Cannibalism and communion, Andrew Fieldsend

This Horrid Practice: The Myth and Reality of Traditional Maori Cannibalism
Paul Moon
Penguin Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9780143006718

Macaulay said that history was sometimes fiction, sometimes theory. But Paul Moon’s provocative and controversial book sets out to establish objective facts about traditional Maori cannibalism. Moon uses old-fashioned, scholarly methods to confront recent treatments of cannibalism that have been more influenced by theoretical discourse. In particular, he challenges American anthropologist and self-proclaimed deconstructionist Gananath Obeyesekere who in recent years has claimed that Maori “cannibalism” (the term comes with baggage) is “a fantasy”, although he concedes that Maori ate human flesh in limited circumstances.

Weighing up the evidential value of contemporary documents in the manner of a coroner, Moon constructs a persuasive argument that cannibalism was widespread among Maori communities up to the 1830s and closely associated with the warrior culture that was reported by European observers of the time. Moon considers that “eating people was part of a systematic practice in which extreme rage and aggression were freely vented as an element of the loosely prescribed rituals associated with the defeat of an enemy.” This included degrading the enemy and “ramming home the implication of conquest in the most cruel, deliberately insulting and provocative manner possible, thereby flaunting the depth of anger felt towards the defeated enemy.”

It seems unlikely that cannibalism was motivated by hunger or a need for protein. Even if it had once been prompted by famine, cannibalism persisted well after the introduction of pigs and potatoes. There is, however, evidence of human flesh being packaged up and transported along with other food-stuffs, or sent off to relatives and friends as gifts, and there are several records of slaves being taken for later killing and consumption.

There appears to be little evidence that cannibalism was associated with religious rites or the transfer of mana. Moon doubts that mana could traditionally be consumed by eating an enemy (mana is related to a person’s actions, it is not a “bio-accumulative commodity”). Nonetheless, cannibalism was associated with offences against mana, and the bodies of chiefs killed in battle appear to have been the most sought after for eating.

One disappointing aspect of the book is a lack of discussion about traditional Maori concepts of the body and their role in cannibalism – it would be interesting to consider cannibalism more deeply in relation to practices of tattoo and interment, for example. But using, as he does, an almost entirely European source book, it is difficult for Moon to speculate about cannibalism beyond its observable phenomena. Perhaps for this reason, Moon interprets cannibalism primarily in relation to its violent aspects. Cannibalism was, according to him, a form of terrorism, contributing to a self-perpetuating cycle of  war and aggression from community to community: “Maori society, with its relentless and intense social stresses, therefore seemed doomed to experience cannibalism like some genetic curse, unless some sort of intervention, of a sufficiently widespread and invasive nature, could succeed in interrupting the cycle.”

There is no clear reason for the quite sudden decline in cannibalism in the first few decades of the 19th century; the most likely reasons are that cannibalism placed at risk Maori trade with Europeans and that conversion to Christianity enabled cannibalism to be sublimated into the process of taking communion (a form of “affectionate cannibalism”). As evidence of the link between communion and cannibalism, Moon points to the emergence of blood-drinking as a new practice in the early 19th century, citing an example of Te Rauparaha drinking from the neck of a freshly decapitated enemy.

Persuasive as Moon’s conclusions about the fact of traditional Maori cannibalism are, it is difficult to accept his conclusions about its meanings. Moon’s evidential sources are almost entirely reports and eye-witness accounts from Europeans and Pakeha. His stated reason for avoiding Maori oral records of cannibalism is the complexity involved in corroborating the oral record. The strength of Moon’s factual case is built upon the reliability and objectivity of his observers, but he has an over-confidence in the ability of his sources to transcend the politics of language and culture. Here he is responding to Obeyesekere’s criticism of one source:

How can a literal description of an act of cannibalism suddenly transform itself into “the discourse of British cannibalism”? The only thing singularly British about the description is the use of the English language. Otherwise, if it was translated into Maori, the practitioners of that act of cannibalism could not help but see it as an entirely representative description of their actions.


A description of an act of cannibalism may translate readily from one language to another at a literal level, but it will never be an “entirely representative description” in the second language because it will have a very different cultural meaning. Moon should be conscious of this, given that he spends 25 pages discussing representations of cannibalism in Western literature from Defoe to Melville.

The morality of cannibalism is a particular difficulty for Moon – on the one hand he condemns as “postmodernists” those who excuse cannibalism on the grounds of tradition or custom, but on the other he finds that Maori society justified cannibalism on its own terms. Moon resists the conclusion that traditional Maori values were therefore morally flawed. Instead, he resorts to amateur psychoanalysis, citing a criminal psychologist who suggests that cannibalism is a psychopathic condition associated with breastfeeding trauma: “if cannibalism can be traced to a psychological disorder, it can fairly be regarded as a morally wrong action occasioned by mental trauma or stress, as opposed to its being just a culturally relative custom.”

Moon also speculates that Maori genetics were altered by cannibalism. He cites recent overseas research in loose support of his assertion that “high and/or long episodes of social stress – of the sort that was a recurrent feature of traditional Maori society” could leave traces on the DNA of subsequent generations, such that “the genetic imprint caused by a high-anxiety environment can take generations to recede.”

Another difficult aspect of Moon’s book is his use of terminology loaded with ideological baggage. Moon justifies his use of the term “primitive” on the grounds that it refers to a society “typified by features such as … a dependence on pre-Newtonian science, and a strong reliance on kinship, clanship, tribal and caste affiliations.” His use of the term, however, accesses its full range of connotations. Similarly, his use of the parallel term “European civilisation” often refers to the transformative effect that colonisation had on Maori, so comes to be synonymous with colonisation itself.

Given that Moon relies almost entirely on European records of cannibalism for his sources, it is difficult to accept that his picture of cannibalism fairly or accurately interprets what the practice meant for Maori. Where Moon strays from his primary purpose of proving the fact of traditional Maori cannibalism into more speculative areas, it is easy to understand some of the controversy that it has attracted, and I have some sympathy with the comments of Rawiri Taonui of Canterbury University that Moon “makes a giant-sized conclusion about pre-European Maori society that’s based on the view of a few Europeans.”

That caution aside, Moon’s writing style is always witty and engaging. This book resets our understanding of cannibalism as it occurred in New Zealand and is easy to recommend.


Andrew Fieldsend is a Wellington lawyer.


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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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