Eating Humans? [Visiting the Cannibals of Vanuatu]
Updated: May 9
Trusting strangers is the story of my life. Many incredible adventures and good stories have come from trusting random people I hardly know.
Like the time I ended up with my family in the middle of the jungle on a small island in Vanuatu staring at the skull and thigh bones of some guy who'd been eaten by the natives.
As we blindly followed a guy we'd just met into the jungle the irrational part of my mind could not help but think we'd could be ending up on the table as dinner that night.
Luckily I didn't have much reason for concern. The last recorded cannibal killing in Vanuatu was in 1969 on the island of Malekula. The same island we were on.
This week on Family Circus Adventures we learn why this ancient custom was practiced and what caused it to stop.
Cannibalism, the practice of eating human flesh was practiced in Vanuatu and other Melanesian cultures for centuries.
Captain Cook himself was cut up and eaten by the natives on Hawaii after they killed him on the beach in a skirmish over the return of some stolen goods.
The natives of Vanuatu developed a repuation as fearsome Cannibals.
The Ni-Van would kill and eat men who stole their women or those they defeated in battle.
They would then dig a hole in the ground, put hot stones in the hole, cut the person up in pieces and put those on top of the rocks. Then they would add yams, taro, some more hot rocks and cover the whole thing with banana leaves to keep the steam in.
The cooking time took three to five hours and the chief always got to eat the victim's head.
I'd read about Cannibalism in books and now it was time to learn the truth about Cannibalism directly from it's source, the descendants of the people who actually practiced it. But first I had to find someone willing to share the history of this sometimes taboo subject with us.
Our first stop in our quest was the island of Wala, just off the island of Malekula. Before we'd even dropped our anchor we were approached by a man in small dugout canoe offering us an "Ancestor Tour" of his island.
I was excited! I hadn't thought it would be this easy to find someone to share the secrets of Cannibalism.
It turns out my tendency to trust strangers has both positive and negative side effects. In this case we learned an interesting lesson on the potential effects of mass tourism on a small isolated south pacific island.
Almost as soon as we reached shore we found out that a cruise ship had frequented this island regularly until 18 months prior to our visit. The islanders were like cannibals who'd been deprived of human flesh for 18 months. They were crazed! Only instead of human flesh they wanted money.
In hindsight, it's not their fault, they'd become accustomed to 1500 people showing up at their village every couple of weeks willing to pay just about any price for a "taste" of an "authentic" Vanuatan experience.
And the villagers had willingly obliged them. There were hand crafted goods for sale and even a scripted tour! Which turned out to be the "Ancestor" tour I'd been offered.
Our pockets a little lighter, and feeling discouraged we went back to Family Circus to regroup. I was feeling down. I thought the cruise ship had ruined Vanuatu.
I didn't want a scripted Ancestor tour, I wanted to hear about Cannibalism from the source, from the descendant of someone whose family were practicing Cannibals.
Less than two miles away from Wana there was another island called Rano. We'd read somewhere that this island actually had an ancient cannibal site on it!
After our experience on Wana it was with a healthy does of skepticism we decided to visit Rano and were blown away by our welcome into the community there.
I couldn't believe it, the contrast between Wana and Rano, only 2 miles apart, was incredible and highlights very clearly the damage that can be done to local cultures and customs by mass tourism.
I found that rather than eat us, or our money, the people of Rano opened there homes, their hearts and their culture to us.
We soon found ourselves being led deep into the jungle by a guy, Tom we'd met only an hour before when we'd pulled our dinghy onto the beach in front of his village.
He told us he knew a guy, Fred who was the descendant of the cannibals who used to live in the interior of the island and he would take us to where they used to live.
As we walked further into the jungle I wasn't sure what to expect and was stunned by how eager our two guides were to share their knowledge of their "Kastom" with us.
Kastom plays a massive role in the daily life of the Ni-Vans today. And while they don't practice cannibalism today, they continue to believe in and practice many of the traditions associated with it.
Black magic and dancing play a huge part in that. We were shown ancient ceremonial grounds where the ancestors of the people who showed us these places are reported to have cast magic spells on giant stones so that they could carry them from the ocean deep into the jungle to the ceremonial ground.
The ceremonial grounds themselves were a sacred space where Kastom dances would be performed before the victim of the cannibals would be cooked.
As we walked deeper and deeper into the jungle I couldn't help but think about the history of these islands. I was curious as to why these people ended up moving out of the jungle and into villages closer to the ocean.
I asked Tom this question and he responded simply by saying, "the missionaries came and gave us the good news. We had to move out of the darkness and into the light".
This also was the explanation given when I asked them if they still knew the black magic required to lift the massive stones from the sea into the depths of the jungle.
I was told they knew what must be done, but they were unable to do it because God does not allow black magic.
It was only as we reached the end of our walk in the jungle that I realized almost the whole time we'd been walking through what is effectively an anthropological site of an ancient Vanuatu village.
We saw the sacred ceremonial grounds of the village, the entrance to the chief's house where the guard would stand on duty. We saw the chief's kitchen, and finally we saw the burial ground where the ancient chiefs were laid to rest with their skulls resting on stones above the ground.
Tom explained that the heads of the chiefs were placed on these rocks when they died. And here they stay as a sort of protection for the village.
After our trek through the jungle a couple things became more clear to me about the people of Vanuatu.
While Cannibalism is no longer practiced, the people take their Kastom and the traditions associated with it very seriously and, like with most people, when we take the time to be curious, inquisitive and listen I find that strangers can turn into friends, friends into family and it's incredible what we can learn from each other.
If you want to read more of my writing, please sign up for "The Captain's Log", me and my writing straight to your inbox twice a month.