Celia J. Shiffer
One of the earliest representations of the New World and its inhabitants,
this woodcut serves as both the result and perpetuation of the image of
Native Americans as not merely savages but as dog-headed Cannibals. The
woodcut was published in Lorenz Fries's Uslegung der Mercarthen oder
Carta Marina, or Guide and Instructions for the Carta Marina,
in Strasbourg, 1525, where it served as an illustration of an island people
who were discovered by Columbus (Johnson 111). Hildegard Binder
Johnson explains that, "though the register in the Uslegung was
a convenient tool for the user of the Carta Marina in that it helped
him to locate some two hundred places, it was the text proper [and the
numerous woodcuts that accompanied it] which provided information about
Europe and foreign lands, thereby supplementing the numerous legends on
the Carta Marina" (101), and it "enjoyed great popularity between
1525 and 1530" across Europe(92). The woodcut was later published
in Amerigo Vespucci's Carta Maritima in Strasbourg, 1530 (Moffitt
and Sebastian 119). Vespucci's first letters were initially
printed in Florence in 1505 and were quickly translated into many other
European languages; a German publisher included this woodcut in his publication,
as well as numerous other woodcuts (Honour 10-11), which contributed to
an influx of sensationalized stories about the New World as both untamed
and fruitful. So, this image, as well as similar ones, were widely
distributed and thus were largely responsible for creating the popular
picture of the New World. Although the image of the Native American
as dog-headed Cannibal may seem too incongruous, many scholars are able
to trace the development of this connection to earlier ideas of monsters
that were already a part of the European consciousness about the
unknown. By understanding these new-world explorers as emerging from
a tradition that constructs stories of one-eyed men and giant monsters
in order to make sense of the unknown, it is easier to comprehend the jump
from Native American to dog-headed Cannibal.
This tradition can be traced back to the travellers of earlier centuries; Marco Polo's expeditions were publicized by the end of the thirteenth century (Polo 7), while Sir John Mandeville's were widely circulated across Europe by the mid-fourteenth century (Mandeville 9), and both these explorers contributed to the development of the myths of monsters living outside Europe. In his Travels, speaking of a particular island that he believes is a part of the Indies, Polo writes:
Now let me tell you of a race of men well worth describing in this book. You may take it for a fact that all the men of this island have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes like dogs; for I assure you that the whole aspect of their faces is that of big mastiffs. They are a very cruel race: whenever they can get hold of a man who is not one of their kind, they devour him. (258)
The tales seem romanticized ("Now let me tell you..."), indicating a popular appeal, yet we see not only that dog-headed men exist in the minds of the Europeans but also that these men are "mastiffs" and are "cruel," and that they are Cannibals. Writing a century later, Mandeville describes other islands, where "Men and women of that isle have heads like dogs, and they are called Cynocephales. These people, despite their shape, are fully reasonable and intelligent . . . if they capture any man in battle, they eat him" (134). Here, we see the name given the dog-headed people who, despite their intelligence and rationality, are still Cannibals.
Frank Lestringant pinpoints Columbus as illustrative of how this monster-image was transposed onto Native Americans, for it is Columbus who begins to bring back stories of the American New World, and it is in his diary entries that we can literally see this happen. So when Columbus encounters a new world of things unknown, he is already equipped with these images and words as explanations. He has not only these stories of fellow explorers but probably also the references of Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae (where Cyclops follows directly Cynocephali) and Pierre d'Ailly's Imago Mundi, a "fabulous list" of monstrous races; in any case, he is equipped with ideas and information about monsters and foreign lands that is identified as "scientific" (Lestringant 15). It is in Columbus's Diario, however, that we can actually see the shift of the Native American as savage at most, to the dog-headed Cannibal. Las Casas had abstracted Columbus's Diario, and we find in the November 23, 1492, entry las Casas's transcription of Columbus's recording of the Native Americans' description of an island, Bohio (and so, already, the "facts" are at a few removes from the original source and language):
they said . . . there were people on it who had one eye in their foreheads, and others whom they called cannibals, of whom they showed great fear. (167)
But on November 26, the one-eyed people and the cannibals are no longer separate, for Columbus meshes them together, and gives these cannibals dog heads:
all the people . . . have extreme fear of the men of Caniba, or Canima, and they say that they live on this island of Bohio . . . fearing that they would have them to eat . . . And they say they have but one eye and the face of a dog. (177)
For Columbus, "Caniba" sounds like "Cannibal," and the dog-face becomes one-eyed, while it gets transposed onto the body of the man-eating native. Images become meshed, for it seems that Columbus brought these images of monsters with him to the Americas, and so he could already see the Native Americans who always inhabited the next island; in other words, although Columbus never quite sees these monsters, he has already imagined them as part of the New World, and so he knows that he must see them. He then brought an affirmation of these images back to Europe, which were soon picked up by various publishers and artists, so that, like the woodcut, these images were produced and reproduced for the public.
So we see in this woodcut, of course, the dog-headed Cannibal, but the scene reveals much more about the earliest European perceptions of Native Americans. Because of their heads, these Cannibals become almost dehumanized; they seem to be far enough removed from the "human" that we can think of them and treat them as monsters, yet the resemblance of the hanging limbs to the hanging meats of butcher shops and the casual interaction between the men suggests that they are, in fact, human, and that their habits are not entirely different from the habits of Europeans, that there is a faint strain of familiarity. The underlying similarities, which come from the familiar set-up of the butcher shop and even from the sameness of human form, may account for the horrified fascination with which such images and stories are held, but they are also evidence once again of the predispositions of the Europeans--they could not imagine Cannibalism outside the structure of the butcher shop, where meats are cured and hanged, and so Cannibals become still more horrifying because they are seen in a realm that is familiar but askew.
Despite the faint commonality between pictures of the Native American cannibal and the European, it is the cruelty and indifference, and the act of butchering and devouring human flesh, of such images that imprinted itself in the European consciousness. The fascination comes from a likeness, but the terror comes from the man on the left, who seems to act as overseer, and who has brought in some fresh meat, hog-tied; from the next figure, who works with energy at butchering human limbs; from the third figure from the left, who may be offering assistance, who is eager to cut bodies to pieces; and from the figure on the right, who munches on an arm, perhaps to curb his appetite. It is terrifying because they don't notice--they become animal because they seem to recognize people as nourishment. Mandeville's description of the Cynocephales, who are "fully reasonable and intelligent," and who eat enemies in battle, is subsumed by the need to see Native Americans as Other, as animals void of European rationality or compassion, so that Europeans would not have to understand them, for it would be an impossibility, and Native Americans could therefore be erased more easily from the European consciousness and conscience.
And so this woodcut becomes much less incongruous; it is much less shocking, for it developed out of expectations and a need to comprehend the incomprehensible of the New World. It was both fed and consumed by a human fascination and abhorrence of difference for it facilitated the growth of colonial empire. It did not matter that no one actually saw these dog-headed Native Americans; their existence was determined long before Columbus encountered the New World, for the unknown must be contructed as somewhat familiar so that it can be dealt with.
Columbus, Christopher. The Diario of Christopher Colulmbus's First Voyage to America, 1492-93. Dunn, Oliver, and James E. Kelley, trans. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1989.
Honour, Hugh. The New Golden Land: European Images of America from the Discoveries to the Present Time. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975.
Johnson, Hildegard Binder. carta marina: World Geography in Strasburg, 1525. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1963.
Lestringant, Frank. Cannibals: The Discovery and Representation of the Cannibal from Columbus to Jules Verne. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.
Mandeville, John. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. C.W.R.D. Moseley, trans. London: Penguin Books, 1983.
Moffitt, John F. , and Santiago Sebastian. O Brave New People: The European Invention of the American Indian. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1996.
Polo, Marco. The Travels. London: Penguin Books, 1958.
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