You are what you eat: is cannibalism a good idea?

Cannibalism in Brazil, engraved by Theodor de Bry, 1655. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London. CC BY 4.0.

During lockdown I, like many, have been watching more TV shows. My most recent watch was Hannibal. For those who don’t know, Hannibal is a horror-thriller TV series which follows Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a forensic scientist and secret cannibal. 

Recently, writers and directors have been reframing cannibalism for entertainment purposes, treating their subjects not as monsters, but as human beings wrestling with their desires. It leaves the audience questioning if there was a time when this was normal human behaviour.

Cannibalism is commonly practised in the animal kingdom; mothers may eat their own young due to stress, or the young being still born or weak. The mothers likely eat their still born or weaker young to recover nutrients after giving birth, to prepare to reproduce again. 

On the other side of this, the offspring may also devour their mothers. Matriphagy, or mother-eating, is found in some insects, spiders, scorpions, and nematode worms. 

Young spiders eat their mother over the course of several weeks. It’s the ultimate maternal sacrifice, to help the next generation; spiderlings that eat their mothers have higher weights and survival rates than those that don’t.

One study on tiger salamanders showed that if they are growing in over-crowded conditions, some can transform into “cannibal morphs”, with extra large mouths to eat other salamanders with. 

The study however, found that cannibal salamanders were likely to die earlier than their non-cannibal peers, due to the risks of catching a disease from their dinner.

While we are familiar with this behaviour in the animal world, many people don’t know that cannibalism has been a part of human culture for thousands of years.

It began in the 14th century, with Europeans believing they had found a miracle cure: a remedy for epilepsy, hemorrhage, bruising, nausea and most other medical ailments. It was a brown powder known as “mumia”, and was made by grinding up mummified human flesh. 

Throughout the 14th to 18th century, many human body parts were knowingly sold and purchased as medications, particularly bones, blood, and fat. Even priests and royalty routinely consumed human body products in an effort to stave off these ailments.

Sometimes, cannibalism would take the form of eating the body parts of enemies in order to gain their strength.

In desperate times, people have fallen back on cannibalism to survive. For example, there are reports of cannibalism during the North Korean famine in 2013; the siege of Leningrad in the early 1940s; and China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ in the late 1950s and 1960s.

In some cultures, when a loved one dies, parts of them are consumed so that they, literally, become a part of you. To Western minds, this seems disturbing, but to the minds of those that entertain these “transumption” rituals, burying someone in the ground is equally disturbing. 

Although it seems ‘wrong’, consuming cooked human flesh is no more dangerous than eating the cooked flesh of other animals. The same goes for the majority of the human body; the health implications are similar to that of eating any large omnivore.

However, there is one organ that should be avoided at all cost: the brain.

Until relatively recently, The Fore people of Papua New Guinea practiced transumption. This isolated group demonstrated the ramifications of eating another human’s brain.

Perhaps the risks of catching a species-specific disease by eating your same-species neighbor outweigh the benefits of such a nutritionally complete meal. 

Kuru is a unanimously fatal, transmissible spongiform encephalopathy; it is a prion-based disease similar to BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), also known as mad cow disease.

Prion diseases are associated with the accumulation of an abnormal glycoprotein known as prion protein (PrP) in the brain. PrP occurs naturally, particularly in the nervous system. Its functions in health are not yet fully understood; however, PrP is known to play a role in a number of diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Kuru was eight to nine times more prevalent in women and children than in men at its peak, due to the fact that Fore men considered consuming human flesh to weaken them in times of conflict or battle, and the women (and children) were more likely to eat the bodies of the deceased, including the brain, where the prion particles were particularly concentrated. 

There is also a chance that it was passed on to women and children more easily because they took on the task of cleaning relatives after death and may have had open sores and cuts on their hands.

Biologists have suspected for years that many diseases are species-specific, infecting only animals of the same species. Perhaps the risks of catching a species-specific disease by eating your same-species neighbor outweigh the benefits of such a nutritionally complete meal. 

Once we strip away the initial reaction to the word “cannibalism”, we can see that our feelings aren’t as clear-cut as they seem. For instance, many of us eat our fingernails, some women even eat their placenta after giving birth. The line between the past and the present may be more blurred than we realise.

Written by Kate Summerson and edited by Ailie McWhinnie.

Find me on… Facebook @Kate Summerson and Twitter @kate_summerson

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