Cannibalism Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


9 Conversations

Someone on a dinner plate

The word cannibalism comes from the Spanish name for the Carib - Caríbales or Caníbales - a West Indies tribe, and describes animals which prey upon their own species. In this sense it has been found among lions, pigs, ants, otters, apes, poultry, mantis, spiders, scorpions and many other animal species. In a narrower sense, cannibalism denotes humans who eat humans. This is called anthropophagy, from the Greek anthropophagos, literally meaning 'man-eating'.

Cannibalism in Wildlife

There can be various evolutionary advantages to cannibalism. One is to get rid of competition by eliminating a rival. Some insects, fish and amphibians eat their companions when food is rare. Another reason is that if there are fewer animals of a particular kind, predators may search for a better stomping ground elsewhere. Sometimes, it is also a means of prevention of over-population. Once a lion becomes leader of a pride he will kill all newborn lions, which renders the lionesses fertile and serves for him to create offspring from his genes.

Some fish commit uterine cannibalism, ie within the mother's reproductive organ the first hatchling eats either younger hatchlings (embryophagy, embryo-eating) or unfertilized eggs (oophagy, egg-eating).

Sexual cannibalism is to be found among spiders and scorpions where a female eats the male after copulation. Mantis males must be decapitated before fertilization can occur, and they serve as a protein meal afterwards.

Human Cannibalism (Anthropophagy)

Tales of cannibalism have been reported from all over the world and an exhaustive list of the tribes' names would go through the alphabet several times. Looking back into history, there is evidence that Neanderthal man knew quite well how to butcher and trench a colleague. Even the Bible refers to cannibalism, as can be seen in Jeremiah 19:

  • (8) I will devastate this city and make it an object of scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds.

  • (9) I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another's flesh during the stress of the siege imposed on them by the enemies who seek their lives.

What People Think It Is Good For


Eating an enemy - referred to as Exocannibalism - was believed to:

  • Transfer his skills, power and positive qualities to the eaters.

  • Eternally separate his body from his soul, and thereby extend revenge beyond the point of death and leaving no place for the ghost to exist.

The Aztecs of Mexico believed they would get closer to their gods by eating other people.

It also serves to cultivate a relationship of hatred between different tribes:

... among the ancient Maoris, those who had taken part in the meal were entitled to show their teeth to the relatives of the victim and say, 'Your flesh has stuck between my teeth'. Such remarks were capable of rousing those to whom they were addressed to a murderous rage not very different from the Malay amok.
- From The Easter Island Homepage


In ancient India, a tribe ate their old or sick members as part of their religion, referred to as Endocannibalism. In Australia, cannibalism was a form of burial, and only the most revered received this honour. One tribe member stated in his last will that he wanted to be eaten by his relatives rather than by the worms in a grave.

Emergency Cannibalism

Emergency cannibalism occurs if there's no other way to survive.

  • The Donner Party was a group of 90 immigrants who, on their way westward through the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846/47, were caught in a snowstorm. After having consumed their food rations, they had to resort to cannibalism - ending up a kind of... 'Donner Kebab' party.

  • When the city of Leningrad was under siege during World War II, the inhabitants had to make the choice between starvation or cannibalism.

  • In 1972 some members of a rugby team from Uruguay survived the crash of their aircraft in the Chilean Andes Mountains. Rescue teams had to return because of severe weather conditions. The team managed to survive only by eating flesh from the dead.

  • The Franklin Expedition of 1881-84 into the Canadian Arctic region followed the same pattern.

  • According to press reports, famine has made people resort to cannibalism in North Korea in 1997/98, where flesh of obviously human origin was even offered on the streets.

Criminal Cannibalism

Many a murderer has tried to get rid of a corpse by eating the remains of their victim. Mental illness and paranoia were stated in cases such as the serial killers Jeff Dahmer and Ed Gein. Megalomania could be suggested in the rumoured cases of dictators like Idi Amin of Uganda and Jean Bedel Bocassa (Central African Republic).

Cannibalism As a Means of Propaganda

When Roman Emperors uttered allegations that Christians were man-eaters they were not the first, nor the last, to accuse somebody of cannibalism in order to diminish their reputation. Accusing somebody of cannibalism is still a means to arouse hatred among the public. There's even a patron saint soley dedicated to those who have been falsely accused of cannibalism called St Blandina. A news agency reported:

  • BEIJING, Jun 1, 2000 -- (Reuters) China Wednesday launched a vitriolic attack against exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, accusing him and his followers of rape, murder and child cannibalism1.

What People Quite Probably Get from It

Diseases like scrapie in sheep, and Mad Cow Disease (BSE, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) have been proven to be associated with cannibalism. These diseases affect the brains and nerves of their victims. There is still debate on whether they are transmitted only by brain and nerve cells in the food, or whether it is the close similarity of proteins and amino acids which causes them, and that herbivores' digestive systems are not made for digesting meat.

The Fore people of New Guinea were reported to acquire 'kuru', a disease whose description reads quite similar to Mad Cow Disease, entailing neurological deterioration and death within a couple of months. The Fore ate their victim's brains.

There are many more diseases which cannibals are likely to acquire - if the prey was infected with a virus or a parasite then eating the flesh transports this ailment as well.

Modern Myths

There's a story which seems to pop up every few years; a family in Europe receives gift packages from an expatriate uncle overseas on a regular basis. One of the packages contains a jar with grey powder. They take it as a sort of instant soup (or sauce powder) and add it to their menu. A few days later a letter arrives, stating that the remains of the deceased uncle had been sent the week before.

Media Coverage (Fiction)

A number of films centre around Cannibalism, including:

  • Soylent Green (1973)
  • Eating Raoul (1982)
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  • Alive: The Miracle of the Andes (1993)
  • Ravenous - You are who you eat (1999)
  • Lamm Emirstan (a German short film)

And in literature, a boy is not a boy without having read Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Mark Twain also wrote about cannibalism, in the short story Cannibalism in the Cars. And we cannot forget Hänsel and Gretel from the Grimm Brothers.

In painting, Salvador Dali must be mentioned for his portrayals of cannibalism, as in Cannibalism in Autumn.

In comedy, Monty Python, in the 'Lifeboat Sketch', was the first source to raise the question whether human flesh is kosher (in fact it is not!).

And of course the musical Sweeney Todd - in which the 'Demon Barber of Fleet Street' kills his customers whose bodies are baked into the 'best pies in London'.

'Hidden' Cannibalism

The word 'barbeque' stems from the Caribbean, where 'babricot' denoted the grill which was used to prepare cannibal feasts.

In the Melanesian pidgin language, the word for 'human' means the same as 'long pig'.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more