There are so many, many bad things in the world, but for some weird visceral reason, cannibalism is considered just about the worst. Depending on your point of view, it rises above even such criminal abominations as pedophilia, rape and genocide, but in the final analysis, it's what's for dinner. Then again, we live in a culture in which people would run vomiting to the bathroom if they saw what went into making their McDonald's hamburgers, in which a cow is brutally killed with blunt-force trauma, its innards are outered, and then the whole thing is ground up into a mealy paste, intestines, feces, bones and all.
With McDonald's, you can mentally blank out the process in favor of focusing on the tasty fat-and-gristle laden product. With cannibalism, there is a nearly unavoidable tendency to linger on the details of the process -- removing the limbs, peeling the skin, roasting it over an open flame, etc., etc. And do we really taste like chicken?
Cannibalism is, of course, the eating of one's own species. It should be distinguished from vampirism, which is the drinking of human blood. If you cut a fellow human up into little pieces and puree him or her in a blender, that would technically be cannibalism and not vampirism.
There are two kinds of cannibalism -- sociological and pathological. The former means living and eating in a culture where cannibalism is accepted, and the latter means practicing cannibalism within a culture where it's not accepted.
There is a lot of controversy over the idea of sociological cannibalism, mostly because reports of its existence have been greatly exaggerated. Ever since human society expanded past the tribal stage, the charge of cannibalism has served as a primary justification for one social collective (European nation, Western religion, Aztecs) to annihilate another, usually militarily inferior social collective (aborigines, pagans, Mayans). In many cases, these charges were wholly fabricated. Reports of social cannibalism are mostly pointed at the Americas and Africa, since these were the primary continents subjected to European killing and conquest sprees from the Middle Ages through modern times. Despite the political convenience of these claims, there are documented examples of cannibalistic cultures and practices.
There's no evidence that the Native Americans encountered in North America by the first European settlers had any history of cannibalism, although the accusation was repeated often enough. But there are some isolated examples that have been confirmed by recent research. Most demonstrable cannibal practices in North America were in the distant past, far earlier than Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In South America and Africa, there are more recent reports, or at least allegations.
Unfortunately for the weak of heart, we're all descended from cannibals. Recent genetic studies revealed that almost all humans have genes designed to provide immunity to certain diseases which can only be transmitted by eating human brains.
Based on what we know of recent tribal practices, it's generally thought that cannibalism was not treated like a night out at "Red Lobster," at least not within the time frame of the last 4,000 to 6,000 years. Instead, it usually was a spiritual ritual. In some cases, the bodies of enemies were consumed in order to absorb the enemies' strength; in other cases, the bodies of ancestors and relatives were consumed so that they would live on in the diners.
One of the most recent discoveries of active cannibalism practice was the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea, which was only discovered by Westerners in the 20th century. The Fores had turned to cannibalism only recently, to compensate for the meager sources of protein on the Pacific island where they lived. Woman and children ate brains for protein, while the men of the tribe caught their own small game. This was working out OK for them until a bizarre brain disease struck the tribe and created devastating casualties and eventually led to the abandonment of the practice.
Of course, social and recreational cannibalism is not just the province of non-white aborigines. In 15th century Scotland, a highlander named Sawney Beane and his wife lived in a remote mountain pass, where they subsisted on a steady diet of unfortunate travelers, which they also fed to their 14 children, and a number of incestuous grandchildren. Needless to say, when the civilized world found out about this, their outrage was so great that they executed the entire family, amputating the limbs of the men so that they bled to death, and burning the women and children at the stake. Now that's civilized! Other famous alleged cannibals in anthropology include the Anasazi tribe in North America, the Aztecs in Central America, and on islands like Fiji, where the menu of choices was necessarily limited by geography. It should be noted that these claims are all extremely controversial because nobody likes to think about the topic.
Having noted the controversy, feel free to subsequently ignore it, since most of the people arguing against cannibalism have been scientifically proven to be either a) recently descended from cannibals (and thus oversensitive) or b) idiots. Anthropology as a science is in deep trouble because anthropologists often find themselves persecuted for saying things people don't want to hear. If the anthropologists themselves ate each other, they would be subjected to less abuse than they get for saying long-dead cultures were cannibals.
Cannibalism as a modern phenomenon is much more interesting and fucked-up than the historical record, at any rate. Modern cannibals are almost always really bizarre and unpleasant people, so consistently that when regular folks are driven to eat other by impending starvation, it invariably becomes the subject of a movie and at least 15 Discovery Channel sweeps-week specials. Examples of the latter include the soccer players whose plane crashed in the Andes and inspired the movie "Alive," and of course, the infamous Donner Party.
The Donner Party was an expedition to the West Coast that had the misfortune of becoming stranded in a weekslong blizzard in the Sierra Nevada area. Lost in the mountains of California for nearly two months, they ran out of food and began to die. The company drew lots to determine who would be dinner, but then "didn't have the heart" to kill him. Luckily, he died from illness anyway. They skinned him, cut the meat from his bones and roasted it. When that ran out, they discussed murdering their Indian guides for dinner (apparently, they had the heart for that). The guides wisely took their chances with the blizzard, however they didn't make it far enough and ended up au jus. As this went on for some time, the members of the party became unbalanced. It was bad enough watching a spouse die; toasting him on a spit afterward didn't comfortably fit into the five stages of grieving. Some members went insane and killed other members. Normally this would be considered a tragedy, but for the Donner Party it meant a smorgasbord. The party was eventually rescued by spring; by the end half the party of 87 had died. One of the rescuers described the sight:
Among the cabins lay the fleshless bones and half-eaten bodies of the victims of the famine. There lay the limbs, the skulls and the hair of the poor beings who had died from want and whose flesh preserved the lives of their surviving comrades who, shivering beneath their filthy rags and surrounded by the remains of their unholy feast, looked more like demons than human beings. They had fallen from their high estate, though compelled by the fell hand of dire necessity. Another wrote: They had consumed two children of Jacob Donner. Mrs. Graves's body was lying there with almost all the flesh cut away from her arms and limbs. Her breasts were cut off, her heart and liver taken out. Her little child, about 13 months old, sat at her side, one arm upon the body of its mangled mother, sobbing bitterly, crying, "Ma! Ma! Ma!"
Cannibalism isn't just about survival, though. There have been plenty of non-survival cases of cannibalism reported in recent years. Jeffrey Dahmer was one of the most famous: He seduced at least 15 young men and boys back to his Milwaukee apartment, then tortured, sodomized, murdered, sodomized and barreled them, then butchered and ate was was left. The late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada cannibalized most of his predecessor's underlings after a coup; 19th-century cannibal Alfred Packer later inspired Cannibal! The Musical (1996), an early film by the creators of South Park. The German cannibal Arwan Meiwes, who used Internet personal ads to find a victim, provided the basis for the recent musical smash All You Need (2004), as described by the San Francisco Chronicle:
All You Need has an air of youthfulness, with its rollicking live music, fresh-faced performers and quirkily episodic sensibility. [T]he wry tone sometimes recalls the radio show "This American Life" ... Sweeney Todd redux this isn't; [Director Erika] Shuch uses the metaphor of consumption to investigate all forms of desire. Jesse Howell and Jennifer Chien retread the "eat me" exchange as a tentative sexual proposition: "It's gonna hurt. ... It's not safe," they warn. An ensemble dance to the old standard "All of Me" takes on sinister shadings with the lines "take my lips ... take my arms."
Outside the Western world, Chinese performance artist Zhu Yu made a name for himself by eating a dead baby on film. It's not clear what the artistic merit of this act was supposed to be, but we're sure there must be some. The photo shown here prompted a massive furor about the Internet and art, as well as inspiring a purported "investigation" by the FBI and Scotland Yard, which included baseless threats by the latter agency to shut down Rotten Dot Com. It's not at all clear whether Zhu Yu actually ate a baby for the sake of art, or just simulated eating a baby for the sake of art, or actually ate a baby for the sake of his sick fetish thrills while claiming it was for the sake of art. The name of Ed Gein might be less well-known than Dahmer or Amin, but his work has taken on mythological proportions. Gein was the rural hick cannibal who inspired everything from Psycho (1960, 1998) to The Silence of the Lambs (1991), to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, 2003), in addition to to their countless sequels, prequels, spinoffs, and video game tie-ins
There have been more movies about Ed Gein than Plato. For that matter, Ed Gein is serious competition for Jesus Christ as a top box-office draw. And when you think about it, Jesus has some cannibalism issues of his own. Most Christians engaged in ritual cannibalism of Jesus on a regular basis, and the Catholic Church insists that their version is actual literal cannibalism, and not just a symbolic gesture.
We had better not close out this discussion without answering the most pressing question everyone has about cannibalism: What do people taste like? We're assuming the taste of a hangnail doesn't carry over to the more succulent regions. Legend has it that spam tastes remarkably like human flesh [see Soylent Green]. Another popular comparison is pork, and of course we know everything "tastes like chicken."
But let's go straight to a legit source. According to the Andean soccer team, "the slight browning of the flesh gave it an immeasurably better flavor, softer than beef but with much the same taste."
So there you have it. I don't want to hear anymore of that pork crap.
Claims of cannibalism Although some survivors disputed the accounts of cannibalism, Charles McGlashan, who corresponded with many of the survivors over a 40-year period, documented many recollections that it occurred. Some correspondents were not forthcoming, approaching their participation with shame, but others eventually spoke about it freely. McGlashan in his 1879 book History of the Donner Party declined to include some of the more morbid details – such as the suffering of the children and infants before death, or how Mrs. Murphy, according to Georgia Donner, gave up, lay down on her bed and faced the wall when the last of the children left in the third relief. He also neglected to mention any of the cannibalism at Alder Creek. The same year McGlashan's book was published, Georgia Donner wrote to him to clarify some points, saying that human flesh was prepared for people in both tents at Alder Creek, but to her recollection (she was four years old during the winter of 1846–1847) it was given only to the youngest children: "Father was crying and did not look at us the entire time, and we little ones felt we could not help it. There was nothing else." She also remembered that Elizabeth Donner, Jacob's wife, announced one morning that she had cooked the arm of Samuel Shoemaker, a 25-year-old teamster. Eliza Donner Houghton, in her 1911 account of the ordeal, did not mention any cannibalism at Alder Creek. Archaeological findings at the Alder Creek camp proved inconclusive for evidence of cannibalism. Eliza Farnham's 1856 account of the Donner Party was based largely on an interview with Margaret Breen. Her version details the ordeals of the Graves and Breen families after James Reed and the second relief left them in the snow pit. According to Farnham, seven-year-old Mary Donner suggested to the others that they should eat Isaac Donner, Franklin Graves, Jr., and Elizabeth Graves, because the Donners had already begun eating the others at Alder Creek, including Mary's father Jacob. Margaret Breen insisted that she and her family did not cannibalize the dead, but Kristin Johnson, Ethan Rarick, and Joseph King – whose account is sympathetic to the Breen family – do not consider it credible that the Breens, who had been without food for nine days, would have been able to survive without eating human flesh. King suggests Farnham included this into her account independently of Margaret Breen. Jean Baptiste Trudeau, pictured here as an adult, gave conflicting accounts of cannibalism at Alder Creek.
According to an account published by H. A. Wise in 1847, Jean Baptiste Trudeau boasted of his own heroism, but also spoke in lurid detail of eating Jacob Donner, and claimed he had eaten a baby raw. Many years later, Trudeau met Eliza Donner Houghton and denied cannibalizing anyone, which he reiterated in an interview with a St. Louis newspaper in 1891, when he was 60 years old. Houghton and the other Donner children were fond of Trudeau, and he of them, in spite of their circumstances and the fact that he eventually left Tamsen Donner alone. Author George Stewart considers Trudeau's accounting to Wise more accurate than what he told Houghton in 1884, and asserted that he deserted the Donners. Kristin Johnson, however, attributes Trudeau's interview with Wise to be a result of "common adolescent desires to be the center of attention and to shock one's elders"; older, he reconsidered his story, so as not to upset Houghton. Historians Joseph King and Jack Steed call Stewart's characterization of Trudeau's actions as desertion "extravagant moralism", particularly because all members of the party were forced to make difficult choices. Ethan Rarick echoed this by writing, "... more than the gleaming heroism or sullied villainy, the Donner Party is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous".
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