Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Mortuary Rites - Cannibalism

The Australian Aboriginal People were not generally cannibals, in that they did not kill people to eat. Where cannibalism does occur it is in a ritual context, if the reports of early workers in the field are accurate. Burial cannibalism, in a number of forms, occurred fairly commonly in Aboriginal Australia. In parts of Queensland it occurred in connection with mummification, before the body was exposed on a platform (Elkin, 1954: 513), as occurred among the tribes of southwest of the Gulf of Carpentaria, and in the northern part of the Kimberleys, occasionally. In northeast South Australia, it was part of the interment ritual (see Elkin, 1637: 283-5). In the Liverpool River area of western Arnhem Land, only a small part of the body was eaten, but only by specified relatives.

The Maung of Gilbert Island and the nearby mainland, have been reported to have occasionally cut up a corpse, though only specified kin were permitted to eat the flesh of the dead person. Inedible organs are placed in a hole and a fire was lit to destroy them. The heart liver and kidneys were placed in another hole and buried. A larger hole was dug where the flesh was cooked. The flesh is shared out among certain kin, though not those of the territorial group, the namanamaidj, of the deceased. Those eating the flesh were believed to gain strength from it. The hunting ability of men was believed to be enhanced by carrying around dried pieces of the flesh. The head was left on a pole to dry, after which it was carried around as a memento.

A mother of a stillborn child or a child who died early, was said to eat the flesh of the child, in the expectation that it would make it easier for the spirit of the child to enter her body and be reborn. It has been suggested that the anointing of the bodies of mourners with exudates from decomposing bodies, as was practised in many parts of Australia, can be seen as being similar to cannibalism (Elkin, 1954: 313).

Ritual cannibalism has been reported to be widespread in northwest central Queensland (Roth, 1897: 166), where a child's body could be eaten by its parents and siblings. Not all of Roth's accounts were well documented. An example he gives is the Kalkadoon, who were said to eat any corpse, even where the were visible signs of venereal disease (STDs). He did specify that he knew of no case where a person was killed with the intention of eating them. In north Queensland, on the Pennefather River, an early stage in cremation ceremony of a young man, the soles of the feet and the flesh from the front of the thighs are baked in the ashes. After being cut into small pieces. One or more of his sister's sons would then eat them over a period of 2-3 months (Roth, 1907). Those eating these pieces are prohibited from speaking until they can identify the 'murderer', after which he can speak to reveal the name. The dead man's fibula is used to make a death charm of bone needles. This charm can then be used by his sister's son or his mother's father's brother's son to avenge his death.

In the Brisbane area, a native doctor singed the body hair from the body at a large fire, leaving the beard and head hair unburnt, while other members of the group sat around their own fires. 3 other native doctors dance toward the corpse, while each holds a stone knife in his mouth. If of a man, the corpse was placed face down on the ground, women were placed face up. The skin is removed as a single piece, including the fingers, toes, ears, etc. It is then spread on spears near a fire to dry. After the internal organs, including the entrails, had been removed, the body was then cut up and shared, and after roasting, was eaten, except for certain parts, that were destroyed in the fire. Some relatives, mother, widow or sister keep the collected bones. After placing the pelvis in a bag it is used to identify the 'murderer'.(Roth, 1907: 398-401). The process is finalised by placing the skin and bones in a hollow tree.

The explanations for these procedures are the participants don't fear the dead person's spirit, so can immediately dispose of the body. Secondly, the corpse is prevented from decomposing by the procedures followed.

Sources & Further reading

  1. R. M & C. H. Berndt, 1964, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd, 


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 15/04/2013
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