Human cannibalism

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A cannibal feast on Tanna, Vanuatu, c. 1885–1889

Human cannibalism is the act or practice of humans eating the flesh or internal organs of other human beings. A person who practices cannibalism is called a cannibal. The meaning of "cannibalism" has been extended into zoology to describe animals consuming parts of individuals of the same species as food.

Both anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals practised cannibalism to some extent in the Pleistocene,[1][2][3][4] and Neanderthals may have been eaten by modern humans as the latter spread into Europe.[5] Cannibalism was occasionally practised in Egypt during ancient and Roman times, as well as later during severe famines.[6][7] The Island Caribs of the Lesser Antilles, whose name is the origin of the word cannibal, acquired a long-standing reputation as eaters of human flesh, reconfirmed when their legends were recorded in the 17th century.[8] Some controversy exists over the accuracy of these legends and the prevalence of actual cannibalism in the culture.

Cannibalism has been well documented in much of the world, including Fiji (once nicknamed the "Cannibal Isles"),[9] the Amazon Basin, the Congo, and the Māori people of New Zealand.[10] Cannibalism was also practised in New Guinea and in parts of the Solomon Islands, and human flesh was sold at markets in some parts of Melanesia[11] and of the Congo Basin.[12][13] A form of cannibalism popular in early modern Europe was the consumption of body parts or blood for medical purposes. Reaching its height during the 17th century, this practice continued in some cases into the second half of the 19th century.[14]

Cannibalism has occasionally been practised as a last resort by people suffering from famine. Well-known examples include the ill-fated Donner Party (1846–1847), the Holodomor (1932–1933), and the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 (1972), after which the survivors ate the bodies of the dead. Additionally, there are cases of people engaging in cannibalism for sexual pleasure, such as Albert Fish, Issei Sagawa, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Armin Meiwes. Cannibalism has been both practised and fiercely condemned in several recent wars, especially in Liberia[15] and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[16] It was still practised in Papua New Guinea as of 2012, for cultural reasons.[17][18]

Cannibalism has been said to test the bounds of cultural relativism because it challenges anthropologists "to define what is or is not beyond the pale of acceptable human behavior".[19] A few scholars argue that no firm evidence exists that cannibalism has ever been a socially acceptable practice anywhere in the world,[20] but such views have been largely rejected as irreconcilable with the actual evidence.[21][22]


The word "cannibal" is derived from Spanish caníbal or caríbal, originally used as a name variant for the Kalinago (Island Caribs), a people from the West Indies said to have eaten human flesh.[23] The older term anthropophagy, meaning "eating humans", is also used for human cannibalism.[24]

Reasons and types

Cannibalism has been practised under a variety of circumstances and for various motives. To adequately express this diversity, Shirley Lindenbaum suggests that "it might be better to talk about 'cannibalisms'" in the plural.[25]

Institutionalized, survival, and pathological cannibalism

One major distinction is whether cannibal acts are accepted by the culture in which they occur – institutionalized cannibalism – or whether they are merely practised under starvation conditions to ensure one's immediate survival – survival cannibalism – or by isolated individuals considered criminal and often pathological by society at large – cannibalism as psychopathology or "aberrant behavior".[26] Institutionalized cannibalism, sometimes also called "learned cannibalism", is the consumption of human body parts as "an institutionalized practice" generally accepted in the culture where it occurs.[27]

Sketch of the Mignonette by Tom Dudley. In English common law, the R v Dudley and Stephens (1884) case banned survival cannibalism after maritime disasters, which had been a widely accepted custom of the sea.

By contrast, survival cannibalism means "the consumption of others under conditions of starvation such as shipwreck, military siege, and famine, in which persons normally averse to the idea are driven [to it] by the will to live".[28] Also known as famine cannibalism,[29][30] such forms of cannibalism resorted to only in situations of extreme necessity have occurred in many cultures where cannibalism is otherwise clearly rejected. The survivors of the shipwrecks of the Essex and Méduse in the 19th century are said to have engaged in cannibalism, as did the members of Franklin's lost expedition and the Donner Party.

Such cases often involve only necro-cannibalism (eating the corpse of someone already dead) as opposed to homicidal cannibalism (killing someone for food). In modern English law, the latter is always considered a crime, even in the most trying circumstances. The case of R v Dudley and Stephens, in which two men were found guilty of murder for killing and eating a cabin boy while adrift at sea in a lifeboat, set the precedent that necessity is no defence to a charge of murder. This decision outlawed and effectively ended the practice of shipwrecked sailors drawing lots in order to determine who would be killed and eaten to prevent the others from starving, a time-honoured practice formerly known as a "custom of the sea".[31]

In other cases, cannibalism is an expression of a psychopathology or mental disorder, condemned by the society in which it occurs and "considered to be an indicator of [a] severe personality disorder or psychosis".[28] Well-known cases include Albert Fish, Issei Sagawa, and Armin Meiwes. Fantasies of cannibalism, whether acted out or not, are not specifically mentioned in manuals of mental disorders such as the DSM, presumably because at least serious cases (that lead to murder) are very rare.[32]

Exo-, endo-, and autocannibalism

Within institutionalized cannibalism, exocannibalism is often distinguished from endocannibalism. Endocannibalism refers to the consumption of a person from the same community. Often it is a part of a funerary ceremony, similar to burial or cremation in other cultures. The consumption of the recently deceased in such rites can be considered "an act of affection"[33] and a major part of the grieving process.[34] It has also been explained as a way of guiding the souls of the dead into the bodies of living descendants.[35]

Enemies being killed and roasted in South America – engraving by Theodor de Bry (1592)

In contrast, exocannibalism is the consumption of a person from outside the community. It is frequently "an act of aggression, often in the context of warfare",[33] where the flesh of killed or captured enemies may be eaten to celebrate one's victory over them.[35]

Some scholars explain both types of cannibalism as due to a belief that eating a person's flesh or internal organs will endow the cannibal with some of the positive characteristics of the deceased.[36] However, several authors investigating exocannibalism in New Zealand, New Guinea, and the Congo Basin observe that such beliefs were absent in these regions.[37][38][39]

A further type, different from both exo- and endocannibalism, is autocannibalism (also called autophagy or self-cannibalism), "the act of eating parts of oneself".[40] It does not ever seem to have been an institutionalized practice, but occasionally occurs as pathological behaviour, or due to other reasons such as curiosity. Also on record are instances of forced autocannibalism committed as acts of aggression, where individuals are forced to eat parts of their own bodies as a form of torture.[40]

Additional motives and explanations

Exocannibalism is thus often associated with the consumption of enemies as an act of aggression, a practice also known as war cannibalism.[41][42] Endocannibalism is often associated with the consumption of deceased relatives in funerary rites driven by affection – a practice known as funerary[41][43] or mortuary cannibalism.[44] But acts of institutionalized cannibalism can also be driven by various other motives, for which additional names have been coined.

An 18th-century albarello used for storing mummia. Medicinal cannibalism was widespread in many countries of early modern Europe.

Medicinal cannibalism (also called medical cannibalism) means "the ingestion of human tissue ... as a supposed medicine or tonic". In contrast to other forms of cannibalism, which Europeans generally frowned upon, the "medicinal ingestion" of various "human body parts was widely practiced throughout Europe from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries", with early records of the practice going back to the first century CE.[33] It was also frequently practised in China.[45]

Sacrificial cannibalism refers the consumption of the flesh of victims of human sacrifice, for example among the Aztecs.[40] Human and animal remains excavated in Knossos, Crete, have been interpreted as evidence of a ritual in which children and sheep were sacrificed and eaten together during the Bronze Age.[46] According to Ancient Roman reports, the Celts in Britain practised sacrificial cannibalism,[47] and archaeological evidence backing these claims has by now been found.[48]

Infanticidal cannibalism or cannibalistic infanticide refers to cases where newborns or infants are killed because they are "considered unwanted or unfit to live" and then "consumed by the mother, father, both parents or close relatives".[43][49] Infanticide followed by cannibalism was practised in various regions, but is particularly well documented among Aboriginal Australians.[49][50][51] Among animals, such behaviour is called filial cannibalism, and it is common in many species, especially among fish.[52][53]

Human predation is the hunting of people from unrelated and possibly hostile groups in order to eat them. In parts of the Southern New Guinea lowland rain forests, hunting people "was an opportunistic extension of seasonal foraging or pillaging strategies", with human bodies just as welcome as those of animals as sources of protein, according to the anthropologist Bruce M. Knauft. As populations living near coasts and rivers were usually better nourished and hence often physically larger and stronger than those living inland, they "raided inland 'bush' peoples with impunity and often with little fear of retaliation".[54] Cases of human predation are also on record for the neighbouring Bismarck Archipelago[55] and for Australia.[56][57] In the Congo Basin, there lived groups such as the Zappo Zaps who hunted humans for food even when game was plentiful.[58][59][60]

"A cannibal scene with human flesh roasting over the fire" – drawing from the Congo Basin by Herbert Ward (1891)

The term gastronomic cannibalism has been suggested for cases where human flesh is eaten to "provide a supplement to the regular diet"[44] – thus essentially for its nutritional value – or, in an alternative definition, for cases where it is "eaten without ceremony (other than culinary), in the same manner as the flesh of any other animal".[61] While the term has been criticized as being too vague to clearly identify a specific type of cannibalism,[62] various records indicate that nutritional or culinary concerns could indeed play a role in such acts even outside of periods of starvation. Referring to the Congo Basin, where many of the eaten were butchered slaves rather than enemies killed in war, the anthropologist Emil Torday notes that "the most common [reason for cannibalism] was simply gastronomic: the natives loved 'the flesh that speaks' [as human flesh was commonly called] and paid for it".[63] The historian Key Ray Chong observes that, throughout Chinese history, "learned cannibalism was often practiced ... for culinary appreciation".[64]

In his popular book Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond suggests that "protein starvation is probably also the ultimate reason why cannibalism was widespread in traditional New Guinea highland societies",[65] and both in New Zealand and Fiji, cannibals explained their acts as due to a lack of animal meat.[66] In Liberia, a former cannibal argued that it would have been wasteful to let the flesh of killed enemies spoil,[67] and eaters of human flesh in the Bismarck Archipelago expressed the same sentiment.[68] In many cases, human flesh was also described as particularly delicious, especially when it came from women, children, or both. Such statements are on record for various regions and peoples, including the Aztecs,[69] today's Liberia[70] and Nigeria,[71][72] the Fang people in west-central Africa,[70] the Congo Basin,[73][58][74] China up to the 14th century,[75][76] Sumatra,[77] Borneo,[78] Australia,[56][79] New Guinea,[80][81] New Zealand,[82] and Fiji[83] as well as various other Melanesian and Polynesian islands.[84]

There is a debate among anthropologists on how important functionalist reasons are for the understanding of institutionalized cannibalism. Diamond is not alone in suggesting "that the consumption of human flesh was of nutritional benefit for some populations in New Guinea" and the same case has been made for other "tropical peoples ... exploiting a diverse range of animal foods", including human flesh. The materialist anthropologist Marvin Harris argued that a "shortage of animal protein" was also the underlying reason for Aztec cannibalism.[25] The cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, on the other hand, rejected such explanations as overly simplistic, stressing that cannibal customs must be regarded as "complex phenomen[a]" with "myriad attributes" which can only be understood if one considers "symbolism, ritual, and cosmology" in addition to their "practical function".[85]

The term innocent cannibalism has been used for cases of people eating human flesh without knowing what they are eating. It is a subject of myths, such as the myth of Thyestes who unknowingly ate the flesh of his own sons.[40] There are also actual cases on record, for example from the Congo Basin, where cannibalism had been quite widespread and where even in the 1950s travellers were sometimes served a meat dish, learning only afterwards that the meat had been of human origin.[12][86]

In pre-modern medicine, an explanation given by the now-discredited theory of humorism for cannibalism was that it was caused by a black acrimonious humor, which, being lodged in the linings of the ventricles of the heart, produced a voracity for human flesh.[87] On the other hand, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne understood war cannibalism as a way of expressing vengeance and hatred towards one's enemies and celebrating one's victory over them, thus giving an interpretation that is close to modern explanations. He also pointed out that some acts of Europeans in his own time could be considered as equally barbarous, making his essay "Of Cannibals" (c. 1580) a precursor to later ideas of cultural relativism.[88][89]

Body parts and culinary practices

Nutritional value of the human body

Archaeologist James Cole investigated the nutritional value of the human body and found it to be similar to that of animals of similar size.[90] He notes that, according to ethnographic and archaeological records, nearly all edible parts of humans were sometimes eaten – not only skeletal muscle tissue ("flesh" or "meat" in a narrow sense), but also "lungs, liver, brain, heart, nervous tissue, bone marrow, genitalia and skin", as well as kidneys.[91] For a typical adult man, the combined nutritional value of all these edible parts is about 126,000 kilocalories (kcal).[92] The nutritional value of women and younger individuals is lower because of their lower body weight – for example, around 86% of a male adult for an adult woman and 30% for a boy aged around 5 or 6.[92][93]

As the daily energy need of an adult man is about 2,400 kilocalories, a dead male body could thus have feed a group of 25 men for a bit more than two days, provided they ate nothing but the human flesh alone – longer if it was part of a mixed diet.[94] The nutritional value of the human body is thus not insubstantial, though Cole notes that for prehistoric hunters, large megafauna such as mammoths, rhinoceros, and bisons would have been an even better deal as long as they were available and could be caught, because of their much higher body weight.[95]

Hearts and livers

Cases of people eating human livers and hearts, especially of enemies, have been reported from across the world. After the Battle of Uhud (625), Hind bint Utba ate (or at least attempted to) the liver of Hamza ibn Abd al-Muttalib, an uncle of Muhammad. At that time, the liver was considered "the seat of life".[96] French Catholics ate livers and hearts of Huguenots at the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in 1572, in some cases also offering them for sale.[97][98]

Emperor Wuzong of Tang supposedly ate hearts and livers of teenagers to cure his illness

In China, medical cannibalism was practised over centuries. People voluntary cut their own body parts, including parts of their livers, and boiled them to cure ailing relatives.[99] Children were sometimes killed because eating their boiled hearts was considered a good way of extending one's life.[100] Emperor Wuzong of Tang supposedly ordered provincial officials to send him "the hearts and livers of fifteen-year-old boys and girls" when he had become seriously ill, hoping in vain this medicine would cure him. Later private individuals sometimes followed his example, paying soldiers who kidnapped preteen children for their kitchen.[101]

When "human flesh and organs were sold openly at the marketplace" during the Taiping Rebellion in 1850–1864, human hearts became a popular dish, according to some who afterwards freely admitted having consumed them.[102] According to a missionary's report from the brutal suppression of the Dungan Revolt of 1895–1896 in northwestern China, "thousands of men, women and children were ruthlessly massacred by the imperial soldiers" and "many a meal of human hearts and livers was partaken of by soldiers", supposedly out of a belief that this would give them "the courage their enemies had displayed".[103]

In World War II, Japanese soldiers ate the livers of killed Americans in the Chichijima incident.[104] Many Japanese soldiers who died during the occupation of Jolo Island in the Philippines had their livers eaten by local Moro fighters, according to Japanese soldier Fujioka Akiyoshi.[105]

During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), hundreds of incidents of cannibalism occurred, mostly motivated by hatred against supposed "class enemies", but sometimes also by health concerns.[106] In a case recorded by the local authorities, a school teacher in Mengshan County "heard that consuming a 'beauty's heart' could cure disease". He then chose a 13- or 14-year-old student of his and publicly denounced her as a member of the enemy faction, which was enough to get her killed by an angry mob. After the others had left, he "cut open the girl's chest ..., dug out her heart, and took it home to enjoy".[107] In a further case that took place in Wuxuan County, likewise in the Guangxi region, three brothers were beaten to death as supposed enemies; afterwards their livers were cut out, baked, and consumed "as medicine".[108] According to the Chinese author Zheng Yi, who researched these events, "the consumption of human liver was mentioned at least fifty or sixty times" in just a small number of archival documents.[109] He talked with a man who had eaten human liver and told him that "barbecued liver is delicious".[110]

During a massacre of the Madurese minority in the Indonesian part of Borneo in 1999, reporter Richard Lloyd Parry met a young cannibal who had just participated in a "human barbecue" and told him without hesitation: "It tastes just like chicken. Especially the liver – just the same as chicken."[111] In 2013, during the Syrian civil war, Syrian rebel Abu Sakkar was filmed eating parts of the lung or liver of a government soldier while declaring that "We will eat your hearts and your livers you soldiers of Bashar the dog".[112]

Breasts, palms, and soles

Photography of female breasts
Front of a human's left hand
Bare soles on the beach
Women's breasts as well as human palms and sometimes soles made popular eating in various parts of the world

Various accounts from around the world mention women's breasts as a favourite body part. Also frequently mentioned are the palms of the hands and sometimes the soles of the foots, regardless of the victim's gender.

Jerome, in his treatise Against Jovinianus, claimed that the British Attacotti were cannibals who regarded the buttocks of men and the breasts of women as delicacies.[113] During the Mongol invasion of Europe in the 13th century and their subsequent rule over China during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), some Mongol fighters practised cannibalism and both European and Chinese observers record a preference for women's breasts, which were considered "delicacies" and, if there were many corpses, sometimes the only part of a female body that was eaten (of men, only the thighs were said to be eaten in such circumstances).[114]

After meeting a group of cannibals in West Africa in the 14th century, the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta recorded that, according to their preferences, "the tastiest part of women's flesh is the palms and the breast."[115] Centuries later, the anthropologist Percy Amaury Talbot [fr] wrote that, in southern Nigeria, "the parts in greatest favour are the palms of the hands, the fingers and toes, and, of a woman, the breast."[116] Regarding the north of the country, his colleague Charles Kingsley Meek added: "Among all the cannibal tribes the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet were considered the tit-bits of the body."[117] Among the Apambia, a cannibalistic clan of the Azande people in Central Africa, the palms of the hands and the soles of the foots were considered the best parts of the human body, while their favourite dish was prepared with "fat from a woman's breast", according to the missionary and ethnographer F. Gero.[118]

Similar preferences are on record throughout Melanesia. According to the anthropologists Bernard Deacon and Camilla Wedgwood, women were "specially fattened for eating" in Vanuatu, "the breasts being the great delicacy". A missionary confirmed that "a body of a female usually formed the principal part of the repast" at feasts for chiefs and warriors.[119] The ethnologist Felix Speiser [de] writes: "Apart from the breasts of women and the genitals of men, palms of hands and soles of feet were the most coveted morsels." He knew a chief on Ambae, one of the islands of Vanuatu, who, "according to fairly reliably sources", dined on a young girl's breasts every few days.[120][119] When visiting the Solomon Islands in the 1980s, anthropologist Michael Krieger met a former cannibal who told him that women's breasts had been considered the best part of the human body because they were so fatty, with fat being a rare and sought delicacy.[121][119] They were also considered among the best parts in New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago.[122][123]

Modes of preparation

Based on theoretical considerations, the structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss suggested that human flesh was most typically boiled, with roasting also used to prepare the bodies of enemies and other outsiders in exocannibalism, but rarely in funerary endocannibalism (when eating deceased relatives).[124] But an analysis of 60 sufficiently detailed and credible descriptions of institutionalized cannibalism by anthropologist Paul Shankman failed to confirm this hypothesis.[125] Shankman found that roasting and boiling together accounted for only about half of the cases, with roasting being slightly more common. In contrast to Lévi-Strauss's predictions, boiling was more often used in exocannibalism, while roasting was about equally common for both.[126]

Shankman observed that various other "ways of preparing people" were repeatedly employed as well; in one third of all cases, two or more modes where used together (e.g. some bodies or body parts were boiled or baked, while others were roasted).[127] Human flesh was baked in steam on preheated rocks or in earth ovens (a technique widely used in the Pacific), smoked (which allowed to preserve it for later consumption), or eaten raw.[126] While these modes were used in both exo- and endocannibalism, another method that was only used in the latter and only in the Americas was to burn the bones or bodies of deceased relatives and then to consume the bone ash.[127]

After analysing numerous accounts from China, Key Ray Chong similarly concludes that "a variety of methods for cooking human flesh" were used in this country. Most popular were "broiling, roasting, boiling and steaming", followed by "pickling in salt, wine, sauce and the like".[128] Human flesh was also often "cooked into soup" or stewed in cauldrons.[129] Eating human flesh raw was the "least popular" method, but a few cases are on record too.[130] Chong notes that human flesh was typically cooked in the same way as "ordinary foodstuffs for daily consumption" – no principal distinction from the treatment of animal meat is detectable, and nearly any mode of preparation used for animals could also be used for people.[128]

Whole-body roasting and baking

Though human corpses, like those of animals, were usually cut into pieces for further processing, reports of people being roasted or baked whole are on record throughout the world. At the archaeological site of Herxheim, Germany, more than a thousand people were killed and eaten about 7000 years ago, and the evidence indicates that many of them were spit-roasted whole over open fires.[131]

During severe famines in China and Egypt during the 12th and early 13th centuries, there was a black-market trade in corpses of little children that were roasted or boiled whole. In China, human-flesh sellers advertised such corpses as good for being boiled or steamed whole, "including their bones", and praised their particular tenderness.[132][133] In Cairo, Egypt, the Arab physician Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi repeatedly saw "little children, roasted or boiled", offered for sale in baskets on street corners during a heavy famine that started in 1200 CE.[134] Older children sometimes suffered the same fate: Once he saw "a child nearing the age of puberty, who had been found roasted"; two young people confessed to having killed and cooked the child.[135]

In some cases children were roasted and offered for sale by their own parents; other victims were street children, who had become very numerous and were often kidnapped and cooked by people looking for food or extra income. Al-Latif states that "the guilty were rarely caught in the act, and only when they were careless."[136] The victims were so numerous that sometimes "two or three children, even more, would be found in a single cooking pot."[137] Al-Latif notes that, while initially people were shocked by such acts, they "eventually ... grew accustomed, and some conceived such a taste for these detestable meats that they made them their ordinary provender, eating them for enjoyment and ... [thinking] up a variety of preparation methods.... The horror people had felt at first vanished entirely; one spoke if it, and heard it spoken of, as a matter of everyday indifference."[138]

Depiction of Mongol cannibalism from the Chronica Majora

After the end of the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), a Chinese writer criticized in his recollections of the period that some Mongol soldiers ate human flesh because of its taste rather than (as had also occurred in other times) merely in cases of necessary. He added that they enjoyed torturing their victims (often children or women, whose flesh was preferred over that of men) by roasting them alive, in "large jars whose outside touched the fire [or] on an iron grate". Other victims were placed "inside a double bag ... which was put into a large pot" and so boiled alive.[139] While not mentioning live roasting or boiling, European authors also complained about cannibalism and cruelty during the Mongol invasion of Europe, and a drawing in the Chronica Majora (compiled by Matthew Paris) shows Mongol fighters spit-roasting a human victim.[114][140]

Pedro de Margarit [es], who accompanied Christopher Columbus during his second voyage, afterwards stated "that he saw there with his own eyes several Indians skewered on spits being roasted over burning coals as a treat for the gluttonous."[141] Jean de Léry, who lived for several months among the Tupinambá in Brazil, writes that several of his companions reported "that they had seen not only a number of men and women cut in pieces and grilled on the boucans, but also little unweaned children roasted whole" after a successful attack on an enemy village.[142]

According to German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, children captured by Songye slave raiders in the Central African Kasaï region that were too young to be sold with a profit were instead "skewered on long spears like rats and roasted over a quickly kindled large fire" for consumption by the raiders.[143]

In the Solomon Islands in the 1870s, a British captain saw a "dead body, dressed and cooked whole" offered for sale in a canoe. A settler treated the scene as "an every-day occurrence" and told him "that he had seen as many as twenty bodies lying on the beach, dressed and cooked". Decades later, a missionary reported that whole bodies were still offered "up and down the coast in canoes for sale" after battles, since human flesh was eaten "for pleasure".[144]

In Fiji, whole human bodies cooked in earth ovens were served in carefully pre-arranged postures, according to anthropologist Lorimer Fison and several other sources:

The limbs having been arranged in the posture which it is intended they shall assume, banana leaves are wrapped round them to prevent the flesh falling off in the possible event of over-baking.... A hole of sufficient size is then dug in the earth, and filled with dry wood, which is set on fire. When it is well kindled, a number of stones, about the size of a man's fist, are thrown into it; and when the firewood is burnt down to a mass of glowing embers, some of the heated stones are lifted nimbly by tongs made of bent withes, and thrust within the dead man's body.... Presently the mound swells and rises; little cracks appear, whence issue jets of steam diffusing a savoury odour; and in due time, of which the Fijians are excellent judges, the culinary process is complete. The earth is then cautiously removed, the body lifted out, its wrappings taken off, its face painted, a wig or a turban placed upon its head, and there we have a "trussed frog" [as such steamed corpses were called] in all its unspeakable hideousness, staring at us with wide open, prominent, lack-lustre eyes. There is no burning or roasting: the body is cooked in its own steam, and the features are so little disturbed by the process that the dead man can almost always be recognised by those who knew him when he was alive.[145][146]

A re-enactment from c. 1895 of a cannibal feast reported to have occurred in Fiji in 1869

Within this archipelago, it was especially the Gau Islanders who "were famous for cooking bodies whole".[147]

In New Caledonia, a missionary named Ta'unga from the Cook Islands repeatedly saw how whole human bodies were cooked in earth ovens: "They tie the hands together and bundle them up together with the intestines. The legs are bent up and bound with hibiscus bark. When it is completed they lay the body out flat on its back in the earth oven, then when it is baked ready they cut it up and eat it."[148] Ta'unga commented: "One curious thing is that when a man is alive he has a human appearance, but after he is baked he looks more like a dog, as the lips are shriveled back and his teeth are bared."[149]

Among the Māori in New Zealand, children captured in war campaigns were sometimes spit-roasted whole (after slitting open their bellies to remove the intestines), as various sources report.[150][151][152] Enslaved children, including teenagers, could meet the same fate, and whole babies were sometimes served at the tables of chiefs.[153]

In the Marquesas Islands, captives (preferably women) killed for consumption "were spitted on long poles that entered between their legs and emerged from their mouths" and then roasted whole.[154] Similar customs had a long history: In Nuku Hiva, the largest of these island, archaeologists found the partially consumed "remains of a young child" that had been roasted whole in an oven during the 14th century or earlier.[155]

Medical aspects

A well-known case of mortuary cannibalism is that of the Fore tribe in New Guinea, which resulted in the spread of the prion disease kuru.[156] Although the Fore's mortuary cannibalism was well-documented, the practice had ceased before the cause of the disease was recognized. However, some scholars argue that although post-mortem dismemberment was the practice during funeral rites, cannibalism was not.[157] Marvin Harris theorizes that it happened during a famine period coincident with the arrival of Europeans and was rationalized as a religious rite.

In 2003, a publication in Science received a large amount of press attention when it suggested that early humans may have practised extensive cannibalism.[158][159] According to this research, genetic markers commonly found in modern humans worldwide suggest that today many people carry a gene that evolved as protection against the brain diseases that can be spread by consuming human brain tissue.[160] A 2006 reanalysis of the data questioned this hypothesis,[161] because it claimed to have found a data collection bias, which led to an erroneous conclusion.[162] This claimed bias came from incidents of cannibalism used in the analysis not being due to local cultures, but having been carried out by explorers, stranded seafarers or escaped convicts.[163][failed verification] The original authors published a subsequent paper in 2008 defending their conclusions.[164]

Myths, legends and folklore

Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by Arthur Rackham
Painting of a ghoulish, naked man holding a bloody, naked body and devouring the arm.
Saturn Devouring His Son, from the Black Paintings series by Francisco Goya, 1819

Cannibalism features in the folklore and legends of many cultures and is most often attributed to evil characters or as extreme retribution for some wrongdoing. Examples include the witch in "Hansel and Gretel", Lamia of Greek mythology and the witch Baba Yaga of Slavic folklore.

A number of stories in Greek mythology involve cannibalism, in particular the eating of close family members, e.g., the stories of Thyestes, Tereus and especially Cronus, who became Saturn in the Roman pantheon. The story of Tantalus is another example, though here a family member is prepared for consumption by others.

The wendigo is a creature appearing in the legends of the Algonquian people. It is thought of variously as a malevolent cannibalistic spirit that could possess humans or a monster that humans could physically transform into. Those who indulged in cannibalism were at particular risk,[165] and the legend appears to have reinforced this practice as taboo. The Zuni people tell the story of the Átahsaia – a giant who cannibalizes his fellow demons and seeks out human flesh.

The wechuge is a demonic cannibalistic creature that seeks out human flesh appearing in the mythology of the Athabaskan people.[166] It is said to be half monster and half human-like; however, it has many shapes and forms.


William Arens, author of The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy,[20] questions the credibility of reports of cannibalism and argues that the description by one group of people of another people as cannibals is a consistent and demonstrable ideological and rhetorical device to establish perceived cultural superiority. Arens bases his thesis on a detailed analysis of various "classic" cases of cannibalism reported by explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists. He claims that all of them were steeped in racism, unsubstantiated, or based on second-hand or hearsay evidence. Though widely discussed, Arens's book generally failed to convince the academic community. Claude Lévi-Strauss observes that, in spite of his "brilliant but superficial book ... [n]o serious ethnologist disputes the reality of cannibalism".[21] Shirley Lindenbaum notes that, while after "Arens['s] ... provocative suggestion ... many anthropologists ... reevaluated their data", the outcome was an improved and "more nuanced" understanding of where, why and under which circumstances cannibalism took place rather than a confirmation of his claims: "Anthropologists working in the Americas, Africa, and Melanesia now acknowledge that institutionalized cannibalism occurred in some places at some times. Archaeologists and evolutionary biologists are taking cannibalism seriously."[22]

Lindenbaum and others point out that Arens displays a "strong ethnocentrism".[167] His refusal to admit that institutionalized cannibalism ever existed seems to be motivated by the implied idea "that cannibalism is the worst thing of all" – worse than any other behaviour people engaged in, and therefore uniquely suited to vilifying others. Kajsa Ekholm Friedman calls this "a remarkable opinion in a culture [the European/American one] that has been capable of the most extreme cruelty and destructive behavior, both at home and in other parts of the world."[168]

She observes that, contrary to European values and expectations, "in many parts of the Congo region there was no negative evaluation of cannibalism. On the contrary, people expressed their strong appreciation of this very special meat and could not understand the hysterical reactions from the white man's side."[169] And why indeed, she goes on to ask, should they have had the same negative reactions to cannibalism as Arens and his contemporaries? Implicitly he assumes that everybody throughout human history must have shared the strong taboo placed by his own culture on cannibalism, but he never attempts to explain why this should be so, and "neither logic nor historical evidence justifies" this viewpoint, as Christian Siefkes commented.[170]

Some have argued that it is the taboo against cannibalism, rather than its practice, that needs to be explained. Hubert Murray, the Lieutenant-Governor of Papua in the early 20th century, admitted that "I have never been able to give a convincing answer to a native who says to me, 'Why should I not eat human flesh?'"[80] After observing that the Orokaiva people in New Guinea explained their cannibal customs as due to "a simple desire for good food", the Australian anthropologist F. E. Williams commented: "Anthropologically speaking the fact that we ourselves should persist in a superstitious, or at least sentimental, prejudice against human flesh is more puzzling than the fact that the Orokaiva, a born hunter, should see fit to enjoy perfectly good meat when he gets it."[171][80]

Accusations of cannibalism could be used to characterize indigenous peoples as "uncivilized", "primitive", or even "inhuman."[172] While this means that the reliability of reports of cannibal practices must be carefully evaluated especially if their wording suggests such a context, many actual accounts do not fit this pattern. The earliest firsthand account of cannibal customs in the Caribbean comes from Diego Álvarez Chanca, who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage. His description of the customs of the Caribs of Guadeloupe includes their cannibalism (men killed or captured in war were eaten, while captured boys were "castrated [and used as] servants until they gr[e]w up, when they [were] slaughtered" for consumption), but he nevertheless notes "that these people are more civilized than the other islanders" (who did not practice cannibalism).[173] Nor was he an exception. Among the earliest reports of cannibalism in the Caribbean and the Americas, there are some (like those of Amerigo Vespucci) that seem to mostly consist of hearsay and "gross exaggerations", but others (by Chanca, Columbus himself, and other early travellers) show "genuine interest and respect for the natives" and include "numerous cases of sincere praise".[174]

Reports of cannibalism from other continents follow similar patterns. Condescending remarks can be found, but many Europeans who described cannibal customs in Central Africa wrote about those who practised them in quite positive terms, calling them "splendid" and "the finest people" and not rarely, like Chanca, actually considering them as "far in advance of" and "intellectually and morally superior" to the non-cannibals around them.[175] Writing from Melanesia, the missionary George Brown explicitly rejects the European prejudice of picturing cannibals as "particularly ferocious and repulsive", noting instead that many cannibals he met were "no more ferocious than" others and "indeed ... very nice people".[176]

Reports or assertions of cannibal practices could nevertheless be used to promote the use of military force as a means of "civilizing" and "pacifying" the "savages". During the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire and its earlier conquests in the Caribbean there were widespread reports of cannibalism, and cannibals became exempted from Queen Isabella's prohibition on enslaving the indigenous.[177] Another example of the sensationalism of cannibalism and its connection to imperialism occurred during Japan's 1874 expedition to Taiwan. As Robert Eskildsen describes, Japan's popular media "exaggerated the aborigines' violent nature", in some cases by wrongly accusing them of cannibalism.[178]

This Horrid Practice: The Myth and Reality of Traditional Maori Cannibalism (2008) by New Zealand historian Paul Moon received a hostile reception by some Māori, who felt the book tarnished their whole people. However, the factual accuracy of the book was not seriously disputed and even critics such as Margaret Mutu grant that cannibalism was "definitely" practised and that it was "part of our [Māori] culture."[179]


There is evidence, both archaeological and genetic, that cannibalism has been practised for at least hundreds of thousands of years by early Homo sapiens and archaic hominins.[180] Among modern humans, cannibalism has been practised by various groups.[160] An incomplete list of cases where it is documented to have occurred in institutionalized form includes prehistoric[181][182] and early modern Europe,[183] South America,[184] Mesoamerica,[185] Iroquoian peoples in North America,[186] parts of Western and Central Africa,[24] China[187][188] and Sumatra,[24] among pre-contact Aboriginal Australians,[189] among Māori in New Zealand,[190] on some other Polynesian islands[24] as well as in New Guinea,[18] the Solomon Islands,[191] and Fiji.[192] Evidence of cannibalism has also been found in ruins associated with the Ancestral Puebloans, at Cowboy Wash in the Southwestern United States.[193][194][195]

After World War I, institutionalized cannibalism has become very rare, but cases were still reported during times of famine. Occasional cannibal acts committed by individual criminals also are documented throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

The Americas

A scene depicting ritualistic Aztec cannibalism being practiced in the Codex Magliabechiano, folio 73r.

Cannibalism in the Americas has been practiced in many places throughout much of the history of North America and South America. The modern term "cannibal" is derived from the name of the Island Caribs (Kalinago), who were encountered by Christopher Columbus in the Bahamas. Numerous cultures in North America were reported by European explorers and colonizers to have engaged in cannibalism, however these claims are not always reliable since the Spanish used them as part of their justifications for conquest.[196]

At least some cultures have been physically and archeologically proven beyond any doubt whatsoever to have undertaken institutionalized cannibalism. This includes human bones uncovered in a cave hamlet confirming accounts of the Xiximes undertaking ritualized raids as part of their agricultural cycle after every harvest. Also proven are the Aztec ritual ceremonies during the Spanish conquest at Tecoaque. The Anasazi in the 12th century have also been demonstrated to have undertaken cannibalism, possibly due to a drought, as shown by proteins from human flesh found in recovered feces.

There is near universal agreement that some Mesoamericans practiced human sacrifice and cannibalism, but there is no scholarly consensus as to its extent. Anthropologist Marvin Harris, author of Cannibals and Kings, has suggested that the flesh of the victims was a part of an aristocratic diet as a reward, since the Aztec diet was lacking in proteins. According to Harris, the Aztec economy would not support feeding slaves (the captured in war) and the columns of prisoners were "marching meat."[197] Conversely, Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano has proposed that Aztec cannibalism coincided with times of harvest and should be thought of as more of a Thanksgiving. Montellano rejects the theories of Harner and Harris, saying that with evidence of so many tributes and intensive chinampa agriculture, the Aztecs did not need any other food sources.[198] William Arens' 1979 book The Man-Eating Myth claimed that "there is no firm, substantiable evidence for the socially accepted practice of cannibalism anywhere in the world, at any time in history", but his views have been largely rejected as irreconcilable with the actual evidence.[199][200]

In later times, cannibalism has occasionally been practiced as a last resort by people suffering from famine. Well-known examples include the ill-fated Donner Party (1846–1847) and the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 (1972), after which the survivors ate the bodies of the dead. Additionally, there are cases of people engaging in cannibalism for sexual pleasure, such as Albert Fish and Jeffrey Dahmer.


Sale of human flesh in the late 16th century. Engraving by Theodor de Bry illustrating Filippo Pigafetta's Report of the Kingdom of Congo, which contains the oldest known account of cannibalism in Central Africa.

Acts of cannibalism in Africa have been reported from various parts of the continent, ranging from prehistoric times until the 21st century. The possibly oldest evidence of human cannibalism has been found in Kenya in eastern Africa. There is little evidence of later cannibalism in East Africa, but the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was reputed to practise it, and acts of voluntary and forced cannibalism have been reported from the South Sudanese Civil War. While the oldest known written mention of cannibalism is from the tomb of the Egyptian king Unas, later evidence from Egypt shows it to only re-appear during occasional episodes of severe famine.

The oldest records of cannibalism in West Africa are from Muslim authors who visited the region in the 14th century. Later accounts often ascribe it to secret societies such as the Leopard Society. Cannibal practices were also documented among various Nigerian peoples such as the Igbo. The victims were usually killed or captured enemies, kidnapped strangers, and purchased slaves. Cannibalism was practised to express hatred and to humiliate one's enemies, as well as to avoid waste and because meat in general was rare; human flesh was also considered as tastier than that of animals. While its consumption during peacetime seems to have ceased, cannibal acts are on record for civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone around the turn from the 20th to the 21st century.

In the late 19th century, cannibalism seems to have been especially prevalent in parts of the Congo Basin. While some groups rejected the custom, others indulged in human flesh, often considering it superior to other meats. Killed or captured enemies could be consumed, and individuals from different ethnic groups were sometimes hunted down for the same purpose. Slaves were also sacrificed for the table, especially young children, who were otherwise in little demand but praised as particularly delicious. In some areas, human flesh and slaves intended for eating were sold at marketplaces. While cannibalism became rarer under the colonial Congo Free State and its Belgium-run successor, colonial authorities seem to have done little to suppress the practice. Human flesh still appeared on the tables up to the 1950s and was both eaten and sold during the chaos of the Congo Crisis in the 1960s. Occasional reports of cannibalism during violent conflicts continue into the 21st century.

Cannibalism was also reported from north of the Congo Basin, extending up to the Central African Republic Civil War, which started in 2012. Jean-Bédel Bokassa, dictator of the Central African Republic, seems to have eaten the flesh of opponents and prisoners in the 1970s.


Cannibalism in Lithuania during the Livonian War in 1571 (German plate)

Acts of cannibalism in Europe seem to have been relatively prevalent in prehistory, but also occurred repeatedly in later times, often motivated by hunger, hatred, or medical concerns. Both anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals practised cannibalism to some extent in the Pleistocene,[201][202][203][204] and Neanderthals may have been eaten by modern humans as the latter spread into Europe.[205] Amongst humans in prehistoric Europe, archaeologists have uncovered many clear and indisputable sites of cannibalism, as well as numerous other finds of which cannibalism is a plausible interpretation.

In antiquity, several Greek and Roman authors mention cannibal customs in remote parts of the continent, such as beyond the Dnieper River and in Britain. The Stoic philosopher Chrysippus noted that burial customs varied widely, with funerary cannibalism being practised by many peoples, though rejected by the Greek. Several cases of survival cannibalism during sieges are on record. Cannibalism to face off starvation was also practised in later times, such as during the Great Famine of 1315–1317. In the early modern and colonial era, shipwrecked sailors ate the bodies of the deceased or drew lots to decide who would have to die to provide food for the others – a widely accepted custom of the sea.

During the First Crusade, some crusaders ate the bodies of killed enemies, with the reasons for these acts (hunger or hatred?) being a matter of debate. Various cases of undoubtedly revenge-driven cannibalism took place in early modern Italy. In 1672, the Dutch statesman Johan de Witt and his brother were lynched and partially eaten by an angry mob. In early modern Europe, the consumption of body parts and blood for medical purposes became popular. Reaching its height during the 17th century, this practice continued in some cases into the second half of the 19th century.[206]

The first half of the 20th century saw a resurgence of acts of survival cannibalism in Eastern Europe, especially during the Russian famine of 1921–1922, the Soviet famine of 1930–1933, and the siege of Leningrad. Several serial killers, among them Karl Denke and Andrei Chikatilo, consumed parts of their victims. A few other people, such as reporter William Seabrook and artist Rick Gibson, ate human flesh out of curiosity or to shock the public, without killing anyone for the purpose. At the start of the 21st century, Armin Meiwes became infamous for killing and eating a voluntary victim, whom he had found via the Internet.


Fanciful depiction of cannibalism in China, from a 15th-century edition of The Travels of Marco Polo

Acts of cannibalism in Asia have been reported from various parts of the continent, ranging from ancient times to the 21st century. Human cannibalism is particularly well documented for China and for islands that today belong to Indonesia.

The history of cannibalism in China is multifaceted, spanning from cases motivated by food scarcity during famines and wars to culturally accepted practices motivated by vengeance, medical beliefs, and even culinary pleasure. Records from China's Official Dynastic Histories document over three hundred episodes of cannibalism, many of them seen as an inevitable means of avoiding starvation. Cannibalism was also employed as a form of vengeance, with individuals and state officials consuming enemies' flesh to further humiliate and punish them. The Official Histories also document multiple instances of voluntary cannibalism, often involving young individuals offering some of their flesh to ill family members as a form of medical treatment. Various reports, especially from early history and the medieval era, indicate that human flesh could also be served at lavish feasts and was considered an exotic delicacy by some. Generally the reports from Chinese history suggest that people had fewer reservations about eating human flesh than one might expect today.

Episodes of cannibalism in China continued into the 20th century, especially during the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962) famine. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), multiple cases motivated by hatred rather than hunger seem to have occurred.

In Sumatra, cannibal practices are documented especially for the 14th and the 19th centuries, with purchased children, killed or captured enemies, and executed criminals mentioned as typical victims. In neighbouring Borneo, some Dayaks ate human flesh, especially in the context of headhunting expeditions and war campaigns. In both islands, and also in China, human flesh was praised as extraordinarily delicious. Accounts from the 20th and early 21st centuries indicate that the cannibalization of despised enemies could still occur during episodes of mass violence, such as the Indonesian mass killings of 1965–66 and, more recently, the Sampit conflict.

Cases of famine cannibalism have been reported from North Korea during the mid-1990s and subsequent starvation periods, but their prevalence is debated. Various reports indicate that some Japanese soldiers ate human flesh during World War II, motivated by starvation or sometimes by hatred.


A cannibal feast on Tanna, Vanuatu, c. 1885–1889

Cannibalism in Oceania is well documented for many parts of this region, with reports ranging from the early modern period to, in a few cases, the 21st century. Some archaeological evidence has also been found. Human cannibalism in Melanesia and Polynesia was primarily associated with war, with victors eating the vanquished, while in Australia it was often a contingency for hardship to avoid starvation.

Cannibalism used to be widespread in parts of Fiji (once nicknamed the "Cannibal Isles"),[207] among some of the Māori people of New Zealand, and in the Marquesas Islands.[208] It was also practised in New Guinea and in parts of the Solomon Islands, and human flesh was sold at markets in some Melanesian islands.[209] Cannibalism was still practised in Papua New Guinea as of 2012, for cultural reasons.[210][211]

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Further reading

  • Dickeman, Mildred (1975). "Demographic Consequences of Infanticide in Man". Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. 6 (1): 107–137. doi:10.1146/ JSTOR 2096827.
  • Sahlins, Marshall. "Cannibalism: An Exchange." New York Review of Books 26, no. 4 (March 22, 1979).
  • Schutt, Bill. Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books 2017. [ISBN missing]
  • Sturtevant, William C. "Cannibalism". The Christopher Columbus Encyclopedia. 1: 93–96.[ISBN missing]

External links