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Cannibalism in Brazil in 1557 as alleged by Hans Staden.

File:Leonhard Kern Menschenfresserin.jpg

A Woman-Cannibal, by Leonardo Kern, 1650

Cannibalism (from Spanish caníbal, in connection with alleged cannibalism among the Caribs), also called anthropophagy (from Greek anthropos "man" and phagein "to consume") is the act or practice of humans consuming 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 on their own species.[1][2] Among humans it has been practiced by various groups[3] in the past in Europe,[4][5] South America,[6] New Zealand,[7] North America,[8] Solomon Islands,[9] New Caledonia,[10] New Guinea,[11] and Fiji,[12] usually in rituals connected to tribal warfare. Fiji was once known as the 'Cannibal Isles'. Evidence of canniblism has been found in the Chaco Canyon ruins of the Anasazi culture.

Cannibalism, as sanctioned by a cultural norm is often distinguished from cannibalism by necessity occurring in extreme situations of famine or under a plea of insanity. There are fundamentally two kinds of cannibalistic social behaviour; endocannibalism and exocannibalism.


The social stigma against cannibalism has been used as an aspect of propaganda against an enemy by accusing them of acts of cannibalism to separate them from their humanity. The Carib tribe in the Lesser Antilles, for example, acquired a longstanding reputation as cannibals following the recording of their legends by Fr. Breton in the 17th century. Some controversy exists over the accuracy of these legends and the prevalence of actual cannibalism in the culture.

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.[13]

The Korowai tribe of southeastern Papua could be one of the last surviving tribes in the world engaging in cannibalism. 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 disease Kuru. It is often believed to be well-documented, although no eyewitnesses have ever been at hand. Some scholars argue 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 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.[14]

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.[15] Later reanalysis of the data claims to have found a data collection bias, which led to an erroneous conclusion.[16]

Historical accounts

Early history era

  • In Germany some experts have observed 1,891 signs of cannibalism in the caves at the Hönne (BC 1000 - 700).
  • Cannibalism is reported in the Bible during the siege of Samaria (2 Kings 6:25-30). Two women made a pact to eat their children, but after the first mother cooked her child, the second mother ate it but refused to reciprocate by cooking her own child. Almost exactly the same story is reported by Flavius Josephus during the siege of Jerusalem by Rome in 70AD.
  • Cannibalism was documented in Egypt during a famine caused by the failure of the Nile to flood for eight years (BC 1073-1064).
  • St. Jerome, in his letter Against Jovinianus, tells of meeting members of a British tribe, the Atticoti, while traveling in Gaul. According to Jerome, the Britons claimed that they enjoyed eating "the buttocks of the shepherds and the breasts of their women" as a delicacy (ca. 360 AD). In 2001, archaeologists at the University of Bristol found evidence of Iron Age cannibalism in Gloucestershire.[17]

Middle Ages

  • Reports of cannibalism were recorded during the First Crusade, as Crusaders reportedly fed on the bodies of their dead opponents following the capture of the Arab town of Ma'arrat al-Numan (see Siege of Ma'arrat al-Numan).
  • The canto 33 of Dante's Inferno ambiguously refers to Ugolino della Gherardesca eating his own sons while starving in prison.
  • Among the Aztecs, cannibalism was a ritual activity and not one driven by nutritional needs.[18] In the siege of Tenochtitlan, there was a severe hunger in the city; the Aztecs reportedly ate lizards, grass, insects, and mud from the lake, but there are no reports 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), and there have been similar reports by Purchas from Popayán, Colombia, and from the Marquesas Islands of Polynesia, where human flesh 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 Sergipe 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.)
  • In the Middle Ages, in Europe, "thousands of Egyptian mummies preserved in bitumen were ground up and sold as medicine".[19] 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).[20]

Early modern era

  • The German adventurer Hans Staden describes his nine-month captivity in 1550 among the Tupi Indians of Brazi, whom he accuses of cannibalism. His True History is an important document for historians and anthropologists debating the existence of cannibalism among South American tribes.
  • In the Dutch rampjaar (disaster year) of 1672, when France and England attacked the republic during the Franco-Dutch War/Third Anglo-Dutch War, Johan de Witt (a significant Dutch political figure) was killed by a shot in the neck; his naked body was hung and mutilated and the heart was carved out to be exhibited. His brother was shot, stabbed, eviscerated alive, hanged naked, brained and partly eaten.
  • Howard Zinn describes cannibalism by early Jamestown settlers in his book A People's History of the United States.
  • An event occurring in the western New York territory ("Seneca Country") U.S.A., during 1687 was later described in this letter sent to France: “On the 13th (of July) about four o’clock in the afternoon, having passed through two dangerous defiles (narrow gorges), we arrived at the third where we were vigorously attacked by 800 Senecas, 200 of whom fired, wishing to attack our rear whilst the remainder of their force would attack our front, but the resistance they met produced such a great consternation that they soon resolved to fly. All our troops were so overpowered by the extreme heat and the long journey we had made that we were obliged to bivouac (camp) on the field until the morrow. We witnessed the painful Sight of the usual cruelties of the savages who cut the dead into quarters, as in slaughter houses, in order to put them into the pot (dinner); the greater number were opened while still warm that their blood might be drank. our rascally outaouais (Ottawa Indians) distinguished themselves particularly by these barbarities and by their poltroonery (cowardice), for they withdrew from the combat;..." -- Canadian Governor, the Marquis de Denonville.
  • In 1729 Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick, commonly referred to as A Modest Proposal, a satirical pamphlet in which he proposed that poor Irish families sell their children to be eaten, thereby earning income for the family. It was written as an attack on the indifference of landlords to the state of their tenants and on the political economists with their calculations on the schemes to raise income.
  • In New Zealand in 1809, 66 passengers and crew of the ship the Boyd were killed and eaten by Maori on the Whangaroa peninsula, Northland. This was utu (revenge) for the whipping of a Maori who refused to work while traveling on the ship from Australia. This remains the bloodiest mass-murder in New Zealand history, and perhaps the largest death-toll from a cannibalistic act in modern times. See the Boyd massacre.
  • The survivors of the sinking of the French ship Medusa in 1816 resorted to cannibalism after four days adrift on a raft.
  • After the sinking of the Whaleship 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.[21] See The Custom of the Sea.
  • In 1822 eight convicts escaped from Macquarie Harbour in South-West Tasmania, Australia and set out overland toward Hobart. Lack of supplies led to the group killing one of their number within days of the initial escape, and over the following week all but one of the group died or were killed, leaving one survivor, Alexander Pearce. Pearce was recaptured near Table Mountain. His account of the fates of his fellow escapees was not believed (it being assumed that the others were alive and in hiding in the bush). Pearce was returned to Macquarie Harbor. He escaped again, this time with one companion, however was recaptured shortly afterwards with remnants of his companion's body in his pockets. He was then sent to Hobart and hanged.[22]. The band Weddings, Parties, Anything included a song 'A tale they won't believe' on their 1989 album The Big Don't Argue about the incident.
  • The Acadian Recorder (a newspaper published out of Halifax, Nova Scotia in the early 1800s) published an article in its May 27, 1826, issue telling of the wreck of the ship 'Francis Mary', en route from New Brunswick to Liverpool, England, with a load of timber. The article describes how the survivors sustained themselves by eating those who perished.[23]
  • Sir John Franklin's lost polar expedition[24] and the Donner Party are other examples of human cannibalism from the 1840s.
  • 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 crewmembers of an English yacht, the Mignonette, which were cast away in a storm some Template:Convert/miTemplate:Convert/test/A from the Cape of Good Hope. After several days one of the crew fell unconscious due to a combination of the famine and drinking sea-water. The others (one objecting) decided then to kill him and eat him. They were picked up four days later. The fact that not everyone had agreed to draw lots contravened The Custom of the Sea and was held to be murder. At the trial was the first recorded use of the defense of necessity.
  • In the 1870s, a man named Alferd Packer was accused of killing and eating his travelling companions while crossing the Rocky Mountains (in what is now the state of Colorado.) He served fourteen years in prison before being paroled on the basis of the Grandfather clause, as the alleged caniballism happened 6 years before Colorado became a state on Ute tribal land. Throughout his life he maintained that he was innocent of the murders. The story of Alfred Packer was satirically told in the Trey Parker comedy/horror/musical student film, Cannibal! The Musical. The main food court at the University of Colorado at Boulder is named the Alfred Packer Grill.

Modern era

  • During the 1930s, multiple acts of cannibalism were reported from Ukraine during the Holodomor.[25]
  • A 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.[26]
  • During the 900-day Siege of Leningrad during World War II, reports of cannibalism began to appear in the winter of 1941-1942, after all birds, rats and pets were eaten by survivors. People were murdered for their flesh and Leningrad police had to form a special division to combat cannibalism.[27][28]
  • Cannibalism may have occurred in China during the Great Leap Forward, when rural China was hard hit by drought and famine[How to reference and link to summary or text]. Reports of cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution in China have also emerged. These reports suggest the cannibalism was practiced for ideological purposes.[29]
  • During his service in World War II, John F. Kennedy believed that a boy from the Solomon Islands bragged of eating a Japanese soldier. Native islanders in their historical culture also practiced headhunting.[30]
  • Prior to 1931, New York Times reporter William Buehler Seabrook, allegedly in the interests of research, obtained from a hospital intern at the Sorbonne a chunk of human meat from the body of a healthy human killed by accident, and cooked and ate it. He reported that, "It was like good, fully developed veal, not young, but not yet beef. It was very definitely like that, and it was not like any other meat I had ever tasted. It was so nearly like good, fully developed veal that I think no person with a palate of ordinary, normal sensitiveness could distinguish it from veal. It was mild, good meat with no other sharply defined or highly characteristic taste such as for instance, goat, high game, and pork have. The steak was slightly tougher than prime veal, a little stringy, but not too tough or stringy to be agreeably edible. The roast, from which I cut and ate a central slice, was tender, and in color, texture, smell as well as taste, strengthened my certainty that of all the meats we habitually know, veal is the one meat to which this meat is accurately comparable."[31]
  • While stating that nearly all areas of Appalachia have never practised cannibalism, James K. Crissman references incidents of mortuary cannibalism from as recently as the late 1930s in some parts of mountainous eastern Kentucky. The practice was intended to honor and dignify the deceased, and the consumption of the corpse was meant to comfort the survivors. Crissman speculates that this rare ritual went out of practice with the encroachment of technology and American society into this geographically isolated region.[32] One such incident is hinted at by a local newspaper of Knox County, Kentucky in 1904. The article, Killed by Train, describes the death of Jno. Cox by freight train. A blurb at the end of the article states the date and time of the visitation and hints at the consumption of "the mortal remains of those who have crossed over the dark river of death" -- a concealed metaphor that practitioners of this ritual would know.[33] In Noodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish and Other Southern Comforts, when speaking of the large number of Creutzfeldt-Jakob outbreaks in Kentucky supposedly due to eating squirrel brains, the author, Burkhard Bilger, suggests that they may instead be due to possible continuing practices of mortuary cannibalism in the area; however, it should be noted that rumors of mortuary cannibalism in twenty-first century Appalachia are still considered speculation.
  • 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) The Chinese hate-cannibalism was reported during World War II also. (Key Ray Chong:Cannibalism in China, 1990)
  • 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.[34]
  • The Soviet writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, describes cases of cannibalism in the twentieth-century USSR. Of the famine in Povolzhie (1921-1922) he writes: "That horrible famine was up to cannibalism, up to consuming children by their own parents - the famine, which Russia had never known even in Time of Troubles [in 1601-1603]..."[35]. He says of the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944): "Those who consumed human flesh, or dealt with the human liver trading from dissecting rooms… were accounted as the political criminals…".[36] And of the building of Northern Railway Prisoners Camp ("SevZhelDorLag") Solzhenitsyn writes: "An ordinary hard working political prisoner almost could not survive at that penal camp. In the camp SevZhelDorLag (chief: colonel Klyuchkin) in 1946-47 there were many cases of cannibalism: they cut human bodies, cooked and ate."[37]
  • The Soviet journalist Yevgenia Ginzburg, former long-term political prisoner, who spent time in the Soviet prisons, Gulag camps and settlements from 1938 to 1955, describes in her memoir book "Harsh Route" (or "Steep Route") the case, which she was directly involved in late 1940s, after she had been moved to the prisoners' hospital.[38] "...The chief warder shows me the black smoked pot, filled with some food: 'I need your medical expertize regarding this meat.' I look into the pot, and hardly hold vomiting. The fibers of that meat are very small, and don't resemble me anything I have seen before. The skin on some pieces bristles with black hair (...) A former smith from Poltava, Kulesh worked together with Centurashvili. At this time, Centurashvili was only one month away from being discharged from the camp (...) And suddenly he surprisingly disappeared. The wardens looked around the hills, stated Kulesh's evidence, that last time Kulesh had seen his workmate near the fireplace, Kulesh went out to work and Centurashvili left to warm himself more; but when Kulesh returned to the fireplace, Centurashvili had vanished; who knows, maybe he got frozen somewhere in snow, he was a weak guy (...) The wardens searched for two more days, and then assumed that it was an escape case, though they wondered why, since his imprisonment period was almost over (...) The crime was there. Approaching the fireplace, Kulesh killed Centurashvili with an axe, burned his clothes, then dismembered him and hid the pieces in snow, in different places, putting specific marks on each burial place. (...) Just yesterday, one body part was found under two crossed logs."
  • Cannibalism was reported by the journalist Neil Davis during the South East Asian wars of the 1960s and 1970s. Davis reported that Cambodian troops ritually ate portions of the slain enemy, typically the liver. However he, and many refugees, also report that cannibalism was practised non-ritually when there was no food to be found. This usually occurred when towns and villages were under Khmer Rouge control, and food was strictly rationed, leading to widespread starvation. Any civilian caught participating in cannibalism would have been immediately executed.[39]
  • Cannibalism has been reported in several recent African conflicts, including the Second Congo War, and the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. A U.N. human rights expert reported in July 2007 that sexual atrocities against Congolese women go 'far beyond rape' and include sexual slavery, forced incest, and cannibalism.[40] Typically, this is apparently done in desperation, as during peacetime cannibalism is much less frequent. Even so, it is sometimes directed at certain groups believed to be relatively helpless, such as Congo Pygmies. It is also reported by some that witch doctors sometimes use the body parts of children in their medicine. In the 1970s the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was reputed to practise cannibalism.[41][42]
  • On October 13, 1972, a Uruguayan rugby union team flew across the Andes to play a game in Chile. The plane crashed near the border between Chile and Argentina. After several weeks of starvation and struggle for survival, the numerous survivors decided to eat the frozen bodies of the deceased in order to survive. They were rescued over two months later.[43] See Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. The 1993 film Alive tells the story of this ordeal.
  • It has been reported by defectors and refugees that, at the height of the famine in 1996, cannibalism was sometimes practised in North Korea.[44]
  • Médecins Sans Frontières, the international medical charity, supplied photographic and other documentary evidence of ritualised cannibal feasts among the participants in Liberia's internecine strife in the 1980s to representatives of Amnesty International who were on a fact-finding mission to the neighbouring state of Guinea. However, Amnesty International declined to publicise this material; the Secretary-General of the organization, Pierre Sane, said at the time in an internal communication that "what they do with the bodies after human rights violations are committed is not part of our mandate or concern". The existence of cannibalism on a wide scale in Liberia was subsequently verified in video documentaries by Journeyman Pictures of London.[45]
  • In March 2001 in Germany, Armin Meiwes posted an Internet ad asking for "a well built 18 to 30 year old to be slaughtered and consumed". The ad was answered by Jürgen Armando Brandes. After killing and eating Brandes, Meiwes was convicted of manslaughter and later, murder. The song "Mein Teil" by Rammstein is based on this.
  • In September 2006, Australian television crews from 60 Minutes and Today Tonight attempted to rescue a six-year-old boy who they believed would be ritually cannibalised by his tribe, the Korowai, from West Papua, Indonesia.[46]
  • On January 13, 2007, Danish artist Marco Evaristti hosted a dinner party for his most intimate friends. The main meal was agnolotti pasta, on which was topped a meatball made with the artist's own fat, removed earlier in the year in a liposuction operation.[47]
  • On September 4, 2007 Serbian police stated that they had identified 26-year-old Danijel Jakupek Zak, from the Serbian village of Novi Banovci. He killed a 5 year old boy and his uncle (26), who was Jakupek's schoolmate and also the son of Jakupek's school teacher. Police reported that Jakupek rehearsed several cannibalistic acts on approximately 20 cats which were buried in his backyard and that 10 live cats were also found in his apartment, probably awaiting future experiments. He stated that he had to try the practice on a human being. As stated, he obviously enjoyed the massacre of his alleged victims, drank their blood and even tried their meat. In his apartment police found a stack of cannibalistic and satanic literature. He also claimed that in the prosecution of his two victims "He entered his body". Jakupek was questioned regarding the aforementioned unnamed person who only goes by the name "He" and he replied that "He" is a "superior mighty lord" but not pointing out any specific icon. Neighbors described him as being very strange, having a "sparkly look" and he obviously indicated that he is mentally distorted.[48]
  • On September 14, 2007, a man named Özgür Dengiz was captured in Ankara, the Turkish capital, after killing and eating a man. Dengiz in his initial testimony said he "enjoyed" eating human flesh. He frequently burst into long laughing sessions during the testimony, police officers said. His past record also spoke of what was to come. In 1997, he was jailed for murder of a friend, when he was 17, but he got out of jail on parole after serving only three years. Dengiz said he did not know Cafer Er, his 55 year old victim, who worked as a garbage collector. Dengiz shot Er in the head with a firearm, because he felt Er was making the area "too crowded." After cutting slices of flesh from his victim's body, Dengiz distributed the rest to stray dogs on the street, according to his own testimony. He ate some of Er's flesh raw on his way home. Dengiz, who lived with his parents arrived at the family house and placed the remaining parts of Er's body in the fridge without saying a word to his parents. Also in his testimony he said, "I have no regrets, my conscience is free. I constantly thought of killing. I had dreams where I was being sacrificed. I decided to kill, to sacrifice others in place of me."[49][50]
  • On January, 2008, Milton Blahyi, 37, confessed being part of human sacrifices which "included the killing of an innocent child and plucking out the heart, which was divided into pieces for us to eat." He fought versus Charles Taylor's militia.[51]

Cannibalism by the starving

Cannibalism was occasionally practised as a last resort by people suffering from famine. In the US, the group of settlers known as the Donner party resorted to cannibalism while snowbound in the mountains for the winter. The last survivors of Sir John Franklin's Expedition were found to have resorted to cannibalism in their final push across King William Island towards the Back River.[52] There are disputed claims that cannibalism was widespread during the famine in Ukraine in the 1930s, during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II,[53][54] and during the Chinese Civil War and the Great Leap Forward in the People's Republic of China. There were also rumors of several cannibalism outbreaks during World War II in the concentration camps where the Jews were malnourished. Cannibalism was also practised by Japanese troops as recently as World War II in the Pacific theater.[55] A more recent example is of leaked stories from North Korean refugees of cannibalism practised during and after a famine that occurred sometime between 1995 and 1997.[56]

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).

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.

When Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed into the Andes on October 13, 1972, the survivors resorted to eating the deceased during their 72 days in the mountains. Their story was later recounted in the books Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors and Miracle in the Andes as well as the film Alive, by Frank Marshall, and the documentary Alive: 20 Years Later.

Cannibalism as cultural libel

See also: Blood libel

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. In 1994, printed booklets reported that in a Yugoslavian concentration camp of Manjaca the Bosnian refugees were forced to eat each other's bodies.

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 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."

Aren's findings are controversial, and 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 Aren's 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.

Japanese scholars (e.g. Kuwabara Jitsuzo) branded the Chinese culture as cannibalistic in certain propagandistic works — which served as ideological justification for the assumed superiority of the Japanese during World War II.

Cannibal themes in mythology and religion


"Saturn devouring his children", Francisco de Goya.

Cannibalism features prominently in many mythologies; cannibal ogresses appear in folklore around the world, the witch in Hansel and Gretel being a popular example.

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 practise extreme violence including cannibalism, often of their own kind, and possess many evil supernatural powers. These are however the Hindu equivalent of "demons" and probably do not relate to actual tribes of forest-dwelling people.

See also

  • Cannibalism (zoology)
  • Child cannibalism
  • Kuru (disease)
  • Necrophagy
  • Placentophagy
  • Sexual cannibalism amonggst animals
  • Self-cannibalism, also autophagy, the practice of eating one's own body.
  • TSE
  • Vorarephilia - the interest or paraphilia in which a person fantasizes about eating another person and/or creature, being eaten him/herself, and/or watching another be eaten.


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