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In his 5th-century BC Histories, Herodotus provides us with one of the earliest written

accounts for the practice of cannibalism (White 1992: 7). Cannibalism or

anthropophagy are terms which imply the use of parts of the human body for food
(Zivanovic 1982: 192) although the definition may include anything from consuming
the ashes of a cremated relative to devouring the barbecued limbs of one's enemies
(Myers 1984: 149). The objective of this paper is to examine the references pertaining
to cannibalism in Herodotus, review the various theories that have attempted to account
for these references, and propose a new explanation for this cultural motif.
The accounts of Herodotus
In describing the behaviour of the Androphagoi (man-eaters), Herodotus tells us that
this tribe dwelling north of the Black Sea are `the most savage (agriotata)' of all those in
the region since they possess no laws. They are nomads who dress like Scythians but
speak their own language. Most importantly, they are the only one of the societies in the
region to eat people (anthropophageousi) (4.106). The critical question of whom
specifically these Androphagoi dined upon is left unexplained. This is not so in
Herodotus' other accounts.
Describing the mortuary practice of the Issedones (FIGURE 1), one of the peoples of
the steppe-lands commonly located either in the southern Urals or more often
immediately east of the Urals on the Isset, a tributary of the Tobol, Herodotus relates
(4.26; Godley 1938):
It is said to be the custom of the Issedones, that whenever a man's father dies, all the
nearest of kin bring beasts of the flock, and having killed these and cut up the flesh they
cut up also the dead father of their host, and set out all the flesh mingled together for a
In his description of the Massagetae of western Central Asia, he tells us (1.216; Godley
1938: 271) that:
When a man is very old all his kin meet together and kill (thuousi) him, with beasts of
the flock besides, the boil the flesh and feast (kateuokheontai) on it. This is held to be
the happiest death; when a man dies of a sickness they do not eat him, but bury him in
the earth, and lament that he would not live to be killed.
While both the Issedones and Massagetae are generally presumed to have been Iranianspeaking, Herodotus also attributes cannibalism to two tribes living immediately south
of the Indus: the Kallatiai, who `devour (katesthiousi) their parents' (3.38), and the
Padaioi, described as nomads who eat raw flesh, among whom when `one has come to
old age, they sacrifice (him) and feast (kateuokheontai) on his flesh' (3.99).

That endocannibalism -- the consumption of one's own deceased -- is a topos in

Herodotus is most clearly seen in his account of how Darius, King of Persia, summoned
the Greeks and asked them `what price would persuade them to eat their fathers' dead
bodies'; the Greeks replied that there was no price that would entice them to behave so
(3.38). In short, the consumption of one's own deceased was most definitely
unacceptable to the Greeks and a practice that was to be associated with foreigners.
Herodotus' description of cannibalism was adopted by later authors to be reapplied to
more distant peoples. Strabo relates how the inhabitants of Ireland are even more savage
(agrioteroi) than those of Britain `since they are man-eaters (anthropophagoi) ... and
since they count it an honourable thing when their fathers die, to devour (katesthiein)
them' (4.5.4). He provides a further example of cannibalism in his description of the
Derbikes of the Caucasus region (11.11.8; Jones 1923):
When men become over 70 years of age they are slaughtered and their flesh is
consumed (analiskousi) by their nearest of kin; but their old women are strangled and
then buried. However, the men who die under 70 years of age are not eaten, but only
A key element in all of Herodotus' accounts of cannibalism is that the consumed and the
consumers are closely related, at times specified as the closest of relations. Moreover,
the victims are either already dead (Issedones), and hence their corpses are butchered
like livestock, or they are aged (Massagetae, Padaioi) and are first dispatched as a
preparation for consumption. A number of theories can explain these descriptions and in
the remainder of this paper we will discuss three possible approaches before offering a
fourth theory which we believe to be the most archaeologically plausible to account for
Herodotus' descriptions of cannibalism.
Theory 1: The cannibalism motif is entirely fictional
That Herodotus ascribed similar cannibalistic: practices to five different peoples
suggests a simple transference of a motif from one people to the next, e.g. sacrificing
the aged among both the Massagetae and the Padaioi (and its later reprise in Strabo's
accounts). Arens (1979) has shown how the assignment of bestial practices to one's
enemies or even neighbours, to contrast their lack of culture with one's own, is a near
cultural universal, especially when it also employs the usual disparagement of the
cannibal as sexually promiscuous. Herodotus combines incest with cannibalism in his
description of the Massagetae as Strabo does in his description of the Irish.
It is difficult, however, to regard his references to endocannibalism among the Kallatiai
and Issedones as mere attempts to render these people savages. The context for his
assignment of cannibalism to the Kallatiai is a digression to emphasise that `if it were
proposed to all nations to choose which seemed best of all customs, each, after
examination made, would place its own first; so well is each persuaded that its own are

by far the best' (3.38; Godley 1938: 51). He then contrasts the Greeks' abhorrence of
funerary endocannibalism with the Kallatiai's disgust at the Greek practice of cremation.
More important is Herodotus' brief account of the Issedones as this was most likely
derived from an earlier (7th century?) source such as Aristeas of Proconnesus (Bolton
1962). After describing the funerals of the Issedones, Herodotus acknowledges that they
are dikaioi `observant of laws', which clearly suggests that he is not attempting to
disparage a distant people with the stock epithets of savages. In short, there are reasons
to suggest that Herodotus inherited an earlier description of the Issedones as cannibals
and the description was not wilfully inserted into his own account to emphasize the
savage behaviour of a distant people.
Theory 2: The cannibalism motif is an accurate description of a cultural practice
Cannibalism has been widely discussed in anthropological literature, including both
typological classification (White 1992: 13) and cartographical representation of the
various types of cannibalism (Helmuth 1973). White proposes a system in which
starvation-induced cannibalism is referred to as `survival' cannibalism, cannibalism of
the dead which may involve an affectionate motivation is termed `funerary' cannibalism,
and non-funerary cannibalism practiced under non-starvation conditions is referred to as
`gastronomic' cannibalism. Arens, however, has been highly critical of the authenticity
of even the most oft-cited ethnographic accounts and the questionable interpretation
applied to prehistoric remains led him to conclude that `although the theoretical
possibility of customary cannibalism cannot be dismissed, the available evidence does
not permit the facile assumption that the act was or has ever been a prevalent cultural
feature' (Arens 1979: 182).
Arens' scepticism, however, is not universally held. Research undertaken during the
1980s into the incubation period of the disease kuru among individuals of the Fore tribe
of New Guinea was able to identify which members of the tribe had eaten parts of
particular individuals (Litz 1986: 926; contra Arens 1979: 101-16). Eyewitness accounts
recorded that the Dyaks of Borneo decapitated, drank blood and ate the hearts of their
victims (Lloyd Parry 1997: 1), while Keesing (1975: 174) has affirmed cannibal feasts
in Fiji and the Solomon Island. In her study of cannibalism, Sanday (1986: 10) cited 37
cases of cannibalism in the ethnographic record although admitted the problematic
nature of some of the accounts.
Osteoarchaeological evidence for cannibalism has also become increasingly common.
When damage patterns indicate a functional exploitation of the body and its elements
consistent with the extraction of nutrition, the inference of cannibalism is warranted
(White 1992: 339). Fragmentary human remains displaying clear evidence of having
been defleshed and disarticulated have been recovered from numerous 9th- to 13thcentury AD sites in the American Southwest (White 1992; Turner & Turner 1999). In
addition, crania and long bone shafts had been broken open by hammerstones and anvil

percussion and body segments had been roasted. The modifications and representations
of the human remains were practically identical to those apparent in Southwestern
faunal assemblages and, subsequently, these findings have been interpreted as evidence
for the occurrence of human cannibalism among these Native American populations.
Turner & Turner (1999: 24) have presented six taphonomic criteria which they believe
are necessary for the recognition of cannibalism in a human bone assemblage. These
characteristics include extensive peri-mortem cranial and post-cranial bone breakage,
the presence of cutmarks, the occurrence of anvil-hammerstone abrasions, burning, a
large proportion of missing vertebrae and fragment end-polishing.
That Herodotus was supplying an accurate account of funerary cannibalism is
theoretically possible but it has not been verified archaeologically among populations of
the Eurasian steppe. Sanday (1986: 59-101) provides several accounts of funerary
endocannibalism in New Guinea among the Hua and Gimi who are reported to have
eaten deceased relatives (among the Gimi males ate pork, females ate males) but these
occur under subsistence and cultural regimes radically different to those we find among
the pastoral nomads of the Eurasian steppe.
Theory 3: The cannibalism motif is a misunderstanding of a funerary belief
It might be proposed that Herodotus or Aristeas encountered the beliefs of a distant
people that they misconstrued as funerary endocannibalism. One need only consider the
predicament that a pagan anthropologist might face in confronting the concept of
transubstantiation in certain Christian churches where bread and wine is quite literally
regarded as the body and blood of Christ. Such beliefs are not restricted to Christian
groups. In his classic study of the funeral system of the LoDagga of West Africa, Goody
described the practice of the Orphan's Meal where a steer is sacrificed on the death of a
As the children are eating the food, the senior member of the reciprocal funeral group
says, `It's your father's flesh you're eating.' ... The phrase `your father's flesh' is
ambiguous in that `flesh' might refer to the father's body or to the body of an animal he
owned, since the word nen is applied to both humans and animals (Goody 1962: 198).
A practice where the same words are employed to describe the flesh of the deceased and
that of the animal sacrificed on his behalf could easily lead to confusion. Had the
Issedones or other distant steppe populations had a similar belief, then a Greek recipient
of such a story could easily confuse the sacrifice of the cattle at the funerary feast with
the consumption of the deceased. This theory can hardly be excluded but it does require
the long-distance transmission of an ideological system originally framed in an alien
Theory 4: The cannibalism motif is a misunderstanding of a funerary ritual

In this new explanation we wish to propose a ritual that, if observed by a foreign

informant, might be easily misinterpreted as the butchering and consumption of one's
Until recently there has been no full palaeopathological analysis of human skeletal
remains from south Siberian sites of the Scythian period. One of the largest of the Iron
Age cemeteries is Aymyrlyg in Tuva, a cemetery of over 1000 burials belonging to the
Uyuk Culture (c. 3rd-2nd century BC). Mandelshtam (1983: 27; 1992: 181), the director
of the Scythian period excavations at Aymyrlyg, recorded the presence of compact
accumulations of bones which, in some cases, were positioned in approximate
anatomical order in many of the tombs (FIGURE 2). He interpreted these groupings as
the burials of semi-decomposed corpses or defleshed bodies, and stated that the remains
of leather bags or cloth sacks were associated with the cadavers in some cases.
Recent analysis has now confirmed that a number of individuals from Aymyrlyg display
defleshing or disarticulation cutmarks on one or more bones of their skeleton (Murphy
1998; FIGURE 3). The occurrence of cutmarks on bone has long been accepted as
evidence for human induced modification (White 1992: 325). Although it is impossible
to determine with certainty the motivational factors behind any particular cutmark, the
characteristics of the mark on the bone, such as its size, morphology, location,
frequency and orientation, can help one deduce the activities which led to the formation
of each cutmark. If this information is then combined with the evidence from the
archaeological context, the skeletal completeness and the cultural affiliation one can
attempt to interpret the modifications (Olsen & Shipman 1994: 379).
A total of 29 individuals displayed post-mortem cutmarks on one or more bones. It is
impossible to calculate the overall proportion of individuals displaying cutmarks due to
the differential preservation of the remains. All of the affected individuals were adults
with 18% having an age-at-death of 17-25 years, 36% at 25-35 years, 28% at 35-45
years, and 18% having died at the age of 45 years. A total of 62% of the individuals
displaying defleshing or disarticulation cutmarks were male and 38% were female. It is
probable that the cutmarks were produced during the defleshing and disarticulation of
the cadavers, and it has been possible to differentiate between cutmarks made for
defleshing purposes and those which were attained during the disarticulation process.
During defleshing the cutmarks are generally represented by the occurrence of fine,
short marks or the presence of broader scraping marks over the bone surface. The
evidence for disarticulation comprises fine cutmarks located on, or adjacent to, the
articular surfaces of bones. These cutmarks are indicative of the use of a sharp tool to
sever the skin, tendons and ligaments at a joint thus enabling the division of the body
into smaller segments (Olsen & Shipman 1994: 380-81).

The majority of cutmarks were indicative of disarticulation, i.e., the detachment of the
lower extremities from the trunk and the severing of the lower legs from the upper legs.
In addition, the upper arms were detached from the trunk and the forearms were
separated from the upper arms. Although observed infrequently, some of the cadavers
had also been defleshed, with the femora, the bones of the pelvic girdle and the scapulae
displaying the greatest prevalence of defleshing cutmarks. It is probable that these
cutmarks were related to the removal of the heavy musculature of the thighs and
shoulders, while those present on the pelvic bones had been sustained during
disembowelling and the removal of abdominal muscles.
The post-mortem treatment of the skeletons at Aymyrlyg do not correspond to the suite
of characteristics that identify cannibalism among archaeological populations. In the
majority of cases the generally complete remains of each disarticulated individual were
maintained separately from those of other skeletons (see FIGURE 2). In addition, none
of the remains from Aymyrlyg displayed evidence that the bones had been deliberately
smashed open, roasted or boiled. Overall, the majority of cutmarks were indicative of
the disarticulation, rather than the defleshing, of the body, i.e. butchery but not
Naturally, we cannot exclude the possibility that the flesh removed from a number of
the bodies was consumed as part of a funerary ritual since such activities are
archaeologically invisible. In the female mummy from Kurgan 2 at Pazyryk cuts on the
buttocks, thighs and calves had been used to enable the removal of body tissue from
these areas of the body. Once the flesh had been detached from the corpse it was
replaced with a sedge-like grass and the slits in the skin were sewn up with horsehair.
Body tissue also appears to have been removed from the bodies in Kurgan 5 at Pazyryk
(Rudenko 1970: 280-82).
The occasion of dismemberment
What occasioned dismemberment of the corpse? In terms of grave goods or funerary
architecture, no major distinction could be made between defleshed secondary and
intact primary burials. Both Mandelshtam and Rudenko suggested that the dismembered
burials belonged to those who died during the winter or spring before the frozen ground
had thawed sufficiently to gain access to a tomb.
The archaeological, ethnographical and historical sources all indicate that the
populations buried at Aymyrlyg would have practised a seminomadic form of economy.
It has been suggested that the distribution of large tribal burial grounds in Tuva,
including that of Aymyrlyg, indicates cyclic migration with fixed routes and set winter
camp sites (Vainshtein 1980: 96). Presumably, herds would have been pastured in the
mountains during the summer and in the more low-lying land during the winter
(Bokovenko 1995: 255). Consequently, since Aymyrlyg is located in the valley of the
Ulug-Khemski River, it is probable that the populations would have been living in

relatively close proximity to the cemetery during the winter months, the season when
burial would have been most difficult because the ground was frozen.
If we apply Rudenko's (1970) model of seasonal interment to the Aymyrlyg cemetery
then the majority of the burials would have occurred in autumn immediately before the
ground became frozen, or in spring as soon as the ground had sufficiently thawed. The
corpses of those who had died during the winter may have been temporarily preserved
in the snow without need of artificial processing until the spring, when they would have
been buried in a relatively undecomposed and intact condition. The cadavers of those
who died in the later spring to early autumn months in the mountain areas would,
however, have required some form of processing. Although it is possible that the tribes
repeatedly moved between the mountains and river valleys throughout the year to bury
their dead this seems improbable and does not satisfactorily account for the burial of
bodies in different states of decomposition. It would have been both unhygienic and
unpleasant for the remainder of the population if the corpses had been allowed to
decompose naturally in the summer heat. It would, therefore, have been extremely
practical for the bodies to have been defleshed and disarticulated and stored safely in a
cloth sack or leather bag until the group returned to the main tribal cemetery at
Aymyrlyg in the autumn. It would seem more likely, therefore, that it was the
seasonality of tribal movement rather than the conditions of the ground that determined
secondary burial.
The paleopahtylogical analysis of the remains from Amyrlyg have revealed that, in at
least a proportion of cases, the bodies are of Iron Age steppe nomads, prseumed to be
Iranian-speakers, were deliberately defleshed and disarticulated rather than left to decay
naturally. This process, which would have replicated many of the same procedures as
one would have applied in the butchering of livestock, could easily have been mistaken
for evidence of cannibalistic practices by an uninformed foreign onlooker. It would have
required very little embellishment by Aristeas or Herodotus to render a genuine funerary
ritual into one of our earliest descriptions of cannibalism.
Acknowledgements. We would like to thank Professor Ilia Gokhman and Dr Yuri
Chistov of the Department of Physical Anthropology, the Museum of Anthropology and
Ethnography (Kunstkammer), St Petersburg, for permitting the study of the skeletons
from Aymyrlyg. We are also grateful to the staff of the Photographic Archive of the
Institute for the History of Material Culture, St Petersburg, for providing us with Figure
2, and to Mr Barrie Hartwell and Ms Libby Mulqueeny of the School of Archaeology
and Palaeoecology, the Queen's University of Belfast, for reproducing the illustrations.
We would also like to thank Professor Mike Baillie and Dr Colm Donnelly of the
aforementioned school for their comments on the text.

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(*) School of Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen's University of Belfast, Belfast
BT7 1NN Northern Ireland.
Received 27 June 1999, accepted 21 August 1999, revised 7 December 1999.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Antiquity Publications, Ltd.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning
E.M. Murphy "Herodotus and the cannibals". Antiquity. 06 Apr, 2011.

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