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Beth Conklin spoke about cannibalism practices on March 6, 2014.  Photo by Amanda Symynuk

By Amanda Symynuk

Guess what, eating human flesh is a real thing.  When most people think of cannibalism, they think of zombies, like the ones on AMC's The Walking Dead. Rituals around death and human consumption have long fascinated us in popular culture. It has become an increasingly popular topic in academia, too.



Beth Conklin, an anthropologist who researches cannibalism practices, will be coming to Regina from Vanderbilt University to give a public lecture on the topic.


Why a lecture on cannibalism at the University of Regina?


“We weren’t interested in bringing a lecture about cannibalism, we were interested in bringing a lecturer,” said Carlos David Londoño Sulkin, head of the department of anthropology.


Londoño Sulkin explained the department of anthropology wanted to bring somebody exciting who would foster an interest in anthropology.  When they decided to invite Beth Conklin to give a lecture they told her, “Give us a talk on whichever topic you like,” Londoño Sulkin said.


Conklin is an anthropologist and associate professor at the University of Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn.   Her areas of study include death and how death rituals are done in many different places.  Also, she is the president of the Society of the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA).  She has written a two books about cannibalism: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society and Consuming Grief.


“She’s a cutting edge scholar, always doing new research,” Londoño Sulkin said.


He is not sure what exactly she will say at the lecture and is looking forward to finding out.


“When I teach a cannibal course some students usually do write a paper on zombies,” said Jan Purnis, is an assistant professor in English at the University of Regina who researches cannibalism.


Purnis is also looking forward to the lecture.  She said she is curious to see what Conklin will say about interpretations of cannibalism practices. 


Rethink Cannibalism is a public lecture. It was held March 6, 7:30p.m.-9 p.m. in Room 112 of the classroom building.


Q & A With Beth Conklin


What is cannibalism?


 Fundamentally, cannibalism is about humans consuming other humans.  The most basic and literal type of cannibalism involves oral ingestion, eating, in which bodies and bodily substances are consumed by another human being.  But, when you start asking what’s cannibalism, it starts opening up into all kinds of complexities, blurring of definitions and boundaries.  My own work focuses on specific eating of human substance by other humans, but that can take a lot of different forms, too.


 Why do you study cannibalism?


It wasn’t something that I set out to study.  In fact, as a graduate student when I went to the Amazon in Brazil to begin working with Indigenous people cannibalism was not on research agenda and I found the whole subject kind of distasteful.  I was a vegetarian for about 13 years and I was really serious about it.  I knew that when I went to do field work in an Indigenous society that it was going to be hard to continue to be a vegetarian and so I had already decided I would just give it up and I would eat whatever the local people were eating.  But, it wasn’t that easy because I had been a vegetarian since I was a teenager and I didn’t really know that much about meat.


 What do you think when people associate cannibalism with zombies?


 I think that they are two completely different phenomena, but I think that what they share is the shock and the sensationalism and the way that they open to imagination and fantasy.  And that fascination that coalesces around death I mean it’s definitely there. I think that in our society that some of the fascination that’s associated with cannibalism certainly transfers to zombies and I would also add vampires. For the Amazonian material, zombies don’t really fit in there.

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