There are many reasons why an individual or group of people would eat other people, such as religious rites, shows of superiority, and signs of respect, but also out of necessity. Few people think of the Donner party’s ill-fated trek through the Sierra Nevadas or the rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes in 1972 without thinking of people driven to cannibalism in a desperate attempt to stave off death. So we can split cannibalism into four often overlapping categories: by choice, by necessity, endo-cannibalism (eating people within your group), and exo-cannibalism (eating people outside your group).
It would probably be more accurate to refer to today’s topic as anthropophagy, meaning the eating of man, rather than cannibalism. The word cannibal comes from a group of people who may not have eaten human flesh at all. “Cannibal” comes from Canibales, the name that the Spanish gave to the Caribs, the natives of the Caribbean islands. The Spanish accused the tribe of ritualistically eating their enemies, but most of the initial reports came from Christopher Columbus, who had both personal and political reasons to make them seem as savage as possible. Because the Caribs were engaged in an anti-colonial battle with a host of European powers, some historians now argue that the cannibalism rumors were a propaganda tactic. That being said, there is some evidence the Caribs used body parts of conquered enemies as trophies, so it is a possibility — especially as an intimidation measure or act of war. So even if modern anthropologists, scientists, and word nerds like me prefer the term “anthropophagy” to “cannibalism,” cannibalism is the common parlance, so that’s what we’re going with.
Before we talk about the why’s for cannibalism, let’s talk about the why’s against. There’s a biological reason why cannibalism is taboo in most cultures: Eating other humans can make you sick. Specifically, eating the brain of another human being can cause kuru — a prion disease of the brain similar to mad cow disease. If you’ve seen The Book of Eli, the older couple surviving surprisingly well on their barren, isolated farm, with a questionable number of graves out back, exhibited signs of Kuru. It was first observed in the Fore people of Papa New Guinea, who practice funereal endo-cannibalism, eating the corpses of their dead as a mourning ritual. The name kuru means “to shiver” or “tremble” in their language. Symptoms include loss of coordination, involuntary movements, behavioral and mood changes, dementia, and difficulty eating. There is has no known cure. It’s usually fatal within one year of contraction, either from the damage to the central nervous system or malnutrition. Interestingly, further research found that a certain percentage of the Fore people were born immune to Kuru, as though the tribe were adapting to a cannibal diet, but they were convinced to change their funeral rites to be safe.
On the flip-side (there’s always a flip-side), bit of bods were once sold as medicine. You may remember people eating powdered Egyptian mummy from episode #16, Mummy’s Day. In Germany from the 1600s to 1800s, executioners often had a bizarre side job that supplemented their income: selling leftover body parts as medicine. As described in Kathy Stuart’s Defiled Trades and Social Outcasts, human fat was sold as a remedy for broken bones, sprains, and arthritis. Usually, this human fat was rubbed as a balm, not eaten. If you have one of those moms who uses Vick’s VapoRub to cure everything…doesn’t look so bad now, does it. Apothecaries regularly stocked fat, flesh, and bone. Skull were ground into a fine powder and mixed with exotic and expensive chocolate to treat epilepsy or they were soaked in alcohol to make a tincture to cure gout, dropsy, and all fevers putrid or pestilential. If there was moss on the skull, bonus medicine! The skull powder was not the most stomach-turning therapy for epilepsy. You could be given the brains of a young man that hath died a violent death,” mash in a stone mortar, steep in wine, and “digest it half a year in horse dung” before distilling. People in old timey times believes that ‘like cured like,’ so you might have to wear a bag of corpse teeth around your neck to cure a toothache, eat powdered hair to cure baldness, and drink, eat powdered, or apply topically blood for any sort of bleeding.
Most of us know cannibals from news reports of serial killers or the Donner party, who have been largely exonerated by recent anthropological evidence, so let’s start with ritualistic cannibalism. A ritual is an ordered series of events with religious or social importance. Throughout the world, cannibalism has played a part in ceremonies like funerals and sacrifices. As with the Fore of Papua New Guinea, the Wari tribe from the Amazon practiced endocannibalism as a way to transform their bodies into spirits. The spirit then becomes an animal that would provide food for generations to come. The thought of leaving their family member’s body intact in the earth to decompose is as repugnant to them as the thought of their practice is to us, though Christian missionaries forced them to do it anyway. Following the death of a tribesman, family members will mourn and wail inconsolably over the corpse for several days until it begins to putrefy; they are waiting to ensure the spirit has had time to leave the body. The body is then cut into small pieces–initially, the brains, heart, and liver–then roasted, placed on clean ceremonial mats, then distributed among the relatives–the choicest pieces going to the parents and elders. The Aghoris of northern India, a caste considered even lower than Untouchable, consume the flesh of the dead floated in the Ganges in pursuit of immortality and supernatural powers. The Amahuaca Indians of Peru picked particles of bone out of the ashes of a cremation fire, ground them with corn, and drank as a kind of corn porridge. The Yanomami of Brazil believe the soul is only able to achieve a full salvation if the dead body is burnt after death and if the ash is eaten up by the family of the dead person, mixed with bananas and eaten during a festival. Before you think Europe didn’t have funereal endocannibalism, they got pretty close as relatively recently as medieval central Europe and what is now Germany, where dough was left to rise on a corpse’s chest, then later baked and broken up among mourners. They believed that the “corpse cake,” as it was called, would absorb the positive traits of the dead and transfer it to those who ate it.
The Aztec “Legend of the Five Suns” tells how the gods all sacrificed themselves so that mankind could live, which created in the Aztecs a sense of indebtedness toward the gods. While they gave offerings of food and sacrifices of animals, the greatest repayment was the sacrifice of humans. One god, Xipe Totec, is the god of rebirth, agriculture, the seasons, and craftsmen. During the festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli, captured warriors and slaves were sacrificed in the ceremonial center of the city of Tenochtitlan. The victims were then taken to the Xipe Totec’s temple where their hearts would be removed, their body dismembered and their body parts divided up to be eaten later.
Sometimes cannibalism has ritualistic significance to a single individual, as opposed to a broad culture or organized religion. Lovers of true crime have seen this come up many times in accounts of serial killers, who attach great importance to eating their victims. For one example of criminal cannibalism with a unique religious angle, welcome the first of two guests, Heather Wright, from Nature vs Narcissism.
The exo-cannibalistic practice of eating one’s enemies is as old as time. The Scythians, Chinese, Maoris, Iroquois, Ashantee, Aztecs, Anasazi and many others are known to have eaten the hearts and other body parts of slain enemies. While the heart was eaten to gain courage and power, other parts of the body such as the brain and tongue were swallowed to assume knowledge and bravery. “Of the heart of a celebrated enemy, the king and his dignitaries are said to partake,” the London encyclopaedia wrote in 1829 when describing the customs of the Ashantees in Western Africa. “They make a practice of cutting out the hearts of some of the slain, which they mix up with consecrated herbs, and after much ceremony, compel those who have never killed an enemy to eat.” The Sioux of North America would powder the hearts and eat them that way. Whether the Maori warriors of New Zealand committed cannibalism or not is highly debated. Some historians believe that it was just Europeans trying to paint the Maoris as wild savages. However, tribal oral histories and archaeological evidence strongly suggest that the Maori warriors indulged in cannibalizing defeated foes. There are a few theories as to why the Maori ate their opponents. One was to internalize their spirit, which they called mana, or it may have been done in a fit of post-battle rage. Another theory is that it would send a message to their enemies. What greater humiliation could do to your enemy than to chop them up, eat them, and then excrete them later? The Atakapa of the Gulf of Mexico may have eaten vanquished enemies, but the reports of this came from the Choctaw tribe, their enemies. Likewise, we have only Rome’s accounts of the Celts eating their conquered foes, and while I’m having trouble finding research to corroborate that, there is evidence that the Druids practiced ritual sacrifice. The bog body known as Lindow Man had mistletoe pollen on it. Mistletoe was so sacred to the Druids that it could only be cut with golden scissors and could not be allowed to fall on the ground. It’s believed sacrifices like Lindow Man could have been to try to halt the encroaching Roman forces.
You know who else is powerful and clever? Our newest patrons at patreon.com/yourbrainonfacts – Charles Bizzell, Seth Alcorn, Nathan Dayton, and fellow burlesquer Adam Bomb. In addition to public adoration, these generous folks will be getting a bonus mini-episode each month for their $5 pledge and one of them will also get early access to each week’s episode for their $10 pledge. It’s not realistic to think I could support myself with podcast -yet- but the Patreon page is well on its way to making it so I’m not losing money in my effort to fill the world with facts. Even the $2 pledge tier helps. Enough of the finer things. Back to war-based cannibalism.
Eating the flesh of enemies is in no way relegated to the distant past. During the Khmer Rouge Rebellion of the 1970’s, Cambodian troops reportedly cut out and ate Khmer Rouge soldiers’ hearts and livers. Sometimes they brought the meat home for dinner; sometimes they ate it right on the battlefield. More recently, former Liberian President Charles Taylor – sentenced last year to 50 years in prison for aiding and abetting rebels in Sierra Leone during the 1991-2002 civil war – was accused of ordering his militias to eat the flesh of captured enemies and UN soldiers. Taylor himself reportedly ate the heart and livers of dead soldiers.
War breeds cannibalism in a few ways, not only trophies and power-taking. During the 872-day Siege of Leningrad, reports of cannibalism began to appear in the first winter, after all birds, vermin, and pets had eaten. Leningrad police even formed a special division to combat it. Cannibalism was no stranger to the POW camps where Nazis deliberately starved Russian prisoners. In a turn of grotesque karma, 100,000 Germans faced the same conditions when they were shipped off to Siberia after the victory at Stalingrad. Over in the Pacific theater, Japanese soldiers began eating POWs when their daily rations were cut to 50 grams, just under two ounces, of rice and tinned meat a day. “Cannibalism was often a systematic activity conducted by whole squads and under the command of officers,” says historian Yuki Tanaka.
Neither is war the only way a government creates a pro-cannibal situation. The Russian famine of 1921 killed 5 million people around the Volga and Ural rivers, when Lenin’s policy of seizing food from peasants caused the devastating man-made famine. The peasant class not only ate human flesh, but traded it on the black market as a means of meager income. Arising from similar deliberate government action, the North Korean famine of the 1990s generated reports of cannibalism. Kim Jong-il was reported to have ordered a crackdown on cannibalism in 1996, but Chinese travellers reported it occuring in 1998, three people in North Korea were reported to have been executed for selling or eating human flesh in 2006, and further reports of cannibalism emerged in 2013. The same goes from Mao’s Great Leap Forward, when the chairman tried to move China from agriculture to industry in one fell swoop, in 1958, causing the Great Chinese Famine instead.
There are countless incidence in human history where eating other people was the sole remaining chance for survival. In the aforementioned Andean plane crash, those who were mentally ready to eat the dead convinced those who were not by using their Catholicism. Their reasoning was that God had provided them with the means to save their own lives, not matter how awful, and to refuse it would be suicide, a mortal sin. Sometimes it’s a small group or a single individual faced with this dilemma, such as unqualified frontier guide Alfred Packer, after whom the University of Colorado students named one of their dining halls, and to whom a judge declared, “There was seven democrats in Hinsdale County and you up and ate five of them. I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead.” Then there are some for whom eating people is just another day at the office. To tell you more about a legendary clan of cannibals is my second guest, Seth Alcorn from the Bad Medicine comedy troupe and their podcast Sketch Nerds.
And that’s where we run out ideas, at least for today, though if you’ve listened to even one other episode, you know that’s not true. I didn’t even get into cannibalism in the animal kingdom, like hammerhead sharks with their taste for their own kind or fetal sand tiger sharks who eat all their siblings until only one big baby shark remains, to say nothing of cane toads, lions, and squirrels. So I guess I’ll leave you with one of my dad’s classic bad old jokes. Why don’t cannibals eat clowns? Because they taste funny. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.