Past as Prologue: The Archetypal Hannibal Lecter

Homo sapiens and violence

Some 80,000 years ago, an early modern human (EMH) discarded the cracked femur bone of his last meal into the midden (refuse pile) just outside his rock shelter. It joined jawbones, smashed skulls, and other long bones which were pounded “with great force, using stone tools or rocks, apparently to extract the nutritious brain and marrow” states paleoanthropologist Christopher Stringer. The rock shelter had been in regular use for some time, as it was a prime location for both hunting game and for fishing in the nearby Indian Ocean. Protein was thus plentiful, which was well documented in the bones of the animals and fish remains excavated in middens in Africa, Europe, and possibly other locations. What might have seemed strange was that these particular discarded bones from the EMH’s recent meal were human. The cut marks made by the sharp stone tools clearly indicated defleshing and consumption identical to other meat products; especially since the human bones were found in the same midden with the remains of “other” animal bone food debris from known prey species.

Thus, it would seem that Homo sapiens practiced cannibalism from very early on in its prehistory. This, of course, is not the only known prehistoric episode of cannibalism among humans. We know it also from a much more recent site in our ancestral homeland a mere 15,000 years ago. It would appear then that this was a long-standing tradition among our human forebears. Early evidence of cannibalism goes back some two million years to the first members of the human family tree (or “bush,”) with regular occurrences coming down the ages 900,000 and, later, 600,000 years ago to our predecessor (ancestral) species Homo heidelbergensis. The Heidelbergs passed this evolved trait down to its two “derived” species, the Neanderthals in Europe and the EMHs of African origin. Cannibalism has been well documented from several sites in our human cousins too, the Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, within the last 100,000 years. This part of our behavioral repertoire was not limited to only one member of our genus Homo, but to most, if not all, human species in space and time. It would seem then that since cannibalism prevailed in all human species that it could, perhaps, been seen as an early, natural, and possibly ubiquitous behavior: one might even say a “pristine” behavior. In other words, cannibalism was (and probably still is) “normal” for humans, just as it is in certain other species.

As an early adaptation, it would have formed part of our ethogram, or “the totality of the human behavioral repertoire as encoded in the brain by evolution.” This is our “genetic memory” or the archetypes and the collective unconscious as Carl Gustav Jung would have described these elements of the human mind. Archetypes are the patterns of the pysche’s perception which lie within the substrate of the collective unconscious and can manifest themselves as symbols externally. “So far as contents of the collective unconscious are concerned, we are dealing with archaic or primordial types, that is, the universal images that have existed since the remotest times.” The collective unconscious is “not individual but universal, it has contents and modes of behavior that are more or less the same everywhere and in all individuals.” Humanity’s genetic memory/ethogram/collective unconscious is a circumscribed phenomenon originating and residing within our complete naturally selected behavioral inventory. Archetypes and their primordial images become visible to us symbolically when “constellated” (activated) in the unconscious by external stimuli. Ethologists (behavioural biology) would consider these as “innate releasing mechanisms” (IRMs) within the totality of our behavioural repertoire. It follows then, that humans cannot operate outside this “totality of our behavioural repertoire” because such phenomena cannot exist as separate entities from our evolved archetypal/IRM genetic natures. Our genetic memory/ethogram/collective unconscious is an archaic component and location within the brain.

One or more archetypes or IRMs exist within the human behavioral repertoire which constellate for the purposes of hunting and subsequent consumption of various meat proteins required for both sustenance and brain expansion, which rapidly progressed after two million years ago. Paleoanthropologist Christopher Stringer states that “cannibalism seems to have been a regular enough part of human behavior over the last million years or so for it to be represented in many fossil assemblages, and so it might be considered as normal for early humans, however distasteful (in every sense!) we might find it today.” Human predators were hunting, slaying, and eating human prey as part of their hunting and gathering routine. Such behavior is “certainly part of our evolutionary history” and as such is encoded in the human ethogram. He goes on to state that “there is enough sound evidence…to indicate that butchery and consumption of human flesh has occurred in the very recent human past.”

Evolutionary ecologist Clive Finlayson states that it is possible that different human groups saw each other in different ways, especially at a time when good species or ecotypes lived in relatively close proximity. These perceptions may have led to different groups viewing each other as friends, or as food. That this occurred in the past may be demonstrated not only from the fossil record, but from recent examples (even with only one species extant:) Melanesian aborigines applied the moniker “long pig” to human prey items as late as the 1850s. “Civilized” people are also not exempt from the confines and activation of this element within the human ethogram. In the 21st century: the North Koreans sold and consumed human meat in their markets; in southwestern China it was sold as “ostrich meat” in their markets; and it was sold as “an expensive treat” in a Nigerian hotel. The ubiquity of the patterning of cannibalism in the Paleolithic and beyond means that it was an evolved part of our behavioral repertoire, and as such, remains within the confines of normal human activities. Why then the general “modern” aversion or taboo against humans eating humans?

A substantial disruption in humanity’s environment of evolutionary adaptation occurred at the end of the Paleolithic era some 10,000 years ago. It is generally known as the “Neolithic Revolution” to describe the rapid rise in intensive food production (farming) rather than food collection (hunting and gathering.) This, in turn, resulted in massive food surpluses, overpopulation, the rise of the city, civilization, and the various socially stratified inequalities inherent in large and impersonal bureaucratic entities. As a result, the mores of the hunter-gatherer gave way to the mores of the newly developing agricultural societies. Instead of allowing the human ethogram to unfold properly in its environment of evolutionary adaptation, overpopulated and confined farming environments and their city concomitants morphed into psychologically oppressed and stunted societies (biologist Desmond Morris calls these large urban centers “the human zoo”) where human nature needed to be controlled and suppressed by newly emergent cultural phenomena, laws, and “religious” rules.

The natural mores of the nomadic small band territorial hunter-gatherer were warped into the unnatural mores of static and overcrowded agriculturally based civilizations: consciousness became “out of context” with this new environment and was severed from the collective unconscious. The “ego-Self axis” was disconnected as Carl Gustav Jung would have stated. Cain the farmer may have slain his brother Abel, the nomadic pastoralist, but the foragers had already been kicked out of the Garden of Eden (our environment of evolutionary adaptation) for alleged “disobedience.” The “knowledge” the family of Adam and Eve paid for was to learn, embrace, and toil the land. Nomadic hunting and gathering lifeways had given way to the drudgery of sedentary agriculture. It was the “genesis” of a settled, city-dwelling, and overpopulated farming society. That was the original sin, not some vague theological notion. The cunning evolved predator had been dulled by 10,000 years of domestication and misuse of its primordial spirituality. Hunting and gathering culture was now considered anachronistic and pre-civilized as if humans left their “wild” natures behind like some great saurian tail. Civilization and its associated religions are in reality returning us to the prey species mentality of our early pre-human ancestors. Eventually, we run into such proscriptions as “thou shalt not kill” and the practice of “nonviolence” against all (to include the current vegan movement:) the mores of today’s so-called “polite societies.” Nearly two million years of human evolution belie these proscriptions: how can a species which evolved to become a hunting and gathering apex predator be nonviolent? Disavowing the human ethogram is both unnatural and an unrealistic proposition.

Biosocial anthropologist Robin Fox states that humans have a “violent imagination” in reference to our genetic memory. How could it be otherwise in a species which evolved as a hunter-gatherer? “Violence” here must be understood in its proper context: it is a means to an end in the environments of evolutionary adaptation of many species, including human, without the moral connotations imposed by religious authorities and other oppressive bureaucratic regimes which operate on an inhumanely large scale. The violence of the small band hunter-gatherer is largely a food procuring survival mechanism. The measure of violence is the primary issue here: the difference is between the small group of hunters who are trying to survive as organic extended kinship groups (20-40 individuals) and the unmitigated violence of overpopulated, stratified, and agriculturally based societies. Perhaps “nature, red in tooth and claw” is a more appropriate point of view as Alfred Lord Tennyson eloquently alluded to the sometimes violent natural world, in contrast to the mass violence of parasitic ideological groups cloaked under the veneer of “civilized” society. It is worth quoting Robin Fox at some length on this point:

We hear a great deal today about the problem of violence, but if man has a problem with violence, it is a problem only because he makes it so. Nature knows no such problems. In nature, violence is commonplace; aggression is commonplace. Both are undoubtedly necessary. The lion knows no problem. The lion knows when to be violent; when to assert itself; when to kill; when to run. For man there is a problem of violence in much the same way as there is a problem with sleeping or eating. There is a problem because man imbues violence with meaning. No animal has a problem about eating. The animal knows what it eats: if it is a hunting animal it kills its prey and devours it; if it is a scavenging animal it follows the killer to its prey and eats its leavings. With man, in the earliest years of his truly human existence, there was also no problem: he ate what it was his destiny to eat (including his fellow humans,) he killed what he knew he should kill; he asserted himself against that which he knew he should overcome. The problem arises not out of the desire to kill, any more than out of the desire to eat. The desire to kill is certainly different from the desire to eat, but it is as real as the desire to eat; as natural as the desire to eat; as unavoidable as the desire to eat. If one considers that the desire to kill is in itself a problem, it is a little like saying that the desire to eat is a problem. In what sense is it a problem? There is no problem for the lion: it is certainly no problem for the theory of natural selection that the lion should desire to kill, in the same way that it should desire to eat. The same is true for man. Only if one wishfully decides that there should be no killing (or eating) does the very existence of the desire to kill become a problem. In and of itself, the desire is neutral. It is a problem only if one chooses to make it so. For many animals killing is reasonable within the framework of their experience and their need to survive. It makes as much sense to say that killing per se is a problem as it does to say the herbivore’s desire to eat grass is a problem because it destroys the grass: it is not a problem for the herbivore, but only for those who can imbue behavior with meaning. The herbivore and the carnivore do not do this: omnivorous man does. And the problem exists because he is the animal that creates problems, not because he is the animal that kills, or eats. Since man evolved as a hunting, omnivorous species, it follows that he will destroy animals, plants, and even other members of his species who threaten him. He is right to do so. All these things are totally natural, totally within a comprehensible scheme of evolution. They are not problems. That man is on occasion both aggressive and violent presents no more of a problem, in a scientific sense, than the violence of the lion: it is the same. Many herbivores, even, can be aggressive and violent, although they kill only rarely. They were mostly created for flight, not fight. But even then, their violence against their predators is natural and explicable.

What, then, can we reasonably say of the omnivorous human hunting animal, Homo sapiens? Clearly, violence is a natural, normal, and evolved behavioral pattern: just like cannibalism is a part of our evolved eating regime. They belong to the human ethogram; and do not exist outside of it as some strange anomaly. Sociobiologist Daniel Freedman reinforces the notion that “we should use the terms evolved or phylogenetically adaptive because it will have the advantage of bringing evolution into the forefront of our thinking where it belongs.” The human ethogram is a homeostatic evolved or phylogenetically adapted system. Thus, there is no problem with the scientifically neutral notions of violence and cannibalism: both are part of humanity’s evolved small scale biosocial morality.

Movie and television series icon Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter has such a grip on the popular imagination that some consider him to be the vilest character ever created for the large and small screens (and four books by author Thomas Harris.) The larger question considered here is why? Is it simply because American audiences are conditioned to morbidity and “senseless” violence? This seems to be a rather facile explanation. The answer is actually rather murky and lies in the shadows: Hannibal has touched on something primordial deep within our evolved mental structures, deep within each and every one of us. The archetype of the apex predator is being constellated in our minds with the evolutionary force of the collective unconscious. Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall states that “there is plenty of evidence, mostly in the form of fractured bones and carnivore tooth marks, that early hominids (human ancestors and their relatives) were frequently preyed upon; and the indirect evidence of habitat and small body size and anatomy speaks to the same thing. We can thus conclude that early hominids would have had the social characteristics not of hunters, but of prey species. Our ancestors were the hunted, not the hunters; and the belief is that much in our modern behavior reflects this.”

Before we rose to the top of the food chain, we were part of the food chain. This primal fear yet remains within us because it is part of our early evolutionary conditioning. Hannibal Lector is frightening because he may want to eat us. The author and the movie/television producers are titillating our natural fear of being eaten by a “predator,” human, or otherwise. The “fight or flight” response (IRM) is being triggered by the unpredictable threat he represents. Hannibal is the cunning primordial human hunter slaying and eating his human prey much like his (and our) Paleolithic ancestors did. However, instead of identifying ourselves with Hannibal’s prey items (domesticated humans or “the good guys,”) we should be reclaiming our birth right and identify ourselves with Hannibal himself and our late Paleolithic predatory heritage (wild humans) as the end game of natural selection. Domestication is the late aberration which has turned most of humanity back into sheep. “The Lord is my shepherd and I shall not want.” It certainly sounds like the “opiate of the masses” wallowing in their “herd mentality.” If one is content with being a sheep in this flock, it may be better to sleep with one eye open. Hannibal reminds us to be “the wolf in sheep’s clothing.” He may be the “fox in the civilized hen house,” but he is neither psychotic nor a psychopath; it is a fallacy to consider him the “bad guy.” It is the modern individual’s responsibility to integrate “the shadow” he represents and enhance one’s self-awareness. On the surface, it may appear to be counter-intuitive; however, the resurgent atavism of the Hannibal Lecter archetype should be viewed as a symbol of our true hunter-gatherer nature re-expressing itself in a modern context nearly completely divorced from our environment of evolutionary adaptation.

Modern hunter-gatherers and our ancient ancestors certainly favored “innards” as a dietary staple both in our present and primordial natural environments. They were frequently consumed first, at the kill or butchery site as prized cuts of meat to ensure freshness: “and the gods sent the great eagle every day to eat Prometheus’ regrown liver.” The hunter-gatherer knew this long before the dawn of the Greek pantheon: the “eagles” of the Paleolithic properly ate what it was their destiny to eat. Considered the cheap or throw-away (“offal”) cuts of meat in the more recent past, they have again rebounded to the forefront of haute cuisine. Even today they are considered “offal” although chefs like Australia’s Adrian Richardson are reintroducing them as fine dining as he lavishly prepares these dishes on his entertaining television program Secret Meat Business. This knowledge was not secret to hunter-gatherers in the past or present. The fact that offal was viewed with disdain by those who could afford “better” only indicates how far away from animals and our relationship to them as hunter-gatherers they have become.

The hunting and gathering lifeway has been a successful adaptation for humans for nearly two million years and will continue to be so. The future of the geologically recent experiment with food production and “civilization” remains to be seen. Food collection successfully conveyed Homo sapiens through the ice ages: we are literally “children of the ice age.” Societies based on food production are at risk of having their “bread baskets” obliterated with an unfavorable turn of the weather lasting hundreds or thousands of years. The Natufian experiment with emergent food production techniques ended with the onset of the Younger Dryas cooling event nearly 13,000 years ago; Mayan civilization collapsed with extended periods of drought over 1,000 years ago; and the Khmer Empire of Southeast Asia began its decline 700 years ago with deforestation and the subsequent ecological effects on its irrigation system. The Natufians, who were not heavily invested in food production returned to hunting and gathering and survived. The aforementioned civilizations did not.

Humanity is already far beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth and the continued rise in population will put further strain on the planet’s resources. What happens then when the next glacial cycle returns within the next 1,500 years or so? The warming trend of the Holocene epoch is nearing its conclusion after 10,000 years of relatively stable temperatures. The last inter-glacial period had already ended after its 10,000 year span, thus it seems the next thousand years or so may, in fact, be borrowed time. The solution is plainly visible in the archaeological record and with modern hunter-gatherers. Paleolithic periglacial and modern Arctic hunter-gatherers consumed a far higher percentage of animal proteins in their diets because plant based foods were scarce. “Bread baskets” and “rice bowls” cannot exist in the cooling and arid conditions of glacial cycles. Intensive agriculture and its spawn, civilization, will fail. Band-level hunter-gatherers, much like their prehistoric ancestors, have the best chance of survival in the long term.

Hannibal Lecter, as an avatar of modern and ancient hunter-gatherers, is the exemplar and manifested symbol of the carnivorous properties and lifeways of the natural human being. He is the reminder brought forth from the collective unconscious of our meat eating heritage. It should be noted that all meat products described here are of the freshest variety, irrespective if they are offal or prime cuts. Hunter-gatherers generally eat the healthiest game products. This runs somewhat contrary to the vast array of “mystery meat” products available at grocery stores and chain restaurants today. How many people think twice about picking up that wonderful pot roast on sale this week or a “happy burger” and fries from some favored fast food stop? If someone were to replace these mystery meats with “long pig,” would the average consumer notice? Apparently not, as the examples from North Korea, China, and Nigeria indicate. The arguments relating to the grading of specific cuts of meat, or even if meat should be eaten at all, obscure the basic fact that we are phylogenetically adapted to the consumption and metabolization of meat proteins. It is there, in the genetic memory palace of the mind and in our anatomical structure. When that sanctimonious ignoramus professor trashes another thesis proposal, an obnoxious boss thinks he knows it all, or the ex-significant other gives one grief, who has not considered preparing them as the zenith of a gratifying gastronomic experience? Hannibal states that “it is not a shame to die, but to be wasted.” Hunter-gatherers do not waste food. The future of the human species is predicated on our carnivorous propensities, skills, and abilities. It is all well within our evolved behavioral repertoire: it is natural, normal, and explicable. There is no problem here. It is assurance. Come now gentle reader, let us not mince words: is it not the “thrill of the hunt” and the consumption of our prize that makes us human?

George is a former archaeologist and anthropologist in cultural resources management where his mission was the preservation and curation of prehistoric Native American sites and artifacts. He graduated from The American University with a Master of Arts degree in Anthropology in 2004. Current areas of interest include advocacy for Indigenous peoples and issues and rights of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. Read other articles by George, or visit George's website.