See P. Brown and D. Tuzin, ed., The Ethnography of Cannibalism (1983); A. W. B. Simpson, Cannibalism and the Common Law (1984).
Cannibalism (from Spanish caníbal, in connection with cannibalism among the Antillean Caribs), also called anthropophagy (from Greek: ἄνθρωπος, anthropos, "human being"; and φαγειν, phagein, "to eat") is the act or practice of humans eating flesh of other humans. In zoology, the term "cannibalism" is extended to refer to any species consuming members of its own kind (see cannibalism (zoology)).
Neanderthals are believed to have practiced cannibalism. Among modern humans it has been practiced by various groups; In the past in Prehistoric Europe, Africa, South America, New Zealand, North America, Australia, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, New Guinea, India, Sumatra, and Fiji, usually in rituals connected to tribal warfare. Fiji was once known as the 'Cannibal Isles'. Evidence of cannibalism has been found in the Chaco Canyon ruins of the Anasazi culture.
Cannibalism can happen for these reasons:
According to a decree by Queen Isabella of Castile and also later under British colonial rule, slavery was considered to be illegal unless the people involved were so depraved that their conditions as slaves would be better than as free men. This legal requirement may have led to conquerors exaggerating the extent of cannibalistic practices, or inventing them altogether, as demonstrations of cannibalistic tendencies were considered evidence of such depravity.
The Korowai tribe of southeastern Papua could be one of the last surviving tribes in the world engaging in cannibalism, although there have been media reports of soldiers/rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Liberia eating body parts or to intimidate child soldiers or captives. Marvin Harris has analyzed cannibalism and other food taboos. He argued that it was common when humans lived in small bands, but disappeared in the transition to states, the Aztecs being an exception.
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. It is often believed to be well-documented, although no eyewitnesses have ever been at hand. Some scholars argue that although postmortem 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 pre-modern medicine, an explanation for cannibalism stated that it came about within a black acrimonious humour, which, being lodged in the linings of the ventricle, produced the voracity for human flesh.
Some now-challenged research received a large amount of press attention when scientists suggested that early man may have practiced cannibalism. Later reanalysis of the data found serious problems with this hypothesis. According to the original research, genetic markers commonly found in modern humans all over the world suggest that today many people carry a gene that evolved as protection against brain diseases that can be spread by consuming human brains. Later reanalysis of the data claims to have found a data collection bias, which led to an erroneous conclusion: that in some cases blame for incidents claimed as evidence has been given to 'primitive' local cultures, where in fact the cannibalism was practiced by explorers, stranded seafarers or escaped convicts.
Unsubstantiated reports of cannibalism disproportionately relate cases of cannibalism among cultures that are already otherwise despised, feared, or are little known. 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: see the explicit rejection of human sacrifice in the cannibal feast prepared for the Olympians by Tantalus of his son Pelops.
According to ABC Whipple in Yankee Whalers in the South Seas (Doubleday, New York, 1954), all South Sea Islanders were cannibals so far as their enemies were concerned. When the whaleship Essex was rammed and sunk by a whale in 1820, the captain opted to sail 3000 miles upwind to Chile rather than 1400 miles downwind to the Marquesas because he had heard the Marquesans were cannibals.
However, Herman Melville happily lived with the Marquesan Typees, but also may have witnessed evidence of cannibalism.
William Arens, author of The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (New York : Oxford University Press, 1979; ISBN 0-19-502793-0), 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. His findings were that many were steeped in racism, unsubstantiated, or based on second-hand or hearsay evidence. In combing the literature he could not find a single credible eye-witness account. And, as he points out, the hallmark of ethnography is the observation of a practice prior to description. In the end he concluded that cannibalism was not the widespread prehistoric practice it was claimed to be; that anthropologists were too quick to pin the cannibal label on a group based not on responsible research but on our own culturally-determined pre-conceived notions, often motivated by a need to exoticize. He wrote:
Anthropologists have made a 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.
Arens' findings are controversial, and have been cited as an example of postcolonial revisionism . His argument is often mischaracterized as “cannibals do not and never did exist”, when in the end the book is actually a call for a more responsible and reflexive approach to anthropological research. At any rate, the book ushered in an era of rigorous combing of the cannibalism literature. By Arens' later admission, some cannibalism claims came up short, others were reinforced.
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 have wished to provoke a surprise in the reader of his Essays.
Lowell Thomas records the cannibalisation of some of the surviving crew members of the Dumaru after the ship exploded and sank during the First World War in his book, The Wreck of the Dumaru (1930). Another case of shipwrecked survivors forced to engage in cannibalism was that of the Medusa, a French vessel which in 1816 ran aground on the Banc d'Arguin (English: The Bank of Arguin) off the coast of Africa, about four miles distant from shore.
In 1972, the survivors of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, consisting of the rugby team from Stella Maris College in Montevideo and some of their family members, were forced to resort to cannibalism during their entrapment at the crash site. They had been stranded since October 13 and rescue operations at the crash site did not commence until December 22. The story of the survivors was chronicled in Piers Paul Read's 1974 book, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors and in 1993 a film adaptation of the book, called simply Alive.
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, with Japanese soldiers killing and eating each other when enemy civilians were not available. A well-documented case occurred in Chichi Jima in 1945, when Japanese soldiers killed and ate eight downed 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.
Cannibalism features in many mythologies, and is most often attributed to evil characters or as extreme retribution for some wrong. For example witch in Hansel and Gretel and Baba Yaga of Slavic folklore.
A number of stories in Greek mythology involve cannibalism, in particular cannibalism of close family members, for example the stories of Thyestes, Tereus and especially Cronus, who was Saturn in the Roman pantheon. The story of Tantalus also parallels this. These mythologies inspired Shakespeare's cannibalism scene in Titus Andronicus.
Hindu mythology describes evil beings called "asura" or "rakshasa" that dwell in the forests and practice extreme violence including of devouring their own kind, and possess many evil supernatural powers. These are however the Hindu equivalent of "demons" and do not relate to actual tribes of forest-dwelling people.
As in modern times, though, reports of cannibalism were often told as apocryphal second and third-hand stories, with widely varying levels of accuracy. St. Jerome, in his letter Against Jovinianus, discusses how people come to their present condition as a result of their heritage, and 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. He also wrote that also the Tibareni crucify loved ones before they grow old; this points to likelihood that St. Jerome's writing came from rumours and does not represent reality accurately.
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. In Germany Emil Carthaus and Dr. Bruno Bernhard have observed 1,891 signs of cannibalism in the caves at the Hönne (1000 - 700 BCE).
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 to actually 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).
References to cannibalizing the enemy has also been seen in poetry written when China was repressed in the Song Dynasty, though the cannibalizing sounds more like poetic symbolism to express the hatred towards the enemy. (See Man Jiang Hong)
While there is universal agreement that some Mesoamerican people practiced human sacrifice, 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 pre-Columbian historians 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..
Reports of cannibalism among the Texas tribes were often applied to the Karankawa and the Tonkawa. Though cannibals, the fierce Tonkawas were great friends of the white Texas settlers, helping them against all their enemies. Among the North American tribes which practiced cannibalism in some form may be mentioned the Montagnais, and some of the tribes of Maine; the Algonkin, Armouchiquois, Iroquois, and Micmac; farther west the Assiniboin, 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, Kiowa, 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.
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 so-called "savages." However, there were several well-documented cultures that engaged in regular eating of the dead, such as New Zealand's Maori. In one infamous 1809 incident, 66 passengers and crew of the ship the Boyd were killed and eaten by Māori on the Whangaroa peninsula, Northland. (See also: Boyd massacre) Cannibalism was already a regular practice in Māori wars. 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. The dense population of Marquesas Islands, Polynesia, was concentrated in the narrow valleys, and consisted of warring tribes, who sometimes cannibalized their enemies. 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.
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 Medusa 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. The misfortunes of theDonner Party in the United States are also well-known. After the sinking of the Essex of Nantucket by a whale, on November 20, 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.
The case of R v. Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273 (QB) is an English case which is said to be one of the origins of the defense of necessity in modern common law. The case dealt with four crew members of an English yacht, the Mignonette, which were cast away in a storm some from the Cape of Good Hope. After several days one of the crew 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. Lack of unanimous consent to draw lots contravened The Custom of the Sea and was held to be murder.
Many instances of cannibalism by necessity were recorded during World War II. For example, following the Soviet victory at Stalingrad in February of 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 apparently resorted to cannibalism. Fewer than 5,000 of the prisoners taken at Stalingrad would survive captivity. 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.
Many written reports and testimonies collected by the Australian War Crimes Section of the Tokyo tribunal, and investigated by prosecutor William Webb (the future Judge-in-Chief), indicate that Japanese soldiers, in many parts of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, committed acts of cannibalism against Allied prisoners of war. 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 km] 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 Chichijima 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.