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Human remains from the Jamestown colony site in Virginia bearing evidence of cannibalism. (DON HURLBERT/THE NEW YORK TIMES)
Human remains from the Jamestown colony site in Virginia bearing evidence of cannibalism. (DON HURLBERT/THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Cannibalism and America: The right to eat arms Add to ...

Bone fragments excavated from a dump last year at an early site of Virginia’s Jamestown colony prove that during the winter of 1610, known as “the starving time,” the first permanent British settlers in North America practised cannibalism.

According to Doug Owsley of the Smithsonian National Museum, markings on the skull of a 14-year-old girl from the period support reports that numerous cases of cannibalism – and one of prosecuted murder and then (the man salted his own wife, for heaven’s sake) cannibalism – took place.

Horrific as it is, I’ve always had a certain begrudging respect for those who resort to cannibalism under desperate conditions: I forgot to buy an avocado for the lentil salad I made this week and considered calling it quits.

Mostly I am glad these grisly findings are recent, so this story has not, like the various tales around Thanksgiving, become part of the American origin myth. I’m sure eating one’s fellow colonists made sense at the time. It’s just a good thing it never made it into the Constitution. If it had, Americans would now be arguing for their constitutional right to eat people – and of course actually be eating people, just as their founding, salting fathers intended. This would be particularly bad for us, because we’re Canada: We’d be America’s freezer.

Eventually, I imagine, opposition would arise. With the “starving time” being well over, the argument would go, and there being so many alternatives to dining on Americans available to Americans, maybe some modest restrictions could be put upon the practice of devouring humans – cadaver background checks, for example.

A school barbecue gone horribly awry might spark outrage for a while and some people would say, “We need to stop eating people! This is insane! No other country in the world eats people the way we do! Why, just this week a five-year-old boy ate his two-year-old sister! When do we just say no?”

To which the National Cannibalism Association would say, “Stop politicizing this!” while lobbying hard against a bill outlawing six-foot-long locking barbecues with manacles in the lids. “Cannibals don’t kill people,” their slogan would run. “They just eat people – do some research. And accidents happen.”

Mostly, NCA spokespeople would blame video games: If the nation’s teenagers spent less time playing video games, they would be less plump and delicious-looking. The novelty song Purple People Eater would be banned, as well as Maneater by Hall and Oates – along with the rest of the Hall and Oates catalogue (no one would be able to explain why, but the bill would sail through Congress).

The airwaves would be filled with ads warning that if cannibalism were more regulated, life would just become more difficult for people who like to eat people for sport. “Why punish the leisure cannibals?” some almost decadently paternal-looking actor would ask, looking sagely into the camera, holding some sage. “My grandaddy taught me how to eat people,” these ads would usually begin, and the nation’s (uneaten) hearts would melt.

Some politicians might tentatively suggest that the framers of the Constitution had included only the right to eat other people’s arms, and what have you, in the event that another “starving time” should occur. Their intention was well-regulated cannibalism, not the great smorgasbord of citizenry that America had become. These politicians would face primary challenges, and braising. Their opponents would only have to cite Leviticus 26:29 (“You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters”) to lock up the race.

An alliance would be formed between People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the NCA because, PETA would claim, the chief beneficiary of cannibalism is animals. Turkeys would get off easy at Thanksgiving, where custom would dictate that the oldest or most wayward or most annoying member of the family would be ceremonially consumed.

If you think American Thanksgiving is fraught with familial strife now, imagine those NCA-sponsored “Ask yourself, is that turkey any louder and more obnoxious than your brother-in-law Dougy?” mailouts arriving in September.

And where would the NCA get its funding for these projects in this scenario, you ask?

Well, from gun manufacturers, of course.

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Follow on Twitter: @TabathaSouthey

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