The Case for Cannibalism

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Anthropophagy is the latin word for the eating of human flesh. That does not just mean cannibalism but it does include it.

Cannibals are something to be scared of right? Human civilisation has been terrified of the concept since the very beginning and yet it is so widespread anyway, there was a tribe in Papua New Guinea who had a legend about giant cannibals who lived in the hills and while they survived the humans could not come into their own, but when this race died out the humans came out of the caves they lived in and built the island civilisation their way. This type of legend is not totally uncommon in other parts of the world either.

I mean, the basis of the spate of zombie films in the media are based on two such fears, the first being the reanimation of the dead but also the cannibalisation of the victims they came across, eating brains definitely counts as anthropophagy. One of the scariest characters for me in modern literature was Hannibal Lector, who spawned the fabulous quote, ” I may have to eat your wife.”

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It would seem that Dr Livingstone found that there were tribes in Africa who believed that the slave traders who came and took their villagers were in fact abducting their loved ones to take home, farm and eat. No wonder they weren’t too keen on the slave boats eh!

Meanwhile back in Papua New Guinea in the fifties there was break out of a fatal disease called Kura, which stemmed from members of the Fore tribe eating the brains of their dead relatives, the disease has several indicators, one of which is uncontrollable laughter. Another symptom was a shuddering of the whole body, both of these have been used by film makers and writers for many years to indicate a lack of civilisation. The English comedy, carry on up the jungle, depicted the “savages”  as cannibals with a big black pot on a fire into which they added vegetables and were about to drop the civilised Englishmen.

So what drives people to cannibalise? There is the ritualisation of course, the belief that eating a dead relatives brain will impart the knowledge of their forefathers to the eater for example. Forms of ritual cannibalism are prevalent throughout history but there are far more rumours of it than anything else, the ancient Romans thought the Scots partook. There are also cases in Liberia where Generals, in the troubles they had, such as General Butt Naked, would cannibalise innocents because he believed this would make him invincible. General Butt Naked is strangely enough now a well known preacher and has been given a pardon because of his conversion to Christianity. Some very awful things happened in Liberia, as they have in other places in the world at other times, can this have been justified? Because it has been legally pardoned.

Leonardo da Vinci is quoted as saying, “We preserve our life with the death of others. In a dead thing insensate life remains which, when it is reunited with the stomachs of the living, regains sensitive and intellectual life.”

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Then there is necessity. There are stories of people in extreme conditions being forced to eat other people in order to survive, in the short term for the individual this makes perfect sense even if it can be hard to swallow.(sorry, couldn’t resist) In the long term however eating our own species makes no sense as it gives a disadvantage in terms of natural selection and so is not in the best interest of the species. There are also reports of the sale of human flesh on the markets in North Korea to provide people with protein when there is a severe lack of food but this could just be people extrapolating the tough survival conditions with their own fears and in so doing demonising the regime they don’t like.

The 2006 film Apocalypto features a sufferer of ‘the laughing sickness’ who accosts the protagonists as they enter the Mayan city portrayed in the film. The implication is that the poorer, starving city dwellers have resorted to eating human flesh because of the deterioration of the city’s society.

What if the ritualised cannibalism was actually spawned by necessity in the beginning, what if social conditions led to groups of people eating human flesh and then in time it was made into rituals? In many cases not too far fetched and it does mean that context plays a large part in the conditions which help to form anthropophagy in society.

There are many first hand accounts from the Crusades in 1098, at the siege and capture of the Syrian city Ma’arra, that the Christian soldiers then proceeded to eat the flesh of the Muslim locals, it then becomes unclear whether the bodies were consumed in secret or whether the leaders quietly allowed this to happen to be able to use it as a form of psychological terror against future enemies.

Beth A. Conklin, a cultural and medical anthropologist at Vanderbilt University talks about the difference between western and non western cannibalism; “The one thing that we know is that almost all non-Western cannibal practice is deeply social in the sense that the relationship between the eater and the one who is eaten matters,” says Conklin. “In the European process, this was largely erased and made irrelevant. Human beings were reduced to simple biological matter equivalent to any other kind of commodity medicine.”

In the 1880’s in England we used to make candles of human fat, these so called “thieves candles” were thought to paralyze and stupefy a person.  Human skulls were  ground down as a cure for headaches and even King Charles 11 used to sip the king’s drops, a mixture of crushed human skulls, and alcohol.

Richard Sugg, from the University of Durham, told The Smithsonian: ‘The question was not, “Should you eat human flesh?” but, “What sort of flesh should you eat?”. At executions in England poor people could buy a cup of fresh, warm blood for a small price as it was considered to be good for vitality.“The executioner was considered a big healer in Germanic countries,” says Sugg. “He was a social leper with almost magical powers.” For those who preferred their blood cooked, a 1679 recipe from a Franciscan apothecary describes how to make it into marmalade.

Only last year in South Korea customs officials found thousands of pills which contained the powdered remains of human beings. The capsules were thought to be  the remains of aborted or still born babies and were considered a cure-all wonderdrug.

With all the austerity measures in place now the civilised west is no longer the rich big brother, or not as rich, there are reportedly 500, 000 people now in England who regularly rely on emergency food handouts and countries like Spain and Greece are even worse off. I am not saying that we are headed towards cannibalism, not at all, but in renaissance times in Europe it was considered a trendy health fad to consume the powdered remains of mummies, and indeed these powdered mummies were still sold as recently as 1910 in a german catalogue.

Who knows what the future holds?

Lucien Grey

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