FOLLOWING THE TRACES OF YANOMAMI TRIBE:ENDOCANNIBALISM AS A DEATH RITUAL

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VENEZUELAN INDIANS AND BIZARRE DEATH CULTURE

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“Rituals are the formulas by which harmony is restored.”

– Terry Tempest Williams

Unless we are talking about bizarre rituals we are not able to accept and to understand. But, we are still interested to find out more about the controversial moments of one society and its own taboo practice. We are simply addicted to open the covered stories and to smell the burning of the human’s innocence for the sake of primitive and animal fears.

The world travelers who find themselves lost in the mist of some forgotten land, often come back with the Robinson Crusoe inspiration. The scary adventures in deep jungles, the discovery of cannibalistic tribe or the escape of death are not the scenario for some future blockbuster.They are the  footprints of modern explorers who bring us the piece of mystical world, the piece we are not always ready to swallow.

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The Yanomami tribe is one of the most interesting for the anthropologists because they are the largest indigenous tribe on the  South American continent. They are located  on the shores of the Amazon, some of them live in the southern part of Venezuela( around 10,000 people) and the rest are in the northwest of Brazil (about 9,000 people). The most exciting fact about them is that they hold on their local customs and backward culture, they do not change their religious frame and practice and they are not exposed to the influence of white settlers or gold seekers who are ready to destroy all for the profit. The Yanomami are also known as  Yanam or Senema but almost always like a specific tribe that has very strange death culture, merged with cannibalism. They are presented to the world’s population as a people who eat ash of the death to ensure the salvation of the soul. The term is endocannibalism, what also means eating the  flesh of a human being from the same community after they have died or consuming their relics through  in the mortuary process.

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The social picture of Yanomami Indians is also unique. They prefer life in small groups, where they all enjoy naked, sharing a common tent Shabono. They do not interfere with other communities, only in the case of weddings or wars. Because of the group’s life and activities, men usually get in conflicts with one another and fight each others but according to observations of scientists, the violence is not the attribute of this tribe but rather an unwilling choice. However, the death culture is very substantive in the mentioned community and it is a core of the tribe living cycle and based on Dr. Frank Jacob research:”The religious conviction of the Yanomami rests on the belief that the soul needs to be protected after death, a belief that appeared in European antiquity as well.The soul could enter another life form.Due to this, the Yanomami do not hunt special kinds of birds, which are seen as a possible container for the souls of dead tribe members.Following the religious beliefs of the Indians, the soul is only able to achieve a full salvation if the dead body is burnt after death and if the ash is eaten up by the family and the relatives of the dead person. So, in contrast to the funeral rites which are practiced all around the world, the Yanomami do not bury the corpses.In a ceremony the dead body is burned down and the remaining ash and bones are collected by the remaining relatives.”  They express their feelings towards the dead community member through the cries and songs, masking their faces with the grime. After the burning, the bones are picked up and mixed with the ash in some pot where they stays until the second part of the ceremony of death ritual. In the afterphase, they collect the bones, make them pulverized and mix with banana, making famous banana soup which will be consumed by all. Banana mush is the most popular dishes of these native Indians so it doesn’t surprise their interest to make it from the ash and bones of dead tribe member. They believe that is the only way of successful and right journey of the soul to the paradise, through the other who eat it. If there is no full ceremony, the soul is damned and without peace. 

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The endocannibalism is not a typical cannibalism but the form of indirect cannibalism, in some spiritual way. The Yanomami do not see anything wrong in this but they see wrong if the ritual is not made and the soul is cursed to wander between this world and the another one. I found very interesting that Yanomami prior to cremation, cover the body in leaves and let the nature to do the rest of the job. Natural decomposition usually takes up to 45 days, calculating the fast work of insects.

The consumption of ashes in one sitting is obligatory but there are situations when we have exceptions, especially when the enemy have killed the Yanomami member:”Rather than the entire community consuming the ashes, only the women must do it, and it has to happen on the night that a revenge raid is planned. The ashes of these men killed by enemies may linger around for years until the tribe believes that their deaths have been rightfully avenged. This is due to the Yanomami tribe’s belief that the spirit cannot completely transition to the spiritual world without completely vanishing from the material world. Therefore, the ashes cannot be fully consumed until the matter of avenging the death is resolved so that the late loved one can make the peaceful transition to the spiritual world.”

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Maybe it is not a real comparison, but the Aghori monks of Varanasi in India have the similar ideas about endocannibalism. They believe that they will achieve the majestic spiritual power if they consume the parts of the dead or their ash. It is one primitive belief that the relics give them  power to communicate to the world of dead. There were many scandalous stories about those monks but at the end of the day, they are not monsters and killers. They are dwelling into the shadows between the two worlds, preying on dead souls and their journey to the life after this one.

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The Yanomami are far away from the mysticism of Aghori monks. They are still stuck in their own cultural taboo and in their own glorification of death rituals. For hundred years, nothing has been really changed within the vibrant tribes in the rainforests of the Amazon. Considering them violent and dangerous is not a real effort when they are one exclusively indigenous tribe per se. The endo cannibalistic characteristic of their tribe  religion is nothing but the proof that civilization manners will never achieve every single corner of the Earth. It will be always the places and the people who will be enough distant to resist the wheels of the mankind’s progress and who will always turn their Gods into our nightmares. Regardless how, their unique anthropological identity is a challenge for all of us, everytime we think of deep, ancient jungles and their own rules.

4 thoughts on “FOLLOWING THE TRACES OF YANOMAMI TRIBE:ENDOCANNIBALISM AS A DEATH RITUAL”

  1. Thank you, Sarah, for shedding light on this ancient ritual which still exists in today’s world!

    It is amazing how the Yanomami tribe rituals have survived modernization that’s all around!

    This comes from a mutual intent on the part of both the tribe, i.e. from the inside, and the Venezuelan government on the outside!

    While one ca understand how the Yanomami tribe wishes to preserve its mores over the centuries, it is hard to believe and comprehend why and how the Venezuelan government allows such odd rituals to continue.

    In general, cannibalism has been rejected over the years as an unacceptable act on the part of humans, and so should endocannibalism !

    It is unsanitary to leave the dead for 45 days to decompose, as this would harbor and foster microbes and bacteria, which could bring about deadly diseases that may decimate the tribe members!

    As you have stated in this article, primitive rituals are not unique to the Yanomami tribe. It is the duty of the rest of the world to reach out to theses types of tribes, wherever they may be, to enlighten them as to such unhealthy rituals.

    Thank you again, Sarah, for this anthropologically informative article !

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  2. Sarah’s intriguing article brought to mind three entities associated with cannibalism: ritualism, necessity and unconscious cannibalism.

    In 1846, the North American author Herman Melville (1819-1891) wrote the treatise Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life; a semi-factual account of Herman Melville’s voyage to the South Pacific Island of Nuku Hiva (the largest of the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia), where he lived for several weeks among the island’s cannibal inhabitants, before fleeing.

    It is still debated why many Polynesian tribes practiced cannibalism. Indeed, a large number of Pacific Island residents did so in prehistoric times. One theory is that cannibalism was more for food than ritualism; although, ritual played a significant part. An offering to the gods was called Ika (which means fish), and a sacrifice was caught and, just like a fish, was hung by a fishhook in a sacred place.

    Those to be eaten were tied and hung up in trees until needed. Then, they had their brains bashed out on execution blocks with a club. Women and children seem to have been cannibalized just for food, whereas warriors killed in battle were offerings to the gods and were eaten by their conquerors to absorb their power. Their skulls were kept by their slayers for the same reason.

    In the context of cannibalism as necessity, the infamous case of Alexander Pearce (1790-1824) came to mind: he was an Irish convict who was transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania, the most horrifying Gothic prison in The British Empire) for seven years for theft. He escaped from prison several times. During one of these escapes (1822) he allegedly became a cannibal; murdering his companions one by one. In another escape, with one companion, he allegedly killed him and ate him in pieces. He was captured and was hanged and dissected in Hobart, Tasmania.

    Chemically, red meat does possess elements that interact with the blood system of humans (i.e. influences on the neurological system and brain) in a very different manner to fruit, vegetables, etc. Alexander Pearce started out being a cannibal from the pressures of extreme hunger and near starvation, while absconding in the harsh climate and topography of Tasmania. Arguably, the ingestion of human flesh brought forth the foundations of what might have become ritualism, if he had continued consuming human flesh. Psychologically, he was being metamorphosed by what he was eating. Such as the aggression levels in carnivores (i.e. Homo sapiens, lions and other mammals, and even plants [e.g. Venus fly trap]).

    Lastly, I refer to ‘unconscious cannibalism’, when people do not know they are consuming humans. The futuristic film Soylent Green (1973) is set in a dystopian future suffering from pollution, overpopulation, depleted resources, poverty, dying oceans and year-round humidity due to the greenhouse effect. Much of the population survives on processed food rations; including ‘soylent green’ (humans processed into edible food).

    It is not improbable that this could happen in the future, because we are already in a very serious situation of global food production. There are natural resource issues all over the planet (i.e. food, water and oxygen). People will eat anything, if they are told lies about what they are eating, because most humans do so now (i.e. issue of false labeling of food products, etc.). For example, the dire consequences of saturated junk food are sustained through the noxious ignorance of consumers.

    Sarah’s article should be published in either or Scientific American and National Geographic: her unique and engaging journalism proffers up enlightenment for all wishing to comprehend the diversities and varieties of organic life on Earth, physiologically and psychologically.

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