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Montezuma’s Zoo

In response to:

'Cannibals and Kings': An Exchange from the June 28, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

After reading “Cannibals and Kings”[NYR, June 28], I have come to the conclusion that both Professors Harris and Sahlins are mistaken. Surely the Aztec custom of killing prisoners of war benefited the animals in Montezuma’s zoo far more than it did any human beings. The humans received only arms and legs—less than one pound of meat per person per year. In spite of being starved for protein, the Aztecs generously gave the trunks to the animals in the zoo; the animals received more than fifty torsos a day, certainly enough to feed three hundred mountain lions. Montezuma’s zoo must have been much larger than people have thought. Aztec generosity is proved by the fact that while humans got less than a pound per year, the animals were given many pounds of meat per day. The Aztecs’ remarkable knowledge of diet is shown by the fact that the animals received the viscera as well as muscle; the humans got only meat. Liver, kidneys, intestines are essential for carnivores which do not diversify the diet with vegetable foods. The animals, of course, got the T-bones and fillets too!

In summary, from a human point of view, Aztec cannibalism was inefficient—but it was great for the animals in the zoo!

S.L. Washburn

Department of Anthropology

University of California

Berkeley, California

Marshall Sahlins replies:

On seeing “Blum au cimetière!” scrawled on a Parisian wall during the 1930s, James Joyce is supposed to have said, “Oh, I already wrote about that.” Fact is, I already made that same argument about the zoo (twice over) in these pages. But if Sherry Washburn had really meant to be taken half-seriously, to the effect that this is what human sacrifice was all about, his thesis would run up against the same protean problems as Harris’s. Why build a temple, when all you need is a butcher’s block?

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