You know the standard image about cannibalism: A white Christian missionary stews in a large pot while an African tribe dances around him, planning to make him their next meal.
There's no evidence that ever happened, author Paul Raffaele tell us. But real-life cannibals are far more interesting, he shows us as he introduces us to people who eat human flesh in "Among the Cannibals: Adventures on the Trail of Man's Darkest Ritual" (Smithsonian Books, $25.95). The result is simply fascinating.
Raffaele takes us into the New Guinea rainforest to visit the Korowai, a Stone Age tribe that lives in tree houses and practices cannibalism - not that the tribesmen see it that way. To them, when they kill and eat people suspected of murder, they're actually eating supernatural monsters that have inhabited the unfortunate person's body.
So when Raffaele asks if the tribe also kills and eats criminals or munches on the bodies of enemies killed in battle, his interviewee reacts with surprise. "Of course not," he says. "We don't eat humans."
Raffaele, no fan of cannibalism, reckons these are ordinary people just following their culture. But he's harsher on holy men he meets on the banks of the Ganges in India, who eat from human corpses as a religious act. "I'm not a cannibal," one tells him. "The person is already dead, and so the body is just a lump of flesh."
Raffaele writes in the first person, giving much of the book the feel of a travelogue. So in Tonga, he tells about a cross-dresser's attempts to cozy up to him and about his flea bag hotel, where "the paint peels from the wall as if it has caught some tropical disease." Elsewhere, he tells us that "entering the Korowai rainforest is like stepping into a giant watery cave humming with malice."
He doesn't shy away from vivid descriptions of killings and cremations, nor does he duck the inevitable question: Just what does human flesh taste like?
Like the large flightless bird called the cassowary, a New Guinea tribesman says. Like a mango, at least when one chants a powerful mantra, one of the Indian holy men says. "It tastes very good," another holy man reports, "especially the brain."
Most of us would rather not find out for ourselves. But for a reader, Raffaele's book is worth devouring.