The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Cannibalism is the act or practice of eating members of the same species, e.g. humans eating humans (sometimes called anthropophagy), or dogs eating dogs. Among humans, this practice has been attributed to people in the past all over the world, including rituals connected to tribal warfare. The degree to which cannibalism has actually occurred and been socially sanctioned is an extremely controversial subject in anthropology with some anthropologists arguing the cannibalism is almost non-existent and viewing claims of cannibalism with extreme skepticism, while others argue the practice was common in pre-state societies.

Several archaeologists have claimed that some ruins in the American Southwest contain evidence of cannibalism. Individual cases in other countries have been seen with mentally unstable persons, criminals, and, in unconfirmed rumors, by religious zealots. In the US, the Donner party is a case of cannibalism due to hunger. There are claims, which are not without controversy, that cannibalism was widespread during the hungry years in the Ukraine in 1930s as well as during the Chinese Civil War and the Great Leap Forward in China.


Non-human cannibalism

For some species, cannibalism under certain well-defined circumstances, such as the female Red-back spider eating the male after mating, is believed to be a common, if not invariable, part of the life cycle. In vertebrates (except for many fish), cannibalism is not generally observed to be uniformly routine or widespread for any given species, but may develop in extremes such as captivity or a desperate food shortage. For instance, a domestic sow may eat her newborn young, though this behavior has not been observed in the wild. It is also known that rabbits, mice, rats, or hamsters will eat their young if their nest is repeatedly threatened by predators. In some species adults are known to destroy and sometimes eat young of their species to whom they are not closely related--famously, the chimpanzees observed by Dr. Jane Goodall. Some of these observations have been questioned (for example by Stephen Jay Gould) as possible products of sloppy research. For example, while there are many observations of female praying mantises eating their mates after copulation, there are no known observations of this occurring in the wild; it has only been observed in captivity.

Cannibalism among humans

It's generally accepted that accusation of cannibalism has historically been much more common than the act itself. During the years of British colonial expansion slavery was actually considered to be illegal, unless the people involved were so depraved that their conditions as slaves would be better than as free men. Demonstration of cannibalistic tendencies were considered evidence for this, and hence reports of cannibalism became widespread.

The Korowai tribe of southeastern Papua are one of the last surviving tribes in the world to engage in cannibalism.

A few historians, mainly Japanese historians of China in the late 19th and early 20th century, such as Kuwabara Jitsuzo have claimed the Chinese civilization has a rich history of cannibalism as there are many literary references to cannibalism in Chinese literature and points out many references in classic Chinese literature to people killing and eating the flesh of others. More recently, Lu Xun uses cannibalism as a motif in some of his short stories. In addition there are widespread rumors that cannibalism was practiced during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. However, there is no strong evidence outside of literary references that cannibalism was socially sanctioned in ancient China, nor has there been any definitive studies that suggest that cannibalism was common during the 20th century in China.

Marvin Harris has analyzed cannibalism and other food taboo s. He thinks that it was common among bands, but disappeared in the transition to states, the Aztecs being exception.

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. This case, however, has also been questioned by those claiming that although post-mortem dismemberment was the practice during funeral rites, cannibalism was not. Marvin Harris theorizes that it happened during a famine period coincident with the arrival of Europeans and rationalized as a religious rite.

The cannibal name is a corruption of caribal, the Spanish word for Carib. There is verbal confluence here. Christopher Columbus originally assumed the natives of Cuba were subjects of the Great Khann of China or 'Kannibals'. Prepared to meet the Great Khann, he had aboard Arabic and Hebrew speakers to translate. Then thinking he heard Caniba or Canima, he thought that these were the dog-headed men (cane-bal) described in Mandeville. Others (Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, Volume XIV, 1905: 451) claim that "Cannibal" meant "valiant man" in the language of the Caribs. Richard Hakluyt's Voyages introduced the word to English. Shakespeare transposed it, anagram-fashion, to name his monster servant in The Tempest 'Caliban'. The Caribs called themselves Kallinago which may have meant 'valiant'. (Raymond Breton 1647, Relations on the Caribs of Dominica and Guadalupe)

Cannibalism was reported in Mexico, the flower wars of the Aztec Empire being the most massive manifestation of cannibalism, but the aztecs accounts, writen after the conquest, reported that human flesh was considered by itself of not value, and ussually thrown away and replaced with turkey. The most elaborated account on this subjects comes from Juan Bautista de Pomar the grandson of Netzahualcoyolt, tlatoani of Texcoco, he wrote that the aztec warriors received the body, then they boil it to separated the flesh from the bones, then they would cut the meat in little pieces, and send it to important people, even from other towns, the recipiend would rarely eat the meat, since they considered it and honour, but the meat had no value by itself, in exchange the warrior would get jewels , blankets or slaves. The friar Diego de Landa reported about Yucatán instances, Yucatan before and after the Conquest, translated from Relación de las cosas de Yucatan, 1566 (New York: Dover Publications, 1978: 4). Similarly, by Purchas from Popayan, Colombia, and from the Marquesas Islands of Polynesia, where man-eating was called long-pig (Alanna King, ed., Robert Louis Stevenson in the South Seas, London: Luzac Paragon House, 1987: 45-50). It is recorded about the natives of the captaincy of Sergipe in Brazil, They eat human flesh when they can get it, and if a woman miscarries devour the abortive immediately. If she goes her time out, she herself cuts the navel-string with a shell, which she boils along with the secondine, and eats them both. (See E. Bowen, 1747: 532.)

The autobiography of famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera claims 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 claims 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 Modest Proposal.

Historical cannibalism incidents

In the 1800s, in the state of Colorado, a man named Alferd Packer was accused of killing and eating his travelling companions. He was later released due to a legal technicality, and maintained that he was innocent of the murders throughout his life. However, modern forensic evidence, unavailable during Packer's lifetime, indicates that he did indeed murder and/or eat several of his companions.

Sir John Franklin's lost polar expedition and the Donner Party are other examples of human cannibalism in 19th-century America.

On October 13, 1972, an Uruguayan rugby team flew across the Andes to play a game in Chile. The plane crashed near the border between Chile and Argentina. After several weeks of starvation and struggle for survival, the numerous survivors decided to eat the bodies of the deceased in order to survive, and were rescued over two months later. For more details, see the article on the Andes Flight Disaster (1972).

Cannibalism in war

Some people claim cannibalism took place during the WWII siege of Leningrad. [1],6903,605454,00.html [2] [3]

Documentary and forensic evidence supports 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 civilian were not available. In other cases, enemy soldiers were executed and then dissected, the liver and other organs being consumed for psychopathological reasons.

'Cannibalism' as cultural libel

Unsubstantiated reports of cannibalism disproportionately relate cases of cannibalism among cultures that are already otherwise despised, feared, or are little known. The 'Blood libel' that accused Jews of eating Christian children is a notorious example. In antiquity, Greek reports of anthropophagy were related to distant, non-Hellenic barbarians, or else relegated in myth to the 'primitive' chthonic world that preceded the coming of the Olympian gods. In 1994, printed booklets reported that in a Yugoslavian concentration camp of Manjaca the Bosnian refugees were forced to eat each other's bodies. The reports were false.

William Arens, author of The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (New York : Oxford University Press, 1979), downplays veracity of reports of cannibalism and argues that the description by one group of people of another people as cannibals is an ideological and rhetorical device to establish moral superiority over them. Arens bases most of his thesis on ridiculing the accuracy of Hads Staden's account of being prisoner among the Tupi. How could Staden have understood the Tupi? The English translation available to Arens was incomplete. In "La Mia Prigionia tra i Cannibali, 1553-1555, (Longanesi & C, Milan, 1970) the text gives the Tupi phrase then the translation as does the original German text. Arens thesis is based on an incomplete text. Staden was a fluent speaker of Tupi and Tupimani. Arens says there is no single eyewitness account of cannibalism.

Arens also writes,

"Anthropologists have made no serious attempt to disabuse the public of the widespread notion of the ubiquity of anthropophagists. … in the deft hands and fertile imaginations of anthropologists, former or contemporary anthropophagists have multiplied with the advance of civilization and fieldwork in formerly unstudied culture areas. …The existence of man-eating peoples just beyond the pale of civilization is a common ethnographic suggestion."

Conversely, Montaigne's essay "Of cannibals" introduced a new multicultural note in European civilization. Montaigne wrote that "one calls 'barbarism' whatever he is not accustomed to."

Alleged Chinese cannibalism

Cannibalism has occasionally occurred in Chinese history. There is general consensus that cannibalism in China, as in the rest of the world, has occurred in extreme periods of famine or war.

Some historians, mainly Japanese historians of the late 19th and early 20th century such as Kuwabara Jitsuzo (December 7, 1870 - May 24, 1931) claims that China has had a particularly rich history of cannibalism (喫人). More recently in the 1980s, Key Ray Chong has claimed that Chinese have a particular form of cannibalism which he terms "learned cannibalism" to express love and hate which he contrasts to "survival cannibalism." There have also been some recent lurid reports of cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward.

However, there has been an absence of recent systematic scholarly research into the topic, and there have been some notable recent reports of cannibalism in China which turned out to be spurious, and the general reaction to Key Ray Chong's thesis has been that while it is something of interest, it lacks citations and the critical view of sources to be useful as an academic work.

It should be noted that since the work of William Arens , anthropologists have become extremely skeptical concerning reports of cannibalism, and while there appears to be extreme disagreement over the actual frequency of cannibalism, it is clear that accusations of cannibalism are frequently leveled to mark a group as barbarous. In addition, anthropologists have noted that there is a strong tendency to subject accusations of cannibalism on groups that one despises or is unfamilar with to far less rigorous standards of evidence than accusations of cannibalism leveled against one's own social group.

In addition China and Japan have a long history of antagonism, which was reaching its height in early and middle 20th century during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Allegations of cannibalism had often been used to defame the enemy.

Prehistoric Cannibalism

The Zhoukoudian caves south of Beijing contain bones of Peking Man. This had included evidence of what some have considered to be cannibalism in the form of broken bones and split skulls. However, more recent work suggests that the damage to human bones are more easily explained in terms of predators such as hyenas.

Claims of Kuwabara Jitsuzo

Kuwabara claims that the following were the common cooking methods of human flesh.

  1. Fu (脯 fu3): sliced and dried meat
  2. Geng (羹 geng1): thick soup
  3. Hai (醢 hai3): minced and hashed meat
  4. Luan (臠 luan2): sliced meat

Hai was also a punishment in ancient China.

Kuwabara Jitsuzo classified Chinese cannibalism into five types:

  1. Cannibalism during famine
  2. Cannibalism in besieged cities
  3. Eating human flesh habitually
  4. Cannibalism driven by animosity
  5. Eating human flesh as medicine

Cannibalism driven by animosity

In dynastic histories, there is often the description of isolated cannibalism in the context of eating ones enemy. For example, the dynastic histories describe an instance in which Wang Mang, who took over the Han Dynasty, was sliced by soldiers. People humiliated his head and someone cut and ate his tongue.

Also described in old Tang book, Wang Juncao stabbed Li Junze to avenge his father. He cut open his belly and ate his heart and liver. Wang Ban joined Sui Dynasty's expeditionary force to Chen Dynasty to avenge his father on former Emperor Wu . He broke the emperor's mausoleum, burned his bones, drank it by combining it with water. His action is recorded at the section of filial piety and justice in the Book of Sui.

The ancient Greek king of Mycenae, Atreus is said to have killed and cooked the sons of his wife's lover, Thyestes, and served them to their own father at a banquet, not revealing what he had done until after Thyestes has already consumed his meal. According to Greek Mythology, the Gods laid a terrible curse upon the House of Atreus for this act.

Eating human flesh as medicine

Practising cannibalism for medical purposes was not uncommon in the world.

Since the middle Tang Dynasty, some devoted sons cut a piece of meat out of their thighs and cook the medicine with it for their sick parents to eat. There was a belief at that time that human meat can become a catalyst to medicine to accelerate the recovery process. Those sons were classified as "dutiful sons" in official and unofficial records, although this practice was banned several times. This practice was criticized by Neo-Confucian writers and may in many cases have been faked or symbolic.

Some Chinese believed in the efficacy of human flesh as medicine. This superstition drove some people to bizarre murders. A eunuch ate virgin boys to restore his sexual ability. A man sucked lifeblood from young women to renew his youth. These reports, however, are not common in Chinese history, and may have been isolated incidents.

A westerner recorded that around 1865 an executor sold steamed bread soaked in the blood of an executed prisoner, named "xue mantou" (血饅頭). Such "xue mantou" was also reported in Lu Xun's novel Auntie Xianglin (祥林嫂), where an old lady bought a "xue mantou" to cure her son, the blood coming from the execution of a revolutionist during the late Qing dynasty.

It should also be noted that it was a very common belief among Chinese of the 19th century that Western missionaries were engaged in cannibalism.

Cannibalism in 20th century China

There have been reports of occasional cannibalism during periods of famine or unrest in recent China including the Sino-Japanese War, Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. In the case of the Sino-Japanese War, both Chinese and the Japanese army were reported to have participated, due to starvation. In the Great Leap Forward, the cases of reported cannibalism is resulted of false report on crops production, and thus the crops produced are all sent to central for storage, and the peasants are left starved. While in the case of the Cultural Revolution, these reports appear to be an expression of political hate. The most well documented example of the latter is in the village of Wuxuan , Guangxi where in the local officials began to practice cannibalism between May and July or 1968, resulting the imprisonment of 15 local officials.

There are also some websites which discuss the recent eating of fetuses by Chinese. These appear to have been triggered by a photographs of a performance artist in Taiwan whose performance consisted of eating what appeared to be human flesh (but was not). Another report was from a Hong Kong magazine, that they found a shop in Dongguan selling fetuses from abortion to local Taiwanese businessmen. These businessmen believes that the fetuses are good to restore their male power, and the fetuses is useful only when they are fresh. The size of the fetus is about the size of a pigeon. Photographes were shown in the magazine, and thus the magazine was complained for reporting disgusting contents. These claims were proven to be urban legends. [4]

Sexualized cannibalism (fantasies and real)

The wide use of the Internet has highlighted that thousands of people harbor sexualized cannibalistic fantasies. Discussion forums and user groups exist for the exchange of pictures and stories of such fantasies. Typically, people in such forums fantasize about eating or being eaten by members of their sexually preferred gender. As such, the cannibalism Censored page or Censored page is one of the most extreme sexual fetishes.

Rarely ever do such fetishes leave the realm of fantasies (aided by modern technology for photo modification or completely computer generated images). There have been extreme cases of real life sexualized cannibalism, such as those of the serial killers Albert Fish, Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, Sascha Spesiwtsew and Fritz Haarmann ("the Butcher of Hannover").

Another well-known case involved a Japanese student of English literature, Issei Sagawa, who grew fond of Renee Hartevelt , a 25 year old Dutch woman he met while studying at the Sorbonne Academy in Paris in 1981. He eventually murdered and ate her, writing a graphic yet poignant description of the act. Declared unfit to stand trial in France, his wealthy father had him extradited back to Japan where he eventually regained his freedom. The way he reveled in what he did made him a national celebrity, and he has written several bestselling novels and continues to write a nationally syndicated column.

In December 2002, a highly unusual case was uncovered in the town of Rotenburg in Hessen, Germany. In 2001 Armin Meiwes, an 41-year-old computer administrator, had posted messages like his more recent ones (see messages
) in Internet newsgroups on the subject of cannibalism, repeatedly looking for "a young Boy, between 18 and 25 y/o" to butcher. At least one of his requests was successful: Jürgen B., another computer administrator, offered himself to be slaughtered. The two men agreed on a meeting. Jürgen B. was, with his consent, killed and eaten by Armin M. Meiwes, who, as a result, was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in jail for manslaughter (Totschlag, less than murder but more than killing on demand). The band Rammstein took up this case in the song Mein Teil.

This was not the first consensual killing mediated through the Internet, but it is the first such known case of consensual cannibalism.

The existing cases of sexualized cannibalism involved homosexuals to a disproportionate extent. Some observers have linked this to the higher likelihood of homosexuals to suppress their sexual urges. Armin M., for example, came from a conservative family, and in spite of having homosexual fantasies, had several unsuccessful heterosexual relationships.

Cannibal themes in myth or religion

On a primitive level, ritually eating part of the slaughtered enemy is a way of assuming the life-spirit of the departed. In a funeral ritual this may also be done with a respected member of one's own clan, ensuring immortality. Cannibal ogresses appear in folklore around the world, the witch in 'Hansel and Gretel' being the most immediate example. On the mythological level the cannibal mother is magnified to a universal principal, such as the Hindu goddess Kali, the Black One. In one such tale, the Gods are up against the demons led by Raktabeeja found that each time he was killed, more demons arose from each blood that dropped to the ground. Durga cornered and killed Raktabeeja , while Kali drank his blood to ensure none of it falls to the ground. The story of Cronos in Greek mythology also demonstrates the theme of cannibalism. Some authorities have detected allusions to cannibalism in the earliest religious writings of the ancient Egyptians. The opening of Hell, the Zoroastrian contribution to Western mythology, is a mouth. According to Catholic dogma, bread and wine are transubstantiated into the real body and blood of Jesus, which is then distributed by the priest to the faithful.

Cannibalism as "sympathetic magic"

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. By eating our enemy, we take his power into ourselves. Some also consider this idea to be at the root of the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation: to acquire divinity (immortality, sinlessnes) by absorption, by eating the flesh of God. (However, the more likely Biblical theological and historical roots of this are pertaining to the sacrificial offering of Christ and its reference to the representations in the Jewish Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread , which was being celebrated during the Last Supper.)

Cannibalism in fiction

Warning: in some cases, this information may spoil the story

Some examples of cannibalism in fiction are:

See also

  • Androphagi, an ancient nation of cannibals
  • Boyd Massacre, where indigenous Maori killed and ate almost 70 crew members of a ship that flogged the son of a chief
  • Cannibalization, a business term where one product takes sales from another product
  • Alexander "Sawney" Bean, the head of a mythical Scottish family of 48 who murdered and cannibalized over 1000 people.

External links

  • Butchering the Human Carcass for Human Consumption, by Bob Arson Food for thought on how to prepare the human body into choice cuts of meat.
  • The Cannibalism Paradigm: Assessing Contact Period Ethnohistorical Discourse, by James Q. Jacobs . A critical, academic review of Mesoamerican cannibalism claims.
  • BBC article about German cannibalism case
  • In Defence of Cannibalism . 1982 essay by philosopher Richard Routley which examines whether and under what circumstances (e.g. eating those who died from natural causes) cannibalism might be morally acceptable.
  • Harry J. Brown, 'Hans Staden among the Tupinambas.'
  • Markman Ellis, "Crusoe, cannibalism and empire." Robinson Crusoe's fearful ruminations on cannibals, and Capt. Cook's reports of Maori cannibalism, which were convincing to many 18th and 19th century Europeans, though not to all modern anthropologists, set into the context of colonial empire-building.

Last updated: 02-02-2005 05:40:06
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01