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Why Cannibals Were on Every 16th-Century Map of the New World

Many of the first European maps of the Americas included warnings of cannibalism, despite no proof of such activity. James Walker’s “From Alterity to Allegory: Depictions of Cannibalism on Early European Maps of the New World,” published earlier this year as Occasional Paper Number 9 from the Philip Lee Phillips Map Society of the Library of Congress, examines how and why the macabre myth endured.

“The act of naming something is a powerful element of mapmaking that often contributes both a descriptive and possessive understanding of the person, place or thing being named,” Walker writes. “In this case, the word cannibal was unusual, because it incorporated three meanings or concepts — a people, a practice, and a place.”

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