Skip navigation Learning to love cannibals

1. Learning to love cannibals

2. The strangest menu

3. Bone appétite

4. The dark side of cannibalism

5. Cannibalism reconsidered.


Hannibal Lector is a cannibal of fiction. What's up with cannibals of fact? Courtesy Universal Pictures..


Hannibal the Cannibal Returns
Love horror on the big screen? We guarantee you'll get a big scream from Red Dragon, the latest in the horror series that started with the Silence of the Lambs.

Call us morbid. Call us bloodthirsty. But the movie's anti-hero, Dr. Hannibal ("the Cannibal") Lecter, convicted serial killer and "don't-you-love-to-hate-him" madman, started us Why Filers to wondering about real cannibals..

Movie poster for Red Dragon. Sinister face of Hannibal beside person walking down a dark alley.

Not Jeffrey Dahmer and other weirdos who are driven to kill by bizarre psychopathologies. We're talking people who engaged in culturally sanctioned cannibalism. What do we know about them? And how different are they from we?.

Cannibalism, the eating of human body parts, has been around for a long time, in a lot of places:.

At an increasing number of archeological sites in several parts of the world, butcher marks are being found on human remains..

After battle, the Spartans licked blood from their swords..

In an undetermined number of tribal cultures, winners ate losers after battles..

In New Guinea, the meat of white people was called "long pig."

The Aztecs used cannibalism in human-sacrifice rituals..

Human body parts played a significant role in European medicine 400 years ago.

By the 19th century, the icon of cannibalism was missionaries boiling in a stewpot. As the Aztec example indicates, the majority of cannibal stories grew from the upsurge of European global exploration. As Europeans looked for new lands to conquer and "civilize," they brought back tales of "savages," "cannibals" and similar do-no-goods.

By the 19th century, the archetypal image of cannibalism was missionaries boiling in a giant stewpot.

Dinner for the tribe may be the stereotype. But the actual extent of cannibalism is hotly debated by archeologists and ethnologists (students of human social behavior). Rather than simple savagery, they have suggested that cannibalism can be:

A search for protein: In areas with scanty diets, human flesh was the ultimate Big Snack.

A search for nutrition. When you (like the Donner party in the Sierra Nevada in 1846-7) are stranded, you may decide to eat the dead rather than join them.

Transforming energy. The cannibal gathers the life force of the deceased by eating him.

Aggression. Once you eat your enemy, you both know it: He's dead!

Origins of the taboo
We don't need to stress that virtually all westerners - and many others - would consider crunching Charlie for breakfast more disgusting than gobbling a dozen live snakes with a side of raw rabbit brains.

As we'll see, this revulsion is not universal. But what are the sources of the common taboo against cannibalism?

We asked Beth Conklin, an associate professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University, who says it may reflect a "deeply rooted sense of the integrity of the body. It's pure speculation, but we experience ourselves as wholes, so any experience or image of dismemberment is deeply disturbing." (We'll explain shortly why Conklin has cannibalism on her mind.)

Several dozen clay-colored circular ruins are clustered together at archaeological site.
The Anasazi people occupied Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and other places in the Southwest about a millennium ago. Archeologists have recently found distinct butchering marks on human bones at Anasazi sites. NOAA.

The revulsion also may grow from a "long tradition of thinking about humans and animals in a hierarchical relationship, with humans being a higher form of life," she says. "For a culture that thinks of animals as a lower form of life, cannibalism [which transforms people into meat] inevitably has to be seen as degrading, barbaric."

The taboo could also be rooted in biology, since you can get sick by eating corpses. Indeed, the Fore people of New Guinea caught the deadly brain disease kuru -- "laughing death" -- by eating ancestors' remains.

Kuru was later identified as a spongiform encephalopathy - a close kin of mad cow disease. Kuru disappeared when the Fore changed their funeral practices, and quit eating ancestors' brains.

The Fore weren't only ones who devoured dead relatives. Interested in "compassionate cannibalism"?



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