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10 Engrossing Facts About Cannibalism

Eliza Lenz

Evidence says our ancestors had cannibalistic tendencies as far back as 800,000 years ago. They had good reason to—the average human adult provides 30 kilograms (66 lb) of food, including fat, muscle, organs, and skin. There’s no question that our society condemns cannibalism, but reports say the practice continues in some places even today.

10The Taste Of Long Pig

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Most cannibals say human meat tastes porky, sweet, or very much like veal but looks a lot like beef. Probably one of the best people to ask is Armin Meiwes, the famous German cannibal who killed a seemingly willing participant and ate up to 20 kilograms (44 lb) of his flesh. During an interview from his prison cell, he described human flesh as tasting like pork “but a little bit more bitter, stronger. It tastes quite good.” Issei Sagawa, a Japanese cannibal who killed and ate a classmate in Paris, described human flesh as being odorless and not “gamey,” while Polynesian cannibals insist it tastes a lot like pork, hence the “long pig” moniker.

A person’s age, the body part being consumed, and the method of cooking will affect the flavor, with children purportedly having flesh so tender it resembles the texture of fish. Roasting and stewing with hot peppers and other seasonings is the most common way to prepare human flesh. Many tribes will eat it only after it has rotted for a short period of time, a common culinary practice to tenderize and enhance the flavor.

9Kuru

Despite all the rave reviews from cannibals, you might want to think twice before you sample long pig. Not only could you end up in prison for the rest your life—you could contract kuru.

Kuru is an incurable, degenerative, and ultimately fatal condition similar to mad cow disease, but instead of contracting it by eating contaminated beef, you exclusively get it through eating human flesh. Kuru was first identified in the ’50s in Papua New Guinea, where it spread thanks to the cannibalistic habits of the Fore tribe. The Fore would ritualistically consume the bodies of their dead—including the brains, where most of the infectious proteins (called “prions”) can be found.

Symptoms of kuru include tremors, hysterical laughter, slurred speech, and eventually being unable to move or swallow. The incubation period is typically between 10 and 13 years, but cases have been reported 50 years or more after exposure. Most sufferers die within a year following the onset of symptoms.

Interestingly, in 2009, researchers announced they had identified a gene variant that offers some people immunity from kuru, found predominantly in villages ravaged by the disease. Scientists believe this variant is evidence of natural selection in action, as those naturally resistant to kuru survived to pass their genes onto their children, while those without any immunity died.

8Endo- And Exocannibalism

Most forms of cannibalism can be grouped into two categories. The first category is endocannibalism, which involves eating the flesh of a deceased member of your tribe or family to venerate the dead. The Fore tribe, for example, in eating their dead’s flesh and brains, believed doing so allowed the deceased’s soul to remain close to their living family.

The second category is exocannibalism, the act of eating an outsider to steal their life force or to intimidate others. Though Christian missionaries and governments eradicated most forms of endocannibalism in the mid-20th century, exocannibalism continues to be practiced sporadically around the world, as noted in reports of a Syrian rebel commander eating an enemy soldier’s organs.

Another recent example of exocannibalism was reported early in 2014 when a man named “Mad Dog” in the Central African Republic ate a victim’s raw leg. Mad Dog, along with a mob, dragged the Muslim man from a bus and then beat him, stabbed him, and set him on fire. Unconnected Muslims had murdered Mad Dog’s sister-in-law, her baby, and his pregnant wife, so he killed and cannibalized his victim in an attempt at revenge.

Some Central African Republic fighters believe an enemy’s flesh has magical properties and think consuming it makes them invincible.

7Auto-Cannibalism

Although cannibalism can usually be identified as being endo- or exocannibalistic, an additional category exists.

Auto-cannibalism (also known as self-cannibalism or autosarcophagy) is the act of consuming your own flesh. Everyone cannibalizes themselves to some degree, thanks to the involuntary consumption of dead cells from the tongue and cheeks or from nose bleeds or ulcers. Voluntary auto-cannibalism, however, can range from biting your fingernails to eating your own muscle and skin. Some people will participate in auto-cannibalism as an extreme form of body modification, while others will drink their own blood as an act of auto-vampirism.

A more sinister form of auto-cannibalism involves forcing another person to consume parts of their own body. The United Nations accused Congolese rebels of forcing pygmies to eat their own flesh in 2003. The most famous case of auto-cannibalism occurred in the US in 1934, when a group of 2,000 white Southerners in Florida captured Claude Neal, a black man, and forced him to eat his own testicles before they skinned and burned him.

6Japanese Cannibals Almost Ate George Bush Sr.

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The Japanese have had something of a reputation for eating POWs and civilians, either in desperation when food ran out or as an act of exocannibalism.

In 1944, 22-year-old George Bush Sr., future US president, narrowly escaped with his life when he and eight other pilots were shot down over a tiny island 240 kilometers (150 mi) north of Iwo Jima. Bush was able to escape only because he’d banked his plane farther from shore than his comrades. According to James Bradley, author of a report on the Guam Japanese war crime trials, the captured pilots were “tortured, beaten, and then executed, either by beheading with swords or by multiple stab-wounds from bayonets and sharpened bamboo stakes.”

This information came to light after Bradley received top secret transcripts of the war crime trials. According to the testimonies of Japanese veterans who witnessed these crimes, four of the eight captured men—Marve Mershon, Floyd Hall, Jimmy Dye, and Warren Earl Vaughn—were victims of cannibalism.

After execution by beheading, Mershon’s liver and a 2.5-kilogram (6 lb) section of his thigh were removed by a surgeon and given to Major Sueo Matoba. The major served the flesh to his commander and other officers with sake. Major Matoba ate the liver himself, reportedly preparing the organ by piercing it with bamboo sticks then cooking it with soy sauce and vegetables.

Dye worked as a translator for several weeks before Captain Shizuo Yoshii called for his liver to be served at a dinner party. Dye was promptly executed and cannibalized, followed by Vaughn. The remainder of the airmen were executed, one by being clubbed to death.

The American government initially kept all cannibalism details secret to shield the airmen’s families from distress. All the Japanese servicemen accused of cannibalism were executed for war crimes.

5Cannibalism As An Adaptive Trait

According to evolutionary theorist Lewis Petrinovich, humans resort to cannibalism when they’re starving thanks to an adaptive trait designed to keep us alive. Petrinovich argues that this kind of cannibalism, known as survival cannibalism, regularly appears in times of extreme famine because our basic instinct to survive overtakes our usual revulsion.

The most famous case of survival cannibalism is perhaps that of the Uruguayan rugby team, whose plane crashed over the Andes in 1972. The survivors resorted to eating the passengers who had perished, an act that kept them alive in freezing conditions for over two months without other food.

Anthropologists maintain that cannibalism is bad for the long-term survival of our species. After all, we can’t sustain a population if we all try to eat one another. That said, cannibalism can be an excellent short-term, life-saving solution for a starving individual, hence its frequent recurrence during times of starvation throughout our history.

4Cannibalism In The Animal Kingdom

Many animals eat their own kind. The female black widow spider has a huge (largely false) reputation for eating the male after mating, and many other spiders really do participate in this post-coital snacking. The orb-web spider, the Australian redback, and the goldenrod crab spider all eat their mates, which boosts the chance of successful fertilization and helps them produce healthy eggs.

One study found that 68 percent of rattlesnake mothers consume their stillborn young. The mothers eat, on average, 11 percent of their body weight in baby snakes to help regain strength after giving birth. Young sharks will often eat their smaller siblings to help conserve resources and thus increase their chances of survival, while a male lion will eat the offspring of a rival male to make way for his own children after taking over a pride.

3Chimpanzee Cannibalism

Speaking of animals, the only animal with 98 percent of our DNA also happens to have cannibalistic tendencies. Male chimpanzees are known to be violent, but in 1976, primatologist Jane Goodall witnessed two females—a mother and daughter team—eat three baby chimps. The violent duo would have eaten a fourth had Goodall not intervened by shouting and throwing sticks and stones.

More recently, researchers saw six females, five with their own clinging children, chase an injured mother to kill her baby with a bite to the head. This kind of hostility may be growing more common as humans encroach on chimps’ natural habitats, forcing the creatures to aggressively try to protect their dwindling resources.

2Medicinal Cannibalism In Europe

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Europeans were quick to denounce rumored tribal cannibalism as barbaric, but back in the Middle Ages, they didn’t mind partaking in a little human flesh themselves. In their case, cannibalism was purely for medical reasons. Europeans regularly treated themselves for ailments ranging from headaches to gout with ingredients acquired from the human body. Human fat was thought to help heal wounds and treat arthritis and rheumatism, while blood was said to alleviate epilepsy and other spastic conditions. Epileptics would regularly pay executioners to provide them with the blood of the recently executed, known as a “bowl of red.”

The earliest source for these products was Egyptian mummies imported after stories circulated that mummified flesh cured illness. Naturally, there was a limited supply of Egyptian mummies. So Europeans soon began processing the flesh of the recently dead, drying or smoking it with salt and herbs, just as you would a slab of ham.

The bodies of strong young men killed on the battlefield were collected, but young hanged men and female virgins and were considered even more valuable. The blood, including menstrual blood, of female virgins was often used to make medicine, while the bodies of hanged men were prized because death by hanging will often cause an erection. An erection occurs after a hanging because the victim’s snapped neck severs the nerves that control vasoconstriction. Once the nerves are cut, blood rushes to the penis and engorges it. Because many cultures view an erect penis as being a sign of strength, the flesh of men who died with a posthumous erection was considered especially precious and fetched the highest price.

1Cannibalism And Mental Illness

Cannibalism for reasons other than survival or ritual is often the result of some form of mental illness. A common diagnosis for many modern cannibals—including Andrei Chikatilo, Issei Sagawa, Albert Fish, Ed Gein, Richard Chase, and Vince Li—is schizophrenia, which can cause hallucinations and delusions. Other therapists diagnose cannibals as psychopathic, meaning they are aware of what they’re doing but lack the empathy to appreciate the wrongness of their actions.

Disturbingly, cannibalism can even be addictive, according to California therapist Karen Hylen. The addiction begins as a fantasy that replays itself over and over in a psychopath’s head. When that person finally acts on their fantasy by eating human flesh, their brain is flooded with the feel-good chemical dopamine, making them feel as high as if they’d snorted a line of cocaine. The psychopath will then strive to reproduce that same high by continuing to sample human flesh, unable to stop.

According to Hylen, no therapy or medication can cure an addicted cannibal because there is no known way to artificially instill empathy.

Eliza is a Canadian paralegal who moonlights as the occasional writer. She has a penchant for dead bodies, cats, and cheese, in that order.