Cannibalism – the history of eating human flesh

cannibal human flesh

In July this year, Channel 4 in the UK broadcast a spoof documentary about a fictional factory producing tasty meat harvested from people driven to sell bits of themselves for easy money. Cue howls of outrage in the tabloids and social media. The show was hosted by high-profile TV chef, Gregg Wallace with the idea loosely based on an 18th century satire by the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift. But some found it hard to handle the idea of cannibalism as a subject of humour. Because the eating of human flesh is one of our greatest taboos.

So, let’s take a look at this latest furore around cannibalism before journeying back through the centuries to examine in greater, gory detail the history of eating human flesh. How some experts scoffed at the notion of humans being scoffed only to be confounded by the grisly (or should I say gristly?) facts!

TRIGGER WARNING: This is a blog post about cannibalism. There are descriptions, images, and real-life news reports some users may find upsetting. Please exercise your own discretion.

Cannibalism as satire

As I mentioned, Channel 4 in the UK just screened a very dark piece of satire: The British Miracle Meat. The short hoax documentary was presented by well-known TV chef, Gregg Wallace, who was shown around a factory processing human meat. In the same plant, a hospital surgery hacked away at men, women, and children surrendering bits of their bodies in return for cash. The whole thing owned by an unscrupulous private company producing slick promotional videos.

This satire was based on an essay written in 1729 by Jonathan Swift titled: A Modest Proposal.

Sitting in his car at the end of The British Miracle Meat, Wallace even used the phrase “a modest proposal” giving the game away to those who know their Swift. Many keyboard warriors clearly didn’t get the literary reference instead taking to social media to express their manufactured “fury” and “disgust”.

How Swift would have laughed. His satire, re-versioned, still able to shock nearly three hundred years after publication. Writing during a period of economic crisis, Swift suggested that the excess children of the Irish poor who they could not afford, should be sold for food. And their skin could even be removed to make women’s gloves and men’s boots.

“A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.”

Of course he wasn’t serious.

The underlying message in Swift’s 1729 A Modest Proposal is a cry against poverty. The writer was highlighting the heartless attitudes of the 18th century British rich towards the poor by having penniless Irish families sell their children to wealthy families who then cheerfully eat them for dinner. Swift was Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and saw the deprivation and misery of the dispossessed all around him. Beneath the humour was a simmering anger at the injustice.

The full title of his work was: A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick. And with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, Swift gave advice to the kitchen staff of the rich:

“A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”

The same kind of biting humour runs through the recent Channel 4 documentary, The British Miracle Meat. It touches on the current cost of living crisis with a woman being offered a fortnight of free electricity if she surrenders some flesh in a procedure described as “pain-subjective”.

Yet, for reasons we’ll look at below, cannibalism remains a very touchy subject.

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Horror movies featuring cannibals

Cannibalism is a taboo explored in many horror movies. For example, through the fictional character Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the novels and subsequent film versions, The Silence of the Lambs and the sequel Hannibal. Lecter becomes a cannibal as a result of a traumatic incident in World War Two where his sister is killed for food by Nazi collaborators and he inadvertently eats some of her too.

The sequel movie, Hannibal, contains the unforgettably nightmarish scene where Lecter serves a man part of his own brain – cooked.

What many people don’t realise is that the Hannibal Lecter character is based in part on a real-life cannibal serial killer, Ed Gein, who gave parcels of human meat to unsuspecting neighbours telling them it was venison. Though mutilation was more his forte than eating his victims.

Gein inspired an especially ghoulish element in Silence of the Lambs where the killer stitches together a suit made from female flesh. Decades earlier, movie director Alfred Hitchcock also drew on Gein for his macabre killer in the movie Psycho, Norman Bates – who you will recall kept his dead mother in the fruit cellar.

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Soylent Green – food shopping turns ugly

Forty years ago, Hollywood produced a very despondent cannibal-based view of the future.

In 1973, actor and gun enthusiast Charlton Heston starred in the movie, Soylent Green. A very typical dystopian film of the early 1970s. Set in New York, in the year 2022. Humanity has all but exhausted the planet’s resources. Society is being pushed back to a state of barbarism. A hungry population queues for the only food available: Soylent Green.

But what is it? A police detective played by Heston investigates a series of mysterious murders. But then he’s pressured to close the case and refuses. Those around him, discovering the true nature of Soylent Green, die. Needless to say, we all know what the strange green foodstuff turns out to be. A society that has decimated the environment is condemned to eat itself.

Ancient cannibalism – eat the parents!

And it turns out we’ve been eating each other for quite a while!

For several decades, there has been mounting evidence that Neolithic people in Europe de-fleshed the dead for reasons that are not fully understood. Some historians have grasped at that hoary old chestnut: ritual. But others have countered – maybe they just wanted the meat? Instead of hunting for food that day – just scavenge what was in front of you. Even if it was your late aunt!

One archaeological dig revealed an alarming number of bodies from fetuses to the old that suggested human meat was regularly removed. The cut marks being very similar to the way butchers throughout history have processed animal meat. One seven thousand year old site contained hundreds of remains treated in this way. It’s a horrific thought – but were our ancestors engaging in routine cannibalism?

Racism, imperialism, and cannibalism

Up to the 1970s, the image of cannibalism involved some or other tribe, most likely in sub-Saharan Africa, with a large cooking pot. I found a story from 1933 during my research about a missionary, Captain G. McLeod of the Seventh Day Adventists, who in his own choice words had been “taming a tribe of 2,000 savages” on the island of Mussau. By November that year, he had won their confidence and “escaped the cooking-pot”.

But there was growing scepticism about accounts like this. In the 1970s, academics questioned how many of these eye-witness accounts by colonialists and imperialists were factual. Very often, well-known Victorian explorers referred to cannibalism as something not seen but heard about. Could it be that these stories were designed to demean native populations, justifying the ‘civilising mission’ of Europeans in their newly conquered dominions?

I mean, take this unacceptable newspaper article from the 1920s. It assumes that all African tribal practices must have a cannibalistic undertow. There’s little by way of hard evidence to support a single assertion. But it fed into a European grim fascination with the unknown peoples of the jungle, their frightening beliefs, and those ceaseless drumbeats!

The 1979 book, The Man-Eating Myth by William Arens trashed the notion of widespread cannibalism among colonised people in the Caribbean, Africa, and New Guinea. Most eyewitness accounts, he believed, were fake. And I certainly remember that in the 1980s, it was the accepted view among liberally minded people that reports of cannibalism had been largely fabricated by white imperialists.

But as we know, academic fashions change and new information comes to light. And I think it’s fair to say that the cooking pot is back but with many of its racist connotations removed. It turns out that if we go back far enough, all of us have ancestors who partook of human flesh.

Even some of the pre-modern, non-academic testimonies that Arens believed couldn’t be taken seriously may have been true.

Reasons for cannibalism in history

So why did people eat people in history? What was the attraction of human flesh?

Split long bones and bashed in skulls have long pointed to humans supplementing their diet in pre-history by snacking on old friends. Funerals of loved ones might include a bit of ‘endo-cannibalism’ – essentially dining on the deceased by way of a final farewell. In the 1840s, an Italian explorer in Peru asked an Amazonian tribe, the Mayoruna, why they did this. One answered him: when you die, wouldn’t you rather be eaten by your kin than by the worms?

Humans also ate the mutilated bodies of their enemies as a final act of humiliation to cement a victory. This comes under ‘exo-cannibalism’, eating those outside your community. It’s been argued that this practice ceased as warring peoples calculated that it was more economic to force captives to work than to serve them up for dinner.

Cannibalism – part of a Roman high protein diet?

Years ago, I read one disturbing rumination by an American professor who argued that surely, protein-deprived, poverty-stricken Romans didn’t let all that meat – human and animal – go to waste at the arena. Imagine the scene after days of beast fights and gladiatorial combat plus executions. So much protein. So many people with a protein-deficient diet. And they just buried all those carcasses – or chucked them in the river Tiber?

But the evidence suggests that while the Coliseum was a place of unrivalled death and brutality, the Roman public still believed they were a cut above those vile barbarians. And one practice they would not tolerate was cannibalism. Though it’s long been claimed that some educated pagan Romans assumed that Christians were cannibals because they talked so much about eating the flesh and blood of their saviour!

There are reports of cannibalism during medieval sieges and during the Crusades.

In China, the Siege of Suiyang in 755/756 AD was accompanied by widespread consumption of human flesh. The city’s defenders began with eating women and children, then worked on to the old and young. It’s claimed that 30,000 corpses were eaten and that General Zhang Xun killed his own concubine to feed his troops.

Lurid tales of cannibalism

One newspaper report I found from 1928 (see below for image) played to the basest prejudices about the Roma people. It claimed that a “pretty Gypsy girl in gay bright-coloured skirts and gold hoop earrings” reported to the chief of police in a Czecho-Slovakian town that her “tribe” had turned cannibal!

She had partaken of a human flesh stew herself and described how it tasted roasted, grilled, or boiled. The chief of their large group of Roma was a fearsome man, Sindor Filke. It was reported that when the authorities eventually decided to take the woman seriously and conduct a search, they discovered piles of human bones picked clean.

But then, the story disappears. The alleged biggest example of group cannibalism Europe had ever seen fizzled away. More than likely, because it never happened. Five years later, the Nazis came to power in Germany. Up to 1945, when Adolf Hitler lost the Second World War, between 250,000 and two million Roma were murdered in Nazi death camps. This story has to be seen in that context. Part of the prevalent propaganda demonising and de-humanising Roma people.

Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571

One of the most shocking incidences of cannibalism in recent times was the aftermath of a plane crash in the Andes mountains on October 13, 1972 that was carrying a local rugby union team. The chartered flight hit a mountain and then slid down a glacier at high altitude. There were survivors though over the next 72 days of being stranded in a remote and inhospitable area, some died from their injuries or subsequent accidents.

Two months was a long time to be stranded in snowy conditions. There was no natural vegetation or animals. So, the living ate whatever had been retrieved from the flight including eight chocolate bars and a tin of mussels. But soon that was gone. The decision was then made to tear off thin, matchstick-sized strips of flesh from dead passengers. For one member of the rugby team, eating his fellow players was not an easy decision:

“We knew the answer, but it was too terrible to contemplate. The bodies of our friends and team-mates, preserved outside in the snow and ice, contained vital, life-giving protein that could help us survive. But could we do it?”

Some literally couldn’t stomach the idea. Others gave in to their hunger pangs. It was that or die.

Once rescued, the survivors were reticent to reveal the truth but it soon leaked out. In a Catholic part of the world, there was an outpouring of anger including from a survivor’s mother. She was mortified at what her son had done. However, one of the flight passengers summoned up the courage to justify his actions comparing it to “the sacred act of communion”.

Consenting to be eaten

In 2004, a curious case of voluntary cannibalism made headlines around the world. It also highlighted how the internet presents cannibals with new opportunities for indulging their passion for human flesh. Armin Meiwes, a German I.T. technician, killed and ate a willing victim victim he met in an online chat room.

Bernd-Juergen Brandes responded to a post from Meiwes requesting somebody who was up for being “slaughtered” like an animal and then eaten. The court rejected a prosecution plea for a murder conviction and life sentence, instead finding Meiwes guilty of manslaughter. The chief judge, Volker Muetze, took the view that both men “wanted something from each other”.

The killing was filmed and the court saw Brandes declaring that this was the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. He told Meiwes: “I am your meal.” For his part, Meiwes pretentiously philosophised that consuming another human was a merging of souls. In a bid to reduce his sentence, Meiwes portrayed his act of cannibalism as a form of euthanasia.

Journalists were intrigued about this below-the-radar online human flesh eating scene. Forums on the internet included Cannibal Cafe (where Brandes and Meiwes had met), Cannibal Corpse, Women Eater Forum, and The Splatter Container. Some were tongue in cheek or trading in fantasies but others were a little more serious.

The Dark Web and the most sinister cannibalism

The Dark Web has created a dangerous avenue for those mixing cannibalism, murder, and child abuse. In 2020, in a horrific criminal case, Alexander Nathan Barter got 20 years in prison after an undercover law enforcement officer responded to an online ad:

“I’d like to try necrophilia and cannibalism, and see how it feels to take a life.  If you’d be willing to let me kill you, are in the US (preferably in the south) and can travel by car, contact me.”

The details of the case are horrific and involved luring a 13-year-old girl to her death, after which she would be eaten. Mercifully this never happened.

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