argued when talking about severed heads — those macabre souvenirs that Westerners brought home from their explorations — the Savage is a screen on which we project the distorted image of what we want him to be.
But we must keep in mind that behind these tales of cannibalism there was also a strictly political motivation: they were meant to provide an ethical excuse for colonial expansionism.
Such stories were not just intended to thrill people back home; they also provided moral underpinning for the domination of the locals by western settlers. Cannibalism was an unnatural act, seemingly as far as possible from acceptable European behaviour. Tales of man-eating could therefore justify the annexing of foreign lands as well as the introduction of Christian morality into a country. […] The labelling of the rebels as hungry cannibals reduced their uprisings to a battle between civilisation and savagery […]. It made violent repression the authorities’ most likely response and necessitated a continuing colonial presence to ensure further outbreaks of man-eating were prevented.
Fonte: The History Notes.
We might think that the Western obsession for cannibalism and for uncontacted, “uncontaminated” tribes is a thing of the past, like the old topos of the explorer boiled alive in a pot, but that’s not really the case (see this other article).
Cannibals still thrive in comic books, horror films and more generally the collective imagination.
So much so, that some people are willing to spend considerable amounts of money and face a journey that’s all but safe and comfortable, just for the thrill of coming face to face with “real cannibals”.
But we will talk about this in detail in the second part of this post.
Cannibals at the Pantheon
Among the seven deadly sins, there is one for which the inhabitants of Rome — both ancient and modern — have always been (in)famous: the sin of gluttony.
One of the Roman squares which for centuries was associated with food, groceries and the most varied delicacies was the “Piazza della Ritonna”, that is the square in front of the Pantheon.
Here in the past there were numerous delicatessens called “spizzicherie”, shops in which food was sold “in spizzico”, in small quantities. Eggs, anchovies, salt, but above all cheese and cured meats, for which the piazza was renowned. The pizzicagnoli didn’t sell their merchandise only in authorized delicatessens, but the whole square was regularly invaded and occupied by stalls, sheds, movable booths — in short, it was a sort of chaotic outdoor market.
During Easter, the delicatessens would also set up baroque exhibitions, with spectacular lanscapes created with food in the attempt to impress the crowd with their opulence. In the square began a competition to build the most elaborate sculpture of cold cuts, sausages and cheeses.
Belli gave an account of these scenes in a 1833 poem (the translation for this and the following extracts in Roman dialect are in the notes):
De le pizzicarie che ttutte fanno
la su’ gran mostra pe ppascua dell’ova,
cuella de Bbiascio a la Ritonna è st’anno
la ppiú mmejjo de Roma che sse trova.
Colonne de casciotte, che ssaranno
scento a ddí ppoco, arreggeno un’arcova
ricamata a ssarcicce, e llí cce stanno
tanti animali d’una forma nova.
Fra ll’antri, in arto, sc’è un Mosè de strutto,
cor bastone per aria com’un sbirro,
in cima a una Montaggna de presciutto;
e ssott’a llui, pe stuzzicà la fame,
sc’è un Cristo e una Madonna de bbutirro
drent’a una bbella grotta de salame. (1)”Among the delicatessens that make a great exhibition for Easter, the best one this year is Biagio’s, in Piazza della Rotonda. Columns of caciottas, a hundred of them to say the least, hold an arc decorated with sausages, and one can see a host of little animals coming in many shapes. Among others, above stands a Moses made of lard, holding his stick in the air like a policeman, on top of a mountain of ham; and below him, to whet your appetite, there are a Christ and a Madonna made of butter, inside a beautiful grotto of salami.”
Another more recent account comes from Giggi Zanazzo in 1908:
Ne le du’ sere der gioveddì e vennardi ssanto, li pizzicaroli romani aùseno a ffa’ in de le bbotteghe la mostra de li caci, de li preciutti, dell’òva e dde li salami. Certi ce metteno lo specchio pe’ ffa’ li sfonni, e ccert’antri cce fanno le grotte d’òva o dde salami, co’ ddrento er sepporcro co’ li pupazzi fatti de bbutiro, che sso’ ‘na bbellezza a vvedesse. E la ggente, in quela sera, uscenno da la visita de li sepporcri, va in giro a rimirà’ le mostre de li pizzicaroli de pòrso, che ffanno a ggara a cchi le pò ffa’ mmejo. (2)”On the two evenings of Thursday and Good Friday, in their shops the Roman pizzicagnoli make an exhibition of cheese, hams, eggs and sausages. Some place a mirror as a background, while others create huge caves of eggs or salami, with the Holy Sepulchre inside, and puppets made of butter which are a beauty to be seen. And on those evenings, the people coming from the visit to the cemetery go around gazing at the shows put up by the most prominent butchers, competing against each other to see who makes the best one.”
The tradition of food cornucopias continued until recent times. But not everyone loved those stalls and shops; in fact the authorities tried many times, starting from the 1400s and then cyclically over the centuries, to clear the square with various decrees and injunctions.
One of these episodes of restoration of the decorum is remembered on a commemorative plaque dating back to 1823 and displayed on the wall of the the building just opposite the Pantheon, at number 14 in Piazza della Rotonda:
POPE PIO VII IN THE XXIII YEAR OF HIS KINGDOM
BY MEANS OF AN OPPORTUNE DEMOLITION
CLAIMED FROM HIDEOUS UGLINESS
THE AREA IN FRONT OF THE PANTHEON OF M. AGRIPPA
OCCUPIED BY IGNOBLE TAVERNS AND
ORDERED THE VIEW BE LEFT FREE AND THE SPACE CLEAR
Of all the butchers working in this area, those coming from the city of Norcia had the reputation of being the most skilled, so much so that it was a common insult to wish the opponent would end up “castrated by a norcino [butcher from Norcia] at the Rotonda”.
And in Piazza della Rotonda, in 1638, there were two butchers from Norcia, husband and wife, whose sausages were the best of all.
From all quarters of the city, people flocked to buy them: these sausages were even too sublime and delicious.
Thus the word began to spread that the butchers were hiding a secret. What did they put in their sausages to make them so tasty? And didn’t someone swear they saw some chubby, round-bodied customers enter the shop and never come out?
The rumor finally reached the ears of the Captain of Justice, who started an investigation; while searching the premises, the police actually found human bones in the basement of the butcher’s shop.
Pope Urban VIII, born Maffeo Vincenzo Barberini, sentenced the two butchers to be executed right in front of the Pantheon: they both were killed, slaughtered and quartered with an ax by another exquisite master in the art of butchery, the Pope’s official executioner.
This story remained alive in the memory of the Romans. The population was so impressed by the crime, that it reappeared from time to time in vernacular poems until as late as 1905, for example in this poem entitled About the skeletons found at the Rotonna (M. D’Antoni, in Marforio, IV, 308 – 1 Luglio 1905):
Ammappeli e che straccio de corata
che ciaveveno que’ li du’ norcini:
attaccaveno l’ommeni a l’ancini
come se fa a ’na bestia macellata.
La carne umana doppo stritolata
l’insaccaveno, e li, que’ l’assassini
faceveno sarcicce, codichini,
vennennola pe’ carne prelibbata.
Saranno stati boja anticamente
a mettese a insaccà la carne umana:
però so’ più bojaccia ’nder presente.
Perchè mò ce sò certi amico caro,
che ar posto de’ la carne un po’ cristiana,
Ce schiaffeno er cavallo cor somaro!! (3)”Wow those two butchers certainly had a lot of gall: they attacked men on hooks like a slaughtered beast. They ground and stuffed the human flesh, and those killers made sausages and cotechino, selling it as delicious meat. In ancient times, those who made sausages from human flesh were surely criminals: but they are even more so in the present. Because nowadays there are some, dear friend, that instead of using meat from a Christian, they mix horse meat with donkey meat!”
We should note at this point that the whole story may well be an urban legend.
The trope of the butcher who sells human flesh for pork is in fact a very ancient and rather widespread type of urban legend: the talented Sofia Lincos analyzed it with Giuseppe Stilo in an in-depth research divided into three parts (one, two and three, Italian only).
As I searched for clues in the judicial chronicles of the time, I managed to find a single reference to the story of the Pantehon’s cannibal butchers. It can be found in a 1883 book by David Silvagni, who quotes a manuscript dossier compiled by Abbot Benedetti:
These dossiers bear the title (given by the Abbott himself) of Ancient Facts Occurred in Rome, and they trace the history of the most famous misdeeds and the most famous executions, starting with the Cenci trial, of which there is another older but identical copy. And it is important to read these faithful accounts of atrocious deeds and even more atrocious executions, which the author narrates with the same calm and simplicity with which today a newspaper chronicler would announce a theater play. […] And so great is the restraint that the diarist shows, that there is not one word of indignation even for the bloodiest of all stories found in the manuscript. In fact, in a very calm and aunassuming style he recounts the “execution of justice commanded by Pope Urban VIII in the year 1638 and performed in the Piazza della Rotonda, in which two impious, wicked butchers who mixed pig meat with human flesh were killed, slaughtered and quartered”.
D. Silvagni, La corte e la società romana
nei secoli XVIII e XIX (Vol II p. 96-98, 1883)
The abbot Benedetti lived at the end of the eighteenth century, more than a hundred years after the alleged incident. But as his prose is described to be austere and impartial, I am inclined to think that he was transcribing some sort of register, rather than reporting a simple rumor.
So did this story actually happen, is it a legend, or perhaps an exaggeration of real events?
We don’t have a definitive answer. In any case, the history of the two butchers of the Pantheon represents an ironic warning not to indulge in gluttony, the capital sin of the Capital. A warning which, alas, was not given much attention: the people of Rome, known for being gourmands, would gladly turn down all enticements of Paradise for a good plate of carbonara.
|↑1||”Among the delicatessens that make a great exhibition for Easter, the best one this year is Biagio’s, in Piazza della Rotonda. Columns of caciottas, a hundred of them to say the least, hold an arc decorated with sausages, and one can see a host of little animals coming in many shapes. Among others, above stands a Moses made of lard, holding his stick in the air like a policeman, on top of a mountain of ham; and below him, to whet your appetite, there are a Christ and a Madonna made of butter, inside a beautiful grotto of salami.”|
|↑2||”On the two evenings of Thursday and Good Friday, in their shops the Roman pizzicagnoli make an exhibition of cheese, hams, eggs and sausages. Some place a mirror as a background, while others create huge caves of eggs or salami, with the Holy Sepulchre inside, and puppets made of butter which are a beauty to be seen. And on those evenings, the people coming from the visit to the cemetery go around gazing at the shows put up by the most prominent butchers, competing against each other to see who makes the best one.”|
|↑3||”Wow those two butchers certainly had a lot of gall: they attacked men on hooks like a slaughtered beast. They ground and stuffed the human flesh, and those killers made sausages and cotechino, selling it as delicious meat. In ancient times, those who made sausages from human flesh were surely criminals: but they are even more so in the present. Because nowadays there are some, dear friend, that instead of using meat from a Christian, they mix horse meat with donkey meat!”|
Six Handkerchiefs for the Cannibals: The Infamous “Jameson Affair”
This article originally appeared on #ILLUSTRATI n. 54 – “Se questo è un uomo”
In 1885, the state of Congo became private property of King Leopold II of Belgium. During the 23 years of this colonial domination, the king never set foot in this country; yet he exploited its resources and enslaved its inhabitants, causing 8 to 30 million deaths, which means he literally halved the local population. The Force Publique, a militia established by the king to spread terror, used to torture and mutilate men, women, and children, thus writing one of the most shameful and bloody pages of European colonialism.
Such an inhuman context was the setting for the scandal of James ‘Sligo’ Jameson, heir of a famous Irish whisky distillery still operating today. A naturalist, hunter and explorer, Jameson joined the Emin Pascià Relief Expedition led by Sir Henry Morton Stanley in 1886. Despite the stated objective of this expedition was to provide aid to the Emin Pasha who was under siege, its real task was to expand Belgian settlements on Congolese territory. On February 25, the soldiers left Zanzibar, heading to the heart of what was then called “Black Africa”. The scandal happened when they arrived in Ribakiba (a town known today as Lokandu).
According to Assad Farran, Jameson’s interpreter, during a meeting with the local tribe leaders, the Irish gentlemen showed his curiosity for the practice of cannibalism. “In England we hear much about cannibals who eat people, but being myself in the place, I would like to see it in person”, he said. The tribe leaders confirmed that anthropophagy was quite common in that area, and they suggested Jameson to offer a slave as a gift to one of the neighbour villages. So, for the ridiculous price of six handkerchiefs, Jameson bought a 10-year-old girl.
On reaching the native huts the girl, who was led by the man who had brought her, was presented to the cannibals. The man told them: “This is a present from the white man. He wants to see how you eat her”. The girl was taken and tied by the hands to a tree. About five natives were sharpening knives. Then a man came and stabbed her with a knife twice in the belly. The girl did not scream, but she knew what was going on. She was looking right and left, as if looking for help. When she was stabbed she fell down dead. The natives then came and began cutting her in pieces. One cut a leg, another an arm, another the head and breast, and another took the inner parts out of her belly. After the meat was divided, some took it to the river to wash it, and others went straight to their house. During all the time Mr. Jameson held a notebook and a pencil in his hand, making rough sketches of the scene.
When Assad signed this sworn statement in 1890, four years after the events, Jameson was already dead. Since his description of the events was confirmed by another witness, the scandal broke out, and the word spread fast from Europe to the US, where the story was even published in the New York Times.
Jameson’s widow then tried to redeem the memory of his husband by publishing a letter he was supposed to have written on his deathbed. This writing provided a different version of the events: the whole thing happened so fast that Jameson was powerless to stop the carnage happening before his eyes. Yet in the letter (which many suspected to be a fake written by Jameson’s friends) there were some details—such as the six handkerchiefs used to buy the little girl—corresponding to the interpreter’s report: if the letter’s purpose was to restore a posthumous honour to Jameson, this strategy proved to be rather weak.
The situation became even more confused when Assad withdrew his charges, declaring he had been misunderstood. Yet, everyone could figure out that, in all likelihood, he had been forced to retract his accusations by Belgian officers.
Although a number of grey areas still remains, there is little doubt that the accident actually occurred. Another witness remembered that back then Jameson had no problems telling this story, and that he didn’t realise the gravity of his actions until long afterwards. “Life is very cheap in Central Africa; Mr. Jameson forgot how differently this terrible thing would be regarded at home.” During those dreadful years in Congo, while regularly committing massacres, Europeans treated natives like cattle. So, from the colonists’ point of view, six handkerchiefs were clearly worth a gory and unforgettable show.
The Perfect Tribe
This article originally appeared on #ILLUSTRATI n. 51 — Il Barone Rampante
The Korowai people are the perfect tribe, because they are uncontaminated.
The first contact dates back to 1974, when about thirty natives where accosted by a team of anthropologists; it is assumed that until then the Korowai people were unaware of the existence of other populations beyond themselves. A few years later, the missionaries arrived to try and convert them.
The Korowai people are the perfect tribe, because they live in an exotic way.
Hidden in a forest’s corner in one of the most secluded countries—the isle of New Guinea—they build stilt houses on top of the trees. In this way they protect against insects, snakes, boars and enemies from other tribes. Over the years, their engineering skills have been shown in several documentaries: in 2011 an episode of Human Planet, produced by the BBC, detailed the construction of a house at the vertiginous height of 40 metres above the ground, and the move of a family to this new incredible dwelling.
The Korowai people are the perfect tribe, because they are cannibals.
They do not eat their enemies nor are into indiscriminate endocannibalism: they kill and devour only those who practice black magic.
When these people get an unknown disease, before dying they usually mention the name of the khakhua, the male witch who cast the curse on them. Then the relatives of the dead person capture the necromancer and chop him into pieces, distributing his meat among the village families.
In 2006 Paul Raffaele, an Australian adventure reporter and television personality, went among the Korowai people to save a little boy who was about to be cannibalized. The episode of 60 Minutes in which he recounted his expedition was watched by an extremely large audience. The intrepid reporter also wrote a report entitled “Sleeping With The Cannibals” for the prestigious Smithsonian Magazine; this article remains very popular to this day.
The Korowai people are the perfect tribe, because we still need the myth of the Savage.
We like to think that “out of time” tribes exist, crystallized in a prehistoric phase without experiencing any evolution or social transformation. This fable reassures us about our superiority, about our extraordinary capacity for progress. This is why we prefer the Savage to be naked, primitive, rude, or even animal-like, namely characterized by all those features we have abandoned.
Let us take the example of the tsantsa, the famous shrunken heads of the indios Shuar – Jibaros settled between Ecuador and Peru: before the arrival of white men, the natives sporadically produced very few of them. But Western explorers saw the tsantsa as the perfect macabre souvenir, and above all the emblem of the “primitive barbarity” of these tribes. It was only because of the growing demand for these artefacts that the Shuar and Achuar tribes started to organize raids among the neighbouring populations in order to stock up new heads, to shrunken and sell to white man in exchange for rifles.
When visiting museums of anthropology, only a few people realize that sometimes they are not at all looking at the artefacts from an ancient and faraway culture: they are admiring a fantasy, the idea of that culture created and built by Western people for themselves.
And what about the Korowai people, who live perched on trees like Tarzan?
In April this year, the BBC admitted that the house in the tree 40 metres above the ground, shown in the 2011 episode of Human Planet, was a fake.
Namely it was a sequence agreed upon with the natives, who were charged by the television crew of building a giant stilt house—which normally they wouldn’t have normally ever built. A member of the tribe declared that the house had been built “for the benefit of the producers of television shows overseas”: the traditional Korowai dwellings actually reached a maximum height of 5-10 metres above the ground.
And the feasts with human meat?
Cannibalism as well hasn’t actually been practiced for countless decades. “Most of these groups have a ten-year experience in providing these stories [of cannibalism] to tourists” declared anthropologist Chris Ballard of the Australian National University.
Their life now depends on Western people driven to the jungle by their search for strong emotions. The Korowai people have learnt to give them what they want.
And if white people still need the Savage, here they are.
Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 14
- Koko, the female gorilla who could use sign language, besides painting and loving kittens, died on June 19th. But Koko was not the first primate to communicate with humans; the fisrt, groundbreaking attempt to make a monkey “talk” was carried out in quite a catastrophic way, as I explained in this old post (Italian only – here’s the Wiki entry).
- Do you need bugs, butterflies, cockroaches, centipedes, fireflies, bees or any other kind of insects for the movie you’re about to shoot? This gentleman creates realistic bug props, featured in the greatest Hollywood productions. (Thanks, Federico!)
- If you think those enlarge-your-penis pumps you see in spam emails are a recently-invented contraption, here’s one from the 19th Century (taken from Albert Moll, Handbuch der Sexualwissenschaften, 1921).
- Ghanaian funerals became quite popular over the internet on the account of the colorful caskets in the shape of tools or barious objects (I talked about it in the second part of this article — Italian only), but there’s a problem: lately the rituals have become so complicated and obsessive that the bodies of the deceased end up buried months, or even several years, after death.
- This tweet.
- 1865: during the conquest of Matterhorn, a strange and upsetting apparition took place. In all probability it was an extremely rare atmospheric phenomenon, but put yourselves in the shoes of those mountain climbers who had just lost four members of the team while ascending to the peak, and suddenly saw an arc and two enormous crosses floating in the sky over the fog.
- The strange beauty of time-worn daguerrotypes.
- What’s so strange in these pictures of a man preparing some tacos for a nice dinner with his friends?
Nothing, apart from the fact that the meat comes from his left foot, which got amputated after an accident.
Think about it: you lose a leg, you try to have it back after the operation, and you succeed. Before cremating it, why not taste a little slice of it? It is after all your leg, your foot, you won’t hurt anybody and you will satiate your curiosity. Ethical cannibalism.
This is what a young man decided to try, and he invited some “open-minded” friends to the exclusive tasting event. Then, two years later, he decided to report on Reddit how the evening went. The human-flesh tacos were apparently quite appreciated by the group, with the exception of one tablemate (who, in the protagonist’s words, “had to spit me on a napkin“).
The experiment, conducted without braking any law since in the US there is none to forbid cannibalism, did raise some visceral reactions, as you would expect; the now-famous self-cannibal was even interviewed on Vice. And he stated that this little folly helped him to overcome his psychological thrauma: “eating my foot was a funny and weird and interesting way to move forward“.
- Since we’re talking disgust: a new research determined that things that gross us out are organized in six main categories. At the first place, it’s no surprise to find infected wounds and hygiene-related topics (bad smells, excrements, atc.), perhaps because they act as signals for potentially harmful situations in which our bodies run the risk of contracting a disease.
- “Did someone order prawns?”
In Qingdao, China, the equivalent of a seafood restaurant fell from the sky (some photos below). Still today, rains of animals remain quite puzzling.
- In Sweden there is a mysterious syndrom: it only affects Soviet refugee children who are waiting to know if their parents’ residency permit will be accepted.
It’s called “resignation syndrome”. The ghost of forced repatriation, the stress of not knowing the language and the exhausting beaurocratic procedures push these kids first into apathy, then catatonia and eventually into a coma. At first this epidemic was thought to be some kind of set-up or sham, but doctors soon understood this serious psychological alteration is all but fake: the children can lie in a coma even for two years, suffer from relapses, and the domino effect is such that from 2015 to 2016 a total of 169 episodes were recorded.
Here’s an article on this dramatic condition. (Thanks, David!)
- Nuke simulator: choose where to drop the Big One, type and kilotons, if it will explode in the air or on the ground. Then watch in horror and find out the effects.
- Mari Katayama is a Japanese artist. Since she was a child she started knitting peculiar objects, incorporating seashells and jewels in her creations. Suffering from ectrodactyly, she had both legs amputated when she was 9 years old. Today her body is the focus of her art projects, and her self-portraits, in my opinion, are a thing of extraordinary beauty. Here are some of ther works.
(Official website, Instagram)
- So you solved a Rubik’s Cube: well, well, good for you.
- Weird psychological mechanism: if you take a picture of something, you will remember it worse.
- The big guy you can see on the left side in the picture below is the Irish Giant Charles Byrne (1761–1783), and his skeleton belongs to the Hunterian Museum in London. It is the most discussed specimen of the entire anatomical collection, and for good reason: when he was still alive, Byrne clearly stated that he wanted to be buried at sea, and categorically refused the idea of his bones being exhibited in a museum — a thought that horrified him.
When Byrne died, his friends organized his funeral in the coastal city of Margate, not knowing that the casket was actually full of stones: anatomist William Hunter had bribed an undertaker to steal the Giant’s valuable body. Since then, the skeleton was exhibited in the museum and, even if it certainly contributed to the study of acromegalia and gigantism, it has always been a “thorny” specimen from an ethical perspective.
So here’s the news: now that the Hunterian is closed for a 3-year-long renovation, the museum board seems to be evaluating the possibility of buring Byrne’s skeletal remains. If that was the case, it would be a game changer in the ethical exhibit of human remains in museums.
- Just like a muder mystery: a secret diary written on the back of floorboards in a French Castle, and detailing crime stories and sordid village affairs. (Thanks, Lighthousely!)
- The most enjoyable read as of late is kindly offered by the great Thomas Morris, who found a delightful medical report from 1852. A gentleman, married with children but secretly devoted to onanism, first tries to insert a slice of a bull’s penis into his own penis, through the urethra. The piece of meat gets stuck, and he has to resort to a doctor to extract it. Not happy with this result, he decides to pass a 28 cm. probe through the same opening, but thing slips from his fingers and disappears inside him. The story comes to no good for our hero; an inglorious end — or maybe proudly libertine, you decide.
It made me think of an old saying: “never do anything you wouldn’t be caught dead doing“.
That’s all for now folks!
Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 6
Step right up! A new batch of weird news from around the world, amazing stories and curious facts to get wise with your friends! Guaranteed to break the ice at parties!
- Have you seen those adorable and lovely fruit bats? How would you like to own a pet bat, making all those funny expressions as you feed him a piece of watermelon or banana?
In this eye-opening article a bat expert explains all the reasons why keeping these mammals as domestic pets is actually a terrible idea.
There are not just ethical reasons (you would practically ruin their existence) or economic reasons (keeping them healthy would cost you way more than you can imagine); the big surprise here is that, despite those charming OMG-it’s-so-cuuute little faces, bats — how should I put it — are not exactly good-mannered.
As they hang upside down, they rub their own urine all over their body, in order to stink appropriately. They defecate constantly. And most of all, they engage in sex all the time — straight, homosexual, vaginal, oral and anal sex, you name it. If you keep them alone, males will engage in stubborn auto-fellatio. They will try and hump you, too.
And if you still think ‘Well, now, how bad can that be’, let me remind you that we’re talking about this.
Next time your friend posts a video of cuddly bats, go ahead and link this pic. You’re welcome.
- Sex + animals, always good fun. Take for example the spider Latrodectus: after mating, the male voluntarily offers himself in sacrifice to be eaten by his female partner, to benefit their offspring. And he’s not the only animal to understand the evolutionary advantages of cannibalism.
- From cannibals to zombies: the man picture below is Clairvius Narcisse. He is sitting on his own grave, from which he rose transformed into a real living dead.
You can find his story on Wikipedia, in a famous Haitian etnology book, in the fantasy horror film Wes Craven adapted from it, and in this in-depth article.
- Since we’re talking books, have you already invested your $3 for The Illustrati Archives 2012-2016? Thirty Bizzarro Bazar articles in kindle format, and the satisfaction of supporting this blog, keeping it free as it is and always will be. Ok, end of the commercial break.
- Under a monastery in Rennes, France, more than 1.380 bodies have been found, dating from 14th to 18th Century. One of them belonged to noblewoman Louise de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac; along with her corpse, in the casket, was found her husband’s heart, sealed in a lead lock box. The research on these burials, recently published, could revolutionize all we know about mummification during the Renaissance.
- While we’re on the subject, here’s a great article on some of the least known mummies in Italy: the Mosampolo mummies (Italian language).
- Regarding a part of the Italian patrimony that seldom comes under the spotlight, BBC Culture issued a good post on the Catacombs of Saint Gaudiosus in Naples, where frescoes show a sort of danse macabre but with an unsettling ‘twist’: the holes that can be seen where a figure’s face should be, originally harbored essicated heads and real skulls.
- Now for a change of scenario. Imagine a sort of Blade Runner future: a huge billboard, the incredible size of 1 km², is orbiting around the Earth, brightening the night with its eletric colored lights, like a second moon, advertising some carbonated drink or the last shampoo. We managed to avoid all this for the time being, but that isn’t to say that someone hasn’t already thought of doing it. Here’s the Wiki page on space advertising.
- Since we are talking about space, a wonderful piece The Coming Amnesia speculates about a future in which the galaxies will be so far from each other that they will no longer be visible through any kind of telescope. This means that the inhabitants of the future will think the only existing galaxy is their own, and will never come to theorize something like the Big Bang. But wait a second: what if something like that had already happened? What if some fundamental detail, essential to the understanding of the nature of cosmos, had already, forever disappeared, preventing us from seeing the whole picture?
- To intuitively teach what counterpoint is, Berkeley programmer Stephen Malinowski creates graphics where distinct melodic lines have different colors. And even without knowing anything about music, the astounding complexity of a Bach organ fugue becomes suddenly clear:
- In closing, I advise you to take 10 minutes off to immerse yourself in the fantastic and poetic atmosphere of Goutte d’Or, a French-Danish stop-motion short directed by Christophe Peladan. The director of this ironic story of undead pirates, well aware he cannot compete with Caribbean blockbusters, makes a virtue of necessity and allows himself some very French, risqué malice.
Che cos’è il cannibalismo, se non il riconoscimento
del “valore” dell’altro, a tal punto da doverlo ingoiare?
(Francesco Remotti, Identità, 2013)
Mangiare le carni di un essere umano è una pratica antica come il mondo, dallo stratificato e complesso valore simbolico.
In generale, dalla selva di teorie antropologiche o psicanalitiche al riguardo, non tutte condivisibili, emerge un elemento fondamentale, ossia la credenza magico-spirituale di poter assimilare attraverso il banchetto antropofago le qualità del morto. Dall’Africa all’Amazzonia alle Indie, divorare un valoroso nemico ucciso o fatto prigioniero in battaglia era certo un modo per vendicarsi, per negare l’alterità (e per contro, così facendo, rinforzare la propria identità culturale); ma a questo si unisce la speranza di acquisire il suo coraggio e la sua forza. Quest’idea è corroborata dal fatto che lo stesso meccanismo di transfert sarebbe stato presente anche nei riguardi della selvaggina, per cui alcune tribù del Sudamerica non cacciavano animali che si muovevano lentamente per timore di perdere le forze dopo essersene cibati.
Il cannibalismo, quasi universalmente, era poi ritualizzato e regolato da divieti precisi: l’identificazione fra vivi e defunti avveniva su diversi livelli, e ad esempio fra i Tupinamba chi aveva ucciso un determinato nemico non poteva assolutamente mangiare le sue carni, mentre gli era consentito nutrirsi dei corpi delle vittime dei suoi compagni guerrieri; rispetto a tutti gli altri pasti quotidiani, spesso l’agape cannibalesca era riservata ai soli guerrieri, avveniva di notte in speciali luoghi deputati allo scopo, e via dicendo. Tutto questo dimostra la prevalenza della significazione simbolica sull’effettiva necessità alimentare – l’idea che il cannibalismo potesse essere la soluzione ad una dieta con scarso apporto proteico, che pure alcuni autori sostengono, sembra secondaria. Nei contesti rituali, l’atto di consumare il cadavere di un proprio simile è eminentemente magico, e spesso superfluo ai fini della sopravvivenza.
I Tupì-Guaranì, ad esempio, bollivano le interiora dell’ucciso, ottenendo un brodo chiamato mingau che veniva distribuito a tutta la tribù, ospiti e alleati inclusi. Il reale apporto nutritivo fornito dalla carne umana, suddivisa fra decine e decine di persone, in questo caso era del tutto trascurabile.
Ancora più interessante sotto il profilo simbolico si presenta l’endocannibalismo, o allelofagia, vale a dire il cannibalismo verso individui appartenenti al proprio gruppo sociale.
Il primo a parlarne fu Erodoto nelle sue Storie (III,99):
Altre genti dell’India, localizzabili più verso oriente, sono nomadi e si nutrono di carni crude: si chiamano Padei; ed ecco quali sono, a quanto si racconta, le loro abitudini: quando uno di loro si ammala, uomo o donna che sia, viene ucciso; se è uomo, lo uccidono gli amici più intimi sostenendo che una volta consunto dalla malattia le sue carni per loro andrebbero perdute; ovviamente l’ammalato nega di essere tale, ma gli altri non accettano le sue proteste, lo uccidono e se lo mangiano. Se è una donna a cadere inferma, le donne a lei più legate si comportano esattamente come gli uomini. Del resto sacrificano chiunque giunga alla soglia della vecchiaia e se lo mangiano. Ma a dire il vero non sono molti ad arrivare a tarda età, visto che eliminano prima chiunque incappi in una malattia.
Se questa descrizione presenta l’endocannibalismo sotto una luce cinica e spietata, la maggior parte delle tradizioni in realtà vi ricorrevano in maniera ritualistica. In linea generale, infatti, soltanto gli estranei o i nemici venivano mangiati per fame o come forma di violazione; nel caso di defunti appartenenti al proprio clan le cose si facevano più complesse. Il capo tribù dei Jukun dell’Africa Occidentale, ad esempio, mangiava il cuore del suo predecessore per assorbirne le virtù; in molti altri casi l’assunzione delle carni umane era trattata come una vera e propria forma di rispetto per i defunti. Per noi risulta forse difficile accettare che vi sia della pietà filiale nell’atto di mangiare il corpo del proprio padre (patrofagia), ma possiamo comunque intuire la portata simbolica di questo gesto: il morto viene assimilato, e diventa parte vivente della sua progenie. Gli antenati, in questo modo, non sono degli spiriti lontani la cui protezione va invocata con riti e preghiere, ma sono verità tangibile e pulsante nella carne della propria stirpe.
Piuttosto significativo in quest’ambito di discussione risulta il caso dei Tapuya brasiliani, presso i quali talvolta, quando un padre invecchiava al punto da non potere più seguire gli spostamenti del gruppo, intrapresi solitamente per soddisfare i bisogni dei vari nuclei familiari, chiedeva ai parenti stretti di mangiare le sue carni e continuare così a vivere nei discendenti, dal momento che le sue precarie condizioni fisiche avrebbero costituito un ostacolo per l’intera comunità. A tale richiesta dunque il figlio maggiore concedeva il suo assenso ed esternava il suo dolore innalzando grida di sgomento di fronte ai propri consanguinei.
Dopo la morte per cause naturali dell’anziano del gruppo, il suo corpo veniva arrostito nel corso di una complessa cerimonia accuratamente eseguita e l’intera famiglia, unitamente alla comunità, ne divorava le parti, accompagnando il pasto comune con urla e lamenti, alternati a racconti delle gesta del defunto. Ossa e cranio venivano frantumati e bruciati, mentre il resto del corpo era disposto in un grande recipiente di terracotta e quindi sotterrato.
Sembra che i bambini invece fossero mangiati soltanto in caso di estrema necessità o di pericolo e unicamente dalla propria madre, oppure quando morivano per cause sconosciute; si pensava infatti di non potere offrire loro una tomba migliore del corpo nel quale si erano formati.
(L. Monferdini, Il cannibalismo, 2000)
Usanze similari erano diffuse in Africa e nel Sudamerica (Amazzonia, Valle di Cauca, ecc.) dove diverse tribù solevano nutrirsi delle ceneri dei familiari mescolate assieme a bevande fermentate. In diverse tradizioni, erano solo le ossa ad essere mangiate, una volta bruciata la carne. I Tariana e i Tucano del Brasile riesumavano la salma alcuni mesi dopo la sepoltura, arrostivano le carni fino a che non rimaneva soltanto lo scheletro, che poi veniva finemente triturato e aggiunto a una bevanda destinata al consumo dell’intera comunità.
Gli Yanomami del Venezuela praticano questa forma di endocannibalismo delle ceneri ancora oggi. Il corpo del defunto viene in un primo momento avvolto in strati di foglie e portato lontano dal villaggio, nella foresta. Lì viene lasciato agli insetti per poco più di un mese, finché tutti i tessuti molli non sono scomparsi. Allora le ossa vengono raccolte, cremate, e le ceneri sono disciolte in una zuppa di banane distribuita a tutta la tribù. Se avanzano delle ceneri, queste possono essere conservate in un vaso fino all’anno successivo, quando per un giorno (il “giorno della memoria”) viene sollevato il divieto di parlare dei morti e, bevendo la zuppa, l’intero villaggio si riunisce per ricordare le vite e le gesta dei defunti.
Ma questi esempi non dovrebbero suggerire l’erronea impressione che il cannibalismo sia stato appannaggio esclusivo delle popolazioni tribali del Sudamerica, dell’Oceania o dell’Africa. Recenti scoperte hanno mostrato come la pratica fosse diffusa nelle isole britanniche all’epoca dei Romani, negli Stati Uniti del Sud, e che le abitudini antropofaghe risalgono addirittura all’epoca degli ominidi di Neanderthal o a prima ancora (vedi Homo antecessor). I ritrovamenti di ossa con segni di cottura e raschiatura, e di feci umane fossili contenenti mioglobina (una proteina che si trova esclusivamente nel cuore e nei muscoli), sembrano confermare l’ipotesi che il cannibalismo sia esistito nel nostro passato in maniera molto più diffusa del previsto.
Un team di esperti capitanati dal professor Michael Alpers della Curtin University of Technology, studiando nel 2003 le malattie da prioni, per capire in particolare perché una buona percentuale di persone in tutto il mondo ne sia immune, è arrivato alla conclusione che si deve ringraziare proprio il cannibalismo. Esaminando un gruppo di donne della tribù Fore della Papua Nuova Guinea, particolarmente resistenti alla patologia da prioni chiamata kuru, si è scoperto che il responsabile della protezione dalla malattia è un particolare gene “duplicato”: le persone che posseggono il doppio gene sono al riparo dal kuru, quelle che hanno un gene singolo sono a rischio. Tutte le femmine Fore dotate di questa specie di “anticorpo” avevano preso parte, dagli anni ’20 agli anni ’50, a banchetti cannibali durante la più disastrosa epidemia di encefalopatie da prioni. Alle donne e ai bambini era consentito di mangiare soltanto il cervello e gli organi interni dei defunti, mentre i maschi si dividevano la carne (non infetta dai prioni). In alcune comunità le donne furono quasi completamente decimate, ma quelle che sopravvissero svilupparono la seconda copia del gene in grado di salvarle.
Il fatto però che questo doppio gene sia piuttosto comune nella popolazione mondiale ha fatto ipotizzare ad Alpers che esso sia un lascito dell’antica diffusione del cannibalismo, o perlomeno dell’endocannibalismo ritualistico, su scala globale: un passato che accomunerebbe gran parte dell’umanità.
Vermi cannibali e molecole di memoria
A volte, in questo mondo, la meraviglia può nascondersi nei luoghi e negli esseri più umili e, all’apparenza, insignificanti.
Le planarie sono dei minuscoli e piatti vermiciattoli, lunghi appena qualche centimetro, del colore del fango e che nel fango trascorrono la loro esistenza, nell’alveo di stagni e acquitrini.
Eppure questi platelminti hanno una capacità che ha del miracoloso: se li tagliate in due, la testa è capace di rigenerare l’intero corpo. E fin qui non ci sarebbe nulla di così straordinario – molti animali sono in grado di far “ricrescere” le parti del proprio corpo che vengono a mancare e alcuni (come il granchio, la salamandra, la stella marina o la lucertola) arrivano addirittura all’autotomia, vale a dire ad amputarsi volontariamente un’appendice per sfuggire a un predatore. Quello che rende le planarie davvero straordinarie è che non soltanto la testa può rigenerare l’intero corpo, ma anche la coda riesce a farsi spuntare una nuova testa.
In effetti, esistono planarie sessuate e planarie asessuate; se quelle sessuate copulano e producono uova, le loro compagne asessuate si riproducono perdendo la coda, che diviene un secondo individuo con lo stesso patrimonio genetico del “genitore”.
E questo è solo l’inizio.
Se sezionate una planaria longitudinalmente passando il vostro bisturi fra i due occhi, dove dovrebbe stare il cervello, fino alla fine della coda, le due metà si rigenereranno comunque: la parte sinistra farà ricrescere la parte destra mancante, e viceversa.
Poniamo che siate davvero accecati dall’odio per questo animaletto, e che decidiate di tagliarlo in 100 pezzi, certi finalmente di averlo fatto fuori; nel giro di qualche settimana le “fettine” avranno dato vita a 100 vermi perfettamente formati. Questo è stato verificato perfino tagliando una planaria in 279 pezzi.
E per finire, se dividete a metà la testa di una planaria, lasciandole però intatto il corpo, le due parti attiveranno comunque il processo di ricrescita della metà “mancante”, e in poco tempo vi ritroverete con una planaria a due teste.
Ovviamente il segreto sta nella semplicità della struttura fisica di questi animali: l’apparato digerente è rudimentale, lo scambio fra ossigeno e anidride carbonica avviene per diffusione, senza bisogno di organi particolari e, più che di un vero e proprio cervello, essi sono dotati di un piccolo ganglio, due lobi di tessuto nervoso che formano una massa in cui è stata riscontrata attività elettrica simile a quella di altri animali. Due nervi principali corrono giù su entrambi i fianchi della planaria fino alla coda, e altri più piccoli li uniscono trasversalmente, come pioli di una scala.
L’attività rigenerativa avviene per epimorfosi: questo significa che sulla ferita cominciano a proliferare delle cellule indifferenziate che, una volta raggiunto un numero adeguato, si differenziano e cominciano a creare i tessuti mancanti.
Se tutte queste stranezze non fossero già abbastanza, ecco entrare in scena il professor James V. McConnell, biologo ed etologo, personalità eccentrica con uno spiccato gusto per la provocazione. Lo studioso nel 1955 cominciò i suoi esperimenti con le planarie, e scoprì di poter condizionare il loro comportamento proprio come Pavlov con il suo famoso cane. Sottopose i vermi a questo trattamento: prima accendeva sul loro acquario una forte luce, e poi dava loro una scossa elettrica. Le planarie, come è comprensibile, facevano l’unica cosa che potevano per proteggersi o per resistere al dolore: si accartocciavano. Luce forte, scossa, luce forte, scossa. Dopo un certo periodo McConnell provò ad accendere soltanto la luce; gli animali si accartocciarono, in attesa di una scossa che non sarebbe arrivata.
McConnell dimostrò quindi che le planarie avevano una memoria: quelle già condizionate in precedenza avevano bisogno di meno tempo, e meno scosse, per ricordarsi il significato della luce, rispetto alle loro ignare colleghe appena entrate nell’acquario.
A partire da questa constatazione, McConnell cominciò i bizzarri esperimenti per cui ancora oggi – nonostante successive, più prestigiose ricerche – viene ricordato.
Assieme al suo team di worm runners (così aveva battezzato i suoi collaboratori) condizionò delle planarie, poi le divise a metà. Voleva accertarsi se, una volta rigenerate in due individui separati, si ricordassero ancora il loro condizionamento, e le sottopose quindi al suo test luce/scossa. La planaria formatasi a partire dalla testa, che quindi aveva mantenuto il suo cervello, si ricordava ancora perfettamente il pericolo associato alla luce, e si accartocciava appena questa veniva accesa. Ma la cosa davvero incredibile era che anche la planaria “nata” dalla coda tagliata sembrava non aver minimamente perso la memoria del condizionamento.
Cosa voleva dire? Per McConnell la spiegazione era evidente: quella era la prova che la memoria dell’animale non albergava esclusivamente nel cervello, o nel sistema nervoso centrale. Ma dove, allora?
McConnell aveva una sua teoria, ma per confermarla doveva fare un passo ulteriore.
Tagliò uno dei vermi già condizionati in pezzetti piccolissimi – praticamente lo macinò – e lo diede in pasto ad altre planarie che non sapevano nulla di luci o di scosse. (Ebbene sì, questi animaletti non disdegnano affatto il cannibalismo).
Ed ecco, prodigio!, le planarie ignoranti di colpo non lo erano più. Avevano digerito e incorporato la memoria del loro sfortunato compagno.
Secondo i test successivi, infatti, i vermi cannibali che si erano cibati della planaria “addestrata” apprendevano molto più in fretta a reagire al riflesso condizionato. La memoria, concluse McConnell, era dunque un fenomeno chimico: dato che l’RNA codifica informazioni, e dato che le cellule viventi producono e modificano l’RNA in reazione ad eventi esterni, era forse così che all’interno dei neuroni venivano registrati e conservati i ricordi: Memory RNA, battezzò McConnell la molecola che ipoteticamente potrebbe essere responsabile di tutte le nostre memorie.
Le scoperte di McConnell causarono, comprensibilmente, un piccolo vespaio. Dal 1962 fino al 1969 circa, scettici e possibilisti si accapigliarono: potevano questi risultati avere qualcosa a che vedere con il modo in cui l’apprendimento avviene nel cervello umano? I vermi avevano davvero imparato semplicemente mangiando le memorie altrui, o l’esperimento era falsato? Era possibile immaginare un futuro in cui, invece di studiare, sarebbe bastata una pillola per diventare edotti in qualsiasi materia?
Di colpo, tutti si misero a tagliare vermi in laboratorio. Nonostante la buona volontà, però, questi eclatanti risultati non vennero mai replicati con precisione. Già difficile da digerire in partenza, la teoria di McConnell a poco a poco perse di risonanza, fino a diventare poco più di una barzelletta.
A dire la verità, l’atteggiamento poco ortodosso e irriverente di McConnell non aiutò. Secondo lui, per essere scienziati seri non serviva assolutamente essere anche solenni e pomposi.
Nel suo Journal of Biological Psychology, il professore spesso amava mischiare le carte, e pubblicava le sue scoperte “serie” insieme ad articoli satirici. I lettori finirono per essere troppo confusi, quindi McConnell decise di stampare i testi scientifici su un lato della rivista, e quelli comici sul retro, sottosopra: da una parte si leggeva il Journal of Biological Psychology, e girando i fogli ci si poteva intrattenere con il più faceto Worm Runner’s Digest. McConnell si divertiva come un matto quando qualche libreria rispediva indietro le copie della strana rivista, segnalando un errore nella rilegatura.
Alla fine i contributi satirici del Worm Runner’s Digest risultarono così numerosi che McConnell riuscì a raccoglierli in ben due libri: The Worm Re-Turns (1965) e Science, Sex and Sacred Cows (1971).
La sede della memoria, oggi lo sappiamo con relativa certezza, è la corteccia cerebrale, anche se ippocampo e amigdala giocano sicuramente ruoli importanti nella “registrazione” del ricordo. Eppure i meccanismi molecolari che regolano la formazione e il mantenimento della memoria, così come la sua “morte” nel momento in cui dimentichiamo qualcosa, sono ancora nebulosi.
Nel 2001 alcuni ricercatori intenti a studiare l’interferenza dell’RNA (uno degli argomenti più “caldi” nella biologia molecolare odierna) hanno sollevato il dubbio che McConnell, almeno in parte, fosse sulla strada giusta nell’insistere affinché venissero studiate le basi chimiche della memoria. Peccato che il diretto interessato non possa assistere a questo ritorno di fiamma delle sue teorie.
Nella seconda parte della sua carriera accademica di professore emerito, James McConnell si dedicò alla redazione di un fondamentale libro di testo di psicologia generale (Understandig Human Behavior), si occupò di psicologia sociale e di sensorialità nei soggetti autistici, e svolse ricerche sulla percezione subliminale. Nel 1985 fu vittima di Unabomber, e perse temporaneamente l’udito quando il suo assistente aprì un manoscritto esplosivo. Dopo essersi ritirato dall’insegnamento, per dedicarsi alle sue orchidee, morì infine nel 1990.
E i vermi di tutto il mondo sospirarono di sollievo.