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Note: There's an edited (but abridged) version of this entry here.

There's the image of a white missionaire sitting in an enormous cooking pot somewhere in the bush, surrounded by a tribe of hungry and fierce-looking aborigines. It is one of those things that make your skin crawl. But please read on, as this researcher does not mean you any harm.

Cannibalism1 describes lifeforms which prey upon their own species. In this sense it has been found among lions, pigs, ants, otters, apes, poultry, mantis, spiders, scorpions and many more animal species.

The word is used in a wider sense when technical equipment is being repaired with the help of parts from other equipment. This is not uncommon for some airlines short before bancruptcy, and more than one computer of this researcher is guilty as well.

In a narrower sense cannibalism denotes humans who eat humans. This is called anthropophagy2.

Cannibalism in Wildlife

Animals can have several reasons for cannibalism. One is to get rid of competition by eliminating a rival. Some insects, fish and amphibians eat their companions when food is rare. Another reasoning goes like this: if there are less animals of a kind, their predators will perhaps go search for a better beat elsewhere. Sometimes it is also a means of birth control (or rather population control). Once a lion becomes leader of a pride he will kill all newborn lions, which renders the lionesses fertile and serves for him to create offspring from his genes.

Some fish commit uterine cannibalism, ie: within the mother's reproductive organ the first hatchling eats either younger hatchlings (embryophagy, embryo-eating) or unfertilized eggs (oophagy, egg-eating).

Sexual cannibalism is to be found among spiders and scorpions where a female eats the male after copulation. Mantis males must be decapitated before fertilization can occur, and they serve as a protein meal afterwards.

Human Cannibalism (Anthropophagy)

Tales of cannibalism have been reported from all over the world and an exhaustive list of the tribes' names would go through the alphabet several times. Locations include the Americas, Australia, China, the West Indies, places all around and across the pacific ocean (like Japan, New Guinea, the Maori of New Zealand, Fidji, Melanesia, New Caledonia, Sumatra, the Easter Islands), Tibet, Africa, and so on.

Looking back into history, there is evidence that Neandertal man knew quite well how to butcher and trench a colleague. Even the bible knows about cannibalism, as can be seen in Jeremiah 19:
(8) I will devastate this city and make it an object of scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds.

(9) I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another's flesh during the stress of the siege imposed on them by the enemies who seek their lives.'

What People Think It Is Good For

There's one distinction to be made here, ie: whether the person to be eaten is an enemy or a relative or tribe member of the hungry. The first case is called exo-cannibalism, the second is endo-cannibalism.


Eating an enemy was believed to:

  • transfer his skills, power, and positive qualities to the man-eaters.
  • eternally separate his body from his soul, and thereby extending revenge over the point of death and leaving no place for the ghost to exist.

The Aztecs of Mexico believed to get closer to their gods by eating other people.

Besides, it serves to 'cultivate' a relationship of hatred between different tribes:
... among the ancient Maoris, those who had taken part in the meal were entitled to show their teeth to the relatives of the victim and say, 'Your flesh has stuck between my teeth'. Such remarks were capable of rousing those to whom they were addressed to a murderous rage not very different from the Malay amok.3.


Somewhere in ancient India a tribe ate their old or sick members as part of their religion. In Australia, cannibalism was a form of burial, and only the most honourable received this honour.

One tribe member stated in his last will that he wanted to be eaten rather by his relatives than by the worms in a grave. He could be called a philosopher if he thereby had wanted to say something like 'Inception makes you a part of your parents. Endocannibalism makes you a part of your children'.

Emergency Cannibalism

Emergency cannibalism occurs if there's no other way to survive.

  • The Donner Party was a group of 90 immigrants who, on their way westward through the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846/47, were caught in a snowstorm. After having consumed their food rations, they had to resort to cannibalism.

  • When the city of Leningrad was under siege during World War II, the inhabitants had the choice to make between starvation or cannibalism.

  • In 1972 some members of a rugby team from Uruguay survived the crash of their aircraft in the Chilean Andes Mountains. Rescue teams had to return because of severe weather conditions. The team managed to survive only by eating flesh from the dead.

  • The Franklin expedition of 1881-84 into the Canadian arctic region followed the same pattern.

  • According to press reports, famine has made people resort to cannibalism in  North Korea in 1997/98, where flesh of obviously human origin was even offered on the streets.

Criminal Cannibalism

Many a murderer has tried to get rid of a corpse by eating the remains of their victim. Mental illness and paranoia were stated in cases such as the serial killers Jeff Dahmer and Ed Gein. Megalomania could be suggested in the cases of dictators like Idi Amin of Uganda and Jean Bedel Bocassa (Central African Republic).

What People Quite Probably Get from It

Diseases like scrapie in sheep, and the Mad Cow Disease (BSE, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) have been proven to be associated with cannibalism. These diseases affect the brains and nerves of their victims. There is still debate on whether they are transmitted only by brain and nerve cells in the food, or whether it is the close similarity of proteins and amino acids which causes them, and that herbivores' digestion is not made for digesting meat.

The Fore people of New Guinea were reported to acquire 'kuru', a disease whose description reads quite similar to the Mad Cow Disease, entailing neurological deterioration and death within a couple of months. The Fore ate their victim's brains

There are lots more diseases which cannibals are likely to acquire, because if the 'prey' was infected with a virus or a parasite then eating the flesh transports this ailment as well.

Cannibalism As a Means of Propaganda

When Roman Emperors uttered allegations that christians were man-eaters they were not the first, nor the last, to accuse somebody of cannibalism in order to diminuish their reputation. Accusing somebody of cannibalism is still a means to arouse hatred among the public. A news agency reported:

BEIJING, Jun 1, 2000 -- (Reuters) China Wednesday launched a vitriolic attack against exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, accusing him and his followers of rape, murder and child cannibalism.5

Modern Myths

There's a story which seems to pop up every few years: A family in Europe receives gift packages from an expatriate uncle overseas on a regular basis. One of the packages contains a jar with grey powder. They take it as a sort of instant soup (or sauce powder) and add it to their menu. A few days later a letter arrives, stating that the remains of the deceased uncle had been sent the week before.

Normally it is the illiterate aborigines who are suspected of cannibalism. But there were natives who got used to finding fish in a box which carried the picture of a fish on it, and noodles when noodles were portrayed. And then they were horrified when they came across a package of baby food, and missionaires had their difficulties in explaining that these packages did not contain ground babies.

Media Coverage (Fiction)

Some movies which center around Cannibalism are:

  • Ravenous - You are who you eat (1999)
  • Soylent Green (1973)
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  • Alive: The Miracle of the Andes (1993)
  • Eating Raoul (1982)
  • The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (1989) (not really centering, but contains it)
  • Lamm Emirstan (german short film)
Literature: A boy is not a boy without having read Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.

Mark Twain also made up his thoughts, in the short story Cannibalism in the cars.

Painting: Salvador Dali, Cannibalism in Autum.

Tales: Hänsel and Gretel from the Grimm Brothers.

Comedy:Monty Python, in the Lifeboat sketch, was the first source to raise the question whether human flesh is kosher.

How Does It Taste ?

This question can only be answered for the case of endocannibalism with a chocolate Santa Claus as the victim.

As to real human victims: no in-depth information could be found. Rumour has it that human flesh tastes like pork, and that fingers and toes are the best morsels. As to your supposed next question, it must be declared that this researcher's effort for an entry won't go into that detail, sorry. Go ask Mike Tyson.

'Hidden' Cannibalism

The word 'barbeque' stems from the Carribean, where 'babricot' denoted the grill which was used to prepare cannibal feasts.

In the Melanesian pidgin language, the word for 'human' means the same as 'long pig'.

The modern, western culture has abandoned cannibalism, hasn't it? Well, think about the christian Lord's Dinner: the priest's words are hoc est corpus meus, which translates to 'this is my body'...

1From the Spanish name (Caríbales, or Caníbales) for the Carib, a West Indies tribe.2from Greek anthropophagos, man-eating3Quoted from here4 Taken from here5From here

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