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 expression cannibalism has been extended into zoology to mean one individual of a species consuming all or part of another individual of the same species as food, including sexual cannibalism. Some scholars have argued, however, that no firm evidence exists that cannibalism has ever been a socially acceptable practice anywhere in the world, at any time in history.
The Island Carib people of the Lesser Antilles, from whom the word cannibalism is derived, acquired a long-standing reputation as cannibals following the recording of their legends in the 17th century. Some controversy exists over the accuracy of these legends and the prevalence of actual cannibalism in the culture. Cannibalism was widespread in the past among humans in many parts of the world, continuing into the 19th century in some isolated South Pacific cultures, and to the present day in parts of Tropical Africa. Cannibalism was practiced in New Guinea and in parts of the Solomon Islands, and flesh markets existed in some parts of Melanesia. Fiji was once known as the "Cannibal Isles". Cannibalism has been well documented around the world, from Fiji to the Amazon Basin to the Congo to the Māori people of New Zealand. Neanderthals are believed to have practiced cannibalism, and Neanderthals may have been eaten by anatomically modern humans.
Cannibalism has recently been both practiced and fiercely condemned in several wars, especially in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was still practiced in Papua New Guinea as of 2012, for cultic reasons and in ritual and in war in various Melanesian tribes. 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".
Cannibalism has occasionally been practiced as a last resort by people suffering from famine, even in modern times. Famous examples include the ill-fated Westward expedition of the Donner Party (1846–47) and, more recently, the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 (1972), after which some survivors ate the bodies of dead passengers. Also, some mentally ill people obsess about eating others and actually do so, such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Albert Fish. There is resistance to formally labeling cannibalism a mental disorder.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Reasons
- 3 Medical aspects
- 4 Myths, legends and folklore
- 5 Accusations
- 6 History
- 7 Modern era
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
The word "cannibalism" is derived from Caníbales, the Spanish name for the Caribs, a West Indies tribe that may have practiced cannibalism, from Spanish canibal or caribal, "a savage". It is also called anthropophagy.
In some societies, especially tribal societies, cannibalism is a cultural norm. Consumption of a person from within the same community is called endocannibalism; ritual cannibalism of the recently deceased can be part of the grieving process or be seen as a way of guiding the souls of the dead into the bodies of living descendants. Exocannibalism is the consumption of a person from outside the community, usually as a celebration of victory against a rival tribe. Both types of cannibalism can also be fueled by the belief that eating a person's flesh or internal organs will endow the cannibal with some of the characteristics of the deceased.
In most parts of the world, cannibalism is not a societal norm, but is sometimes resorted to in situations of extreme necessity. 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 generally involve necro-cannibalism (eating the corpse of someone who is already dead) as opposed to homicidal cannibalism (killing someone for food). In 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.
In pre-modern medicine, the explanation given by the now-discredited theory of humorism for cannibalism was that it came about within a black acrimonious humor, which, being lodged in the linings of the ventricle, produced the voracity for human flesh.
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. 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. 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 practiced extensive cannibalism. 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. A 2006 reanalysis of the data questioned this hypothesis, because it claimed to have found a data collection bias, which led to an erroneous conclusion. 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. The original authors published a subsequent paper in 2008 defending their conclusions.
Myths, legends and folklore
Cannibalism features in the folklore and legends of many cultures and is most often attributed to evil characters or as extreme retribution for some wrong. Examples include the witch in "Hansel and Gretel", Lamia of Greek mythology and Baba Yaga of Slavic folklore.
A number of stories in Greek mythology involve cannibalism, in particular cannibalism of close family members, e.g., the stories of Thyestes, Tereus and especially Cronus, who was Saturn in the Roman pantheon. The story of Tantalus also parallels this.
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, 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.
William Arens, author of The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, 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 numerous "classic" cases of cultural cannibalism cited by explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists. He asserts that many were steeped in racism, unsubstantiated, or based on second-hand or hearsay evidence.
Accusations of cannibalism helped characterize indigenous peoples as "uncivilized," "primitive," or even "inhuman." These assertions promoted the use of military force as a means of "civilizing" and "pacifying" the "savages". The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire and its earlier conquests in the Caribbean where there were widespread reports of cannibalism, justifying the conquest. Cannibals were exempt from Queen Isabella's prohibition on enslaving the indigenous. Another example of the sensationalism of cannibalism and its connection to imperialism was in the Japan's 1874 expedition to Taiwan. As Eskildsen describes, there was an exaggeration of cannibalism by Taiwanese aboriginals in Japan's popular media such as newspapers and illustrations at the time.
Among modern humans, cannibalism has been practiced by various groups. It was practiced by humans in Prehistoric Europe, Mesoamerica South America, among Iroquoian peoples in North America, Maori in New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, parts of West Africa and Central Africa, some of the islands of Polynesia, New Guinea, Sumatra, and Fiji. Evidence of cannibalism has been found in ruins associated with the Anasazi culture of the Southwestern United States as well as (at Cowboy Wash in Colorado).
There is evidence, both archaeological and genetic, that cannibalism has been practiced for tens of thousands of years. Human bones that have been "de-fleshed" by other humans go back 600,000 years. The oldest Homo sapiens bones (from Ethiopia) show signs of this as well. Some anthropologists, such as Tim White, suggest that ritual cannibalism was common in human societies prior to the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic period. This theory is based on the large amount of "butchered human" bones found in Neanderthal and other Lower/Middle Paleolithic sites. Cannibalism in the Lower and Middle Paleolithic may have occurred because of food shortages. It has been also suggested that removing dead bodies through ritual cannibalism might have been a means of predator control, aiming to eliminate predators' and scavengers' access to hominid (and early human) bodies. Jim Corbett proposed that after major epidemics, when human corpses are easily accessible to predators, there are more cases of man-eating leopards, so removing dead bodies through ritual cannibalism (before the cultural traditions of burying and burning bodies appeared in human history) might have had practical reasons for hominids and early humans to control predation.
In Gough's Cave, England, remains of human bones and skulls, around 14,700 years old, suggest that cannibalism took place amongst the people living in or visiting the cave, and that they may have used human skulls as drinking vessels.
Researchers have found physical evidence of cannibalism in ancient times. In 2001, archaeologists at the University of Bristol found evidence of Iron Age cannibalism in Gloucestershire. Cannibalism was practiced as recently as 2000 years ago in Great Britain.
Cannibalism is mentioned many times in early history and literature. Herodotus in "The Histories" (450s to the 420s BC) claimed, that after eleven days' voyage up the Borysthenes (Dnieper River in Europe) a desolated land extended for a long way, and later the country of the man-eaters (other than Scythians) was located, and beyond it again a desolated area extended where no men lived.
Cannibalism was reported by Flavius Josephus during the siege of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 AD, and according to Appian, during the Roman Siege of Numantia in the 2nd century BC, the population of Numantia was reduced to cannibalism and suicide.
St. Jerome, in his letter Against Jovinianus, discusses how people come to their present condition as a result of their heritage, and he then lists several examples of peoples and their customs. In the list, he mentions that he has heard that Atticoti eat human flesh and that Massagetae and Derbices (a people on the borders of India) kill and eat old people. 
Reports of cannibalism were recorded during the First Crusade, as Crusaders were alleged to have fed on the bodies of their dead opponents following the Siege of Ma'arrat al-Numan. Amin Maalouf also alleges further cannibalism incidents on the march to Jerusalem, and to the efforts made to delete mention of these from Western history. During Europe's Great Famine of 1315–1317 there were many reports of cannibalism among the starving populations. In North Africa, as in Europe, there are references to cannibalism as a last resort in times of famine.
The Moroccan Muslim explorer Ibn Batutta reported that one African king advised him that nearby people were cannibals (although this may have been a prank played on Ibn Batutta by the king to fluster his guest). However Batutta reported that Arabs and Christians were safe, as their flesh was "unripe" and would cause the eater to fall ill.
For a brief time in Europe, an unusual form of cannibalism occurred when thousands of Egyptian mummies preserved in bitumen were ground up and sold as medicine. The practice developed into a wide-scale business which flourished until the late 16th century. This "fad" ended because the mummies were revealed actually to be recently killed slaves. Two centuries ago, mummies were still believed to have medicinal properties against bleeding, and were sold as pharmaceuticals in powdered form (see human mummy confection and mummia).
In China during the Tang dynasty, cannibalism was supposedly resorted to by rebel forces early in the period (who were said to raid neighboring areas for victims to eat), as well as both soldiers and civilians besieged during the rebellion of An Lushan. Eating an enemy's heart and liver was also claimed to be a feature of both official punishments and private vengeance. References to cannibalizing the enemy have also been seen in poetry written in the Song dynasty (for example, in Man Jiang Hong), although the cannibalizing is perhaps poetic symbolism, expressing hatred towards the enemy.
There is universal agreement that some Mesoamerican people practiced human sacrifice, but there is a lack of scholarly consensus as to whether cannibalism in pre-Columbian America was widespread. At one extreme, 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. While most historians of the pre-Columbian era believe that there was ritual cannibalism related to human sacrifices, they do not support Harris's thesis that human flesh was ever a significant portion of the Aztec diet. Others have hypothesized that cannibalism was part of a blood revenge in war.
Early modern era
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European explorers and colonizers brought home many stories of cannibalism practiced by the native peoples they encountered, but there is now archeological and written evidence for English settlers' cannibalism in 1609 in the Jamestown Colony under famine conditions.
In Spain's overseas expansion to the New World, the practice of cannibalism in was observed by Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean islands, and the Caribs were greatly feared because of their practice of it. Queen Isabel of Castile had forbade the Spaniards to enslave the indigenous, but if they were guilty of cannibalism then they could be justifiably enslaved. Cannibalism became a pretext for attacks on indigenous groups and justification for the Spanish conquest. In Yucatán, shipwrecked Spaniard Jerónimo de Aguilar, who later became a translator for Hernán Cortés, witnessed fellow Spaniards sacrificed and eaten, but escaped from captivity where he was being fattened for sacrifice himself. In the Florentine Codex (1576) compiled by Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún from information provided by indigenous informants has abundant evidence of Mexica (Aztec) cannibalism, including a specific Nahuatl word for the practice, tlacatlacualli ("people-food"). Franciscan friar Diego de Landa reported on Yucatán instances, and there have been similar reports by Purchas from Popayán, Colombia.
In early Brazil, there is extensive reportage of cannibalism among the Tupinamba. 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." In modern Brazil, a black comedy film, How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, mostly in the Tupi language, portrays a Frenchman captured by the indigenous and his demise.
There are also reports from the Marquesas Islands of Polynesia, where human flesh was called "long pig". According to Hans Egede, when the Inuit killed a woman accused of witchcraft, they ate a portion of her heart.
The 1913 Handbook of Indians of Canada (reprinting 1907 material from the Bureau of American Ethnology), claims that North American natives practicing cannibalism included "... the Montagnais, and some of the tribes of Maine; the Algonkin, Armouchiquois, Iroquois, and Micmac; farther west the Assiniboine, Cree, Foxes, Chippewa, Miami, Ottawa, Kickapoo, Illinois, Sioux, and Winnebago; in the south the people who built the mounds in Florida, and the Tonkawa, Attacapa, Karankawa, Caddo, and Comanche; in the northwest and west, portions of the continent, the Thlingchadinneh and other Athapascan tribes, the Tlingit, Heiltsuk, Kwakiutl, Tsimshian, Nootka, Siksika, some of the Californian tribes, and the Ute. There is also a tradition of the practice among the Hopi, and mentions of the custom among other tribes of New Mexico and Arizona. The Mohawk, and the Attacapa, Tonkawa, and other Texas tribes were known to their neighbours as 'man-eaters.'" The forms of cannibalism described included both resorting to human flesh during famines and ritual cannibalism, the latter usually consisting of eating a small portion of an enemy warrior.
As with most lurid tales of native cannibalism, these stories are treated with a great deal of scrutiny, as accusations of cannibalism were often used as justifications for the subjugation or destruction of "savages". However, there were several well-documented cultures that engaged in regular eating of the dead, such as New Zealand's Māori. In an 1809 incident known as the Boyd massacre, about 66 passengers and crew of the Boyd were killed and eaten by Māori on the Whangaroa peninsula, Northland. Cannibalism was already a regular practice in Māori wars. In another instance, on July 11, 1821, warriors from the Ngapuhi tribe killed 2,000 enemies and remained on the battlefield "eating the vanquished until they were driven off by the smell of decaying bodies". Māori warriors fighting the New Zealand government in Titokowaru's War in New Zealand's North Island in 1868–69 revived ancient rites of cannibalism as part of the radical Hauhau movement of the Pai Marire religion.
Other islands in the Pacific were home to cultures that allowed cannibalism to some degree. In parts of Melanesia, cannibalism was still practiced in the early 20th century, for a variety of reasons—including retaliation, to insult an enemy people, or to absorb the dead person's qualities. One tribal chief, Ratu Udre Udre in Rakiraki, Fiji, is said to have consumed 872 people and to have made a pile of stones to record his achievement. Fiji was nicknamed the "Cannibal Isles" by European sailors, who avoided disembarking there. The dense population of Marquesas Islands, Polynesia, was concentrated in the narrow valleys, and consisted of warring tribes, who sometimes practiced cannibalism on their enemies. W. D. Rubinstein wrote:
It was considered a great triumph among the Marquesans to eat the body of a dead man. They treated their captives with great cruelty. They broke their legs to prevent them from attempting to escape before being eaten, but kept them alive so that they could brood over their impending fate. ... With this tribe, as with many others, the bodies of women were in great demand.
This period of time was also rife with instances of explorers and seafarers resorting to cannibalism for survival. The survivors of the sinking of the French ship Méduse in 1816 resorted to cannibalism after four days adrift on a raft and their plight was made famous by Théodore Géricault's painting Raft of the Medusa. After the sinking of the Essex of Nantucket by a whale on 20 November 1820 (an important source event for Herman Melville's Moby-Dick), the survivors, in three small boats, resorted, by common consent, to cannibalism in order for some to survive. Sir John Franklin's lost polar expedition is another example of cannibalism out of desperation. On land, the Donner Party found itself stranded by snow in a high mountain pass in California without adequate supplies during the Mexican–American War, leading to several instances of cannibalism. Another notorious cannibal was mountain man Boone Helm, who was known as "The Kentucky Cannibal" for eating several of his fellow travelers, from 1850 until his eventual hanging in 1864.
The case of R v. Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273 (QB) is an English case which dealt with four crew members of an English yacht, the Mignonette, who were cast away in a storm some 1,600 miles (2,600 km) from the Cape of Good Hope. After several days, one of the crew, a seventeen-year-old cabin boy, fell unconscious due to a combination of the famine and drinking seawater. The others (one possibly objecting) decided then to kill him and eat him. They were picked up four days later. Two of the three survivors were found guilty of murder. A significant outcome of this case was that necessity was determined to be no defence against a charge of murder.
Roger Casement, writing to a consular colleague in Lisbon on August 3, 1903 from Lake Mantumba in the Congo Free State, said: "The people round here are all cannibals. You never saw such a weird looking lot in your life. There are also dwarfs (called Batwas) in the forest who are even worse cannibals than the taller human environment. They eat man flesh raw! It's a fact." Casement then added how assailants would "bring down a dwarf on the way home, for the marital cooking pot ... The Dwarfs, as I say, dispense with cooking pots and eat and drink their human prey fresh cut on the battlefield while the blood is still warm and running. These are not fairy tales my dear Cowper but actual gruesome reality in the heart of this poor, benighted savage land."
Further instances include cannibalism as ritual practice, in times of drought, famine and other destitution, as well as those being criminal acts and war crimes throughout the 20th century, and also 21st century.
In West Africa, the Leopard Society was a cannibalistic secret society that existed until the mid-1900s. Centered in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast, the Leopard men would dress in leopard skins, and waylay travelers with sharp claw-like weapons in the form of leopards' claws and teeth. The victims' flesh would be cut from their bodies and distributed to members of the society.
As in some other Papuan societies, the Urapmin people engaged in cannibalism in war. Notably, the Urapmin also had a system of food taboos wherein dogs could not be eaten and they had to be kept from breathing on food, unlike humans who could be eaten and with whom food could be shared.
The Aghoris are Indian ascetics who believe that eating human flesh confers spiritual and physical benefits, such as prevention of aging. They claim to only eat those who have voluntarily willed their body to the sect upon their death, although an Indian TV crew witnessed one Aghori feasting on a corpse discovered floating in the Ganges, and a member of the Dom caste reports that Aghoris often take bodies from the cremation ghat (or funeral pyre).
Survival was a moral as well as a physical struggle. A woman doctor wrote to a friend in June 1933 that she had not yet become a cannibal, but was "not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you." The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. ... At least 2,505 people were sentenced for cannibalism in the years 1932 and 1933 in Ukraine, though the actual number of cases was certainly much higher.
Prior to 1931, New York Times reporter William Buehler Seabrook, allegedly in the interests of research, obtained from a hospital intern at the Sorbonne a chunk of human meat from the body of a healthy human killed in an accident, then cooked and ate it. He reported, "It was like good, fully developed veal, not young, but not yet beef. It was very definitely like that, and it was not like any other meat I had ever tasted. It was so nearly like good, fully developed veal that I think no person with a palate of ordinary, normal sensitiveness could distinguish it from veal. It was mild, good meat with no other sharply defined or highly characteristic taste such as for instance, goat, high game, and pork have. The steak was slightly tougher than prime veal, a little stringy, but not too tough or stringy to be agreeably edible. The roast, from which I cut and ate a central slice, was tender, and in color, texture, smell as well as taste, strengthened my certainty that of all the meats we habitually know, veal is the one meat to which this meat is accurately comparable."
In his book, The Gulag Archipelago, Soviet writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described cases of cannibalism in 20th-century USSR. Of the famine in Povolzhie (1921–1922) he wrote: "That horrible famine was up to cannibalism, up to consuming children by their own parents — the famine, which Russia had never known even in Time of Troubles [in 1601–1603] ..."
He said of the Siege of Leningrad (1941–1944): "Those who consumed human flesh, or dealt with the human liver trading from dissecting rooms ... were accounted as the political criminals ..." And of the building of Northern Railway Labor Camp ("Sevzheldorlag") Solzhenitsyn reports, "An ordinary hard working political prisoner almost could not survive at that penal camp. In the camp Sevzheldorlag (chief: colonel Klyuchkin) in 1946–47 there were many cases of cannibalism: they cut human bodies, cooked and ate."
The Soviet journalist Yevgenia Ginzburg was a former long-term political prisoner who spent time in the Soviet prisons, Gulag camps and settlements from 1938 to 1955. She described in her memoir, Harsh Route (or Steep Route), of a case which she was directly involved in during the late 1940s, after she had been moved to the prisoners' hospital.
...The chief warder shows me the black smoked pot, filled with some food: 'I need your medical expertise regarding this meat.' I look into the pot, and hardly hold vomiting. The fibres of that meat are very small, and don't resemble me anything I have seen before. The skin on some pieces bristles with black hair (...) A former smith from Poltava, Kulesh worked together with Centurashvili. At this time, Centurashvili was only one month away from being discharged from the camp (...) And suddenly he surprisingly disappeared. The wardens looked around the hills, stated Kulesh's evidence, that last time Kulesh had seen his workmate near the fireplace, Kulesh went out to work and Centurashvili left to warm himself more; but when Kulesh returned to the fireplace, Centurashvili had vanished; who knows, maybe he got frozen somewhere in snow, he was a weak guy (...) The wardens searched for two more days, and then assumed that it was an escape case, though they wondered why, since his imprisonment period was almost over (...) The crime was there. Approaching the fireplace, Kulesh killed Centurashvili with an axe, burned his clothes, then dismembered him and hid the pieces in snow, in different places, putting specific marks on each burial place. ... Just yesterday, one body part was found under two crossed logs.
When Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed into the Andes on October 13, 1972, the survivors resorted to eating the deceased during their 72 days in the mountains. Their story was later recounted in the books Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors and Miracle in the Andes as well as the film Alive, by Frank Marshall, and the documentaries Alive: 20 Years Later (1993) and Stranded: I've Come from a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains (2008).
Cannibalism was reported by the journalist Neil Davis during the South East Asian wars of the 1960s and 1970s. Davis reported that Cambodian troops ritually ate portions of the slain enemy, typically the liver. However he, and many refugees, also report that cannibalism was practiced non-ritually when there was no food to be found. This usually occurred when towns and villages were under Khmer Rouge control, and food was strictly rationed, leading to widespread starvation. Any civilian caught participating in cannibalism would have been immediately executed.
On July 23, 1988, Rick Gibson ate the flesh of another person in public. Because England does not have a specific law against cannibalism, he legally ate a canapé of donated human tonsils in Walthamstow High Street, London. A year later, on April 15, 1989, he publicly ate a slice of human testicle in Lewisham High Street, London. When he tried to eat another slice of human testicle at the Pitt International Galleries in Vancouver on July 14, 1989, the Vancouver police confiscated the testicle hors d'œuvre. However, the charge of publicly exhibiting a disgusting object was dropped and he finally ate the piece of human testicle on the steps of the Vancouver court house on September 22, 1989.
In 1992, Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested after one of his intended victims managed to escape. Found in his apartment were two human hearts, an entire torso, a bag full of human organs from his victims and a portion of arm muscle. He stated that he planned to consume all of the body parts over the next few weeks.
In 2001, Armin Miewes killed and ate the flesh of a voluntary victim, Bernd Jürgen Brandis, this being understood by Miewes as a sexual act. Despite Brandis' consent, which was documented on video, German courts convicted Miewes of manslaughter, then murder, and sentenced him to life in prison.
World War II
Many instances of cannibalism by necessity were recorded during World War II. For example, during the 872-day Siege of Leningrad, reports of cannibalism began to appear in the winter of 1941–1942, after all birds, rats and pets were eaten by survivors. Leningrad police even formed a special division to combat cannibalism.
Some 2.8 million Soviet POWs died in Nazi custody in less than eight months during 1941–42. According to the USHMM, by the winter of 1941, "starvation and disease resulted in mass death of unimaginable proportions". This deliberate starvation led to many incidents of cannibalism.
Following the Soviet victory at Stalingrad it was found that some German soldiers in the besieged city, cut off from supplies, resorted to cannibalism. Later, following the German surrender in January 1943, roughly 100,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner of war (POW). Almost all of them were sent to POW camps in Siberia or Central Asia where, due to being chronically underfed by their Soviet captors, many resorted to cannibalism. Fewer than 5,000 of the prisoners taken at Stalingrad survived captivity.
The Australian War Crimes Section of the Tokyo tribunal, led by prosecutor William Webb (the future Judge-in-Chief), collected numerous written reports and testimonies that documented Japanese soldiers' acts of cannibalism among their own troops, on enemy dead, as well as on Allied prisoners of war in many parts of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In September 1942, Japanese daily rations on New Guinea consisted of 800 grams of rice and tinned meat. However, by December, this had fallen to 50 grams.:78–80 According to historian Yuki Tanaka, "cannibalism was often a systematic activity conducted by whole squads and under the command of officers".
In some cases, flesh was cut from living people. An Indian POW, Lance Naik Hatam Ali (later a citizen of Pakistan), testified that in New Guinea: "the Japanese started selecting prisoners and every day one prisoner was taken out and killed and eaten by the soldiers. I personally saw this happen and about 100 prisoners were eaten at this place by the Japanese. The remainder of us were taken to another spot 50 miles (80 kilometres) away where 10 prisoners died of sickness. At this place, the Japanese again started selecting prisoners to eat. Those selected were taken to a hut where their flesh was cut from their bodies while they were alive and they were thrown into a ditch where they later died."
Another well-documented case occurred in Chichi-jima in February 1945, when Japanese soldiers killed and consumed five American airmen. This case was investigated in 1947 in a war crimes trial, and of 30 Japanese soldiers prosecuted, five (Maj. Matoba, Gen. Tachibana, Adm. Mori, Capt. Yoshii, and Dr. Teraki) were found guilty and hanged. In his book Flyboys: A True Story of Courage, James Bradley details several instances of cannibalism of World War II Allied prisoners by their Japanese captors. The author claims that this included not only ritual cannibalization of the livers of freshly killed prisoners, but also the cannibalization-for-sustenance of living prisoners over the course of several days, amputating limbs only as needed to keep the meat fresh.
During the 1892–1894 war between the Congo Free State and the Swahili-Arab city-states of Nyangwe and Kasongo in Eastern Congo, there were reports of widespread cannibalization of the bodies of defeated Arab combatants by the Batetela allies of Belgian commander Francis Dhanis. The Batetela, "like most of their neighbors were inveterate cannibals." According to Dhanis' medical officer, Captain Hinde, their town of Ngandu had "at least 2,000 polished human skulls" as a "solid white pavement in front" of its gates, with human skulls crowning every post of the stockade.
In April 1892, 10,000 of the Batetela, under the command of Gongo Lutete, joined forces with Dhanis in a campaign against the Swahili-Arab leaders Sefu and Mohara. After one early skirmish in the campaign, Hinde "noticed that the bodies of both the killed and wounded had vanished." When fighting broke out again, Hinde saw his Batetela allies drop human arms, legs and heads on the road. One young Belgian officer wrote home: "Happily Gongo's men ate them up [in a few hours]. It's horrible but exceedingly useful and hygenic ... I should have been horrified at the idea in Europe! But it seems quite natural to me here. Don't show this letter to anyone indiscreet." After the massacre at Nyangwe, Lutete "hid himself in his quarters, appalled by the sight of thousands of men smoking human hands and human chops on their camp fires, enough to feed his army for many days."
In the 1980s, Médecins Sans Frontières, the international medical charity, supplied photographic and other documentary evidence of ritualized cannibal feasts among the participants in Liberia's internecine strife to representatives of Amnesty International who were on a fact-finding mission to the neighboring state of Guinea. However, Amnesty International declined to publicize this material; the Secretary-General of the organization, Pierre Sane, said at the time in an internal communication that "what they do with the bodies after human rights violations are committed is not part of our mandate or concern". The existence of cannibalism on a wide scale in Liberia was subsequently verified.
The self-declared Emperor of the Central African Empire, Jean-Bédel Bokassa (Emperor Bokassa I), was tried on October 24, 1986, for several cases of cannibalism although he was never convicted. Between April 17, and April 19, 1979, a number of elementary school students were arrested after they had protested against wearing the expensive, government-required school uniforms. Around 100 were killed. Bokassa is said to have participated in the massacre, beating some of the children to death with his cane and allegedly ate some of his victims.
Cannibalism has been reported in several recent African conflicts, including the Second Congo War, and the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. A UN human rights expert reported in July 2007 that sexual atrocities against Congolese women go "far beyond rape" and include sexual slavery, forced incest, and cannibalism. This may be done in desperation, as during peacetime cannibalism is much less frequent; at other times, it is consciously directed at certain groups believed to be relatively helpless, such as Congo Pygmies, even considered subhuman by some other Congolese. It is also reported by some that witch doctors sometimes use the body parts of children in their medicine. In the 1970s the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was reputed to practice cannibalism.
Reports of widespread cannibalism began to emerge from North Korea during the famine of the 1990s and subsequent ongoing starvation. Kim Jong-il was reported to have ordered a crackdown on cannibalism in 1996. Chinese travellers reported in 1998 that cannibalism had occurred. Three people in North Korea were reported to have been executed for selling or eating human flesh in 2006. Further reports of cannibalism emerged in early 2013, including reports of a man executed for killing his two children for food.
There are competing claims about how widespread cannibalism was in North Korea. While refugees reported that it was widespread. In her 2010 book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea Barbara Demick wrote that it did not seem to be.
During Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, local governments' documents revealed hundreds of incidents of cannibalism for ideological reasons. Public events for cannibalism were organised by local Communist Party officials, and people took part in them together in order to prove their revolutionary passion. The writer Zheng Yi documented incidents of cannibalism in Guangxi province in 1968 in his 1993 book, Scarlet Memorial: Tales Of Cannibalism In Modern China.
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