Cannibalism: Humanity’s Complex Relationship with Human Flesh Throughout History

The recently released film The Snow Society , by Spanish director JA Bayona, about the legendary plane crash of a Uruguayan rugby team in the Andes in 1972 has been a smash hit in cinemas and streaming platforms around the world. And a very striking aspect of this story is the issue of cannibalism practiced by the survivors in order to survive for more than two months in an inhospitable mountain, surrounded by snow, stone and cold, at an altitude of more than 5 thousand meters.

It is known that, after the rescue, the young people initially hid from the press and family that they had practiced cannibalism to survive. When the fact was discovered, shortly afterwards, they were judged and censured by public opinion and the media. And they were called, pejoratively, “cannibals”.

But what is cannibalism?

Cannibalism is defined as the act or practice of eating members of one’s own species. It generally refers to humans who eat other humans. The oldest case of cannibalism was attributed to Neanderthals, and more than 100,000 years ago the French cave of Moula-Guercy witnessed this fact.

Cannibalism is a documented practice in West and Central Africa, Melanesia, New Guinea, some Polynesian islands, and tribes in Sumatra. It was also common in pre-state societies.

In contemporary history, some individual cases have been attributed to unstable individuals or criminals and to difficult situations, such as the food crisis in Ukraine in the 1930s and in World War II during the siege of Leningrad and in Bergen-Belsen , according to with the British officers who liberated the concentration camp.

But its relevance is controversial. What is generally accepted is that accusations of cannibalism have historically been more common than the practice itself, as mentioned by Alberto Cardín in Dialéctica y canibalismo . The cannibal was almost always “the other” in the colonial imagination.

The term cannibal is a legacy of Christopher Columbus . It is the deformation of the “Carib”, a people originally from the West Indies and who Columbus believed were subjects of the Great Khan of China ( kannibals ) . Columbus, prepared to meet the Great Khan, had Arabic and Hebrew interpreters with him and, upon hearing the word “caniba” (or “canima”) from the natives , he thought that these could be the men with the heads of dogs ( cane- bal ) described by explorer John Mandeville.

Cannibal people

Throughout history, Jews have been accused of eating Christian children , as have gypsies. In antiquity, the Greeks reported cases of anthropophagy among non-Hellenic peoples, the “barbarians”. And the Spanish and Portuguese did the same in relation to anthropophagic practices recorded in the Aztec Empire, in Mexico, during the so-called florid wars and among the Tupinambá Indians of Brazil, in the first decades of the colonial period.

In this sense, William Arens highlighted that, in addition to cases of cannibalism practiced out of necessity, the practice is a myth and that the description of a human group as cannibalistic is just a rhetorical and ideological claim to establish moral superiority over that group.

In the same vein, Michel de Montaigne pointed out that in Europe, in the 16th century, anyone or anything with habits that differed from the traditional ones was called a barbarian (or cannibal). He considered the religious wars in his home country, France, and the practice of torture carried out by the Church itself to be more barbaric than, for example, the Tupinambá practice of ingesting the body of a deceased person .

However, the breadth of recorded cases shows that cannibalism is not an invention. FB Nyamnjoh ‘s most recent definition of cannibalism refers to the consumption of human beings in material, metaphorical, symbolic or fanciful ways. In fact, the spread of the Internet has contributed to multiplying the cannibalistic and sexualized fantasies of thousands of people who dream, on forums, of devouring or being devoured by members of their preferred sexual gender.

Killers and Rolling Stones Songs

There are extreme cases, such as that of the serial killer Fritz Haarmann (“The Butcher of Hanover”) ) or Armin Meiwes , a computer technician from Rotenburg (Germany) who, in 2001, solicited via the Internet “a young boy, among the 18 and 25 years old” to eat it (the request was successful, as Jürgen B. agreed and was in fact killed and eaten by Meiwes).

One of the most shocking cases was that of Japanese English literature student Issei Sagawa , who fucked a German student at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1981, describing the act in detail. The way he revealed this fact made him a national hero in Japan and he wrote several best sellers. Even the Rolling Stones dedicated a song to him in 1986: Too much blood .

Cannibalism is not strange to us. The Catholic act of the Eucharist and the commemoration of the Last Supper refer to the idea of ​​ingesting a totem , a sacred symbol of a group, clan or lineage, to absorb its distinctive power. Behind the dogma of Catholic transubstantiation is expressed the idea of ​​acquiring divinity (immortality, forgiveness of sins…) by absorption through the ingestion of the body of Christ. This “ritual cannibalism” shares many of the characteristics of the concept.

In other cultures in Asia and Australia, for example, eating a tiger’s penis is believed to provide greater virility. The Baruya indigenous people of Papua New Guinea believe that eating the enemy (exocanibalism) will perpetuate the diner’s soul. Just like the Fore, also from New Guinea, seek eternity by ingesting a part of a deceased person (endocannibalism). In short: the other’s body is food for the body, mind and soul .

The question that arises is, on the one hand, who has the right to judge and evaluate the contradictory aspects of the people of the past. And, on the other hand, why has it become common to think that cannibalism is an extraordinary custom.

An example of the latter case is in the work of French anthropologist Pierre Clastres , who speaks of the normality of phenomena such as war and cannibalism among the Guayaki indigenous people as if they were typical of exotic peoples, when in many cases these people were the victims.

The Andamanese of the Bay of Bengal gained a reputation in the West as warlike cannibals, as described by Radcliffe-Brown in The Andaman Islanders (1922), as they tore their war victims into pieces and used to hang the bones of their ancestors.

In fact, several novels were written in which, invariably, the plot involved a shipwreck caused by the coral reefs off the Andaman coast, episodes of cannibalism, and the story of the sole survivor.

Individual perversions

Cannibalism would be a more typical phenomenon, not of exotic peoples, but a consequence of individual perversions, catastrophic and peculiar situations.

In the 1990s, Western journalists wrote about cannibalism in the context of the Liberian civil war (1989-1997) . Historian Stephen Ellis suggested that the causes were not just political, but could be explained in religious or spiritual terms characteristic of secret society rituals.

In short, contemporary descriptions of cannibalism, which seem to echo archaeological studies, show that, in one way or another, as Claude Lévi-Strauss pointed out , “we are all cannibals”.

– David Lagunas, Professor of Anthropology, University of Seville


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