CannibalismCannibalism 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 in Europe, the Amazon Basin, Mexico, Caribbean, Africa,
China, Fiji, and New Guinea, including in 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 anthpologists arguing the cannibalism is almost non-existent and viewing
claims of cannibalism with extreme skepticism, while others arguing that is was common in pre-state societies.
Several archaeologists have claimed that some ruins in the American Southwest contain evidence of cannibalism. Individual cases in other countries have been seen with mentally unstable persons, criminals, and, in unconfirmed rumors, by religious zealots. In the US, the Donner party is a case of cannibalism due to hunger. There are claims, which are not without controversy, that cannibalism was widespread during the hungry years in the Ukraine in 1930s as well as during the Chinese Civil War and the Great Leap Forward in China.
For some species, cannibalism under certain well-defined circumstances, such as the female black widow spider eating the male after mating, is believed to be a common, if not invariable, part of the life cycle. In vertebrates (except for many fish), cannibalism is not generally observed to be uniformly routine or widespread for any given species, but may develop in extremes such as captivity or a desperate food shortage. For instance, a domestic sow may eat her newborn young, though this behavior has not been observed in the wild. It is also known that rabbits, mice, rats, or hamsters will eat their young if their nest is repeatedly threatened by predators. In some species adults are known to destroy and sometimes eat young of their species to whom they are not closely related--famously, the chimpanzees observed by Dr. Jane Goodall. Some of these observations have been questioned (for example by Stephen Jay Gould) as possible products of sloppy research. For example, while there are many observations of female praying mantises eating their mates after copulation, there are no known observations of this occurring in the wild; it has only been observed in captivity.
Cannibalism among humans
The accusation of cannibalism has historically been much more common than the act itself. During the years of British colonial expansion slavery was actually considered to be illegal, unless the people involved were so depraved that their conditions as slaves would be better than as free men. Demonstration of cannibalistic tendencies were considered evidence for this, and hence reports of cannibalism became widespread.
A few historians, many Japanese historians of China in the late 19th and early 20th century, such as Kuwabara Jitsuzo have claimed
the Chinese civilization has a rich history of cannibalism as there are many literary references to cannibalism
in Chinese literature and points out many references in classic Chinese literature to people killing and eating
the flesh of others. More recently, Lu Xun uses cannibalism as a motif in some of his short stories. In addition there are widespread rumors that cannibalism was practiced during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. However, there is no strong evidence outside of literary references
that cannibalism was socially sanctioned in ancient China, nor has there been any definitive studies that suggest that cannibalism was common during the 20th century in China.
Marvin Harris has analyzed cannibalism and other food 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 Khann of China or 'Kannibals'. Prepared to meet the Great Khann, he had aboard Arabic and Hebrew speakers to translate. Then thinking he heard Caniba or Canima, he thought that these were the dog-headed men (cane-bal) described in Mandeville. Others (Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, Volume XIV, 1905: 451) claim that "Cannibal" meant "valiant man" in the language of the Caribs. Richard Hakluyt's Voyages introduced the word to English. Shakespeare transposed it, anagram-fashion, to name his monster servant in The Tempest 'Caliban'. The Caribs called themselves Kallinago which may have meant 'valiant'. (Raymond Breton 1647, Relations on the Caribs of Dominica and Guadalupe)j
Cannibalism was reported in Mexico, the flower wars of the Aztec Empire being the most massive manifestation of cannibalism. 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 Seregipe 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 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. This case was made into a highly fictionalised movie in the 1980s by director Trey Parker, called Cannibal! The Musical. This film is currently available on VHS and DVD, from Troma Entertainment.
On October 13, 1972, a Fairchild FH-227 twin turboprop airplane departed from Montevideo carrying the Uruguayan rugby team from the Stella Maris (Christian Brothers) school, who were on the way to play a friendly game in Chile. Along with the team where some relatives and friends. The plane crashed in the Andes near the border between Chile and Argentina. After several weeks of starvation and struggle for survival, the numerous survivors decided to eat the body of the deceased in order to survive. On the 62nd day of their ordeal, three men of the survivors of the airplane crash (Nando Parrado, Roberto Canessa, and Antonio Vizintin) decided to venture down in the ice and snow, and finally saw a man with a horse, who helped to take them to a telephone. A military helicopter of Chile arrived and saved the rest of the people.
The movie "" (1993 dir. Frank Marshall) narrates this story, which is one of (if not the most) notable cases of surviving cannibalism in modern history.
Cannibalism is known to have been practised by the participants of the First Crusade. Some of the crusaders fed on the bodies of their dead opponents after the capture of the Arab town of Ma'arat. It was also practised by foraging parties on the later stages of the march on Jerusalem. In both cases, it seems possible that it may have been due to a combination of causes; in addition to hunger, there was also the feverish state of mind of the crusaders, and perhaps a desire to terrorise their opponents. Some Crusaders refused to eat the bodies of fellow Christians, but were not adverse to eating the bodies of defeated Muslims.
Sir John Franklin's lost polar expedition and Donner Party of the American Westward Migration are example of human cannibalism.
Some people claim cannibalism took place during the WWII siege of Leningrad.    Documentary and forensic evidence supports eyewitness accounts of cannibalism by Japanese troops during the war. This practice was resorted to when food ran out, even with Japanese soldiers killing and eating each other when enemy civilian were not available. In other cases, enemy soldiers were executed and then dissected, the liver and other organs being consumed for psychopathological reasons.
'Cannibalism' as cultural libel
Unsubstantiated reports of cannibalism disproportionately relate cases of cannibalism among cultures that are already otherwise despised, feared, or are little known. The 'Blood libel' that accused Jews of eating Christian children is a notorious example. In antiquity, Greek reports of anthropophagy were related to distant, non-Hellenic barbarians, or else relegated in myth to the 'primitive' chthonic world that preceded the coming of the Olympian gods. In 1994, printed booklets reported that in a Yugoslavian concentration camp of Manjaca the Bosnian refugees were forced to eat each other's bodies. These reports await confirmation.
William Arens, author of The Man-Eating Myth (1979), downplays veracity of reports of cannibalism and argues that the description by one group of people of another people as cannibals is an ideological and rhetorical device to establish moral superiority over them. Arens bases most of his thesis on ridiculing the accuracy of Hads Staden's account of being prisoner among the Tupi. How could Staden have understood the Tupi? The English translation available to Arens was incomplete. In "La Mia Prigionia tra i Cannibali, 1553-1555, (Longanesi & C, Milan, 1970) the text gives the Tupi phrase then the translation as does the original German text. Arens thesis is based on a incomplete text. Staden was a fluent speaker of Tupi and Tupimani. Arens says there is no single eyewitness account of cannibalism.
In a recent work, The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Oxford University Press, New York, Arens (1979) writes,
"Anthropologists have made no serious attempt to disabuse the public of the widespread notion of the ubiquity of anthropophagists. … in the deft hands and fertile imaginations of anthropologists, former or contemporary anthropophagists have multiplied with the advance of civilization and fieldwork in formerly unstudied culture areas. …The existence of man-eating peoples just beyond the pale of civilization is a common ethnographic suggestion."
Conversely, Montaigne's essay "Of cannibals" introduced a new multicultural note in European civilization. Montaigne wrote that "one calls 'barbarism' whatever he is not accustomed to."
Sexualized cannibalism (fantasies and real)
The wide use of the Internet has highlighted that thousands of people harbor sexualized cannibalistic fantasies. Discussion forums and user groups exist for the exchange of pictures and stories of such fantasies. Typically, people in such forums fantasize about eating or being eaten by members of their sexually preferred gender. As such, the cannibalism 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 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 a German woman he met while studying at the Sorbonne Academy in Paris. He eventually murdered and ate her, writing a graphic yet poignant description of the act. Declared unfit to stand trial in France, his wealthy father had him extradited back to Japan where he eventually regained his freedom. The way he reveled in what he did made him a national celebrity, and he has written several bestselling novels and continues to write a nationally syndicated column.
In December 2002, a highly unusual case was uncovered in the town of Rotenburg in Hessen, Germany. In 2001 Armin Meiwes, an 41-year-old computer administrator, had posted messages like his more recent ones (see messages) in Internet newsgroups on the subject of cannibalism, repeatedly looking for "a young Boy, between 18 and 25 y/o" to butcher. At least one of his requests was successful: Jürgen B., another computer administrator, offered himself to be slaughtered. The two men agreed on a meeting. Jürgen B. was, with his consent, killed and eaten by Armin M. Meiwes, who, as a result, was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in jail for manslaughter (Totschlag, less than murder but more than killing on demand)
This is not the first consensual killing mediated through the Internet, but it is the first such known case of consensual cannibalism.
The existing cases of sexualized cannibalism involved homosexuals to a disproportionate extent. Some observers have linked this to the higher likelihood of homosexuals to suppress their sexual urges. Armin M., for example, came from a conservative family, and in spite of having homosexual fantasies, had several unsuccessful heterosexual relationships.
Cannibal themes in myth
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. The opening of Hell, the Zoroastrian contribution to Western mythology, is a mouth.
According to Catholic dogma, bread and wine are transubstantiated into Jesus Christ's real blood and flesh, which is then distributed by the priest to the faithful.
Cannibalism in fiction
Some examples of cannibalism in fiction are:
- 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.' A German shipwrecked among a Brazilian tribe made them famous for their cannibalism and cruelty, sensationally depicted in crude woodcuts (1557), in an early captivity narrative. 'Then they butchered the corpses of the vanquished enemies and cooked them on a wooden barbecue called a boucan, while old women dabbed their fingers in the fat dripping away from the flames, old men reclined contentedly in hammocks, and children played ball with the discarded heads and plucked out their eyes as if they were plucking cherries.' "These popular visual representations of Native Americans were shaped as much by political and religious conflicts in the Old World as by actual observations of the people of the New World." says Brown.
- 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.
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