Cannibalism has gone through stages of acceptance to morally corrupt and unspeakable. When faced in a dire situation, such as isolation and deterioration of the mind and body, cannibalism becomes an option of survival. When people confess of their actions, is it fair for us to judge? What would a person do in that situation, and can one honestly punish another for survival of the fittest?
Cannibalism dates back as far as the earliest signs of human life. By definition, cannibalism is “the eating of any species by another member of the same species,” (“Cannibalism”). Wolves, for example, will eat another wolf if there is no other form of nutrition to be found. This is an example of survival of the fittest, an instinct born unto all living creatures. Cannibalism is primitive in human nature, dating back to the Carib Indians of the West Indies. In the Arwakan language, “carib” literally translates to “cannibal.” The practice of eating human meat, whether in ritual or punishment, has been practiced in nearly every part of the world.
The reason for cannibalistic behavior has varied among the people. Headhunters, for example, believed eating parts of a victim’s body would grant them magical powers. Some tribes ate criminals to punish them or gain revenge for the crime. Primitive rites commonly involved human sacrifice, and it was not uncommon for the sacrifice’s family to eat certain parts of the body. This practice is labeled “endocannibalism.”
As time progressed, cannibalism went from common practice in the east to an unspeakable sin in the west. Cannibalism is most commonly practiced due to the result of extreme physical necessity in isolated surroundings. It has been justified as “a model of behavior in food processing as a response to nutritional stress,” (Ellis et al. 4) Essentially, cannibalism in such desperation comes down to practical logic. If one is starving, one eats what is offered. Examples of this include survivors of a plane wreck stranded without food; boat wrecks on isolated islands; or, more commonly, families trapped in a snowstorm in any large mountain range.
One of the most recent cases of cannibalism known is that of Andes flight disaster. In 1972, an Uruguayan rugby team, along with their family and friends, were on their way to Chile to compete when the plane crashed in the Andes mountain range. Several died in the initial crash, and more died due to the harsh conditions and injuries from the wreck. Ten days passed before the little bit of food that was rationed ran out. The group lived for two months before rescue came, and in that time they had committed the unspeakable act. As a group, the survivors agreed to turn to cannibalism and endocannibalism in order to survive. Out of the original forty-five, only sixteen came from the mountains alive because of their survival technique. This group had indulged in what is called survival cannibalism.
Survival cannibalism is an innate form of survival that anthropologists believe exists in all humans. When the rugby team was faced with their dire situation, they indulged on their native instinct to satisfy nutritional need before abiding to the morals of society. When rescued, the team told reporters that it was a sort of communion; they ate as little as possible so as not to desecrate the dead. “Jesus gave the disciples His blood and His flesh at the Last Supper, so we were kept alive through Him,” explained one of the survivors when the press demanded an answer as to what they ate to stay alive (Stranded Gonzalo Arijon). The Uruguayan and Chilean publics accepted these survivors, even though the media slandered them and called them inhumane and cannibalistic.
Another, perhaps more famous case of survival cannibalism is the story of the Donner Party. The Donner Party was a group of families being led west by brothers George and Jacob Donner in the winter of 1846-47. The unfortunate groups of pioneers were trapped in the snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains because they did not foresee that they had set out too late in the year with too little provisions. The group traveled through the Great Plains, losing much of their cattle due to heat and starvation.
As the group headed on, they left the warmth of the desert-like plains and entered the cold and snow of the mountains. Their food supply dwindled as they tried to make a pass through the Sierra Nevada range, their remaining cattle became buried in the blizzard-like weather conditions, and many wagons had to be abandoned. The party set up camp in a valley, hoping to wait out the storm and continue on. The wait turned from a few days to weeks, then from weeks to months. The food supply ran out; leather books, oxen hide blankets, and tobacco became a daily meal. Relief parties were sent form California, but they could not take everyone at once.
“If we do not find food, we will have to commence on the dead,” stated Tamsen Donner, wife of George Donner, when the first relief party came to take her oldest children out of the mountains (Burton 166). Tamsen was left with five children and her nieces and nephews to feed as well. The party ran out of oxen hides and leather to eat. The only way a mother was to keep her children alive was to feed them the only food source available. Careful not to choose their relatives, members of the Donner Party ate the only food source available: cadavers of those that had died. When reintroduced into the Californian society, the living members were shunned. Was it right of society to judge them so harshly? How could pioneers claim they would not do the same, when in reality it is more probable that they would? Louis Keseberg, the last member of the party to leave the mountains, was tried for murder. The public should not have demanded that that a survivor of such perils be ostracized just for living.
Another conflicting case is that of Alfred “Alferd” Packer, dubbed “Colorado’s Cannibal.” Packer was a mountain guide in 1873 Colorado. He was hired to take a group of men through Bingham Canyon, Utah. This expedition did not end as planned. As with the Donner Party, Packer had not realized that his company had set out too late and would lead to a fatal end. Many men turned around when they were rescued from the cold by a group of Indians, but five remained with Packer. The men set of, no heeding the warnings from the Indians. Sixty days after they left the campsite, only Packer emerged from the canyon. Questions arose to which Packer had no answer, so he lied. He told three versions of his story of survival, and only a few facts were found to be truth.
Their food supply had run out and the men agreed to eat whoever died from starvation. Shannon Bell had killed the four other men while Packer was searching for food. Packer killed Bell due to self-defense, and Packer did not resort to cannibalism until starvation overtook his guilt for the deaths of his men. Alfred Packer was called a murderer and sent to jail, even though he killed in self-defense. It was too quick of a decision to send this man, who was in a starved mindset, to a punishment in which he did not deserve. It is true that Packer was epileptic, and very possibly had several psychological problems, but that did not make him a killer. He was just trying to survive.
Learned cannibalism is another category of cannibalistic behavior. It is when one is not driven by hunger to eat the flesh of another human. However, learned cannibalism is often thought of as the cause for Hannibal Lecter-style murders. Anthropologists deny that learned cannibalism is what such killers practiced; it is a method of ritualistic behavior that our human ancestors have passed down through generations. The Japanese army adopted such rituals during their last war. Why did the army commit such a primitive act? Some men state it was to bring to troop together, to give them nerves of steel, so to speak. Others claim it was to clear the taboo in case they ran out of food. Still, some say that it was because the soldiers wanted to gain the powers of the enemy, just as the headhunters had done so long ago.
The Japanese military kept these cases filed away, not speaking of the ruthless acts the men committed. Now that the files have been uncovered, the question of whether or not this can be classified as a crime must be answered. With finding that answer comes more questions: Which men are right? Were they really starving, or were they just soulless beings? Was murder enacted to pursue this activity, or were the men already dead? So many questions arise that it is nearly impossible to have a clear, truthful answer as to whether this was a war crime or not. The psychological reason behind cannibalistic behavior ranges from starvation to perversion.
“Cannibalism might be seen as the highest level of sexual perversion. This is closely related to the equally rare carving up of bodies, following sexual crimes and sadism,” state psychologists when asked if cannibalism can be considered a true crime, or if it is just a taboo of western culture (Capraro “Cannibalism is not a Crime”). Cannibalism isn’t listed as a crime; the only trespasses a person can be tried for are manslaughter and rape. There is no sentencing to accompany the cutting up or eating of the body. Some people say that cannibalism should be labeled as murder. What if it was not murder that was committed? The custom of the sea dictates that, when a boat is crashed or stranded, survivors are to rely on the dead for food. There is no murder involved if the dead had come to be so due to natural causes.
Society has become engrossed with stories of cannibals, murderers, and rapists. People gossip and read in depth about such crimes, feasting on the horrible tales which western culture has only read in stories from Edgar Allen Poe and the like. But what about when it happens in their own culture, to people on their own street? One name sticks out when cannibalism comes up: Armin Meiwes. The case of German native Meiwes is tricky because he could not be sentenced since cannibalism is rarely committed in today’s western culture and is not classified as a crime in Germany. Meiwes’s “victim,” Bernd Brandes, a man who was in a sexual relationship with Meiwes, had conceded to be killed and eaten by Meiwes.
Meiwes could only be convicted for killing upon request and disturbing the peace of the dead (i.e. eating the body instead of burying it). Meiwes admits to being a true cannibal, and is acceptance of his branding as a murderer. But cannibalism does not always involve murder. Brandes consented to having part of him cut off and eaten, thus leaving him alive, and then later asked to be killed and consumed. Meiwes will be forever classified as psychotically disturbed and sexually perverse for his disposition on cannibalism.
Society is unacceptable of cases such as Armin Meiwes simply because of the horrific act that is involved. The public demands stronger sentencing, or the death penalty as an eye-for-an-eye repayment. Cannibalism has been passed down through generations around the world, and as time has progressed it has become an ugly, horrible act. Yet, we are obsessed with learning about it. The famous book Hannibal by Thomas Harris spawned movies and general interest in the acts that the main character committed. Harris also gives the view of why cannibalism happens. Most cases of cannibalism occur from a deep psychological problem. Maybe the person who committed the act is extreme obsessive-compulsive and cannot stand to have a mess; therefore, eating the body disposes of the mess and clears the act from the mind. As a child, the “cannibal” may not have had a strong relationship with their same sex parent and developed an over-dependent relationship with the opposite parent or a sibling.
Such as Armin Meiwes, who had no apparent male figure in his life, consuming the flesh of someone he was close to was a way of keeping the person close to himself forever. As stated before, cannibalism can be seen as the highest level of sexual perversion, therefore many of Freud’s theories on oral fixation and sexual aggression can provide a possible explanation of the thought process of cannibalistic people. The perpetrator of the behavior is fixated on sexual pleasure resulting from the mouth. He or she enjoys the acts of sucking, biting, and chewing, often resulting in a need to have something constantly in his or her mouth. The way cannibalism fits in is that the act of eating another human is on a high level of sexual aggressiveness. The orally fixated person gets pleasure from eating another human, both sexually and orally.
Many people who have been convicted of murder and the act of cannibalism have shown to eat those close to them. Either it is a companion, a lover, or a relative that is being consumed. The reasoning behind this is that the consumer wants to remain close to whomever it is for as long as possible, and when that person dies, the consumer sees eating them as a way of reincarnation because he or she is becoming a part of the consumer, thus their life continues. Obviously, this way of thinking is psychotically disturbing and when a person is convicted of such acts, they are put into an institution for the mentally disturbed. Can we send a person to jail for committing cannibalism even though they are psychologically unstable? Or do we take the risk of sending them to an institution to be “fixed,” and slowly reintroduce them to society? The world pretends to be blind of such acts and prefers to shut away those who do them. This is not taking care of the problem. Yes, the world of the 1800s chose to shut their eyes against the survival techniques of the Donner Party, but that did not solve the issue of how to deal with the survivors.
Survivors of such a tragic incident must slowly be reintroduced into the world. They should not feel that the world is an unsafe place just because they survived. People who willingly commit cannibalism need to see the wrongs of what they did. On the other hand, people need to see why they did it in order to fully understand the reasoning. What the western culture claims is a taboo, the African culture deems it a ritualistic rite. Today, cannibalism has been turned into a sort of joke. In the cartoons, when two men are stranded on an island, one sees the other and imagines him as a big, juicy steak, thus invoking a chase of sorts. Is that not what happens when two people truly are stranded and starving? The custom of the sea states that when a boat is wrecked, the survivors must be willing to eat whatever is available, even if it is one another.
Society does not realize that jokes, shows, and books influence the thoughts of everybody. Many times people will say in a joking matter that “he tasted just like chicken,” when referring to the eating of one another. In reality, people who make these jokes may someday be faced with the choice of living or dying, and the factor that will keep them alive is eating the person who “tastes just like chicken.” As disturbing as that thought may be, it is true. Humans’ first reaction in life or death situations is to preserve their own lives. When it comes to women in motherhood, they prefer to save their children’s lives first. If a family is faced with the obstacle of living or dying, such as the Donner Party families, their first choice is going to be to live. A mother wants her children to live, to experience life, even if that means do anything possible to survive. If the family must resort to cannibalism, is it a crime? Can the human race look down upon one another just for surviving? It would be ludicrous to believe that people should be abolished just because they chose to live instead of succumbing to death.
When boiled down, Cannibalism is essentially only in two categories: survival cannibalism and learned cannibalism. The intrinsic side of modern Homo sapiens deals with survival cannibalism and justifies its cause. The moral side of the human brain cannot fathom the reasoning behind learned cannibalism. Why the ancestors began that tradition is a mystery. Was it first started from starvation? Did the first Homo sapiens not find food and decided to turn on one another? Or was it because of their belief in magic, the belief that humans contained magical powers and by digesting their flesh they absorbed the powers unto themselves? This mystery will remain unsolved, just as the mystery of who started the oral legends in Native American cultures. The reasoning behind society’s outlaws of cannibalism, either survival or learned, is another mystery, yet it is one that can be solved. In native cultures, such as the Caribs, cannibalism was an everyday ordeal.
As time progressed, people on the western hemisphere of the world chose to become more sophisticated. This involved the abolishing of all other cultural practices, from the clothes that were worn to the rituals that were participated in. Christianity was taught throughout the world, and cannibalism fell into the gray area of sins. Only anthropologists understood the need for converging into the act of survival cannibalism, and saw the importance of understanding why it was a ritual so long ago.
The society that is shown cannibalistic behavior today is horrified by it because the behavior had not been practiced for so long that even the survival technique became unspeakable. Cannibalism started out as a ritual, a rite of sorts that was common to engage in. Then it moved into a state of survival, a technique only used when one is faced with death. Now, it is considered a perverse, revolting taboo that is blasphemed and blown out of proportion by media. Can one really take an opinion on this? Who can honestly, without a doubt, know for a fact that he or she would not turn to cannibalistic behavior when confronted with starvation? No one can give an honest answer to that question until they have been put in the situation. The brain switches from living by the standards of society to the survival instinct possessed by all living creatures. In all honesty, we are no different from the wolves that will eat a member of the pack in order to live.
Burton, Gabrielle. Impatient with Desire: The Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner. New York: Hyperion, 2010.
“Cannibalism.” Compton’s by Encyclopedia Britannica. 2005 ed.
Capraro, Ingo. “Cannibalism ‘not a crime.’” News24. 14 Dec 2002. <http://www.news24.com/World/Cannibalism-not-a-crime-20021213>
Ellis, Meredith A.B. et al. “The Signature of Starvation: A Comparison of Bone Processing at a Chinese Encampment in Montana and the Donner Party Camp
in California.” July 2010. U of Montana College of Arts and Sciences. <http://www.cas.umt.edu/anthropology/courses/anth551/documents/Ellis%20et%20al%20HA%202011.pdf>
Stranded: I’ve Come From A Plane That Crashed on the Mountains. Dir. Gonzalo Arijon. Pro. Gonzalo Arijon. 2007. Zeitgeist video, 2008. DVD.