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Many of the first European maps of the Americas included warnings of cannibalism, despite no proof of such activity. James Walker’s “From Alterity to Allegory: Depictions of Cannibalism on Early European Maps of the New World,” published earlier this year as Occasional Paper Number 9 from the Philip Lee Phillips Map Society of the Library of Congress, examines how and why the macabre myth endured.
“The act of naming something is a powerful element of mapmaking that often contributes both a descriptive and possessive understanding of the person, place or thing being named,” Walker writes. “In this case, the word cannibal was unusual, because it incorporated three meanings or concepts — a people, a practice, and a place.”
Reports of cannibalism in the New World date back to Christopher Columbus’s 15th-century voyage, but were secured in cartography by an unmistakable woodcut of a man on a spit in a 1505 report by Amerigo Vespucci (yes, the man for whom the Americas were named believed in human flesh consumption). Throughout the 16th century, maps of North and South America contained illustrations of people roasting arms and legs on sticks as if at a barbecue of the damned. Even with more exploration — which exposed legends like the Blemmyes having faces on their chests or the existence of “here be dragons” monsters as ridiculously wrong — the cannibals stayed. In a 1570 atlas called Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570) by Abraham Ortelius, the title page features a gruesome severed head held aloft by an allegorical America.
“What is most revealing during this roughly 150 years or so, is that while geography on maps changes to incorporate the latest explorers’ accounts, the repetition of unchanging imagery of cannibalism contributed to the perpetuation of the stereotype of native people as savage and uncivilized,” Walker explains. “Historian Michael Palencia-Roth observed that ‘…the elaboration and re-elaboration of very little material can go a long way toward creating a pervasive cultural image’.”
The cannibals finally faded out in the 17th century, Walker says; however, the influence of this imagery endured in the imagination. For example, when the Essex whaleship was sunk in the Pacific in 1820 following a sperm whale attack (an incident that would inspire Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or the Whale), the survivors opted to take a longer route to safety rather than attempt to sail to the nearby Marquesas Islands, where cannibalism was still rumored to be in practice. Alas, they had to resort to cannibalism themselves in order to survive — a cruel, ironic fate.
While cannibalism is not an unknown practice, especially in times of famine, it was never as widespread as shown in these 16th-century atlases. Maps, going back to antiquity, have always been about more than just charting geography; they affirm structures of power, including the control of unseen land, and act as an imperialist tool for reinforcing stereotypes and encouraging fear of the unfamiliar.
“From Alterity to Allegory: Depictions of Cannibalism on Early European Maps of the New World” by James Walker is available from the Philip Lee Phillips Map Society’s Occasional Papers.