Heroic Savages and Cannibals

One of the earliest images of the inhabitants of the New World, this woodcut reveals some of the Europeans' complex and contrasting attitudes toward the peoples they encountered. The men on the right appear admirable and heroic as they pose proudly by their weapons, and the women and children to their left form a loving family scene. In the center of the image, however, a human head, leg, and arm roast over a fire, while on the far left, a woman bites into an arm. The caption, based on Amerigo Vespucci's description in the Mundus Novus of the people he encountered in Brazil, is translated below. It presents a mixture of repulsion and attraction to this strange new society, adding anarchy and incest to the more commonly observed phenomena of nakedness, common property, and cannibalism.

The people are thus naked, handsome, brown, well shaped in body, their heads, necks, arms, private parts, feet of men and women are a little covered with feathers. The men also have many precious stones in their faces and breasts. No one also has anything, but all things are in common. And the men have as wives those who please them, be they mothers, sisters, or friends, therein make they no distinction. They also fight with each other. They also eat each other even those who are slain, and hang the flesh of them in the smoke. They become a hundred and fifty years old. And have no government.

Dise figur anzaigt uns das Folck und Insel die gefunden ist durch den christenlichen Kunig zu Portigal oder con seinen Underthonen [This Figure Shows Us the People and Island Discovered by the Christian King of Portugal or His Subjects]. Hand-colored woodcut, [Germany, 1505].
The New York Public Library, Spencer Collection.


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