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Fiji Time: 6:42 PM on Wednesday 23 April

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The sacred value of cannibalism in Fiji

Avinesh Gopal
Tuesday, February 25, 2014

CANNIBALISM was said to have been a major cause of bloodshed in Fiji.

It was regarded as sacred by Fijian tradition and accordingly, was held in reverence by the Fijians of the day.

According to the Fiji Museum, this is clearly evident in the offering of the bodies to the war gods.

The prominent part played by the bete or priest in the dissection of the bodies and cooking of the meat is also evidence of how sacred cannibalism was, says the museum.

It says the nearness of the pit ovens to the temple, hanging of sexual organs in the sacred trees, the fact that the feast nearly always took place in the temple of the god on whose behalf the flesh was being eaten and the large choice shares of meat the chiefs and priests received are also evidence.

"A token offering of meat was usually placed on a platform in the temple, being that morsel or cut the god in question was known to prefer," it says.

From its own research, the museum has compiled a brief paper on the history of cannibalism in Fiji.

"The fact that this meat was considered religious and chiefly fare is important as commoners and women only got to eat it in times of particular plenty after a large kill or massacre of enemies and this emphasises the ancient and religious nature of the custom," says the research paper.

"Armies and war parties in the field generally ate the flesh of enemy bodies or bokola, as bodies destined for the oven were called, with a basic minimum of ceremony and ritual.

"The mutilated corpses were cut up, wrapped in vudi or plantain leaves and cooked in pit ovens or lovo.

"Revenge was a major motive, this being a way to carry the harassment, punishment and humiliation of an enemy beyond death and to obtain extreme satisfaction from his or her downfall.

"The basic revenge and religious motives underlying Fijian cannibalism shows clearly in the triumphant cibi death dance, the setting of bodies in a lifelike sitting stance, the re-killing of them with their own hated weapons and the butchering and dismembering of them by priests."

The research paper says that if the war parties were a long way from home, then the bodies were often cut up and the pieces of meat lightly roasted over open fires to preserve them.

It says the pieces were then stored in baskets for convenience in transport.

"Usually, however, the carcasses were simply gutted to prevent instant rotting and taken home otherwise complete in which state they were required for the welcoming ceremony of the women.

"Most bodies eaten were those of enemies taken in war but if bodies were required for religious and feasting purposes and no war was in progress, slaves or low class people might be killed or even presented as live offerings or ambushes were set for unsuspecting neighbours of low class.

"The vanua kaisi or slave lands suffered most in this way, with several contemporary accounts referring to groups which had offended in the past and who were considered fair game for sacrificial cannibal purposes.

"The bodies were generally cut up and prepared for the oven by a priest using a bamboo knife, simply splitting a new edge whenever it got blunt.

"But if there was a very large supply, ordinary men and even women helped in dissecting and preparing them for the ovens."

The research paper says that after being cut, the meat was scorched over a fire and the hair and skin then scraped off with the kai (bivalve shells) in the same fashion in which pigs are prepared for lovo now.

It says the pieces of meat were wrapped in vudi or dalo leaves and put in the lovo pit-oven to be baked along with a suitable supply of root crops and sometimes pigs.

"Often the flesh was wrapped by preference in the leaves of various other plants which were then eaten as vegetables with it, being said to relieve the constipating qualities of human flesh.

"Their number included the malawaci (Streblus anthropophagorum), the tudano (Omalanthus pedicellatus) and probably most commonly the boro dina or sou bakola (Solanam uporo), bushes of the last named being grown beside temples for the purpose.

"The sauce obtained from cooking the fruit with the human flesh was eaten by aid of spoons made from enemy bones.

"Rather than wait-out the long baking process, ravenous chiefs sometimes had small cuts — noses, for instance — quickly roasted in an open fire and gobbled them down to curb their appetite.

"The traditional custom of cannibalism was systematic. Certain utensils were used for cannibal feasts alone including pots and forks.

"Also, particular ceremonies were monopolised by it. A fearful drum beat was evolved, which by many is sometimes used even now when the turtle is captured.

"Special chants were composed and many occasions were marked by the presentation of a human body"

The research paper says discrimination as to the victims was often defined and people of low rank generally did not eat the people of more chiefly status, and some clans were looked upon as the proper food for their superiors.

It says women were generally excluded from the feasts but women of rank were reputed to secretly eat human flesh and if there was a very large supply, then even common women ate it quite openly.

Apart from their flesh, the enemies bodies provided other useful articles and mementoes — necklaces of enemy teeth being commonly worn and clubs were inlaid with teeth from their victims.

The skulls of particularly notorious enemies were sometimes made into soup bowls or yaqona bowls for chiefs and priests, care being taken not to shatter their heads in killing them.

"Their tobe or ornamental ringlets of hair were kept as souvenirs, often being hung from a chief's waistband or plaited to form a neck lanyard for the key to the chief's European trade chest or as strings for his sling," says the research paper.

"The long bones were sometimes split and carved to make head scratches or milamila and very rarely into cannibal forks.

"They were usually worked into the better-known canoe sail needles or sau-ni-laca made from the split shin bones.

"Sanctioned and indeed demanded by Fijian religion, cannibalism allowed revenge and vindictiveness to be carried past an enemy's death."

The research paper says some of the principal chiefs and priests of Fiji were fond of human flesh almost to the point of addiction but in being so, were serving their religion and society.

"No matter how it may horrify us today, who are raised in an incomparably gentler environment and to pacifist philosophy, it was an ancient and accepted part of a former way of life and should be respected as such," it says.

NEXT WEEK: Evidence of cannibalism Before Christ.