10 cannibalism facts

It’s the ultimate taboo in most communities – the eating of human flesh. Yet, reports of it pop up in the news every few months, such as the alarming story of a naked man shot dead by police while he was eating the face of another naked man beneath a highway pass in Miami.

What on earth motivates anyone to do this? The answer’s not that simple, according to the experts. It could be a matter of survival (the only type of cannibalism with which people seem to have sympathy), part of a religious ritual, or it could be sexually motivated.

In the past, an accusation of cannibalism was often used to make certain tribes or people seem depraved, and therefore justified their being carted off into slavery. In other words, if they were so terrible that they ate each other, then slavery was actually a step up in the world for them.

There have been many widely publicised incidents involving cannibalism. These range from incidents during a time of war, sailors on life-rafts at sea, and people who have been stranded somewhere inhospitable for a lengthy period of time. For some reason, people find the idea of cannibalism fascinating, possibly because the thought is so revolting.

Most acts of cannibalism are acts of desperation – during peacetime cannibalism is very rare in all countries.

Here are some facts on cannibalism:

  • Sexual cannibalism has hit the news in the last decade or so. Several predators have used the internet to find victims. Armin Meiwes advertised that he was looking for someone to eat – and actually got a reply. He promptly slaughtered and ate Jürgen Brandes, and was convicted of manslaughter. Jeffrey Dahmer killed and presumably ate portions of 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991. He was killed by another prisoner in 1994.  
  • Sexual cannibalism is one of the most rare and extreme sexual fetishes. People who have fantasies of slaughtering and eating someone seldom do something about it. They appear to be happy with keeping it in the realm of fantasy.  
  • Many fairytales contain references to cannibalism. Hansel and Gretel is the most obvious example.  
  • The Aztecs are believed to have cannibalised thousands of people each year in order to appease their gods.  
  • There are two types of cannibalism: exocannibalism and endocannibalism. The first type is defined as eating members of another group (conquered enemies, for instance) and the second one, the eating of members of your own group, usually associated with ritual burial ceremonies. A widespread belief was that by eating the flesh of a person, you gained their knowledge and skills.  
  • In Papua New Guinea, many tribes practised cannibalism for ritualistic purposes until the 1960s. It was found that many of them suffered from a disease called “kuru”, which they had contracted from eating human tissue. It was thought to be a form of human “mad cow disease”.  
  • Famine often leads to survival cannibalism. Well-documented cases include the famines in Egypt (1073 – 1064) when the Nile failed to flood for eight years, the Great Famine in Europe in 1315 – 1317 and the famine in China from 1958 - 1961 (when Mao Zedong’s agricultural policies went horribly wrong).  
  • Cannibalism is often seen to be the height of savage behaviour. People who have eaten human flesh, for whatever reason, tend to be viewed with scorn and disgust.  
  • In 1972, an Uruguayan rugby team flew across the Andes and crashed. Fifteen people died in the crash and several in an avalanche or from starvation. The remaining passengers ended up eating the flesh of the victims in order to survive. They were only rescued 72 days later. 
  • Early Christians were often wrongly persecuted by the Romans, because it was thought that they indulged in cannibalism during their communion rites. Many people died because of this error.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24.com, updated May 2012)

(Sources: archaeology.about.com, crimelibrary.com)

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