"Well-built men, 18-30, who would like to be eaten by me" was the typical advertisement Armin Meiwes took out on personals Web sites [source: Harper's]. After hundreds of false starts, he found a willing partner in 43-year-old Bernd-Jurgen Brandes. The two men met on March 9, 2001. It would be an odd night for both of them.
With Brandes high on painkillers and schnapps, yet consenting, Meiwes removed the man's penis with a knife. He flambéed it, and the two ate it together. Bleeding heavily, Brandes took a bath. He eventually lost consciousness, whereupon Meiwes slit his throat, butchered him and ate a little more of the man's flesh. Over the course of the next few months, Meiwes consumed 44 pounds of Brandes' dead body [source: Speigel].
The cannibal was eventually arrested and tried amid a media frenzy. But at the time of Meiwes' prosecution, Germany, like some other Western nations, had no law prohibiting cannibalism. Instead, Meiwes and other cannibals like him, including serial murderers Albert Fish and Jeffrey Dahmer, was convicted of the killing, not the eating. Murder is illegal; cannibalism exists beyond the law. It is taboo.
Cannibalism is as old as civilization, and likely older. The Kemites believed that Osiris their god of agriculture, gifted them with crops to prevent them from cannibalism. Greek mythology contains myriad tales of cannibalism, beginning with Chronos, the father of all gods. The Hebrews wandering the African desert resort to cannibalism in the Old Testament [source: Lukaschek].
Cannibalism is ancient, and yet -- as Meiwes, Dahmer, Fish and others remind us -- it's modern as well. It could be latent in every one of us: Recent events show that when the chips are down, even the most civilized humans will resort to cannibalism to survive. Yet, we recoil from the thought of others consuming human flesh and refrain from exploring the possibility of our own ability to cannibalize others.
But cannibalism was a part of life and death for cultures around the world. Those that gave it up as a practice did so unwillingly. And if history is any indicator, an end to cannibalism has not come. As Ted Turner predicted, in the face of climate change, those left to survive will resort to cannibalism [source: AJC]. Turner isn't an authority on the subject of anthropophagy (the clinical term for cannibalism), but he may not be far off. People have shown that we will eat one another in times of strife.
Anthropologists divide anthropophagy into two broad categories, based on its context. One is learned cannibalism, also called customary anthropophagy. The other broad classification, survival cannibalism, is perhaps the most disturbing. Survival cannibalism isn't learned, it appears to be innate. It's also the one most easily forgiven in the minds of Westerners. And it's happened more commonly than civilized society would feel comfortable admitting.
The Donner Party is one striking example. In 1846, a group of Westward expansionists set out for California from the Iowa territory. A group of 89 settlers broke off from the original party, taking a shortcut through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Stranded in the mountains by a harsh winter and faced with starvation, the group splintered again. As the weather grew worse, the original and expedition sections of the Donner Party depleted their food, their animals and eventually turned to cannibalism to survive.
Forty years later, four men on a yacht named the Mignonette sailing from England to Australia were stranded in a lifeboat after the yacht sank in the Atlantic. They remained adrift for more than two months and exhausted the meat of a sea turtle they'd captured. One of the men -- a sailor named Richard Parker -- drank seawater out of desperate thirst. As his health declined, his shipmates opted to kill and eat him rather than wait for the young man to die naturally. In an excruciating twist of irony, a sailor named Richard Parker was eaten by his fellow castaways after they'd eaten a tortoise in a 1838 Edgar Allen Poe short story, "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" [source: The New York Times].
In 1972, a group of 16 people, including members of a Uruguayan rugby team, faced a similar situation when a plane crash stranded them in the Andes Mountains in Chile. During their 70 days in the mountains, the surviving members of the team ate the flesh of others who died in the plane crash [source: Simpson].
Survival cannibalism has happened enough that by the 19th century, it was an unspoken fact of life in the event of a shipwreck. This, the custom of the sea, included general guidelines. Drawing lots (straws) was the traditional method of deciding who would be killed and eaten and who would carry out the killing. Usually, the person with the shortest straw died and the person with the next shortest straw was the killer [source: Salon].
Survival cannibalism is a last resort. In the case of one group adrift in a lifeboat, 116 days passed without food before the party turned to eating human flesh. In most cases, anything even remotely resembling food was first eaten. Dogs, candles, leather, shoes and blankets are all consumed first before cannibalism becomes the only recourse for survival.
Under these terrible circumstances, cannibalism seems like a logical step. It appears in Looney Tunes cartoons when characters find themselves in some other life-threatening situation. Suddenly, Bugs Bunny or Elmer Fudd notices a companion looks an awful lot like a nice, perfectly cooked porterhouse steak. As terrible as the thought is, it just makes sense. But Western society's willingness to forgive its members' consumption of human flesh in the direst of circumstances is in stark contrast to how the West views learned cannibalism.
Learned Cannibalism: Endocannibalism
The category of anthropophagy called learned or customary cannibalism is virtually the opposite of survival cannibalism. It's the consumption of human flesh, most often in a ritualized manner under some socially sanctioned and even prescribed method. Learned cannibalism is behavior passed down from generation to generation (hence, learned behavior). It can be further subdivided into two main categories: endocannibalism and exocannibalism. (What Armin Meiwes and others like him committed is referred to as pathological anthropophagy, the consumption of human flesh as a course of insanity. It's generally considered outside the scope of anthropology.)
Endocannibalism is the consumption of the flesh of a person who is a member of the consumer's kin group. This membership can be based on family, society, culture, tribe -- any type of in-group. Endocannibalism is most often an expression of veneration of the dead, or the pursuit of consuming some esoteric aspect of the person, like the deceased's wisdom.
The Fore peoples of Papua New Guinea had a strongly codified type of endocannibalism as part of funerary rites. In this tribe, women and children played the largest role in cannibalism among deceased Fore males. The society allowed certain relations to eat certain parts of the deceased. A woman, for example, ate the brain of her dead brother. A sister-in-law ate the hands of her husband's dead brother or the buttocks, vulva and intestines of her dead sister-in-law [source: Lukaschek].
Endocannibalism can also take place in societies where anthropophagy isn't practiced. A chief of the West African Junkun tribe eats pieces of the hearts of the predecessors. In doing so, he actually maintains his place outside of the normalized society over which he rules; the Junkun aren't anthropophagic, and the practice is taboo. Nigerian Rukuba chiefs draw power by eating the flesh of an infant from their tribe. The Rukuba also don't practice anthropophagy [source: Coquet, et al].
An Amazon tribe, the Wari', practiced anthropophagy as a means of transforming their ancestors from humans into spirits during funeral rites. The spirit could then take animal form and provide food to descendants who hunted them. Anthropologist Beth Conklin, who lived with the Wari', found there was another basis for the group's endocannibalism. It was a means of addressing grief: The Wari' transformed their surroundings to rid themselves of memories of the deceased, and eating their dead was a way to extend this process [source: Salisbury].
Cannibalism isn't always a tender act, however. The Wari' also engaged in the consumption of the flesh of their enemies as well as their relatives [source: Salisbury]. Another type of learned cannibalism, exocannibalism, is often based on hatred, rage, disdain and humiliation.
Learned Cannibalism: Exocannibalism
Exocannibalism falls more in step with Western conceptions of anthropophagy than endocannibalism. The practice isn't concerned with funerary rites or the continuation of a lineage. More often, exocannibalism is based on the consumption of flesh as a means to terrify another group, steal another's life force or even simply to eat.
This last example is the case with the Mianmin, a mountain-dwelling group in Papua New Guinea. The group was well-known for practicing exocannibalism, the result of raids on neighboring villages. When a visiting anthropologist questioned the Mianmin on why they carried off dead Atbalmins, who lived nearby, the Mianmins told the scientist they considered them "good meat." To the Mianmins, the Atbalmins (who exist outside their kin group and culture), were their "game" [source: Gardner].
Exocannibalism can also maintain similar mystical and religious qualities as endocannibalism. Among the Aztecs, the practice of sacrificing captured soldiers and eating their flesh was a process of communing with the gods. It actually proved beneficial to consumer and consumed alike. Under Aztec cosmology, bravery in battle and submission to ritual sacrifice and consumption were two ways to guarantee entry to the afterlife [source: Ortiz de Montellano].
Exocannibalism appears to have outlived endocannibalism, which was eradicated by missionaries and governments in the mid-20th century. During World War II, Chinese military members reportedly ate the flesh of executed enemies [source: Chong]. In another case, an American priest reported witnessing a Chinese Nationalist general cut out and consume the heart of a captured communist in the context of this war [source: Chong]. Both Iroquois and Fiji Island cultures ritualized similar acts of cannibalistic rage (called battle rage, when found in the context of war). In both cultures, captured warriors were subjected to torture and mutilation before a crowd, before ultimately being killed and parts of their bodies eaten [source: Sanday]. Even more recently, Congolese rebels stood accused by the United Nations in 2003 of eating murdered pygmies [source: Los Angeles Times]. The rebels were also accused of a more obscure form of cannibalism: forced autocannibalism.
This rare category of cannibalism sees the collision between endo- and exocannibalism. It's the consumption of one's own flesh. It can be as innocuous as biting one's fingernails; usually it's part of a torture process. The most famous case of autocannibalism came in 1934, when a group of about 2,000 white Southerners sent invitations and announced in local newspapers around Jackson County, Florida, that they intended to sacrifice a black man. Members of the group captured Claude Neal and sacrificed him. Neal's penis and testicles were cut off and he was made to eat them. Other parts of his body were cut off (and some saved as mementos), before Neal was skinned and burned [source: Patterson].
Much of the learned cannibalism practiced throughout the world shared the common goal of transferring some vital or esoteric property from the consumed to the consumer. In some tribes, exocannibalism was practiced to obtain ingredients for potions used to gain courage or vitality. A South African tribe made a concoction called Ditlo out of the flesh of a captured enemy. To the north, in Sierra Leone, the Leopard peoples staged elaborate rituals in which the human blood and fat of members of other groups were mixed into a potion called Borfina, used for attracting wealth and power [source: Lukaschek].
But exactly where did these concepts come from? Precisely how does a culture decide that vitality or courage is obtained by ingesting the flesh of another person? What created the idea that battle should result in the cannibalism of the vanquished foe? Ultimately, there are only two explanations, and they're at odds with each other.
While the field of anthropology has identified different categories of cannibalism, it's still trying to fully understand the underlying behavior. The question remains, why did humans begin to eat one another? Anthropology is split on what basis to approach the concept. It's a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: Was cannibalism generated out of necessity and adorned with a metaphysical rationale afterward, or did cannibalism arise from established ritual practices? Specifically, this argument is divided between two schools of thought in anthropology -- materialism and idealism.
The Aztec people are a good example of this dispute. Mesoamerica has long been cited as the setting for Precolumbian anthropophagy, and at the head of the pack were the Aztecs. Ritual sacrifice was a foundation of the Aztec civilization, and they were prolific killers. As many as a quarter of a million people (about one percent of the population) were sacrificed each year [source: Ortiz de Montellano]. They left behind ample physical and cultural evidence of their practice. Through sacrifice and the ensuing anthropophagy, both the consumer and the sacrificed person were eligible to go on to the afterlife. As a result, Aztec sacrificial victims were often willing ones. But did these beliefs stem from cannibalism or vice versa?
Materialists argue that ritualized cannibalism took shape after acts of survival cannibalism. A scarcity of food sources from a widespread and long-lasting drought in an area may have forced cultures to attack and eat one another. From a prolonged bout of survival cannibalism, a culture could seek to justify or support a practice their ancestors would have found abominable by framing it within the context of religion. With the Aztecs, this context was framed by feeding of the sun with blood through sacrifice and communing with a higher power through anthropophagy [source: Ortiz de Montellano]. By ritualizing the consumption of human flesh, it becomes something more than a meal; it becomes spiritual. As anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday wrote, "Cannibalism is never just about eating" [source: The New York Times].
Idealists agree, they just think that the reasons for ritualized cannibalism are far more esoteric than those posed by materialists. Rather than culture being shaped by its environment, idealists see humans as interpreting the world via symbols. For example, after death a mother's brain becomes symbolic of her wisdom. By identifying parts of the body as having mystical properties that can be transferred from one human to another through ingestion, the ritual aspect appears before the cannibalism.
Regardless of how cannibalism came to be associated with religion, the idea of eating the flesh of another person for spiritual purposes seems foreign and abhorrent to Westerners. But the concept comes barreling into perspective when one considers the Christian practice of communion, which simulates the consumption of Christ's flesh. This religious ritual simulates cannibalism, and it's widely accepted. The reason this simulated cannibalism is accepted is because it's understood.
This begs the question: Is the Western notion that ritual cannibalism existed in a literal form elsewhere in the world simply a misunderstanding? Is it possible that the accounts of early missionaries, soldiers and explorers were mistaken descriptions of rituals? This leads us to a third argument -- ritual cannibalism ever existed at all.
Is Cannibalism a Myth?
In 1979, anthropologist William Arens generated long-lasting controversy with the publication of his book, "The Man-Eating Myth." Arens took the opposite approach to cannibalism that ethnographers (anthropologists who document human cultures) had up to that point. Essentially, he said: prove it. Until his book was published (and even long afterward), anthropologists took it on faith that a culture that purported to practice cannibalism did. But Arens raised a valid question -- how do we know?
The anthropologist made no disputes over instances of documented survival or pathological (that undertaken as a course of insanity, like Armin Miewes) cannibalism. It was learned cannibalism that Arens took issue with. Most documentation of ritualized cannibalism was secondhand; there were almost no credible Western witnesses in the cannibalism literature who had actually seen a group eat the flesh of another human in a socialized setting. Reports of practiced anthropophagy came from frontier patrols, missionaries, explorers, soldiers and other Westerners who may have been misled about these practices and mistaken the rituals they'd seen. There's even a possibility that they fabricated stories about cannibals.
Arens' viewpoint demanded anthropology take a second look at the centuries-worth of anecdotal evidence it compiled. Some evidence didn't stand up. Take Christopher Columbus. It was he who coined the term cannibal, based on the name of a tribe in Hispaniola, where he first made land in the 15th century [source: New Scientist]. Columbus and his crew made contact with the Arawak people, a peaceful tribe. The Arawaks warned Columbus that their enemy neighbors, the Caribs, ate the flesh of others; it would be best to steer clear of them.
It appears this idea was unfounded. Chiefly, not only is there no evidence the Caribs practiced cannibalism, the Caribs may never have existed. Arawak is a language family, not a cultural group, and the archaeological evidence found in the Caribbean (named after the fictitious tribe) suggests there was only one cultural group in the islands. Based on investigation of the customs of the Arawak-speaking people in Anguilla, what Columbus took for evidence of cannibalism was presumably the funereal practice of keeping the bones of dead relatives around the house [source: Anguilla Guide]. Columbus may have simply seen bones near cooking hearths and assumed the worst.
Those who don't share Arens' view argue that the chances of uncovering an ancient site where an isolated incident of survival cannibalism took place is highly unlikely [source: The New York Times]. Thinking otherwise is somewhat akin to discovering a new breed of prehistoric bird and deciding it was the only one of its kind. It's much more probable that what archaeologists are seeing in ancient sites of cannibalism supports the idea that cannibalism was widespread among early humans.
But even stories of the Donner Party's survival cannibalism can't be verified. Archaeologists excavating Donner sites haven't found any evidence that members participated in cannibalism. An intensive 2006 excavation at the Alder Creek camp site, where the cannibalism reportedly took place, turned up animal bones with clear indicators they'd been butchered and every last bit of the nutrients within consumed by the Donners [source: University of Oregon]. No human bones turned up at the site bear any telltale signs of having served as a food source. (More on those signs on the next page.)
This doesn't necessarily mean that survival cannibalism didn't take place within the Donner Party. It's possible that the members who consumed flesh did so less enthusiastically than they did the flesh of animals and didn't butcher or cook their fellow settlers so ravenously as to leave behind signs. But the Donner Party case is revealing: It displays the importance of hard evidence. Without real evidence that cannibalism has taken place, only assumption remains.
The Difficulty of Proving Anthropophagy
Most anthropologists today agree that ritual cannibalism occurred in some societies throughout human history. Yet under William Arens' view, an anthropologist must see a person cut a piece of flesh off a body and pop it into his or her mouth for definitive proof that cannibalism has taken place. This kind of evidence is few and far between.
Proving learned anthropophagy in now-defunct societies is even more difficult. In 1999, 100,000-year-old Neanderthal bones found in a cave along the Rhone River in France showed signs of human consumption. The bones appeared to have been broken open with a rock and the marrow removed. The brains of six humans seem to have suffered the same fate; the skulls are crushed open and the brains appear to have been consumed.
The discovery of this evidence of cannibalism provided the foundation for another theory advanced in 2008. Theorists have long sought to explain why the Neanderthal mysteriously vanished from the fossil record, supplanted by the rise of Homo sapiens. A rare brain disease could explain the disappearance.
In the 1950s and '60s, anthropologists studying the Fore people of Papua New Guinea documented an outbreak of kuru, a degenerative spongiform brain disease. The Fore contracted the disease by consuming the brain of their relatives as part of a funerary ritual. Kuru, which is the human version of mad cow disease, is highly contagious. If kuru could nearly wipe out the Fore in the 20th century, it's possible it could have also wiped out the Neanderthals millennia earlier [source: ABC].
Other sites have yielded evidence of anthropophagy. Archaeologists look for butcher marks, dents or scrapes in the bones made by sharp objects used to carve the meat from the bone. Butcher marks are proof positive that it was a human who removed the flesh from a bone, since we're the only species known to use tools in that manner. Kettle polish is another indicator that a human has cooked another human. These shiny marks come from a bone colliding against the inside walls of a metal cooking pot when boiled. Together or alone, kettle polish and butcher marks on human bones suggest cannibalism.
Suggest is the operative word, however. When examining ancient evidence of anthropophagy, there's ultimately one clear indicator that actual consumption of human flesh by another human has occurred; this evidence is found in the stool. Human muscle contains a unique protein called myoglobin that can survive cooking and eating. If myoglobin is present in human feces, the only explanation is that one human consumed, digested and excreted another human.
This very evidence was found in 1994 in Colorado at an Anasazi people cave site, dated around A.D. 1150. Coprolite, fossilized human feces, was discovered in the cave alongside a cooking pot with remnants of human tissue, bones bearing butcher marks and butcher tools stained with human blood [source: The New York Times]. The evidence of cannibalism provided by the Anasazi site is overwhelming; it is to archaeology what observing a person eating the flesh of another person is to anthropology. And yet, the researchers at the Colorado site are treating the evidence cautiously. An ancestry of cannibalism is a specter that science has learned to be reticent to cast over a people.
Cannibalism as a Tool of Conquest and Exclusion
The Huli people of the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea have an oral tradition of the Baya Horo, a race of giants who feasted on human flesh and lived deep in prehistoric antiquity. As long as the Baya Horo existed, humans were forced to live in hiding and unable to thrive. Eventually, the race died out and humans emerged from caves to take their place in the world.
Curiously, the Huli aren't the only culture with a legend of a race of giant cannibals. Cultures in Europe, Asia, Africa and India have similar stories [source: Goldman]. These legends share another common thread in that a cannibal is considered a person to be feared and someone who exists outside the boundaries of human behavior.
Because we fear the concept of cannibalism, it becomes an easy tool for exploiting other cultures. When Columbus described the Carib indians as "sub-human eaters of men," he effectively placed the culture firmly below Europeans [source: Anguilla Guide]. Labeling a culture cannibalistic animalizes it, and, in the context of colonization, justifies murder and land-grabbing.
Forcibly taking over an area occupied by cannibals is comparable to building a house in the midst of an animal habitat. One feels justified in killing any animal that enters the home, although it's the human who's the interloper. With Europeans arriving in droves, in conjunction with Columbus' report that cannibals existed, the "new worlds" became the homes the Europeans built and the "cannibals" the animals they killed. The foundation was laid for centuries of genocide around the globe [source: The New York Times]. Throughout the world, cultures labeled cannibals by settlers faced near or total extinction in places like Australia, North America, the Pacific Islands and Africa.
Cannibalism also produces a sense of otherness. It explains why one culture is not like another or is less superior. The established Romans believed the Irish practiced anthropophagy; as recently as the 18th century, pagan Scots were considered cannibals by European Christians. Using cannibalism as a way to exclude one group continues today. A photo circulated on the Internet in 2001 showed a man eating a baby fetus, cited as the newest food craze in Asia. It took several years before the photo was revealed as part of an art exhibit. In the meantime, the photo titled, "Eating People," was taken seriously by outraged Westerners. In a globalizing world, the gulf of misunderstanding between the East and West was laid bare by the photo.
British society has traditionally been perhaps the most preoccupied with cannibalism [source: Biber]. The idea that other groups eat human flesh appears to be pancultural, however. Europeans aren't the only group to bandy about rumors of cannibalism among other cultures. When the Spaniards invaded Mesoamerica, the Aztecs assumed the conquistadors were anthropophages. The famed explorer and missionary Dr. David Livingstone found that some cultures he encountered during his travels in Africa in the 19th century believed the white men were cannibals [source: Livingstone].
These tribesmen weren't too far off the mark. Livingstone learned they presumed that Africans taken by whites were fattened and then consumed. It turned out they had mistaken the European slave trade for cannibalism, commoditization for consumption. At the time, genuine acts of cannibalism could be found in Europeans' recent past. During the Renaissance, consuming the powdered remains of mummies was a trendy form of health care.
Though it seems remote, even a far cry from eating the flesh of a recently deceased human being, this kind of practice qualifies as cannibalism. And practices that are cannibalistic in nature but remain sanctioned because they stand outside of a society's definition of anthropophagy exist in the West today. In fact, you may become a cannibal one day.
The Cannibal in the Mirror
The further one looks into cannibalism, the harder it is to see humans as anything more than animals. The question emerges: Why don't we eat one another? Anthropologist William Arens suggests it's simply bad strategy insofar as evolution goes. Since under evolutionary theory we're fueled by an innate desire to see our genes survive, eating one another is contradictory.
Arens' point is both undermined and supported by nature. Other species avoid cannibalism but will resort to the practice under certain circumstances. In the context of a crowded pen, chickens have resorted to cannibalism. More than 100 mammals, including chimps, polar bears and otters, have displayed cannibalism, usually of the survival variety [source: PBS].
This lends itself to a materialist approach to cannibalism among humans. While cannibalism is a poor long-term strategy for the survival of a species, it's an excellent short-term strategy for the survival of the individual. The materialist approach has gained ground over time. The Colorado Anasazi site suggests the cannibalism that occurred there took place during a long drought, that the members of the village were all killed during a single raid, and that the raid prompted a 50-year period of cannibalism among the Anasazi in the area. At this point, the drought ended and other food sources became available [source: National Geographic].
If materialists are right and ritualization of cannibalism emerged from necessity, then context played a role as well. Nutritional deficiency alone doesn't explain the Anasazi cannibalism to researchers familiar with the sites: "Violent social control … is an increasingly attractive idea," wrote two researchers [source: Turner and Turner]. Some societies showed a willingness to participate in anthropophagy in certain circumstances but absolutely not in others. One New Guinea tribe views cannibalism as "'an inhuman, ghoulish nightmare, or as a sacred, moral duty,' depending on context" [source: The New York Times].
This dichotomy isn't as strange as it seems. Western society contradicts itself in how it views cannibalism. While it abhors the consumption of human flesh, Western society sanctions organ transplants and blood transfusions. And in the Eastern Chinese society, the organs, skin and eyes of executed prisoners are sold for transplant operations [source: ABC]. Is there such a difference between masticating, swallowing and digesting the flesh of another human being in order to obtain the body's esoteric vitality for oneself and replacing a failing organ of our own with one from another human being?
And is the vitality one can obtain through consumption of human flesh really so esoteric? In fact, it's quite literal. While the concept of transferring wisdom or bravery through anthropophagy is in stark contrast to Western beliefs, survival cannibalism is testament to the vitality humans can gain by eating other humans. The human digestive system breaks down and absorbs nutrients from food. Meats, for example, provide vitamins, fats and proteins. All of these ingredients essential to life are found in meat -- human, bovine or otherwise.
Ultimately, the only difference between cannibalizing humans and eating the meat of other animals or even plants is the taboo most societies place on anthropophagy. Once considered taboo, a practice needn't be explained; it's simply forbidden. Once considered taboo, anthropophagy was no longer governed by appetite, but by society.
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More Great Links
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