The Cannibalism Paradigm: Assessing Contact Period Ethnohistorical Discourse.
©2004 James Q. Jacobs
In my experience it is commonplace in academic discourse, in educational media, and in popular media to assert that human sacrifice and cannibalism were practiced on a large scale in prehispanic America. At the same time, I have not been able to find a satisfactory eyewitness report of either activity in the numerous ethnohistorical writings from the Contact era. I employ the term "cannibalism paradigm" to describe this gap between the admissible evidence and the hearsay that informs modern beliefs about practices of consuming human flesh.
Paradigms are the biases, preconceptions and assumptions, both conscious and unconscious, that inform thought and views of reality. Kuhn (1996) described the paradigm concept and analyzed the role of paradigms in scientific thought. More recently, Clark (1993) discussed paradigms in archaeology. Regarding evidence of cannibalism in archaeological contexts, assumptions underlie any statement that cannibalism was practiced. Even with the best possible bioarchaeological evidence of a signature of cannibalism (see Turner and Turner 1999:53), there is only a well-supported inference that flesh was eaten. Typically, there is no certain way to demonstrate that human flesh actually was eaten. In the case of anthropology, an assumption relevant to cannibalism and human sacrifice is the acceptance of ethnohistorical reports as true. In other instances, cannibalism claims not supported by physical evidence have found popular acceptance. Almost all instances of assertions that cannibalism has existed, from the most scientific approaches to fanciful popular literature, fall within the "cannibalism paradigm" concept.
Given the degree of reliance on reports of explorers, conquerors, and missionaries in purported cases of cannibalism and sacrifice, it is important to examine and analyze the context of the sources, their particular historical and cultural settings, the paradigms, prejudices, and biases that inform their statements, the political, social, and religious context of their experience, and the motivations underlying their activities and viewpoints. It is also important to examine the history of the documentation containing the hearsay evidence so critical to contemporary paradigms. Such a critical analysis is essential before relying on ethnohistorical data when inferring anthropophagic (human-eating) practices in archaeological contexts.
In this paper, I focus on the ethnohistorical documents of the Contact period in Mesoamerica. I use a variety of documents to analyze the sources of the modern cannibalism paradigm. My purpose is to present the foundations of the current paradigm with respect to Mesoamerica. I will present sufficient samples of discourse and other evidence for the reader to understand the social and political milieu of the Contact period. I intend to provide sufficient documentation to allow informed discussion and debate of the cannibalism issue.
Ethnography is based on observation of customs, and in all such activity, bias is a concern. Isaac (2002:220) succinctly writes, "Biases and other limitations inherent in any corpus of ethnohistorical data provide easy ammunition for skeptics." Biases also provide useful tools for assessing sources, and should be an important part of analyses of ethnohistorical sources. The actual discourse used to support the views that cannibalism and human sacrifice was practiced is revelatory of the biases of the writers. I will use their discourse to illustrate their biases.
Cannibalism is also part of an Others paradigm. I use the term "Others paradigm" to refer to the cultural practice of defining an out-group. (Herein I italicize others and othering when referring to this practice). In contemporary culture, persons eating flesh are prosecuted as criminals, and are certainly perceived as an out-group. Because of current cultural perceptions of cannibalism, it can be controversial to make cannibalism claims about past groups, particularly so when modern populations consider themselves culturally affiliated with those groups. Current academic authors have been criticized for writing on cannibalism. Beth Conklin (2001) writes, "Cannibalism is a difficult topic for an anthropologist to write about, for it pushes the limits of cultural relativism."
In a critical modern work, Arens (1979) writes of the ubiquity of people eaters,
Rumsey (1999:105) states,
Although Arens polemical view (rarity of cannibalism) has been criticized, Arens (1998:40) more recently continues to maintain that:
Discourses are situated in the particular social and political framework of their time, as is the modern debate of this issue. Various views on the topic are currently debated. The degree to which cannibalism was practiced is debated, not the existence of the practice. The role of anthropology in framing views about cannibalism and sacrifice is also an important issue in this debate, as seen in the quotes above. And, I would add, investigation of the issue is a responsibility of the profession when modern viewpoints and popular beliefs are seen as insupportable given the evidence available. I find myself in this situation, confronting a gap between the available evidence and current views, and herein I present the evidence that causes me to question the current cannibalism paradigm.
The circumstances of the cultural contact in which reports of cannibalism are found merit careful attention and analysis. As an example, in one such instance, Captain Cook reported, "a piece of the flesh had been broiled and eaten by one of the Natives in the presence of most of the officers" (Hulme 1998:21). However, the journal of the officer, Lieutenant Clerke, reveals the agency for the act. Clerke cut a piece of a corpse, broiled it, and gave it to the native (Hulme 1998:21-22). Cook himself, "being desirous of being an eye witness," ordered human meat broiled and given to a Native to eat (Hulme 1998:21-22). Careful analysis by Hulme revealed that Cook's report is not that of an independent observer reporting an authentic practice of another culture. In this case, an observer might well conclude that Cook and Clerke were involved in cannibalism. This example clearly illustrates the need to examine reports carefully, particularly so when they are cited as supportive of cannibalism occurring in another culture.
The Ethnohistorical Documents from Mesoamerica
Isaac (2002:204) states that reports of cannibalism in Central Mexico relied almost entirely on "a few sixteenth-century ethnographic resources derived mainly from research in urban centers." Most of the surviving ethnohistorical sources alleging sacrifice and cannibalism (Durán in 1581, Sahagún in 1577, and Relaciones Geográficas 1577-1586) are post-demographic-reduction and post-religious-conversion products. In the following discussions of ethnohistorical sources, I will follow the historical chronology of events even though some of the reportage was written out of historical order. In this historical context, I will analyze the discourses with the object of revealing the paradigms and beliefs of the writers and the socio-cultural context of their claims. The object of the analysis is to support evaluating the veracity of the original sources and their utility and reliability in support of cannibalism claims.
The very earliest report of the Americas conveys information about the prevailing Spanish paradigms during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Columbus (1493), in his letter to the Spanish monarchy, reported in part:
This section of discourse reveals the Spanish view that they had the right to claim the Indies as their possession, irrespective of the number of inhabitants, a presumed right applied to places not Christianized. The Other distinction, that non-Christians are Others, and as such have distinct rights or lack thereof, was fundamental to this practice.
In this section, Columbus reveals Othering in his taking possession of people. He reveals that the people were powerless to oppose the Spaniards. He also reveals a motivation of religious indoctrination of non-Christians. Columbus continues,
This discourse reveals the religious worldview of fifteenth century Spain. The paradigm of the time included idolatry, heaven, religion, sovereign piety, God, Christ in heaven, divine will, servitude to God, salvation, souls, faith, and universal Christendom. These views justified conquest of the Others.
The word "cannibal" derives from Columbus' journeys, from reference to the Carib Indians as Caniba. Diego Alvarez Chanca reported that during Columbus' second voyage, on Nov. 4, 1493, Columbus found some bones of the arms or legs of humans in a house. In fact, Chanca was not part of the landing party, and the bones were stolen, perhaps from a funerary structure. Hulme (1998:18-19), regarding this incident, writes:
The idea of cannibals in the Caribbean arose from the weakest evidence and, essentially, from the European mind. The fascination with the cannibal antedated the European discovery of the 'New World' and played a role in perceptions of Otherness of peoples encountered. Anthropophagophobia (verb. nov., fear of being cannibalized) is commonly seen in the accounts of explorers. This idea precedes discovery of and contact with the complex state societies of mainland America.
Most interest in conquest narratives is given to the Bernal Diaz del Castillo account, True History of the Conquest of New Spain. Diaz's kinsman, Diego Velasquez, had conquered Cuba before Diaz set sail to America with Pedro de Arias in 1514. Diaz participated in two explorations of the Yucatan Peninsula and, in 1519, sailed with Hernando Cortes to Mexico. Diaz began writing after 1550, but only completed his conquest account in 1568, when angered by inaccuracies he perceived in the account written by Lopez de Gamora. Several different versions of Diaz's 'true history' have emerged; one copy belongs to the Guatemalan government, the other to a Diaz descendant. A copy was sent to Spain to King Philip II in 1579 (Diaz 1956:xix). Although the Díaz version of the conquest appeared in Spain in 1576, Díaz continued to revise his book until his death in 1584. Although Diaz wrote retrospectively, there apparently is no obfuscation of his prejudice towards Indians, or of the degree to which acquisition of gold and riches motivated the Spanish conquest.
I selected the following parts of Diaz's discourse (Diaz 1956) to illustrate the paradigms of the conquerors, their motivations, and their views of the natives. On arriving in Cuba:
This passage evidences enslavement of the Caribbean population and the scarcity of slaves. About leaving Cuba in 1517, Diaz writes:
The motivation and rationale of the voyage is revealed. Riches and treasure are sought, finding rich lands is associated with God's will (a justification for seizure) and the entire enterprise of taking the riches obviously involves the institutions of church and state. Diaz reveals the belief that the Spaniards could simply take possession of any riches encountered (conditioned on giving the monarchy twenty percent) and that the enterprise had religious sanction. Implicit in this view is the precept of Others. Undertaking such actions against Christian nations was not sanctioned.
Regarding the discovery of Yucatan, Diaz continues:
Regarding the second expedition from Cuba to Yucatan:
On returning to Cuba:
These passages clearly relate the role of searching for riches. One form of wealth is certainly the possession of slaves, and this wealth is based on the ability to find slaves. Fundamental to enslavement is the concept of Other.
Of the expedition to Mexico:
In this discourse, the intent to find riches is coupled with creating a military unit. The role of religion in rationalizing conquest is revealed. The symbolic interweaving of religion and monarchy are seen in the standards and banners, symbolic supports for the enterprise. Diaz cites horses and Negroes as two classes of objects in the same domain, that of wealth. An implicit factor in othering is also revealed, skin color and the perception of race. This discourse reveals that Negroes were Others and that Spanish enslavement was not limited to Native Americans.
Regarding the first battle fought under Cortes in the New World, against the people of Tabasco, Diaz writes:
The level of violence justified to achieve the goals of conquest is revealed. In addition, the disregard for the dead of the Others is clear in the abuse of the corpse to treat the horses.
Regarding first contact with the Mexica-Aztecas:
Again, Diaz reveals that gold was a priority for the conquerors. In addition, the leader of the Others is termed a prince, rather than a king.
The following Diaz discourses bear more directly on the issue of cannibalism and human sacrifice. Regarding the pyramid complex at Tenochtitlan, Diaz writes:
Spanish perceptions illustrated here are sacrifice, priests, dragon, altars, evil figures, idols, hell, and devils. Diaz reports "burning hearts" without reporting the actual sacrifice. He also reports daily sacrifices and, although he spent considerable time in the city of Tenochtitlan before the Aztec overthrow, he never reports witnessing the "every day" sacrifices. Diaz also alleges cannibalism by the priests, again without witnessing the alleged act. It is disconcerting, in terms of the credibility of his statements and given his first-hand contact and presence at the time and in the place where the alleged daily sacrifice and cannibalism took place, that Diaz does not report actually witnessing the alleged events.
To properly assess the reported events, funerary practices need to be accounted for. At the same time, treatment of criminal convicts or enemy combatants, both aspects of advanced state societies, cannot be ignored in such an analysis. Present day societies have crematory funerary practices and culturally sanctioned forms of execution of criminals and enemies, illustrating the importance of keeping assessment of the cannibalism separate from assessment of other possible explanations for the activity claimed to have occurred. While I think it is important to point out these related concerns, and their relevance to this analysis, they are not the focus of this paper.
Returning to treasure, in the palace in which Montezuma quartered his Spanish guests, the Spaniards uncovered a treasure trove, which they later attempted to steal. Diaz writes:
Obviously, Diaz did see the gold and other riches. The view of the Otherness of the Aztec ruler is revealed by the behavior of Montezuma's guests. They felt they could take possession of his treasury. Compare this to how they would have acted had they been guests of the king of Spain.
Ortiz de Montellano (1978) addresses concerns about the motivations of the conquerors and the accuracy of their assertions as follows:
The atrocities of Spanish activities in the conquest of the Indies came to be debated in Spain, together with issues of rights of the inhabitants. An opponent to slavery, Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote his Brevissima relación de la destruycion de las Indias (A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies), as a letter to the King of Spain, to complain of the atrocities and to support abolition of enslaving the populace. Las Casas wrote his account directly to the king of Spain with the intent of influencing policy.
Las Casas sailed to the "New World" in 1502. In 1514 he renounced his land and slaves in Cuba and began campaigning for Indian rights. In Spain in 1515, Cardinal Cisneros entitled him "Universal Protector of the Indians," a special prosecutor designation. He took vows in the Dominican Order in 1523 and conducted missionary work in Nicaragua and Guatemala. He returned to Spain in 1547 to defend Indian rights and seek abolition of slavery before the Spanish Court.
Las Casas reports the Spanish extermination of native populations. The following discourse from Las Casas' (1542) Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies presents the views of a conqueror turned protector of the indigenous population. Las Casas' writings are important because of their influential role in latter censorship. Publication of his writing outside Spain influenced the Spanish crown and motivated greater restrictions controlling publication of information about the conquest and the indigenous peoples of the New World. I will discuss the role of censorship in detail below.
Las Casas' writing provides a perspective on the activities and mind-set of the conquerors not typically found in ethnohistorical materials, a reminder that diverse perspectives on the conquest prevailed. Las Casas writes:
While lobbying for the indigenous population, Las Casas nonetheless reveals the Otherness concept, when stating that the non-Christian natives serve the Spanish Christians. He also portrays them in relation to their receptivity to religious indoctrination. His guileless, peaceable people are not recognizable as the cannibals depicted by other authors. Las Casas continues:
Las Casas' usage of the term Christians is noteworthy. In Las Casas it is 'Christians,' not 'conquerors,' who carry out the massacres, burn the natives, and sacrifice millions of 'souls.'
Fray Toribio Motolinía's discourses about human sacrifice and cannibalism are numerous.
Motolinía was one of the group of eleven friars to accompany Fray Martin de Valencia to New Spain in 1523, to join five friars of the Franciscan order already there (Foster 1950:1). Motolinía became guardian of the Franciscan monastery in Mexico by 1525. A document records his presence at the meeting called by Cortes to consider the use of the royal branding-iron for slaves (Foster 1950:2).
Motolinia's writing served as source material for Alonso de Zurita between 1554 and 1564 and for Mendieta (Foster 1950:17-18). In 1538 or 1539, Las Casas had access to Motolinia's writings, and made use of them in his Apologética Historia de las Indias (Foster 1950:17). Motolinia's History was completed in 1541, and probably sent to Spain at that time (Foster 1950:18). According to Cervantes de Salazar, Gómara, in writing his Conquista de Mejico", closely followed Motolinia material we no longer have, as he did in writing Crónica de la Nueva España (Foster 1950:18).
Motolinía's History begins as follows (Foster 1950:37):
Motolinía's motivations are clearly revealed in this discourse. Concepts in the religious domain include conversion, blessed, indulgences, pardons, and Holy Father. Motolinia also provides an indication of the relation of the crown and religion, indicating an imperial command to convert the natives.
Although Motolinía arrives in New Spain almost immediately after the overthrow of Tenochtitlan, his report, produced 20 years later, does not provide first-hand accounts of the reputed events. Nor does he inform the reader of who provided the information he reports. Regarding the feast of Panquetzaliztli, Motolinía (1951:114-116) reports,
In Chapter Seven, "Human Sacrifice, cont " Motolinía (1951:117-118) writes:
In stating that this event occurs generally in all localities, Motolinía reveals that his report is anything but an eyewitness account. He is speaking in generalities that cannot be documented or proved. While the statements are obviously hearsay, this does not necessarily infer that they are false. Motolinía continues,
Motolinía reveals his belief that the actions of the natives were controlled by "the demon" and are savage. This is very characteristic of Otherness conceptualization, in which first a concept of evil is defined, in this case a demon, then the defined evil is associated with the Other. Accusations of beheading, skinning, and removal of bones are also made against the so-called evil savages. In the following passage Motolinía adds crucifixion and other mutilations to the list of violent abuses, including tearing out hearts, slashing throats, and cannibalism by lords and chiefs. In this account, the victims are sacrificed only after they are crucified, shot with arrows by thousands of people, and dropped to the ground from a great height breaking every bone in their bodies, and then, after their hearts are torn out, there throats are cut. This account (Motolinía 1951: 118) seems very incredulous.
The following paragraph reveals a belief that the natives danced "to the demon," insinuating that they worshipped the devil. In this context, it is noteworthy that the figure of the Devil in the European Christian sense was newly introduced to the Nahuas (Klaus 1999:95), inferring that Motolinía's European paradigm is what is actually revealed by Motolinia's discourse.
Motolinía (1951:120) reports that war was waged in distant lands for the express purpose of obtaining sacrificial victims.
Motolinía (1951:106) also reports that, on the last day of the last month of the year,
He also discusses Spanish activity toward native culture. With regard to the destruction of native imagery, Motolinía writes,
One of the other religious writers prominent in the ethnohistorical sources on cannibalism and sacrifice is Diego Durán. Durán wrote his Historia de las Indias de Nueva España y islas de tierra firme before his death in 1588. It was first published based on a manuscript copy found in the National Library of Madrid in 1867 (Gomez 1961:I, 166). His work is cited often in modern literature.
Durán (1994:406-407) professes a belief that continued in popularity until more recent centuries, that of the children of Israel populating and civilizing distant lands. This too is an act of Othering, in that civilized attributes of a people need exogenous explanation, that the 'savages' can not be responsible for invention of the civilized features of their own region or culture. Duran writes:
This portion of the writing raises further questions of credibility. Durán accuses the Nahuas and the tribes of Israel of the same practices. His accusations against one group is generally accepted, and not that against the other? I know of no modern writers using Durán to claim Jews are cannibals. Most significantly, in my view, it illustrates the biases of a devout Christian religious practitioner, biases based on belief in the writings found in Christian texts. Durán's anti-Semitic bias is not the least surprising given the expulsion and forced conversions of Jews in Spain during his era.
Durán's reports of violence, sacrifice, and cannibalism are numerous. I include many more quotes here because their number alone raises the issue of credibility. At no point does Durán ever claim to have witnessed any of what he reports.
Durán (1994:140) reported a conflict with Chalco and the sacrificing of war captives:
Durán (1994:169-172) reported the sacrifice of Huaxtec captives. It is noteworthy that the discourse reveals that he is discussing events that transpired before the arrival of the Spaniards. Herein, the fact that hearsay is reported is unequivocal. Durán writes:
The last sentence is intriguing. Durán says he found this information written in the Nahuatl language. This illustrates another problem with the ethnohistorical documents. It is often unclear whose writing is being presented. The ethnohistorical document is attributed to a specific author, but the actual source is a mystery. There is no way of ascertaining the author's sources, not to mention the veracity of the writing upon which the writer relied.
An anonymous manuscript found in 1856 in the friary of San Francisco, Mexico, treats the same material as Durán, though much more briefly (Warren 1964:81). Works by several other ethnohistorical writers, all presenting very similar material, have been attributed, along with Durán's material, to an unknown manuscript (Warren 1964:81). Below, in the last quote, Durán references a "Historia." The reader is left wondering to what "Historia" he refers.
Juan de Tovar, who had been directed to write a native history by the viceroy, completed his work around 1579, when it was taken to Spain (Warren 1964:80). Deprived of his own book, Tovar used Durán's text when rewriting his work at the request of Juan de Acosta, and Acosta, when writing his Historia natural y moral de las indias, copied sections of Tovar's work verbatim (Warren 1964:80). Such practices confuse the sources of information and bring into question the authority of the author and the historical accuracy of the writers. Another dimension of this analysis is the fact that the friars writing the books are doing so on orders from secular authorities. Undoubtedly, the friars were fully aware of the activities of the Inquisition (if not members of the religious order conducting the Inquisition), and aware of the likely consequences should their work product deviate from the expectations of their masters. I further discuss the role of the Inquisition below.
Returning to Durán's work, Durán (1994:188-193) reported sacrifices associated with prisoners from Coaixtlahuaca:
Durán (1994:233-34) describes how war was waged to obtain sacrificial victims for cannibalistic purposes:
Durán goes on to directly quote speeches in the discussions of plans. This certainly brings his accounts into question, since, at the time of the events he describes, there was no writing form known to provide quotations.
Next follows Durán's (1994:402-407) account of Motecuhzoma's coronation, including his often-cited report of numbers of sacrificed victims:
Durán's (1994:474) discourses about sacrifice and cannibalism continue with a report about Mixteca prisoners:
To accept Durán's accounts (or, perhaps more accurately stated, his unknown sources) as truthful, means acceptance of a long list of incredulous assertions. In summary, these include 1.) the devil is the inventor and teacher of sacrifice, 2.) skull racks display sacrificial victims as permanent reminders of sacrifices, 3.) the Knights of the Sun were the only ones allowed to eat human flesh, 4.) the lords ate human flesh frequently, 5.) the thousand cruel acts invented by Tlacaelel under persuasion by the devil were all made into laws, 6.) the god Huitzilopochtli would not accept human food from nations of 'alien tongue,' 7.) as many as eight thousand men were sacrificed in one day and their flesh was eaten, 8.) after eating human flesh they ate mushrooms, became witless and mad, saw revelations of the future, were spoken to by the devil, and many killed themselves, and 9.) Motecuhzoma ate the fresh-killed human flesh of a slave every day of his rule. Additionally, Durán's beliefs included the belief that the Indians were of Hebrew descent and practiced Hebrew rites of sacrificing their children, eating human flesh, and killing prisoners and captives of war.
When considering any part of Durán's writing as possible evidence of cannibalism and sacrifice, the rest of his assertions cannot be ignored. They certainly bear on the credibility of the writing. Those who rely on Durán's writing to support the view that the Aztecs were cannibals should explain whether they accept the other beliefs Durán expresses, and if they reject these, why they accept his statements regarding cannibalism.
The list above is based solely on Durán's writings. Acceptance of the views of the other writers cited above broadens the scope of the question, "What does acceptance of the veracity of the ethnohistorical writers imply?" A summary list includes acceptance of many aspects of the religious worldview of fifteenth century Spain, including idols, hell, devils, the demon, and souls. The following actions by the natives are also asserted: cannibalism, devil worship, daily sacrifices, beheadings, crucifixions, and many forms of mutilation, including skinning, removal of bones, tearing out hearts, slashing throats, being shot with arrows by thousands of people, being dropped from a great height, and breaking every bone. This summation of the ethnohistorical discourse should suffice to illustrate the need for critical analysis and reconsideration of the cannibalism claims so readily accepted in some anthropological writing and in popular beliefs about Mesoamerican populations at the time of contact.
The Purpose of the Ethnohistorical Writing
Another important post-conquest cleric/author is Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. Sahagún also wrote of practices of sacrifice. Rather than repeat here the same type of quotations as above, I will employ the relatively well-documented and well-studied activities of Sahagún in Mexico to illustrate the contemporaneous events of censorship, repression and control of publication that prevailed at the time the ethnohistorical sources were produced.
Sahagún arrived in New Spain in 1529. He trained and educated young natives who later became collaborators in his writings (Dibble 1982:9). The early missionaries, including Motolinía (Fray Toribio de Benavente), converted Nahuatl into the Spanish alphabet. The Franciscan Order directed their early efforts of conversion and education toward sons of native rulers and native nobility (Dibble 1982:9). Instruction was in Latin and Nahuatl in preference to Spanish. The daily instruction of five to six hundred boys in the Valley of Mexico included Christian doctrine, preaching, reading, and writing. The Royal College of Santa Cruz was founded in 1536, and the four instructors, all acknowledged masters of Nahuatl, included Sahagún. Seventy boys were housed in the College. They were instructed to assist in Christian proselytizing and in translating sermons and texts into Nahuatl (Dibble 1982:9).
Sahagún acknowledged his own reliance on those he had instructed to correctly use Nahuatl. Lengthy sermons were produced by 1540, with organization, editing, and planning by Sahagún, and with writing and proper phrasing by the trained youths (Dibble 1982:10). Material that eventually became the sermons, prayers, and orations in the Florentine Codex had been written in Nahuatl by 1547. By 1555, Sahagún had prepared a native account of the Conquest (Dibble 1982:10).
After 1558, Fray Francisco de Toral, then Provincial of the Franciscans in Mexico, ordered Sahagún,
Dibble (1982:11, citing Garibay's Historia de la literatura náhuatl), reports that by 1533, Fray Andrés de Olmos had been charged with recording,
The purpose of these writings was essentially religious. By 1559, Sahagún requested information on specific topics from ten or twelve elderly informants in Tepepulco. The native informants provided paintings (codices). Four students trained at the College wrote verbal explanations on the paintings. Sahagún drew his material from these. In 1561 he moved to Tlatelolco, and, with eight or ten local informants and four or five trilingual students of the College:
After 1565 Sahagún amended his writings, divided them into the twelve books of the Manuscrito de 1569, the whereabouts of which is unknown (Dibble 1982:14). Sahagún had sent a Spanish summary to Spain by 1570, the whereabouts of which is also unknown. Sahagún's other 1570 summary, Breve compendio de los ritos idolatricos de Nueva España, sent to the Pope, survives in the Vatican archives, and, with minor variations, is included in the Florentine text (Dibble 1982:15).
Sahagún and the other friars were not the only persons directed to write about native histories by their superiors. After 1572, the Spanish crown and the Council of the Indies issued orders for recording histories to describe the provinces of New Spain as follows, in parts:
The social and political context in which these ethnohistorical authors worked is significant, and cannot be ignored in evaluating the content of their works. Many of them may have been exposed to and influenced by the earlier writings of the friars, writings produced specifically to train the missionaries sent to all parts of New Spain.
The Spanish Inquisition and Censorship
The Spanish Inquisition had a very significant impact on writing. Spanish controls over printing date to 1502, when a pragmatic issued by Ferdinand and Isabella made licenses for printing or importing books obligatory (Kamen 1997:103). In 1564, the Council of Trent granted bishops the general power to license book printing (Kamen 1997:103). In the case of the Catechism by Fray Luis, approval by the Council of Trent and the Pope was not sufficient to deter the inquisitors from demanding corrections before the book was allowed to circulate (Kamen 1997:111).
Various indices listed banned books. The 1559 Spanish Index even prohibited works circulating in manuscript form. The Index of Prohibited Books issued by the Council of Trent in 1564 influenced subsequent indices, including an expurgatory Index requiring the excising of offending passages from otherwise orthodox books (Kamen 1997:113). By 1583, the General Index banned 2,315 books, an increase from 700 in 1571, and the 1584 Index expurgated many more. Book burning was common at the time of discovery. The Arabic books in Granada were burned on order of a royal decree in 1501 (Kamen 1997:114). In 1552 the Inquisition ordered that heretical books be burned in public. A Jesuit working in the Barcelona Holy Office reported mountains of books burned on seven or eight occasions (Kamen 1997:114). The important ethnohistorical works were written, and nearly all native books burned, in this repressive and controlling environment.
In 1575, the Father Commissary General Fray Rodrigo de Sequera arrived in New Spain. He ordered Sahagún to translate his Nahuatl books into Spanish. Sahagún recovered his dispersed manuscripts in 1575. He produced two bilingual manuscripts, one during 1576-1577, which was transmitted to Spain in 1578 and is unknown today. The second, produced during the years 1578-1579 (and also confiscated by the crown) and transmitted to Spain after 1580, is the Florentine Codex, now in the Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana in Florence, Italy (Dibble 1982:15). The manuscripts may have been sent to Florence for the approval of Medici Pope Leo XI before 1605, or possibly even before 1588 (Dibble 1982:16) (possibly ensuring their survival). One manuscript with only the Spanish version, the General History of the Things of New Spain, was first preserved in the Franciscan convent in Tolosa, Navarra, and, in 1783, moved to the Library of the Royal Academy of History in Madrid (León-Portilla 1958:23).
The earliest published Spanish editions of the Historia derive from copies of the Códice Castellano de Madrid in the Royal Academy of History in Madrid (Dibble 1982:21). The paper and handwriting are uniform and the work of a single copyist. It is a copy of the Florentine text, although the copyist abridged, omitted, and altered the Spanish text with frequency (Dibble 1982:22). Given the controls on publications, and the expurgatory role of officials, the presently surviving end-products of Sahagún's writings and of others, documents produced by copyists, cannot be reliably considered works by their reputed authors. Documents attributed to authors in America can actually be the product of copyists working in Spain, producing significantly altered works under the watchful Council of the Indies and the Inquisition.
The Council of Trent decisions and their implementation by the Inquisition in Spain (1576-1577) resulted in direct repression of writing on pre-Columbian civilizations (Dibble 1982:36). New royal orders demanded confiscation of manuscripts and delivery of books to crown authorities. Sahagún's General History was singled out in a royal decree dated on April 22, 1577. The Royal Decree relative to the General History of the Things of New Spain reads (my translation from the Spanish in the Codice Franciscano):
Sahagún naively wrote to King Philip II in 1578, saying he could copy the books again if the volumes had not been properly delivered. This prompted renewed, stricter orders depriving Sahagún of all manuscripts still in his possession (Dibble 1982:35-36) including the Florentine Codex. The originality of the text is questionable due to the confiscations and control of the documents. The veracity is questionable because of the influences on the original writing and the degree of control over writing exercised by the Inquisition and the Council of the Indies. These factors must be considered in addition to the biases on the parts of authors.
The Florentine Codex, albeit a primary Nahuatl source, was nonetheless written under the supervision of Sahagún by Natives trained from childhood by Sahagún and the other friars. This certainly raises questions about whose perspective is portrayed. No evidence of original manuscripts remains. The Nahuatl in Sahagún's revised version of the codex, the manuscript known as the Florentine Codex, is probably the most reliable version. The Madrid Codex in Spanish, the version housed in the Múseo de America in Madrid, Spain, differs dramatically. The issue of versions, in addition to that of biases, must be considered.
Regarding the bias and purpose in the codex, Dibble (1982:35) writes:
One last consideration I wish to address is the influence of the earliest Spanish writers in New Spain on new arrivals. Documents, including some of those discussed above, were produced specifically to teach the new recruits to the missionization efforts about native customs. The attitudes and information discussed above must have been widely disseminated among the friars and authorities of the crown. I present the following ethnohistorical source to raise the question of how early writings and training of later arrivals may have influenced the prevailing paradigm more than a half century after the conquest of Tenochtitlan.
At the same time that the Council of Trent, the Council of the Indies, the Inquisition and the crown were confiscating and burning books in earnest, the Spanish crown also sought to obtain information about the conquered realm. On orders of the Spanish monarch, a standardized, fifty-question survey, prepared in 1577, was used to survey hundreds of communities (Isaac 2002:204). Of the resulting original 133 Relaciones Geográficas, 110 survive today. Issac (2002) studied 105 of these. His results can be variously interpreted. In the context of the information above, I question whether the Relaciones reflect the actuality of prehispanic history, a lifetime removed and largely beyond the reach of living memories by the time of their writing. I suspect that the Relaciones express the views and paradigms of the Spaniards and reflect their milieu of censorship more so than reporting actual events.
Isaac (2002) studied 105 of these relations, and reported allegations of cannibalism in 37 percent of cases. In 95 evaluative statements on Indian culture, 50 percent are derogatory. The derogatory assessments more frequently alleged cannibalism. Of those alleging cannibalism, 23 percent do not mention the information sources and 55 percent do not mention who the consumers of human flesh were.
Cannibalism, while admittedly a difficult subject for anthropologists, needs to be addressed in a careful and critical fashion. This need was clearly illustrated when, during my research, I discovered in an encyclopedia a statement that there is no doubt that Indian tribes practiced cannibalism well into the twentieth century, but because it is abhorrent to Europeans, the custom has been gradually disappearing. The reexamination of the cannibalism paradigm must include assessing the foundations of current assumptions. Anthropologists have the expertise and can take the lead in clarifying the reality of the history of cannibalism, in moving from the "cannibalism paradigm" to a view with fewer assumptions and greater critical reasoning. Careful review of all the available evidence upon which current cannibalism and human sacrifice beliefs are founded can further replacing assumptions with scientifically satisfactory information.
In time, a more accurate and scientifically grounded understanding of past cannibalism may translate into a more accurate popular view of the past. I hope this brief effort is a useful step in that direction, and that it provides, especially to those critically approaching the subject for the first time, a useful picture of the historical and cultural context of an ongoing anthropological debate.
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