Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Cannibalism' is the act or practice of eating members of the same species, e.g. humans eating humans (sometimes called anthropophagy), or dogs eating dogs. Among humans, this practice has been attributed to people in the past all over the world, including rituals connected to tribal warfare. The degree to which cannibalism has actually occurred and been socially sanctioned is an extremely controversial subject in anthropology with some anthropologists arguing that cannibalism is almost non-existent and viewing claims of cannibalism with extreme skepticism, while others argue the practice was common in pre-state societies.
Several archaeologists have claimed that some ruins in the American Southwest contain evidence of cannibalism. Individual cases in other countries have been seen with mentally unstable persons, criminals, and, in unconfirmed rumors, by religious zealots. In the US, the Donner party is a case of cannibalism due to hunger. There are claims, which are not without controversy, that cannibalism was widespread during the famine in Ukraine in 1930s, during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II, as well as during the Chinese Civil War and the Great Leap Forward in China.
For some species, cannibalism under certain well-defined circumstances, such as the female red-back spider eating the male after mating, is believed to be a common, if not invariable, part of the life cycle. Larger octopus preying upon smaller ones is commonly observed in the wild. In vertebrates (except for many fish), cannibalism is not generally observed to be uniformly routine or widespread for any given species, but may develop in extremes such as captivity or a desperate food shortage. For instance, a domestic sow may eat her newborn young, though this behavior has not been observed in the wild. It is also known that rabbits, mice, rats, or hamsters will eat their young if their nest is repeatedly threatened by predators. In some species adults are known to destroy and sometimes eat young of their species to whom they are not closely related--famously, the chimpanzees observed by Dr. Jane Goodall. Some of these observations have been questioned (for example by Stephen Jay Gould) as possible products of sloppy research. For example, while there are many observations of female praying mantises eating their mates after copulation, there are no known observations of this occurring in the wild; it has only been observed in captivity.
Cannibalism among humans
It is generally accepted that accusations of cannibalism have historically been much more common than the act itself. During the years of British colonial expansion slavery was actually considered to be illegal, unless the people involved were so depraved that their conditions as slaves would be better than as free men. Demonstrations of cannibalistic tendencies were considered evidence for this, and hence reports of cannibalism became widespread.
A few historians, mainly Japanese historians of China in the late 19th and early 20th century, such as Kuwabara Jitsuzo have claimed the Chinese civilization has a rich history of cannibalism as there are many literary references to cannibalism in Chinese literature and points out many references in classic Chinese literature to people eating human flesh. More recently, Lu Xun uses cannibalism as a motif in some of his short stories. In addition there are widespread rumors that cannibalism was practiced during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. However, there is no strong evidence outside of literary references that cannibalism was socially sanctioned in ancient China, nor has there been any definitive studies that suggest that cannibalism was common during the 20th century in China.
Marvin Harris has analyzed cannibalism and other food taboos . He thinks that it was common among bands, but disappeared in the transition to states, the Aztecs being exception.
Other more contemporary reports have also been called into question. The well known case of mortuary cannibalism of the Fore tribe in New Guinea which resulted in the spread of the disease Kuru is well documented and not seriously questioned by modern anthropologists. This case, however, has also been questioned by those claiming that although post-mortem dismemberment was the practice during funeral rites, cannibalism was not. Marvin Harris theorizes that it happened during a famine period coincident with the arrival of Europeans and rationalized as a religious rite.
The cannibal name is a corruption of caribal, the Spanish word for Carib. There is verbal confluence here. Christopher Columbus originally assumed the natives of Cuba were subjects of the Great Khan of China or 'Kannibals'. Prepared to meet the Great Khan, he had aboard Arabic and Hebrew speakers to translate. Then thinking he heard Caniba or Canima, he thought that these were the dog-headed men (cane-bal) described in Mandeville. Others (Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, Volume XIV, 1905: 451) claim that "Cannibal" meant "valiant man" in the language of the Caribs. Richard Hakluyt's Voyages introduced the word to English. Shakespeare transposed it, anagram-fashion, to name his monster servant in The Tempest 'Caliban'. The Caribs called themselves Kallinago which may have meant 'valiant'. (Raymond Breton 1647, Relations on the Caribs of Dominica and Guadalupe)
Cannibalism was reported in Mexico, the flower wars of the Aztec Empire being considered as the most massive manifestation of cannibalism, but the Aztec accounts, written after the conquest, reported that human flesh was considered by itself to be of no value, and usually thrown away and replaced with turkey. There are only two Aztec accounts on this subject: one comes from the Ramirez codex, and the most elaborated account on this subject comes from Juan Bautista de Pomar, the grandson of Netzahualcoyotl, tlatoani of Texcoco. The accounts differ little. Juan Bautista wrote that after the sacrifice, the Aztec warriors received the body of the victim, then they boiled it to separate the flesh from the bones, then they would cut the meat in very little pieces, and send them to important people, even from other towns; the recipient would rarely eat the meat, since they considered it an honour, but the meat had no value by itself. In exchange, the warrior would get jewels, decorated blankets, precious feathers and slaves; the purpose was to encourage successful warriors. There were only two ceremonies a year where war captives were sacrificed. Although the Aztec empire has been called "The Cannibal Kingdom", there is no evidence in support of it being a widespread custom. Aztecs believed that there were man-eating tribes in the south of Mexico; the only ilustration known showing an act of cannibalism shows an Aztec being eaten by a tribe from the south (Florentine Codex). In the siege of Tenochtitlan, there was a severe hunger in the city; people reportedly ate lizards, grass, insects, and mud from the lake, but there are no reports on cannibalism of the dead bodies.
The friar Diego de Landa reported about Yucatán instances, Yucatan before and after the Conquest, translated from Relación de las cosas de Yucatan, 1566 (New York: Dover Publications, 1978: 4). Similarly, by Purchas from Popayan, Colombia, and from the Marquesas Islands of Polynesia, where man-eating was called long-pig (Alanna King, ed., Robert Louis Stevenson in the South Seas, London: Luzac Paragon House, 1987: 45-50). It is recorded about the natives of the captaincy of Sergipe in Brazil, They eat human flesh when they can get it, and if a woman miscarries devour the abortive immediately. If she goes her time out, she herself cuts the navel-string with a shell, which she boils along with the secondine, and eats them both. (See E. Bowen, 1747: 532.)
The autobiography of famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera claims that during a period in 1904, he and his companions ate "nothing but cadavers" purchased from the local morgue. Rivera was fully aware of the shock value of this tale. Rivera claims that he thought cannibalism a way of the future, remarking "I believe that when man evolves a civilization higher than the mechanized but still primitive one he has now, the eating of human flesh will be sanctioned. For then man will have thrown off all of his superstitions and irrational taboos." Readers may be reminded of the savage satire of Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal.
In the 1930s, during the widespread hunger in Ukraine, cannibalism was very common. According to BBC, children were eaten by their parents, spouses sometimes killed each other for food. Some 7 million people died during the two worst years of hunger, but many deaths were actually due to cannibalism. Ukraine is still the country with the highest number of living cannibals. 
Historical cannibalism incidents
In Europe during the Great Famine of 1315-1317, at a time when Dante was writing one of the greatest pieces of literature in western history and the Renaissance was just beginning, there were widespread reports of cannibalism throughout Europe. Despite the documentary evidence from chroniclers of the time in every country from Russia to Ireland, many historians have since denied these reports as fanciful and ambiguous, perhaps saying more about the inability to attribute the acts usually associated with "the other" to our own history, than people doing whatever it took to survive.
In the 1800s, in the state of Colorado, a man named Alferd Packer was accused of killing and eating his travelling companions. He was later released due to a legal technicality, and maintained that he was innocent of the murders throughout his life. However, modern forensic evidence, unavailable during Packer's lifetime, indicates that he did indeed murder and/or eat several of his companions. The story of Alferd Packer was satirically and tastelessly told in the Trey Parker comedy/horror film, Cannibal! The Musical, released in 1996 by Troma Studios.
On October 13, 1972, an Uruguayan rugby team flew across the Andes to play a game in Chile. The plane crashed near the border between Chile and Argentina. After several weeks of starvation and struggle for survival, the numerous survivors decided to eat the bodies of the deceased in order to survive. They were rescued over two months later. See Andes flight disaster.
Cannibalism in war
Documentary and forensic evidence supports eyewitness accounts of cannibalism by Japanese troops during World War II. This practice was resorted to when food ran out, even with Japanese soldiers killing and eating each other when enemy civilians were not available. In other cases, enemy soldiers were executed and then dissected, the liver and other organs being consumed for psychopathological reasons.
Some American Indian tribes believed that by eating part of your enemy one could gain a particular characteristic of the deceased rival (Ex: Eating the heart of a brave opponent would help you gain more courage).
'Cannibalism' as cultural libel
Unsubstantiated reports of cannibalism disproportionately relate cases of cannibalism among cultures that are already otherwise despised, feared, or are little known. The 'Blood libel' that accused Jews of eating Christian children is an example. In antiquity, Greek reports of anthropophagy were related to distant, non-Hellenic barbarians, or else relegated in myth to the 'primitive' chthonic world that preceded the coming of the Olympian gods. In 1994, printed booklets reported that in a Yugoslavian concentration camp of Manjaca the Bosnian refugees were forced to eat each other's bodies. The reports were false.
William Arens , author of The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (New York : Oxford University Press, 1979; ISBN 0195027930), downplays the truth of reports of cannibalism and argues that the description by one group of people of another people as cannibals is an ideological and rhetorical device to establish moral superiority over them. Arens bases most of his thesis on ridiculing the accuracy of Hans Staden's pedo of being prisoner among the Tupi. How could Staden have understood the Tupi? The English translation available to Arens was incomplete. In "La Mia Prigionia tra i Cannibali, 1553-1555, (Longanesi & C, Milan, 1970) the text gives the Tupi phrase then the translation as does the original German text. Arens thesis is based on an incomplete text. Staden was a fluent speaker of Tupi and Tupimani. Arens says there is no single eyewitness account of cannibalism.
Arens also writes,
"Anthropologists have made no serious attempt to disabuse the public of the widespread notion of the ubiquity of anthropophagists. … in the deft hands and fertile imaginations of anthropologists, former or contemporary anthropophagists have multiplied with the advance of civilization and fieldwork in formerly unstudied culture areas. …The existence of man-eating peoples just beyond the pale of civilization is a common ethnographic suggestion."
Conversely, Michel de Montaigne's essay "Of cannibals" introduced a new multicultural note in European civilization. Montaigne wrote that "one calls 'barbarism' whatever he is not accustomed to." By using a title like that and describing a fair indigean society, Montaigne may wished to provoke a surprise in the reader of his Essays.
Sexualized cannibalism (fantasies and real)
The wide use of the Internet has highlighted that thousands of people harbor sexualized cannibalistic fantasies. Discussion forums and user groups exist for the exchange of pictures and stories of such fantasies. A good example of such fantasies is provided by the works of Dolcett. Typically, people in such forums fantasize about eating or being eaten by members of their sexually preferred gender. As such, the cannibalism fetish or paraphilia is one of the most extreme sexual fetishes.
Rarely ever do such fetishes leave the realm of fantasies (aided by modern technology for photo modification or completely computer generated images). There have been extreme cases of real life sexualized cannibalism, such as those of the serial killers Albert Fish, Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, Sascha Spesiwtsew, and Fritz Haarmann ("the Butcher of Hannover").
Another well-known case involved a Japanese student of English literature, Issei Sagawa, who grew fond of Renee Hartevelt , a 25 year old Dutch woman he met while studying at the Sorbonne Academy in Paris in 1981. He eventually murdered and ate her, writing a graphic yet poignant description of the act. Declared unfit to stand trial in France, his wealthy father had him extradited back to Japan where he eventually regained his freedom. The way he reveled in what he did made him a national celebrity, and he has written several bestselling novels and continues to write a nationally syndicated column. The story is the subject of a verse in the 1986 Rolling Stones song "Too Much Blood".
In December 2002, a highly unusual case was uncovered in the town of Rotenburg in Hessen, Germany. In 2001 Armin Meiwes, an 41-year-old computer administrator, had posted messages like his more recent ones (see messages) in Internet newsgroups on the subject of cannibalism, repeatedly looking for "a young Boy, between 18 and 25 y/o" to butcher. At least one of his requests was successful: Jürgen B., another computer administrator, offered himself to be slaughtered. The two men agreed on a meeting. Jürgen B. was, with his consent, killed and eaten by Armin M. Meiwes, who, as a result, was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in jail for manslaughter (Totschlag, less than murder but more than killing on demand). The band Rammstein took up this case in the song Mein Teil.
This was not the first consensual killing mediated through the Internet, but it is the first such known case of consensual cannibalism.
Cannibal themes in myth or religion
On a primitive level, ritually eating part of the slaughtered enemy is a way of assuming the life-spirit of the departed. In a funeral ritual this may also be done with a respected member of one's own clan, ensuring immortality. Cannibal ogresses appear in folklore around the world, the witch in 'Hansel and Gretel' being the most immediate example. On the mythological level the cannibal mother is magnified to a universal principal, such as the Hindu goddess Kali, the Black One. In one such tale, the Gods are up against the demons led by Raktabeeja found that each time he was killed, more demons arose from each blood that dropped to the ground. Durga cornered and killed Raktabeeja , while Kali drank his blood to ensure none of it falls to the ground. The story of Cronos in Greek mythology also demonstrates the theme of cannibalism. Some authorities have detected allusions to cannibalism in the earliest religious writings of the ancient Egyptians. The opening of Hell, the Zoroastrian contribution to Western mythology, is a mouth. According to Catholic dogma, bread and wine are transubstantiated into the real flesh and blood of Jesus, which is then distributed by the priest to the faithful. For this reason, Catholics in pagan times were sometimes accused of cannibalism by suspicious non-Christians.
Cannibalism as "sympathetic magic"
This is a subset of the general idea of eating a totem to absorb its distinctive power, much like tiger penis is eaten to promote virility. By eating our enemy, we take his power into ourselves. Some also consider this idea to be at the root of the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation: to acquire divinity (immortality, sinlessnes) by absorption, by eating the flesh of God. (However, the more likely Biblical theological and historical roots of this are pertaining to the sacrificial offering of Christ and its reference to the representations in the Jewish Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread , which was being celebrated during the Last Supper.)
Cannibalism As a Funeral Rite
Several cultures have been known to eat their dead loved ones as a matter of course, such as the Fore tribe of New Guinea (see above). It was also supposed to be a practice down in ancient India, and perhaps several other places; however, since it was often done in societies that did not keep accurate records, exact studies of this may be hard to find.
Cannibalism in fiction
Warning: in some cases, this information may spoil the story
Some examples of cannibalism in fiction are:
- William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, in which a character is unknowingly served a pie made from the remains of her two sons
- H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, an 1896 science fiction novel
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. Among (non-human) Martians, eating one's dead friends is an act of great respect. Some humans adopt the practice.
- Soylent Green, a 1973 science fiction film starring Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, and Joseph Cotten (Soylent Green is the processed remains of corpses rendered into small green crackers)
- Secrets, a 1973 TV comedy play by Michael Palin and Terry Jones in which some chocolate factory workers fall into a mixing vat and become part of the confectionery
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, (1974) and its sequels
- Hannibal Lecter, a fictional character created by Thomas Harris in the 1983 novel Red Dragon, but most famously depicted in Harris's The Silence of the Lambs, released in 1988, and Hannibal
- Patrick Bateman, a fictional character created by Bret Easton Ellis in the 1987 novel The Rules of Attraction, but most famously depicted in Ellis's American Psycho, released in 1991
- The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover , a 1989 film written and directed by Peter Greenaway
- Delicatessen, a 1991 comedy film written and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro
- Eating Raoul, a 1982 black comedy by Paul Bartel
- Sweeney Todd
- The famous writer Lu Xun penned a story the Diary of a Madman in which a madman gradually became convinced that the history of Chinese civilization could be summarized in two words, "eat people", and that his friends and relatives all intend to eat him. Also Auntie Xianglin, a 1918 short story.
- Parents, a 1989 film directed by Bob Balaban about a disturbed young boy who suspects his parents are cooking more than just hamburgers on their bbq grill.
- Ravenous, a 1999 black comedy written by Ted Griffen and directed by Antonia Bird . Based loosely on the Donner Party true story.
- Sin City, a film by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez
- Cannibal! The Musical, a fictionalized account of Alfred Packer's cannibalism written and directed by Trey Parker of South Park fame.
- Androphagi, an ancient nation of cannibals
- Boyd Massacre, where indigenous Maori killed and ate almost 70 crew members of a ship that flogged the son of a chief
- Cannibalization, a business term where one product takes sales from another product
- Alexander "Sawney" Bean, the head of a mythical Scottish family of 48 who murdered and cannibalized over 1000 people.
- Alferd Packer, a Colorado cannibal
- Donner Party, a group of people who resorted to cannibalism when snowbound
- Liver-Eating Johnson
- Mechanics sometimes use the verb cannibalize for dismantling one vehicle or other machine to get parts to repair another.
- Sumanto, an Indonesian cannibal.
- Butchering the Human Carcass for Human Consumption, by Bob Arson Food for thought on how to prepare the human body into choice cuts of meat.
- The Cannibalism Paradigm: Assessing Contact Period Ethnohistorical Discourse, by James Q. Jacobs. A critical, academic review of Mesoamerican cannibalism claims.
- BBC article about German cannibalism case
- In Defence of Cannibalism. 1982 essay by philosopher Richard Routley which examines whether and under what circumstances (e.g. eating those who died from natural causes) cannibalism might be morally acceptable.
- Harry J. Brown, 'Hans Staden among the Tupinambas.'
- Markman Ellis, "Crusoe, cannibalism and empire." Robinson Crusoe's fearful ruminations on cannibals, and Capt. Cook's reports of Maori cannibalism, which were convincing to many 18th and 19th century Europeans, though not to all modern anthropologists, set into the context of colonial empire-building.
- History and ethical considerations of cannibalism
- Lyrics and English translation of Mein Teil, the Rammstein song about the Meiwes incident
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