Cannibalism has been, for the most part, unexplored. But it happens. When? and Why? And what does it reveal about human nature?
By Mehrezat Abbas
In July 2012, 29 people were found to be a part of a cannibal cult in Papua New Guinea. They murdered seven witch doctors, ate their brains, and made soup from their penises in hopes of attaining supernatural powers. Twenty-eight of the members were found guilty of willful murder, which is punishable by death in Papua New Guinea. It is unclear what happened to the 29th member. The suspects were clearly unaware that they had done anything wrong. They spoke of their actions openly, and had been providing their supernatural services to villagers in the area in return for money and sex (“29 Members”). Cannibalism is surprisingly common in both humans and animals. Spiders, tiger sharks, frogs, hippopotamuses, and even great apes are just a few species which have been observed to regularly cannibalize each other.
There is an unending number of reasons for an animal to consume one of its own kind: Extra nutrition, stress, mating rituals. For some reason, this behavior is especially active between mothers and offspring. In fact, many caecilians are born with special teeth used to peel off and eat layers of their mother’s skin. Mothers will also occasionally eat their own weak or stillborn children (Bates). Laurence Culot, who has a PhD in zoology, observed one case of maternal cannibalism:
A mother tamarin foraged for fruit with her adult daughter and infant son. Suddenly, the mother bit through her baby’s skull and ate out its brain. Once the mother had eaten the entire head, her adult daughter feasted on the carcass . . . the grisly act may have occurred to benefit the adult daughter, who was pregnant at the time. (Bates)
Clearly, animals have no philosophical qualms about cannibalism. They simply find nutrition where nutrition is to be found. Although the incident between the mother and baby tamarin may seem ruthless and cold-hearted to us humans, they are not like us. This begs the question: what has changed during our evolutionary journey to becoming so human?
“To ask ‘What is an animal?’… is inevitably to touch upon how we understand what it means to be us and not them. It is to ask, ‘What is a human?’” (Foer 46). Biologically, we are made of the same tissues and organs as a cow, a pig, or a dog. What really decides where the line between human and animal belongs? In his book, Eating Animals, Jonathan Foer explains what makes us different from our fellow mammals:
Humans are the only animals that have children on purpose, keep in touch (or don’t), care about birthdays, waste and lose time, brush their teeth, feel nostalgia, scrub stains, have religions and political parties and laws, wear keepsakes, apologize years after an offense, whisper, fear themselves, interpret dreams, hide their genitalia, shave, bury time capsules, and can choose not to eat something for reasons of conscience.
So if we have the ability to choose what we eat, what makes us choose what we do? Eating pork is acceptable, although pigs are one of the closest to humans in terms of biological likeness. Dogs are another story altogether. It seems that we have a lot of very complex rules in terms of what we eat. For most people, other human beings are definitely off the menu.
A man named Armin Meiwes posted an internet ad looking for a young man willing to be killed and eaten. A 43-year-old man named Bernd Brandes responded.
Ethical cannibalism does exist. Many people like to speculate on whether they would ever consider eating human meat. This makes for some very interesting situations. In December 2011, Dennis Storm and Velerio Zeno, hosts of Dutch TV show Proefkonijen, ate each other’s flesh on air. They were each filmed having a piece of their muscle surgically removed, then they fried and ate the tissue in front of a live audience (“List of Incidents”). Both parties agreed to the consumption, and both remained unharmed during and after the surgery. In another recorded case of cannibalism – and a fairly well-known one – a man named Armin Meiwes posted an internet ad looking for a young man willing to be killed and eaten. A 43-year-old man named Bernd Brandes responded. Meiwes kissed Bernd, stabbed him in the neck, chopped him into pieces, and froze him. Meiwes gradually cooked and ate the body, and eventually consumed 20 kg. of human meat (“List of Incidents”). This situation is obviously much more disturbing than the last. When comparing the two scenarios, one can notice a sort of list of rules arising. First and foremost, the human where the flesh comes from must stay alive during and after the process. The human must agree to the consumption before it occurs, and the quantity of flesh consumed must remain at a reasonable level. The flesh consumed must either be previously detached or removed willingly and painlessly. These are the basic lines which separate unsettling from evil.
Cannibalism seems to have been a fairly common practice back in prehistoric times. Evidence of several cases has turned up all across Europe. Human bones are found discarded among those of deer and cows, all marked with cuts and scrapes (Smith). Cannibalism was most likely a last resort, but times were always tough. Genetic studies have found that modern humans possess a gene (127V) that Neanderthals lacked. This gene is known for resisting kuru-like diseases, which are spread mainly through cannibalism. It is theorized that both humans and Neanderthals practiced cannibalism, which led to Neanderthal deaths and possibly the species’ extinction (Smith).
Another reason why people eat human meat is simple curiosity. Usually in these instances the methods are as ethical as they can be.
In modern times, most cannibals fall into the category of cannibal killer. These are people who take pride in their work. They retain a sense of control over their victims, and take a trophy through the ingestion of the flesh. They enjoy having done something that very few have ever done, and are thrilled by the fact that they have conquered “the most dangerous game” (Schurman-Kauflin). Deborah Schurman-Kauflin, a retired criminal profiler, reflected on past interviews with cannibal killers and stated:
One offender I interviewed was insulted that he had been accused of rape. He adamantly declared he had never raped anyone. He said ‘I may kill them and eat them, but I never raped anyone! You make sure people know that!’ Another offender asked his victim how he liked his meals prepared . . . “I wouldn’t want to insult him by cooking him the wrong way.”
Some cannibal killers are driven by psychotic episodes. In one case, a man named Richard Trenton Chase murdered his victims and drank their blood because he believed that space aliens were turning his own blood into powder and he had to replace it (Schurman-Kauflin).
Another reason why people eat human meat is simple curiosity. Usually in these instances the methods are as ethical as they can be. Reddit user IncrediblyShinyShart shared that he had his foot amputated after an accident in May 2018. Recalling earlier conversations, he asked his friends, “Remember how we always talked about how, if we ever had the chance to ethically eat human meat, would you do it?” This lead to him and ten of his friends sharing the foot (“List of Incidents”). In a similar instance, British punk rock musician David Playpenz ate his own finger after it was severed in a motorcycle accident (“List of Incidents”), likely as a publicity stunt.
As Jonathan Foer explains in Eating Animals, “It’s for good reason that the eternal taboos – don’t fiddle with your shit, kiss your sister, or eat your companions – are taboo. Evolutionarily speaking, those things are bad for us.” The feeling of being absolutely and completely repulsed by something is simply a long-brewing instinctual defense mechanism. When we see something that has caused disease or malformations or any other evolutionary detriments in the past, we don’t like it. In the end, we’re animals too, and all we want is to help our species survive and thrive.
If I were to get into the weeds of the psychological aspect of cannibalism, I would need a lot more paper. I’ve simplified it to primal urges like to eat, to reproduce, and to excrete waste. The human mind is so much more complicated than that. However, the simple reasoning is enough to grasp a basic understanding of why we do what we do and think what we think. Cannibalism is a dense, deep topic that has been, for the most part, unexplored. There is a lot left to uncover. I hope that as we learn more and more about it, it will teach us even more about ourselves.
“29 Members of Alleged Cannibal Cult Arrested in Papua New Guinea.” CBS News. 13 July 2012, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/29-members-of-alleged-cannibal-cult-arrested-in-papua-new-guinea/.
Bates, Mary. “Animal Cannibalism: Who Does It and Why.” Wired. 28 January 2015, https://wired.com/2015/01/animal-cannibalism/.
Foer, Jonathan. Eating Animals. Little, Brown, and Company, 2009.
“List of Incidents of Cannibalism.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/List_of_incidents_of_cannibalism. Accessed 6 February 2020.
Schurman-Kauflin, Deborah. “Why Cannibals Love Eating People.” Psychology Today. 30 August 2011, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/disturbed/201108/why-cannibals-love-eating-people.
Smith, Kiona. “Neanderthal Cannibalism is Less Surprising Than You Think.” Ars Technica. 31 March 2019, https://arstechnica.com/science/2019/03/climate-change-may-have-driven-a-band-of-neanderthals-to-cannibalism/.
Sunter, Craig. “Cannibalism.” Posted by Global Panorama on Flickr.