Cannibalism is the act or practice of eating members of one’s own species and usually refers to human beings eating other humans (sometimes called anthropophagy). Cannibalism has been attributed to many different tribes and ethnicities in the past, but the degree to which it has actually occurred and been socially sanctioned is an extremely controversial topic in anthropology, owing to the severe taboo against its practice in most cultures. Some anthropologists have argued that cannibalism was almost non-existent and view claims of cannibalism with extreme skepticism, while others argued that the practice was common in pre-state societies.
The ethical issues raised by this practice are complex, just as are the motivations and circumstances surrounding the phenomenon. While killing another for personal gain is clearly murder and sanctioned both morally and legally, consuming the flesh of one already dead raises different issues, including the question of continued human existence in the spiritual realm. Respect for the physical body, and the concern for the wishes of the departed person, should be considered, even under conditions where cannibalism is necessary for survival. While justification exists under extreme conditions, it is difficult to reconcile the idea of one human family with the practice of eating another member of such a family. True human beings should not be placed in such a situation, and it should be the goal of humankind to be able to care for all others, through harmonious relationships and true dominion over the environment, so that no one has to face this dilemma.
Cannibalism is the act or practice of eating members of one’s own species and, while it does exist in non-human species, the term most often refers to human beings eating other humans.
The word “cannibal” comes from Spanish Canibal (used first in plural Canibales), derived from “Caniba,” Christopher Columbus’ name for the Carib or Galibi people. Columbus originally assumed the natives of Cuba were subjects of the Great Khan of China or Kannibals, but the name lasted to describe the “primitive” and “savage” people of the West Indies, who were reported to engage in what was then known as anthropagi. Hence the name Canibal became used as both the proper name for the people of the West Indies and as a descriptive term for all who engaged in anthropagi, before finally becoming transposed into English as cannibal.
While not a widespread phenomenon in nature, cannibalism is nonetheless a common practice for some species. The female red-back spider, black widow spider, praying mantis, and scorpion sometimes eat the male after mating (though the frequency of this is often overstated). For other organisms, cannibalism has less to do with sex than relative sizes. Larger octopus preying upon smaller ones is commonly observed in the wild, and the same can be said for certain toads, fish, red-backed salamanders, crocodiles, and tarantulas. It is known that rabbits, mice, rats, or hamsters will eat their young if their nest is repeatedly threatened by predators. In some species adult males are known to kill and sometimes eat young of their species to whom they are not closely related—famously, the chimpanzees observed by Jane Goodall. This is believed to be a mechanism of increasing the portion of a colony’s energy and food expenditure that will then be available to the cannibal’s own offspring.
Cannibalistic behavior sometimes develops in animals that do not engage in such activity in the wild. For instance, a domestic sow may eat her newborn young while in captivity, but similar behavior has not been observed in the wild. Another cause for cannibalism in captivity is territoriality; species with large territories in the wild may display cannibalistic behaviors in confinement with others. For example, while tarantulas infrequently cannibalize in the wild, they do so much more commonly in captivity. During the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, a number of animals at the Belgrade Zoo, including a tigress and two she-wolves were reported to be so traumatized that they ate their offspring
Throughout history there have been rumors, legends, and accusations of cannibalism among societies. Whether propaganda or historical fact, people seem to have been obsessed with the idea of “primitive” societies and their savage customs. In antiquity, Greek reports of anthropophagy were related to distant, non-Hellenic barbarians, or else relegated in mythology to the primitive chthonic world that preceded the coming of the Olympian gods.
Cannibalism was reported in Mexico, the flower wars of the Aztec Civilization being considered as the most massive manifestation of cannibalism. The Aztec accounts, however, written after the conquest, reported that human flesh was considered by itself to be of no value, and usually thrown away and replaced with turkey. There are only two Aztec accounts on this subject: one comes from the Ramirez codex, and the most elaborated account on this subject comes from Juan Bautista de Pomar, the grandson of Netzahualcoyotl, tlatoani of Texcoco. The accounts differ little. Juan Bautista wrote that after the sacrifice, the Aztec warriors received the body of the victim, boiled it to separate the flesh from the bones, then would cut the meat in very little pieces, and send them to important people, even from other towns; the recipient would rarely eat the meat, since they considered it an honor, but the meat had no value in itself. In exchange, the warrior would receive jewels, decorated blankets, precious feathers, and slaves; the purpose was to encourage successful warriors. There were only two ceremonies a year where war captives were sacrificed. Although the Aztec empire has been called “The Cannibal Kingdom,” there is no evidence in support of it being a widespread custom. Ironically, the Aztecs believed that there were man-eating tribes in the south of Mexico; the only illustration known showing an act of cannibalism shows an Aztec being eaten by a tribe from the south (Florentine Codex).
The Korowai tribe of southeastern Papua is one of the last surviving tribes in the world said to engage in cannibalism. It is also reported by some that African traditional healers sometimes use the body parts of children in their medicine. However this is undocumented and believed by most anthropologists to be an untrue rumor. See The Cannibalism Debate.
Famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, claimed in his autobiography that during a period in 1904, he and his companions ate “nothing but cadavers” purchased from the local morgue. Rivera was fully aware of the shock value of this tale. Rivera claimed that he thought cannibalism a way of the future, remarking, “I believe that when man evolves a civilization higher than the mechanized but still primitive one he has now, the eating of human flesh will be sanctioned. For then man will have thrown off all of his superstitions and irrational taboos.” Readers may be reminded of the savage satire of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.
Stories of harrowing survival and necessity involving cannibalism are equally numerous throughout history. In the Bible, cannibalism is described as taking place during the siege of Samaria. . During the siege that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 C.E., Flavius Josephus reported that two women made a pact to eat their children. After the first mother cooked her child, the second mother ate it but refused to reciprocate by cooking her own child. In Egypt during a famine caused by the failure of the Nile to flood for eight years (1064-1072), incidents of cannibalism were reported, as they were in Europe during the Great Famine of 1315-1317. However, many historians have since denied these reports as fanciful and ambiguous.
The survivors of the sinking of the French ship Medusa in 1816 resorted to cannibalism after four days adrift on a raft. After the sinking of the Whaleship Essex of Nantucket by a whale, on November 20, 1820, (an important source event for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick) the survivors, in three small boats, resorted, by common consent, to cannibalism in order for some to survive
The case of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens (1884) was an English case that is said to be one of the origins of the defense of necessity in modern common law. The case dealt with four crewmembers of an English yacht that foundered in a storm some 1600 miles from the Cape of Good Hope. After several days in a lifeboat, one of the crew fell unconscious due to a combination of famine and drinking seawater. The others (one objecting) decided then to kill him and eat him. They were picked up four days later. The fact that not everyone had agreed to draw lots contravened “The Custom of the Sea” and was held to be murder. The trial involved the first recorded use of the defense of necessity.
The dehumanizing situations of war, that push both civilians and soldiers to the very limit of survival, has apparently been responsible for numerous incidents of cannibalism. Lowell Thomas recorded the cannibalization of some of the surviving crewmembers of the Dumaru after the ship exploded and sank during the First World War .
Documentary and forensic evidence supported eyewitness accounts of cannibalism by Japanese troops during World War II. This practice was resorted to when food ran out, even with Japanese soldiers killing and eating each other when enemy civilians were not available. In other cases, enemy soldiers were executed and then dissected. A well-documented case occurred in Chici Jima in 1944, when the Japanese soldiers killed, rationed, and ate eight downed American airmen (the ninth downed, Lt. jg George H. W. Bush along with four others, was picked by submarine USS Finback, and avoided the fate). This case was investigated in a 1947 war crimes trial, and of 30 Japanese soldiers prosecuted, five (Maj. Matoba, Gen. Tachibana, Adm. Mori, Capt. Yoshii and Dr. Teraki) were found guilty and hanged.
Cannibalism was reported by at least one reliable witness, the journalist, Neil Davis, during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. Davis reported that Khmer (Cambodian) troops ritually ate portions of the slain enemy, typically the liver. However he, and many refugees, also reported that cannibalism was practiced non-ritually when there was no food to be found. This usually occurred when towns and villages were under Khmer Rouge control, and food was strictly rationed, leading to widespread starvation. Ironically, any civilian caught participating in cannibalism would have been immediately executed.
Médecins Sans Frontières, the international medical charity, supplied photographic and other documentary evidence of ritualized cannibal feasts among the participants in Liberia’s internecine strife in the 1980s to representatives of Amnesty International who were on a fact-finding mission to the neighboring state of Guinea. However, Amnesty International declined to publicize this material, the Secretary-General of the organization, Pierre Sane, stating at the time in an internal communication, “what they do with the bodies after human rights violations are committed is not part of our mandate or concern.” Cannibalism has been reported in several recent African conflicts, including the Second Congo War, and the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, subsequently verified in video documentaries by Journeyman Pictures of London. Typically, this was apparently done in desperation, as during peacetime cannibalism is much less frequent. Even so, it is sometimes directed at certain groups believed to be relatively helpless, such as Congo pygmies. It has been reported by defectors and refugees that, at the height of the famine in the 1990s, cannibalism was sometimes practiced in North Korea.
One of the most famous examples of cannibalism as a necessity, partially due to the 1993 movie Alive that dramatized the true events, is that of the Uruguayan rugby team that was stranded in the high Andes for weeks by a plane crash. After several weeks of starvation and struggle for survival, the numerous survivors decided to eat the frozen bodies of the deceased in order to survive. They were rescued over two months later.
Views of Cannibalism
Necessity for Survival
Cannibalism as a form of necessity seems to be caused by the powerful survival and self-preservation instincts that humans possess. When faced with a life-or-death situation, in which there seems to be no other source of nutrition, humans may very well resort to what may be seen as their only chance of survival. In such circumstances, ritual and culture play little if any part, as the will to survive seems stronger than any moral, ethical, or aesthetic objections one might have. In the minds of the desperate, human flesh becomes viewed as “meat,” no different in function than that of beef, pork or chicken, since in reality all are mammals. Not everyone is able to bring themselves to consume human flesh, but there are numerous historical examples where the will to live overshadowed all other thoughts and feelings.
Ritual and Belief
Ritualistic cannibalism is that which occurs not as a response to lack of physical nutrition, but based on a particular society’s belief system regarding the spiritual or psychological outcomes of consuming human flesh. Whereas societies such as the ancient Greeks used cannibalism as a representation of evil, and Christianity rejected the literalness of cannibalism, some societies and cultures that practiced cannibalism believed in the literal benefits of eating human flesh, mainly spiritual acquisition. Ritually eating part of the slaughtered enemy was a way of assuming the life-spirit of the departed, as some American Indian tribes believed that one could gain a particular characteristic of the deceased rival (e.g. eating the heart of a brave opponent would help you gain more courage). This is a subset of the general idea of eating a totem to absorb its distinctive power, much like tiger penis is eaten to promote virility. However, the consumed body was not always a slain enemy. In some funeral rituals a respected member of one’s own clan was eaten to ensure immortality, or was merely part of a death ritual, as some societies believed eating the dead was a great honor.
While the practice of cannibalism may not have been widely sanctioned in human societies throughout history, the concept has played an important role in all cultures, and appears to be part of the human collective unconscious. For societies who view cannibalism as unnatural and evil, cannibal archetypes are represented in myth and legend as representing that which is perverted and wicked, such as the witch in Hansel and Gretel. In Greek mythology, there is the didactic tale of rejecting cannibalism at the feast where Tantalus cooked and served his son Pelops to the Olympians. In the Qur’an, slanderers are stigmatized as those who eat the flesh of the dead body of the person they slander.
The Cannibalism Debate
It is generally accepted that accusations of cannibalism have historically been much more common than the act itself. Queen Isabella of Spain decreed that conquistadores could not enslave any Native American tribes they encountered unless they practiced cannibalism. This meant that the incidence of cannibalism was wildly exaggerated and in most cases invented. The Carib tribe acquired a longstanding reputation as cannibals due to this, whereas in fact later research found no trace of the practice. During the years of British colonial expansion, slavery was considered to be illegal unless the people involved were so depraved that their conditions as slaves would be better than as free men. Demonstrations of cannibalistic tendencies were considered evidence of such depravity, and hence reports of cannibalism became widespread.
William Arens, author of The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (1979), questioned the credibility of reports of cannibalism and argued that the description by one group of people of another people as cannibals is a consistent and demonstrable ideological and rhetorical device to establish perceived cultural superiority. Arens based his thesis on a detailed analysis of numerous “classic” cases of cultural cannibalism cited by explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists. His findings were that many cases were steeped in racism, unsubstantiated, or based on second-hand or hearsay evidence. In combing the literature he could not find a single credible eyewitness account. And, as he pointed out, the hallmark of ethnography is the observation of a practice prior to description. Finally, he concluded that cannibalism was not the widespread prehistoric practice it was claimed to be, and that anthropologists were too quick to pin the cannibal label, based not on responsible research but on our own culturally determined preconceived notions, often motivated by a need to exoticize.
Arens’ findings are controversial, and his argument is often mischaracterized as “cannibals don’t and never did exist,” when, in the end, the book is actually a call for a more responsible and objective approach to anthropological research. In any case, the book ushered in an era of rigorous combing of the cannibalism literature. By Arens’ later admission, some cannibalism claims came up short, while others were reinforced.
Other more contemporary reports have also been called into question. The well-known case of mortuary cannibalism of the Fore tribe in New Guinea, which resulted in the spread of the disease Kuru, is well documented and not seriously questioned by modern anthropologists. The reasons behind the occurrence, however, have been questioned by those claiming that although post-mortem dismemberment was the practice during funeral rites, cannibalism was not. Marvin Harris theorized that it happened during a famine period coincident with the arrival of Europeans, and was rationalized as a religious rite. Harris has conducted significant research into cannibalism and other food taboos, concluding that the practice was common when humans lived in small bands, but disappeared in the transition to states, the Aztecs being an exception.
As forensic and anthropological techniques have improved, the chances of accurately determining if past societies did engage in cannibalism has also increased. Regardless of whether cannibalism turns out to be more fiction than fact or vice versa, the very existence of the debate indicates that human beings are deeply intrigued by the idea, suggesting that it holds some place in our collective unconscious.
Cannibalism in popular culture
Examples of cannibalism in popular culture involve both cannibalism based on necessity and involving ritual or belief. Some examples are:
- Classical mythology:
- William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, in which Tamora is unknowingly served a pie made from the remains of her two sons.
- Herman Melville’s Typee, a semi-factual account of Melville’s voyage to the Pacific Island of Nuku Hiva, where he spent several weeks living among the island’s cannibal inhabitants, after which he fled the island fearing to be eaten.
- H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, an 1896 science fiction novel, features cannibalism by the more advanced species, the Morlocks, as a means of survival.
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, in which for (non-human) aliens eating one’s dead friends is an act of great respect, a practice adopted by some human characters in the novel.
- In Soylent Green, a 1973 science fiction film set in the future, Soylent Green is the processed remains of human corpses rendered into small green crackers to augment the dwindling food supply.
Ethical Reflections on Cannibalism
From an ethical standpoint, cannibalism presents a serious challenge. The thought of consuming human flesh is disturbing to most people, even from the perspective as a last means of survival, and such societies and cultures that ritually practiced, and may continue to practice such behavior, appear extremely alien to the majority of people.
Yet, there should be a careful distinction made when considering whether cannibalism, either ritualistic or as a survival tactic, is ethical. A major consideration should be whether or not the person was killed in order to be eaten. In cases of survival, such as the plane crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, those cannibalized were killed in the crash and not considered as food for some time after their deaths, until the survivors faced starvation. In such instances, in which the cannibal had nothing to do with the death of those he consumed, it would seem that the unnaturalness of the act is mitigated by the fact that they never intended to cannibalize anyone. The survival instinct is incredibly strong and, given such extreme conditions, many would find it hard to condemn those who sought to survive, even if the methods used appear repugnant.
If, on the other hand, a person is killed for the sole purpose of being eaten, even in situations of survival, then legally and ethically the cannibal may be considered guilty of murder. The will to live cannot be viewed as justification for any course of action that deliberately deprives another of life. Nevertheless, just as self-defense is an acceptable legal justification for killing in extreme situations, the defense of “necessity” has may be invoked in extreme situations, such as “The Custom of the Sea,” in which the person killed and eaten had consented to participate in the action for the purpose of survival of at least some members of the group. Whether the survival of many by the sacrifice of a few—even with their consent and by drawing of lots, satisfies ethical criteria—continues to be a matter of debate.
In cases of ritualized cannibalism, a difference should be noted between those societies that kill and then consume their enemies for spiritual gain, and those that observe cannibalism after death as a ritual. Like the desperate person who killed another to eat their flesh in order to help their own individual survival, the society that engaged and engages in killing so that the consumed flesh of the dead may bring about spiritual acquisition is guilty of depriving a person, enemy or friend, of their own chance at life and happiness.
The ethical distinction thus must come down to whether the cannibalistic act is selfish or opportunistic. For those that murder for the selfish reason of gain, whether it be for spiritual or survival means, there seems nothing ethically justifiable in such action.
Of course, there are still problems with those eating the flesh of the already dead. Many cultures and religions, Judaism for example, observe specific rituals with the bodies of the dead. Many other orthodox religions would also not look kindly on the person who cannibalizes as a means of survival, even if they were not responsible for the person’s death. The body is regarded as the “temple” of the person’s spirit or soul while they were alive, and thus should continue to be respected, even though the life has gone.
Thus, it is difficult to ethically validate or condemn cannibalism even for those that are put in the extraordinarily difficult situation of having to choose whether or not to survive by consuming the flesh of another human being. In the ideal, survival would not come down to this decision. However, under less than ideal circumstances, an individual or group may be faced with making a decision based on conscience, coupled with considerations based on faith, and subsequently taking responsibility for that action.