A Brief History of Cannibalism: Not Just a Matter of Taste

Cannibalism in human history is rarely just about eating. It even became a justification used by Western imperialists to explain the enslavement of millions

Terry Madenholm
Terry Madenholm
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Anthropophagie à Dondiin
Anthropophagy in illuminated book re Marco Polo (1254-1295), Gallica Digital Library: De la isle de Dondiin" [Andaman]Credit: Gallica Digital Library
Terry Madenholm
Terry Madenholm

For the totalitarian ants, cannibalism is some species' measure of controlling population size, and some go as far as eating the ones judged "disabled". When times get tough and food runs low, the colony turns on the juveniles. Family cannibalism under extreme conditions has been observed in various other animals too: for instance eating offspring when in stress has been observed among all kinds of animals, from bears to birds and fishes.

Some animals, like hamsters or bears, may consume their offspring if disturbed, starving, or when a young is stillborn or frail; the practice has the added value of preparing the mother for the next reproductive marathon. And some frogs ... just eat other frogs. Of other species, or not of other species.

Four Common Tree froggies sitting on a tree. There were five but the fourth is eating the fifthCredit: Holger Krisp

While it isn't that uncommon for mothers to cannibalize their young, the opposite is exceedingly rare. Matriphagy, aka “eat your mother”, has been documented in some species of insects, spiders, and scorpions that are "programmed" to consume their mothers alive. And sibling rivalry is as old as ... siblings. When a sand tiger shark becomes pregnant, it is usually with multiple embryos fathered by multiple males, yet only one hungry winner gets to live. As soon as the fetuses are old enough, a cannibalistic battle inside the womb takes place.

Sexual cannibalism is a very different facet of the phenomenon. Some species of praying mantids are the kinkiest of all as the female consumes her partners mid-coitus: in those species where this occurs, the males end up losing their heads to their hungry "one-meal stands".

Hello, handsome: Lady mantis dining on her mate, post-coitus.Credit: Biosphoto / Thierry Van Baelinghem

Some spiders do it too. For instance, the male redback spider voluntarily sacrifices himself halfway through the sexual odyssey, which doesn't stop him from transferring his seed while his partner is focused on consuming him.

It may look horrific according to our modern human mores, but cannibalism is a natural behavior for many species. For humans, though, it's a matter of choice.

A slice of me?

Leaving desperate circumstances aside, among some peoples, one form that emerged was all about principles: devotional cannibalism.

In ancient China, the fabled philosopher and political theorist Confucius taught a doctrine in the 6th–5th century B.C.E. that focused on ethics and morality. For his followers, no possession was more sacred than one's body, for it was seen as an ancestral extension. Wounding it on purpose or treating it without respect was regarded as blasphemy. However, there was one noteworthy exception regarding self-inflicted harm: the case of gegu (割股), a slightly extreme practice only for the most devoted that flourished during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE).

Gegu consisted of slicing a piece of flesh from one's thigh or any other part of the body with the intention of preparing it for a sickly loved one. In most descriptions, the son or daughter-in-law secretly commits the act for a parent, who is left ignorant of the meal's origin (or pretending not to know).

Only after the lucky patient recovers does the act becomes revealed. It is, however, not the flesh that has healing value but the act itself, the remarkable display of filial piety, which is at the core of Confucianism.

Recipe for mummy

The European mind seemed slightly less open to self-harm but didn't seem to cavil at the consumption of others. Take medicinal cannibalism, which has been practiced in various forms since ancient times.

One of the most popular was medical vampirism, which flourished in ancient Rome during the Imperial period. Two thousand years ago Pliny the Elder described people collecting "warm, living blood" from the bodies of slain gladiators, which according to Etruscan lore was believed to cure epilepsy. Romans also frenzied about human flesh, the heart, the brain of an infant, bone marrow, and other "delicious" body parts.

Etruscan terracotta statue purportedly of Apollo, god of medicine among other things, found in Veio from 6th century B.C.E.Credit: Max Rossi, Reuters

Since the beginning of the 12th century, Europeans have been eating and snorting Egyptian mummies, for it was believed that a genuine mummified body (especially an ancient one) was a cure for all sorts of ailments. A mummy became a "universal panacea".

The practice reached its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries. And Europeans were not limiting themselves to consuming mummies: similarly to the Romans, they were imbibing human blood (a practice warmly recommended by physicians seasonally adjusted late as the 18th century), and were also eating all sorts of organs and bone marrow. The practice was prevalent among the most respectable members of society.

According to Nicasius le Febure, who was appointed as the royal professor of chemistry and apothecary by Charles II of England, the best mummies “were those of bodies dried up in the hot sands of Libya”. Otherwise, the French chemist recommended consuming a dried corpse of a man (healthy, of course) between 25 and 30 years old, who either died of suffocation or from being hanged.

Consuming others wasn’t a big deal for those “close” to God, either. The Puritan Edward Taylor, a physician for over 40 years and a pastor at Westfield, Massachusetts (1671-1729) administrated medicines made from human corpses. We find human parts listed in his handwritten medical “dispensatory”.

For those who were more into the genuine mummies, if one wanted to be sure that he or she was consuming a “real deal,” the 1747 edition of the acclaimed London Pharmacopoeia noted that the taste of a mummy was “somewhat acrid and bitterish”. As mummies to vandalize became scarce, they started preparing ones from scratch.

Take two of these and see me in the morning: Mummy more than 2,300 years old, Saqqara, Egypt (2005)Credit: AP

If one wasn't sure about the recipe, Samuel Johnson's 1785 English dictionary provided a notice informing the reader that one could find it at a chemist with a “slightly” perverted description: “What our druggists are supplied with is the flesh of any bodies the [creators of mummies] can get, who fill them with … common bitumen … and adding aloes … send them to be baked in an oven till the juices are exhaled and the embalming matter has penetrated.”

A mere century ago the German company E. Merck Darmstadt that would evolve into the multinational pharmaceuticals giant Merck was offering in its catalog, “genuine Egyptian mummy, as long as the supply lasts, 17 marks 50 per kilogram” (a real bargain). The ad was published in Verleichende Volksmedizin (The Comparative Folk Medicine) in 1908-09.

Like all snake oil, corpse medicine promised better health, and the ideal candidate for being eaten (in the form of powder or a dried piece of flesh or organ) was a young, healthy lad who had died of quick and violent death. Why? Because they thought a quick death would trap the very essence of the person.

Of course, the Europeans who practiced corpse medicine didn't think of themselves as cannibals; for them, the term was reserved for the savage unchristian people who lived on the edge of civilization.

Ironically, at the beginning of Christianity, the Romans labeled the members of the new "sect" as savage cannibals for consuming the "body and blood" of their God during the ritual of the Eucharist – which was enough to justify the Christian persecution. History repeats itself.

Of course, hardly anyone could deny the existence of survival cannibalism, even among the most "civilized" but many cannibalistic accounts weren't a function of famine, but of warfare. For instance, Appian describes the siege of Numantia by Roman forces. The besieged population, according to the historian, was "rendered savage in mind" by the food they consumed. They were forced to boil human bodies, starting with those who had died of natural death; but after getting sick from the already decaying flesh, they began to lay their hands upon weak but still alive and fresh.

Among other disturbing accounts there is that of Fulcher of Chartres, a French chaplain who joined the First Crusade in the year 1097 under Prince Baldwin, who later became king of Jerusalem. The priest describes a cannibalistic "feast" following the siege of Maarat in Syria a year later: "I shudder to tell that many of our people, harassed by the madness of excessive hunger, cut pieces from the buttocks of the Saracens already dead there, which they cooked, but when it was not yet roasted enough by the fire, they devoured it with savage mouth."

The savage cannibals

Meanwhile, ignoring their own people's propensities, ancient writers often portrayed cannibals as beastly sub-human creatures. For over 2,000 years, the "civilized" Europeans were bathed in the belief that a cannibalistic race with dog-like heads lived beyond the light of Greek/Roman civilization in some obscure lands.

The earliest known reference to them is in Indica, a 5th-century B.C.E. work written by Ctesias, the Greek physician to Artaxerxes II of Persia. He was the first prominent writer to report about dark-skinned dog-like creatures who lived in India and consumed human flesh with relish.

He wasn't the only one. Herodotus too wrote about androphagi (man-eaters) ostensibly living in India, and Pliny the Elder refreshingly placed them in Ethiopia.

One might think those were bedtime stories for naughty children, but when Alexander the Great invaded India in the 4th century B.C.E., he wrote to his dear teacher Aristotle that he had fought the dog-headed men, the "cynocephalic".

As the adventurous Europeans began to explore new promising lands to exploit, they carried their perceptions of cannibalism with them. Among the first brave ones was Marco Polo (one of the first modern creators/propagators of fake news), who claimed that the men of the Island of Angamanain, among the Andaman Islands, were cynocephalic and ate everybody that they can catch: "I assure you all the men of this Island of Angamanain have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes likewise; in fact, in the face they are all just like big mastiff dogs! They have a quantity of spices; but they are a most cruel generation, and eat everybody that they can catch, if not of their own race," he wrote.

Cannibalism depicted per Marco Polo's account of "savages"Credit: Gallica Digital Library

When the slightly more sober Christopher Columbus first landed in the Caribbean, he described the Arawak Indians as peaceful, generous, and even open to converting to Christianity. However, his reports changed when he realized that gold wasn't growing on trees. So he came up with the idea of capturing and selling humans.

The problem was that his royal sponsor, Isabella of Spain, condemned slavery on the grounds that the practice was incompatible with Christian values. There was, however, a loophole. The just queen decreed that if the indigenous were peaceful and willing to become subject to the Spanish crown, they would be treated humanely; however, if they were bloodthirsty man-eaters, then they could be captured and sold.

Columbus' second voyage to the Caribbean in 1493 was rich in encounters with dangerous cannibals who were hunted down and shipped to Europe.

That's when the word 'cannibal' first appeared. The word initially referred to the Caribs in the Antilles who consumed human flesh: the term quickly became synonymous with all eaters of men. One could argue that Columbus'most substantial achievement was being the founding father of the first Atlantic slave trade.

Anyway, that is how Columbus and his compadres, including Hernando Cortés in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro in Peru, came to label thousands of people in the New World as cannibals. The explorers tended to emphasize the violent side of cannibalism but what they omitted to tell, or didn't know, is that cannibalism was sometimes performed out of love and devotion. For instance, the indigenous people of Brazil, the Wariʼ were horrified to learn that Europeans were burying their people. For them, it was unthinkable to leave a loved one to rot and be eaten by worms. Consuming body parts was seen as the best way to keep that person close/alive.

Aztec images of sacrificeCredit: latinamericanstudies.org

Of course, there's no question that some cultures in the Americas practiced a cannibalism that had little to do with affection. For instance, we know that the Aztecs engaged in ritual sacrifice, followed by drinking the victim's blood and eating his or her heart (if not more).

Ultimately, the lesson of history is that cannibalism became a compelling justification used by Western imperialists to explain the enslavement of millions. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Western fascination with the "savage" led to the creation of the human zoo, where captured people were exhibited as living examples of the early stages of human evolution.

One disturbing case was that of Oto Banga, a young Congolese who was displayed in a cage with an orangutan. Oto Banga was only a child when he was captured and transferred to the Bronx Zoo in New York. Because his teeth had been ceremonially chipped into sharp points, he was kept behind bars, surrounded by bones scattered on the floor, and advertised as a cannibal. The New York Times released a headline reading: "Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes" and reassured his readers that they should not feel sorry for him for he is "one of a race that scientists do not rate high in the human scale." This was in 1906, four decades after the abolition of slavery in America.

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