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Close to the bones

A prominent historian has been accused of important errors in his account of cannibalism in New Zealand. But is there any real doubt that cannibalism existed?

Cannibalism - a word that rolls off the tongue and straight into the darkest, scariest chambers of the brain - has a special frisson in post-colonial New Zealand.

So, when historian Paul Moon tackled this fascinating but taboo topic in This Horrid Practice: The Myth and Reality of Traditional Maori Cannibalism, he was applauded for taking on what one reviewer called "the elephant spit-roasting in the room". Drawing on early European accounts of contact with Maori, Moon concluded cannibalism among Maori was not a rare, isolated practice, but widespread. His book carried weight, as Moon is a prominent media commentator on New Zealand history, is a professor of history at Auckland University of Technology's faculty of Maori development, and has written 18 books on history and Treaty topics in just a dozen years.

But in what is the first academic review of the cannibalism book, Moon is being accused of important errors, starting with the book's title. Moon, in turn, has complained of misrepresentation by the reviewer. The stand-off has all the makings of a classic academic spat, but with important implications for a pungent strand of history.

In the latest issue of the New Zealand Journal of History, reviewer John Bevan-Smith says Moon makes an "elementary gaffe" by wrongly attributing the title quote to Captain James Cook. The quote crops up again on the opening page: "Though stronger evidence of this horrid practice prevailing among the inhabitants of this coast will scarcely be required, we have still stronger to give" - Captain James Cook. But the author of the famous quote was John Hawkesworth, who was commissioned by the British Admiralty to massage Cook's Endeavour journal for general publication. He added the words himself.

Moon rejects this criticism, saying he acknowledges later in the book that "Hawkesworth added a tolerable coat of literary varnish" to Cook's journals. "Moreover, this was the account of the voyage which Europeans were familiar with from the late 18th century, and its text was regarded - from the perspective of the time - as Cook's words."

Moon is also taken to task for claims he made when the book was released in 2008 that New Zealand academia had ignored cannibalism. Bevan-Smith cites a radio interview in which Moon said Michael King's The Penguin History of New Zealand did not even mention cannibalism. In the book Moon says Maori cannibalism "was circumvented altogether" by King. In fact, says Bevan-Smith, King's history referred to cannibalism in nine different places. "This is a schoolboy error that should have set alarm bells ringing at Penguin, given it had published King's bestseller just five years earlier." Moon says his radio comments were "off the cuff" and that he stands by his book's claim that King "circumvented" the issue.

Bevan-Smith also accuses Moon of making it seem there were more encounters with cannibalism in Cook's first voyage to New Zealand than there actually were. The Endeavour was anchored in Queen Charlotte Sound on January 16, 1770, when the crew came across a small group of Maori who appeared to be preparing food. The crew noticed they had baskets containing roasted limbs and other human body parts, which "the flesh had been but lately pick'd off". Asked what the meat was, one local made it clear it was human flesh by making a great show of biting and pretending to eat his own arm. Cook, Hawkesworth, botanist Joseph Banks and draughtsman Sydney Parkinson all wrote up different versions of the incident. However, Bevan-Smith says Moon makes it appear the men were talking about four separate incidents, implying the crew came across more possible incidents than they actually did.

Moon's response? "I strongly dispute that it is presented as several events." However, this writer read the relevant passages and gained the clear impression they were being presented as four separate incidents.

Bevan-Smith has his own views on cannibalism - he is sceptical it ever took place in New Zealand. He recently completed a PhD in English at the University of Auckland, with depictions of cannibalism a core part of his thesis. He says cannibalism is a "trope", an idea so deeply embedded among Westerners it was impossible for men like Cook to objectively observe what they saw. He argues the idea of cannibalism is foundational to most settler societies: once natives are defined as cannibals and thus only marginally human, settlers feel justified in taking land and resources. Did cannibalism happen here? "My view is there doesn't seem to be anything to support it." Why, then, do so many Maori accept cannibalism was practised by their ancestors? "This trope finds its way into oral history. It becomes part of the rhetoric."

Bevan-Smith has another bone to pick with Moon, that he left out key material from a Cook quote. On Cook's second voyage to New Zealand, during a stop in Queen Charlotte Sound, a crew member ordered a piece of flesh to be cut from a freshly purchased head, broiled and given to a local Maori to eat as an experiment. The Maori was said to have downed it enthusiastically. Bevan-Smith says Moon left out some 450 words in the middle of quoting Cook's account of the incident, without indicating there was missing text. This text, says Bevan-Smith, included "Cook's confession that his first-voyage account of cannibalism had been 'discredited by many persons'".

Moon's response? He doesn't comment on why there was no indication in the text that a large passage had been removed. But he says: "The crucial phrase from the omitted section is: 'That the New Zealanders are cannibals, can now no longer be doubted. The account given of this in my former voyage, being partly founded on circumstances, was, as I afterwards understood, discredited by many persons.' In this context, the discrediting refers to doubt. No one in England could actually discredit Cook, because they had not been to New Zealand. This is not a 'confession' at all, but just an expression of what had happened when people read the account of the voyage. Bevan-Smith is taking things utterly out of context to make his accusation and distorts Cook's words completely to make his claim."

Bevan-Smith also complains Moon gets the dates wrong about another instance of cannibalism Cook's sailors came across, referred to by Moon as occurring "two days later", when it actually happened before the shipboard roasting experiment. Moon responds: "Bevan-Smith is wrong here, too. I did not move any date. Rather, I make it clear that 'two days after this event, Cook received a further set of accounts of cannibal activity from a number of his crew'. This is different from saying the events took place two days after. The emphasis is on when Cook received the accounts, as opposed to when the events happened." However, in the copy of Cook's journals Moon refers to, and viewed by the Listener, it is clear Cook received the account before, not two days after the "experiment".

Bevan-Smith also takes issue with Moon's retelling of a chilling 1830s cannibal tale from the Hokianga. Moon quotes pioneer traveller and trader Joel Polack, who had written up the account of a trader called Anscow who said he was in a village when a teenage slave girl was attacked, cooked and eaten.

A few chapters later, in his final summing up, Moon refers to the account as "writing down a first-hand observation of a teenage girl having her head split open, being butchered, and her body parts then cooked and eaten is not easily subject to cultural (mis)interpretations. The researcher is left with just two options in these cases: either the authors of accounts such as this were liars, or they were correct and their descriptions can be used as part of the general body of evidence on cannibalism." Bevan-Smith says Moon implies this was an eyewitness account, rather than Anscow's account as told to Polack. (Direct eyewitness accounts are extremely rare in the cannibal literature.)

Moon responds: "Bevan-Smith is wrong yet again. He has very selectively chosen his quotes." Moon says he makes it clear 100 pages earlier that Polack was reporting the account of a trader called Anscow. "In my book, I emphasise that Polack was responsible for 'writing down a first-hand observation'. Nowhere do I claim - as Bevan-Smith implies - that Polack was an eyewitness to this event."

Bevan-Smith takes Moon to task for not backing up his claim that "cannibalism was certainly practised in the South Pacific, most probably for thousands of years prior to the Polynesian migration to New Zealand". Moon describes an article concerning an archeological site in Fiji as being "definitive evidence for this". However, the article's author says, "It is important to note that, to date, the hard evidence for Fijian cannibalism is limited to one site. Therefore it is clearly inappropriate to characterise all, or even most, prehistoric Fijians as 'cannibals'." Bevan-Smith says the other study Moon relies on in the footnote - K Lukaschek, The History of Cannibalism, chapter 4 - "turns out not to be a book but a 60-page Master of Philosophy thesis in which none of the eight prehistoric archaeological sites discussed is from the Pacific and in which its author states that the 'Treaty of Waitangi' refers to 'cannibalism'". Says Moon: "The Degusta and Lukaschek sources are indicative. There is a large body of literature confirming that cannibalism was practised throughout the South Pacific."

Bevan-Smith says his dissection of Moon's book is nothing personal. "However, the more problems and errors which came to light as I read and researched This Horrid Practice, the more I realised they were not just elementary or incidental but central to its argument."

For his part, Moon is furious, saying Bevan-Smith scratches at the fringes of the book but fails to tackle the substantive issues. He has complained to the NZJH and gained a right of reply. He claims Bevan-Smith has misrepresented him, at times seriously.

Where does all this leave the debate over how widely cannibalism was practised by Maori in New Zealand? Ian Barber, senior lecturer in Otago's Department of Anthropology, has looked at the only really hard evidence, the archaeological record. He says that record provides no support for Moon's claim that cannibalism was widespread.

"If cannibalism was a really extensive activity, you would expect to see human bones, and some evidence associated with butchery. You might also see butchery marks. On dog bones, moa bones and bird bones, you'll find cut marks as people were cutting flesh off or processing it."

What would be considered rock-solid evidence is human bones showing signs of butchery or having been broken to extract marrow. Bones broken shortly after death show what are called "green-bone" breaks, with a spiral fracture pattern. Plenty of moa and dog bone remains in food middens show damage of this kind. But not human. "I am not aware of any archaeological site where a human bone has been found or located with a green-bone break," says Barber.

What has been found is human bone that shows signs of being worked or carved into items such as fish hooks. In the 1950s and 1960s this was taken as proof of cannibalism, but Barber says just because a hated enemy was turned into a fish hook doesn't mean he was eaten first. He might have been, but the evidence doesn't confirm that. Bones at several archeological sites, one near Nelson and another near Whakatane, show signs of having been chopped, broken or sawed. However, these are not green-bone breaks. Instead, the pattern of fractures is associated with breakage a longer time after death.

Similarly, evidence of burnt human bones used to be considered proof of cannibalism. But Barber says this is more consistent with selected funeral rites than cannibalism. After all, it is the meat, not the bones, that gets burnt during a cook-up. And there is no evidence from other food species, such as bird or dog, of burnt bone remains in food middens.

Put it all together, and there is not yet hard archaeological evidence of cannibalism in New Zealand. Barber says that doesn't mean it didn't happen. But he says if it did happen on a large scale, there should be at least some evidence.

"I'm not a cannibalism denier. I think there's good traditional and historical evidence for a limited form of cannibalism. But what we don't find in the archaeological record is clear or unequivocal evidence of any kind of widespread or comprehensive cannibalism that would involve the consumption and preparation of significant amounts of human flesh."