Pleasures of the Flesh

Most newspapers, when alerted that a long-awaited film is about to open, send an entertainment reporter out to interview the stars or director.

But at Scotland’s Sunday Herald, they do things right. To shed light on the new film that follows everyone’s favorite Chianti drinker, Hannibal Lecter, Hannibal Rising, the paper deployed not a tasteful critic or breathless celeb interviewer but Timothy Taylor, an archeologist specializing in the extremes of human behavior. The resulting article, “Nice to Eat You,” is a historical, cultural, and scientific look at the practice of cannibalism.

Not eating your friends after they have died, it seems, is a relatively new invention:

Item: Sterkfontein, South Africa, two million years ago; Homo habilis cranium with cut marks made in the fresh bone where the lower jaw was removed. Item: Gran Dolina, Spain, 800,000 years ago; Homo antecessor remains, extensively butchered with stone knives. Item: Bodo, Ethiopia, 600,000 years ago; early archaic Homo sapiens cranium covered in cut marks from systematic defleshing. Item: Zhoukoudian, China, 400,000 years ago; Homo erectus crania with enlarged hole at base for extracting brains. Item: Moula Guercy, France, 100,000 years ago; Homo neanderthalensis, two juveniles, butchered just like the deer from the same site. Item: Gough’s (New) Cave, England, 12,500 years ago; modern Homo sapiens remains, butchered in the same manner.

Taylor ranges through the natural world, discussing the cannibalistic practices of chimps, lions (the male that takes over a pride eats the cubs of his rival), and salmon. He describes how the aromatic smoke from the Aztec’s cannibalistic rites rose to the heavens as an offering for the gods.

He even makes like Clarice Starling, setting out to visit one of Brazil’s most notorious real-life blood drinkers, though not actually getting there.

Why do we love Thomas Harris’s Hannibal?

Central to Lecter’s grisly magnetism is his avowed gustatory pleasure in human flesh. Most real-life psycho cannibals have been pretty poor cooks…. Harris’s monster is monstrous because he couples an admirably cultured life, of painting, music, science and medicine with an appetite conditioned by war yet rendered unnecessary by the post-war economics of plenty. His compulsion is not that of a ravening madman. He does not just eat the brains of the US Department of Justice agent, Paul Krendler, while the latter is still alive, but dines on them, with all the trappings of a gourmet.

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