CRUICKSHANK: Most people don't go looking for cannibals, but you did. How did your search start?
KRIEGER: I didn't really set out to look for them. I'd read a magazine article that questioned the existence of ritual cannibalism, because there were no firsthand accounts. Then when I was out in the South Pacific someone said, "These old fellows used to practice cannibalism," and of course my ears perked up.
What is ritual cannibalism?
In ritual cannibalism some tribes believe that they take on traits they admired in deceased relatives by eating parts of them. In superiority cannibalism, a type of ritual cannibalism, you dominate your enemy by eating them after you have killed them. It is the ultimate domination. Also, all the people in the South Pacific Islands had very low fat diets, because there are few mammals in the islands, so I think that was a major impetus.
Human meat was partly a dietary supplement?
They didn't kill and eat that many people generally. Maybe once every three months. But I think they all had a lust for it because of their low-fat diets. One tribe considered the women's breasts the best part and another tribe considered men's and women's buttocks the best -- both the fattiest parts of the human.
The women would traditionally do the preparation but they wouldn't partake?
Generally not. The men had the power in the tribe and human meat was considered a delicacy. The warriors ate it. Children and women didn't.
Did they describe what it tasted like?
Some said it really didn't taste like any other meat, and others said that it tasted somewhat like chicken or beef, but not exactly.
How recently was cannibalism practiced in the South Pacific?
The last instance that I got anybody to talk about was around 1950.
When you interviewed these retired cannibals, did they think your questions were peculiar?
I don't know. They really enjoyed reflecting on it, and in one case, in the Solomon Islands, the whole village gathered around and it was like story time -- they were laughing and really enjoying it. In the other cases, in Vanuatu, the women were not permitted to hear the stories. It was an all male audience.
Is there anything in our society that would be as taboo to the South Pacific cultures as cannibalism is to us?
Sure, the Melanesians had many, many taboos. For instance, a woman having sexual relations with somebody not her husband would be put to death. Probably the taboos that they considered the worst were, in their minds, far, far worse than how we consider cannibalism.