Indian Cannibals, Brazil

Date: 1505
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Images

This 1505 broadside by Johann Froschauer depicts the Tupinamba Indians of Brazil engaging in cannibalism. The image, if controversial, is considered the earliest depiction of American Indians to be at least somewhat ethnographically accurate. Nevertheless, this image and its caption demonstrate how the earliest ethnographers, like other naturalists to visit the New World, struggled to comprehend the wonders they encountered. Like most other early sixteenth century observers, Froschauer fell back on pre-existing European scientific and literary tropes to describe the utter strangeness of America. Whereas naturalists usually compared new plants and animals to known European ones, ethnographers drew upon medieval and classical travel narratives, like those of Pliny and Mandeville, which often described people living beyond the known world as having bizarre and even monstrous features. The descriptive caption of this broadside reads:

No one has anything of his own, but all things are common. And the men who have wives are pleased to make no distinction whether it is their mother or sister or friend...They also eat one another and they hang and smoke the flesh of those killed. They live to 150 and have no government.

Although elements of this description are absurd, such as the idea that Indians live to be 150, there is much evidence that various Indian groups did engage in some form of cannibalism, a fact that Europeans used to justify their (largely pre-existing) assumptions about Native American savagery. Ethnographies of Indians finally began to reach a more mature form with the works of Bartolome de las Casas and Jose de Acosta, scholars who used empiricism to present the most accurate early portrayals of American peoples.

Reference: Grafton, Anthony. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of tradition and the Shock of Discovery. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992, pp. 76.

CITATION: Brazil: Cannibalism. German Woodcut: 1505. The Granger Collection, New York. 0009540