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Cannibalism: the last taboo

In a society desensitized to almost everything, cannibalism may be the last great taboo.

And yet, people have been eating people since the beginning of human history. The Neanderthals were believed to have practiced cannibalism, and it’s been well documented around the world, from Fiji to the Amazon Basin to the Congo and New Zealand.The Korowai people of Papua New Guinea and some Melanesian tribes practice cannibalism to this day.

Any mention of the “c” word both disgusts and fascinates us. Serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen are not remembered for the number of victims they killed, or their necrophilia, or the staggering amount of body parts police found hidden in their apartments, but for the fact that they occasionally snacked on their kills.

Dahmer.

Dahmer.

Cannibalism isn’t always an act of depravity or expression of culture. Sometimes it’s a means of survival. Consider the ill-fated Donner Party, those steadfast pioneers who were trapped in the Sierra Nevadas by an early snowfall. To keep their children from starving to death, some of the parents fed them human flesh from the decreased. (Although at least one man was accused of murdering survivors in his quest for fresher meat.)

One of the saddest cases is the survivors of Flight 571, which crashed in the Andes mountains in October of 1972. Faced with the choice of a slow, sure death or eating the remains of their friends and families, the survivors–all members of an Uruguayan rugby team–opted for cannibalism. They sliced thin slices of meat off the buttocks of the snow-covered dead, and mostly ate the pieces raw and frozen.

When the remaining sixteen survivors were rescued 72 days after the crash, news of their diet quickly got out and caused sensational headlines around the world. One of the survivors, Nando Parrado, said,  “I was also shaken by the sensationalism with which many in the press covered the matter of what we had eaten to survive.”

The dead mens’ families forgave them, as did their church, declaring that it would have been a greater crime to have let themselves die.

Now the difficult question–could you eat human flesh if it was a matter of survival? Did the Donner Party and the survivors of Flight 571 do the right thing, or not? What is it about cannibalism that so many of us find deeply disturbing?

– With files from Wikipedia

– Survivors from the Andes crash picture: Popperfoto/Getty Images

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46 Comments

  1. I remember the Andes crash and reading a book about it. How would I know how I would react were I in similar circumstances? My first thought today behind the safety of my desk may be to say no, never. But …. perhaps exceptional circumstances call for extreme measures … thanks for writing about this taboo ..

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for commenting, Susan. You might have read Alive–it was an immensely popular book, but one of the survivors wrote a memoir as well.

      The survival instinct in humans is one of the strongest drives we have. People have even been known to cannibalize themselves when faced with starvation…not sure how that worked out.

      Reply
  2. So sad, I would never know, those people were in a terrible situation, so I refuse to judge. As for those serial killers, I remember watching a documentary about it when I was a kid and literary freaking out for days (shudder).
    “Haneen/I Will Never Give you Up (479)”

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome to my blog, Haneen. I think that’s what startled the survivors of flight 571 so much. Yes, they were embarrassed by the lengths they had to take in order not to starve, but they didn’t expect the press to go so wild over it.

      There have been so many serial killers who have eaten parts of their victims. It gives me the shivers too.

      Reply
  3. I just finished reading a really good book you might want to check out – BONES AND ALL by Camille DeAngelis. It’s a dark and creepy coming-of-age tale that kind of fits today’s topic….

    Reply
    • JH

      Hmm…intriguing, Madeline. Thanks for the recommendation. However, if it’s about cannibalism, I might not be able to handle it. Even writing this blog post made me queasy.

      Reply
  4. I think if it were a matter of life or death, there’s a lot of things people would do that they might not do otherwise–if they’re eating the flesh of the deceased, they aren’t really hurting anyone. It is funny how people sensationalize it, though, especially in the case of that plane accident you mentioned.

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome back, Stephanie! I’ve been enjoying your posts.

      There’s just something about it that fascinates us, for whatever reason. Perhaps because it is so taboo.

      I can’t imagine eating one of my friends or my family, but if I was starving to death, who knows what I’d be driven to do? Starving is a nasty way to go.

      Reply
  5. Our taboos about cannibalism are probably at the heart of a lot of our cultural fascination with flesh eating monsters like zombies, werewolves, and vampires. There’s a visceral, body response to the very idea of being consumed or consuming others.

    Reply
    • JH

      I agree, Samantha. Even writing the post made me feel queasy. Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  6. Wow, interesting, remember seeeing the film you mention while quite young, probably while my mum was ill. It was a powerful story. I remember a few years ago a strange news story of a cannibalist murder in Nottingham in an area I lived as a younger student. I always think I couldn’t even eat insects if starving but I believe starvation is painful and how would we know unless we faced such dire circumstance as to have no other option. Our natural drive would surely be to eat whatever even if we filled our bellies with small rocks or chewed on twigs we knew or suspected to be poison. Anyway, enjoying your presentations here so far. Best wishes 😀

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for your comment. Interestingly enough, the survivors of flight 571 did everything they could before resorting to cannibalism. They ate suitcase leather. They tore apart the seats of the plane, hoping to find straw.

      Because it was the winter in the Andes mountains, there were no plants or animals to be had. They didn’t feel like they had any other choice.

      Reply
  7. I’ve heard about the Andes crash often. I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same if in their shoes. Survival can be a nasty thing and is never pretty.

    ~Patricia Lynne aka Patricia Josephine~
    Member of C. Lee’s Muffin Commando Squad
    Story Dam
    Patricia Lynne, Indie Author

    Reply
    • JH

      I agree, Patricia. Who knows what we would do in their shoes? They went through a terrible ordeal, and they definitely struggled with the decision to eat the dead for quite a while before they succumbed.

      Reply
  8. This topic scares me less than the black eyes from yesterday, so I guess I know how I’d respond. Although having been a vegetarian for half my life now, I hate to think about it.

    I hope the Andean survivors are living/have lived out their lives in peace. Oh, the media.

    Reply
    • JH

      In 2012, it was the 40th anniversary, and there was a rash of media coverage again, and I believe some ceremonies where the survivors were reunited. Some of the headlines were pretty sensationalistic. One I came across was, “Eating the flesh of the dead bought us time.”

      I don’t imagine they were ever the same after that experience. I’m sure it changed them forever.

      Reply
  9. We never know what we’re capable of doing in extreme situations until we’re faced with them. That’s why realism in literature always fascinated me, I guess. It peeled away that thin veneer of societal constraint and revealed what was underneath.

    Reply
    • JH

      Exactly! Like Lord of the Flies. I found that book very difficult to read, as it seemed so true to life.

      Or Stephen King’s The Stand. Before he gets into the supernatural stuff, it’s an extremely disturbing book. It took me three tries to get through it.

      Reply
  10. The will to survive is incredibly strong. I must admit that absolutely every option would have to be exhausted before I’d resort to this. But if that was all that stood between me and death, you bet I’d try it.

    As for the criminals who practice cannibalism as if it was a ritual or part of a power trip, that’s incredibly scary and sick.

    Can’t wait to see what you come up with for E.

    Reply
  11. JH

    Ooh, Bonnie, you will love E. When you see it, you’ll slap your forehead and say, “Of course!”

    Q was the one I struggled with this year, but I have two options I’m happy with.

    Thanks so much for commenting! I’ve really appreciated your support and interest with these posts.

    Reply
  12. Cannibalism fascinates me. Not only is it part of human history, it’s practiced in nature all over the place. Animals don’t share our disgust of feasting on their friends.

    For me, I’d have to be facing certain death to even consider it but I honestly don’t know why I am as appalled by it as I am.

    Reply
    • JH

      Me neither, Frank. I have the same level of fascination and disgust. I’m not sure why it’s as repulsive as it is. I can’t imagine eating someone I knew and loved, but I wouldn’t eat my cats, either.

      I’m not sure my cats feel the same. They probably wouldn’t mind eating me if it came down to it. 😉

      Reply
  13. I loved this book in school. I think it was called Alive. As soon as the other girls all went ‘eeeewwww’, I knew I wanted to read it!
    You’re darn right I would eat Bob if it meant life or death. I don’t know if I could kill Bob, but if he died first, hell yeah!
    Animals eat each other. True story.

    Heather M. Gardner
    Co-host: Blogging from A to Z April Challenge
    Blog: The Waiting is the Hardest Part [http://hmgardner.blogspot.com/]

    Reply
    • JH

      Way to survive, Heather! 🙂

      And yes, it was called Alive. I think I read it in high school too. Very disturbing.

      Reply
  14. I think in the cases of the Donner party and flight 571, it would have been stupid to die rather than eat what was available, especially when the others where dead anyway. Their survival instincts would have kicked in and I’d be more shocked to hear of anyone who didn’t react in the same way rather than those who did.
    I find it strange that as a whole, we have no problem eating pretty much any other animal but the thought of human meat brings out such a strong reaction in people. I say this as a meat eater who finds the idea of eating a person repulsive, so I get that it makes me a hypocrite but logically, and morally, it’s no different – it’s just that we’ve been socially conditioned to think it’s ok to do what we like to any species except our own.
    Debbie

    Reply
    • JH

      So true, Debbie. Great points!

      Reply
  15. I read Alive many years ago and have read a fictional version of what happened with the Donner party called The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown that was one of the best books I’ve read in years, so I highly recommend it.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for the recommendation, Tamara. I’ve read books about the Donner party in the past, but not that one.

      Reply
  16. I take that back. Brown’s book is under the non-fiction category.

    Reply
  17. I don’t think I’d have a problem eating human flesh if my survival depended on it. Is it that much different than eating a cow, or a sheep? Or a pig? Look how many cultures regularly eat wild monkey. I could probably eat a dead person before I’d kill a live dog if I was starving.
    On the other hand, I’d really prefer to cook it than eat it raw. I don’t even like steak tartare.

    But this blog has me thinking I might get ribs tonight. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      True, JG. You raised some good points. Enjoy your ribs!

      Reply
  18. I’ve seen the movie and read the book, Alive, about the survivors of the plane crash. Yes. I think I would. When you’re starving, and it’s your only way survive, you do what you need to do. And, yes, it repulses most people to imagine eating another human.

    Reply
    • JH

      I think that’s a good thing, Mary (that it repulses us). 😉

      Reply
  19. I remember the crash in the Andes and was fascinated as a kid about what made them eat their friends and families. The Donner party is also one that I have always been fascinated by because if they were not so fearful of the Native Americans, they would have been ok. This tells me how fear still creates huge and disastrous mistakes. I have never been in a situation where I am starving and need to eat to survive so how can I judge these people. I am certain many people took this route during WW2. As for Dahlmer and the others….they deserve the death penalty and I am one who thought of how the poor people got trapped.

    Reply
    • JH

      Good point about fear, Birgit. It certainly does result in disastrous mistakes.

      I imagine that in most instances where people face a choice of starvation and eating others–whether alive or dead–this will come into play. The human will to survive is a powerful force.

      Reply
  20. I think there’s a big difference between killing to eat for survival, and killing to eat for pleasure. And there’s an even bigger difference between eating the flesh of people who have already died, and killing people to eat. I wouldn’t lump them all together under the single word ‘cannibalism’ and judge them all the same way.

    Reply
    • JH

      No one’s judging anyone, Rayne, and they all are examples of cannibalism, so I think it’s perfectly fair to discuss them in the same blog post. The idea was to explore various reasons a person might do this.

      Reply
  21. I didn’t say anyone was judging. Sorry if my comment was not clear. I talked about *my* views, and that *I* see eating a person already dead as something entirely different from killing someone.

    Reply
    • JH

      I think we can all agree on that. Yes, they are very different.

      Reply
  22. I wonder why the press is more interested in people who cannabalise out of desperation as opposed to people who do it because they like it. Strange! Dahmer, Bundy, and all the rest of them didn’t feel any shame over what they had done; yet, the press focuses more on desperate people who, I assume, feel shame for what they needed to do in order to survive…even though they never actually killed anyone for the purpose of eating them.

    Reply
    • JH

      I don’t know that the press focuses more on people who did it out of desperation. Dahmer made a pretty big splash when his crimes were revealed, and even though he’s been dead for years, people are still talking about him. Bundy’s cannibalism is less well known, probably because it’s never been proven.

      Reply
  23. Cannibalism is a tough topic for many to discuss. The sensationalism of serious events doesn’t help.

    Reply
  24. There is a movie about the people surviving that plane crash in the Andes. I think it is called “Alive”, probably based on a book. Definitely a conversation starter. I think that when anyone gets in the situation of either dying by refusing to eat human remains or surviving only by eating the flesh, they would pick the latter. Our survival instinct is bigger than our mental objections, I think. But, I wouldn’t know until it would happen, of course. Interesting and controversial topic as always, JH.

    Reply
    • JH

      Flight 571, which is featured in the post, is the one you’re thinking of, and yes, the movie was based on a book. Some of the survivors of that flight are in the top photo.

      Glad you “enjoyed” the topic. 🙂

      Reply
  25. The thought of cannibalism makes me queasy too, but when it comes to survival, I honestly can’t find it in my heart to judge someone. Survival instinct can be very strong although I imagine it would haunt me for the rest of my life if I had to!

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, I imagine it is hard to get over something like that. Even if it were a necessity, and the person cannibalized were already dead, I would think there’s a lingering sense of shame.

      Reply

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