In The Book of Deadly Animals, I discussed the alleged man-eating proclivities of the piranhas. Everyone agrees that these fish occasionally bite people, mostly in territorial defense of their nests, and that these bites are no laughing matter. People have lost fingers and toes to them. But I was skeptical that they actually prey on people. In researching Deadly Animals, one of the first claims for anthropophagy I came across was this, from a 1994 edition of the Guinness Book of Records:
"On 19 September 1981 more than 300 people were reportedly killed and eaten when an overloaded passenger-cargo boat capsized and sank as it was docking at the Brazilian port of Obidos. According to one official, only 178 of the boat's passengers survived."
But this claim was hard to substantiate. It seems to have originated in a sensationalist newspaper. A later edition of the Guinness Book did not repeat the claim, which seemed a telling omission. A web search turned up dozens of copies of this same brief Guinness Book snippet, often with different numbers. Other stories of mass predation were similarly elusive.
After an earlier post of mine, Croconut mentioned a claim in the River Monsters TV show that piranhas do in fact take children. I watched the episode and found it very interesting, but also frustrating; it is marred by the usual sensationalism of TV documentaries. In one sequence, for example, the show dramatizes a case of piranhas attacking swimmers on a beach in the style of Jaws. In Jaws, of course, people get eaten; in the real-life piranha case, they were merely driven away from piranha nests with sharp nips. I feel the sequence is misleading. Host Jeremy Wade discusses the case of a bus that plunged into a river. As legend has it, many passengers couldn't escape and were eaten by piranhas. To his credit, Wade takes a skeptical approach and concludes the piranhas may have simply scavenged the drowned bodies, rather than preying on live ones.
The most important part of the show for our purpose is Wade's interview with a man whose two-year-old grandson fell into a river and was eaten by piranhas. It's also the most frustrating part, because instead of hearing the grandfather's words, we get Wade's emotional summary of them. I hate this kind of stuff. TV producers seem to think we need to see everything filtered through our hero. Why not show the guy who was directly affected and translate his account as plainly as possible? Could it be because the producers don't trust a North American audience to connect with a non-white subject?
I looked at Wade's book version of River Monsters: True Stories of the Ones that Didn't Get Away and was pleased to see it didn't suffer from the same sort of manipulation. Wade says the image of piranhas skeletonizing their prey in minutes enters Western culture through Theodore Roosevelt's account, which he briefly cites. Here's Roosevelt's spiel at greater length:
Late on the evening of the second day of our trip, just before midnight, we reached Concepcion. On this day, when we stopped for wood or to get provisions—at picturesque places, where the women from rough mud and thatched cabins were washing clothes in the river, or where ragged horsemen stood gazing at us from the bank, or where dark, well-dressed ranchmen stood in front of red-roofed houses—we caught many fish. They belonged to one of the most formidable genera of fish in the world, the piranha or cannibal fish, the fish that eats men when it can get the chance. Farther north there are species of small piranha that go in schools. At this point on the Paraguay the piranha do not seem to go in regular schools, but they swarm in all the waters and attain a length of eighteen inches or over. They are the most ferocious fish in the world. Even the most formidable fish, the sharks or the barracudas, usually attack things smaller than themselves. But the piranhas habitually attack things much larger than themselves. They will snap a finger off a hand incautiously trailed in the water; they mutilate swimmers—in every river town in Paraguay there are men who have been thus mutilated; they will rend and devour alive any wounded man or beast; for blood in the water excites them to madness. They will tear wounded wild fowl to pieces; and bite off the tails of big fish as they grow exhausted when fighting after being hooked. Miller, before I reached Asuncion, had been badly bitten by one. Those that we caught sometimes bit through the hooks, or the double strands of copper wire that served as leaders, and got away. Those that we hauled on deck lived for many minutes. Most predatory fish are long and slim, like the alligator-gar and pickerel. But the piranha is a short, deep-bodied fish, with a blunt face and a heavily undershot or projecting lower jaw which gapes widely. The razor-edged teeth are wedge-shaped like a shark's, and the jaw muscles possess great power. The rabid, furious snaps drive the teeth through flesh and bone. The head with its short muzzle, staring malignant eyes, and gaping, cruelly armed jaws, is the embodiment of evil ferocity; and the actions of the fish exactly match its looks. I never witnessed an exhibition of such impotent, savage fury as was shown by the piranhas as they flapped on deck. When fresh from the water and thrown on the boards they uttered an extraordinary squealing sound. As they flapped about they bit with vicious eagerness at whatever presented itself. One of them flapped into a cloth and seized it with a bulldog grip. Another grasped one of its fellows; another snapped at a piece of wood, and left the teeth-marks deep therein. They are the pests of the waters, and it is necessary to be exceedingly cautious about either swimming or wading where they are found. If cattle are driven into, or of their own accord enter, the water, they are commonly not molested; but if by chance some unusually big or ferocious specimen of these fearsome fishes does bite an animal—taking off part of an ear, or perhaps of a teat from the udder of a cow—the blood brings up every member of the ravenous throng which is anywhere near, and unless the attacked animal can immediately make its escape from the water it is devoured alive. Here on the Paraguay the natives hold them in much respect, whereas the caymans are not feared at all. The only redeeming feature about them is that they are themselves fairly good to eat, although with too many bones.
It's interesting, but Roosevelt has no specific case of anthropophagy to cite. Presumably he took the claims of local people at face value.
As in the TV show, Wade debunks the bus wreck as a case of mass predation. He also alludes to the Obidos incident and says he, too, was unable to confirm it.
And what about the fatal attack on a two-year-old? Wade briefly repeats that story in the book, this time without the TV-emoting. I felt hungry for more information on this incident, but I have no reason to doubt its truth.