Anthropophagy is the is act or practice of humans eating the flesh or internal organs of other human beings, more commonly known as cannibalism. It is known to have occurred in a variety of cultures throughout time, and is even documented in early modern human species from 40 thousand years ago. While there are many taboos against the consumption of human flesh in our society, and it has been associated with the prion disease kuru, which is a degenerative neurological disease caused by eating the flesh of an individual with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. However, there are a number of reasons for eating flesh, and specific terms associated with these practices.
Cannibalism can be ritualistic, meaning that it is associated with ritual and religion. This is divided into two subtypes: endocannibalism and exocannibalism. Endocannibalism is the consumption of a person from within one’s community, and is often part of the grieving process or a way of guiding the souls of the dead into the bodies of living descendants. Ancestors are kept alive within the living individuals. Exocannibalism is the consumption of a person from outside the community. It is a part of warfare, with the victors devouring the defeated rivals in order to gain their powers. What is similar with both these practices is that there is a connection between the eating of flesh and the passing of one’s powers to another.
Another type of cannibalism is nutritive, where humans eat one another as a source of food. It is usually associated with disasters, such as the shipwrecks of the Essex or Meduse, or the plane crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. A famous example is the Donner Party, when stranded in the mountains they were forced to consume the dead in order to stay alive. Some have argued, like Marvin Harris, that the ritualistic cannibalism is simply rationalized nutritive cannibalism. Cultures that are forced to consume human flesh to survive embue the act with spiritual meaning in order to reduce the taboo and rationalize the necessity.
Historic accounts of cannibalism focus on it as a negative trait of barbarian populations. In the middle ages it is found in the Bible as a negative, and there are reports of it occurring during the Crusades. During the late 16th century, mummies from Ancient Egypt were sold ground up and eaten as a form of medicine. During the 17th through 19th century, explorers continually returned to their countries of origin with stories of cannibalism among native groups. There were claims of this practice being present in almost all American cultures and among many island groups. However, it is highly likely that many of these accounts were either completely falsified or hyperbolic in order to justify conquest or set the foreign culture up as a barbarian. Today, there is only one group that continues to practice cannibalism for ritual purposes. More modern instances of recorded anthropophagy are due to necessity rather than ritual. There are numerous reports of starvation in World War Two leading to consumption of human flesh, either the deceased or murdered individuals.
The lasting question when the topic of anthropophagy is broached is, what does human taste like?
Jeremy MacClancy describes the taste of human flesh, based on testimony from Islanders in the New Hebrides of the South Pacific: “From all accounts, human meat is very sweet, in Vanuatu, they say that the flesh of a black man is sweet, whereas the flesh of a white man is really quite salty and stringy, they say it’s not so nice.”
In 1931, William Bueller Seabrook ate the flesh of a recently deceased individual in NYC in order to better understand a native tribe he was studying. He recorded all of his thoughts along the way, as well as observations during the cooking of the ‘meat’. He wrote:
“I sat down to it with my bottle of wine, a bowl of rice, salt and pepper at hand. I had thought about this and planned it for a long time, and now I was going to do it. I was going to do it, furthermore — I had promised and told myself — with a completely casual, open, and objective mind. But I was soon to discover that I had bluffed and deceived myself a little in pretending so detached an attitude. It was with, or rather after, the first mouthful, that I discovered there had been an unconscious bravado in me, a small bluff-hidden unconscious dread. For my first despicable reaction — so strong that it took complete precedence over any satisfaction or any fine points of gastronomic shading — was simply a feeling of thankful and immense relief. At any rate, it was perfectly good to eat! At any rate, it had no weird, startling, or unholy flavor. It was good to eat, and despite all the intelligent, academic detachment with which I had thought I was approaching the experience, my poor cowardly and prejudiced subconscious real self sighed with relief and patted itself on the back.”
Stay tuned Thursday for an archaeological analysis of cannibalism!