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Cannibalism is the act or practice of eating members of the same species, e.g. humans eating humans (sometimes called anthropophagy), or dogs eating dogs. Among humans this has been practiced by various tribal groups in the past in the Amazon Basin, Africa, Fiji, and New Guinea, usually in rituals connected to tribal warfare. The Chaco Canyon ruins of the Anasazi culture have been interpreted by some archaeologists as containing evidence of ritual cannibalism. Individual cases in other countries have been seen with mentally unstable persons, criminals, and, in unconfirmed rumors, by religious zealots. In America, the Donner party is a case of cannibalism due to hunger. In Ukraine, widespread cannibalism was common during the hungry years in the 1930s, but this horrible truth was kept secret until recently.
For some species, cannibalism under certain well-defined circumstances, such as the female black widow spider eating the male after mating, is believed to be a common, if not invariable, part of the life cycle. In vertebrates (except for many fish), cannibalism is not generally observed to be uniformly routine or widespread for any given species, but may develop in extremis such as captivity, or a desperate food shortage. For instance, a domestic sow may eat her newborn young, though this behavior has not been observed in the wild. It is also known that rabbits, mice, rats, or hamsters will eat their young if their nest is repeatedly threatened by predators. In some species adults are known to destroy and sometimes eat young of their species to whom they are not closely related--famously, the chimpanzees observed by Dr. Jane Goodall. Some of these observations have been questioned (for example by Stephen Jay Gould) as possible products of sloppy research. For example, while there are many observations of female praying mantises eating their mates after copulation, there are no known observations of this occurring in the wild; it has only been observed in captivity.
Cannibalism among humans
The accusation of cannibalism has historically been much more common than the act itself. During the years of British colonial expansion slavery was actually considered to be illegal, unless the people involved were so depraved that their conditions as slaves would be better than as free men. Demonstration of cannibalistic tendencies were considered evidence for this, and hence reports of cannibalism became widespread.
Marvin Harris has analyzed cannibalism and other food taboos. He thinks that it was common among bands, but disappeared in the transition to states, the Aztecs being exception.
Other more contemporary reports have also been called into question. The well known case of mortuary cannibalism of the Fore tribe in New Guinea which resulted in the spread of the disease Kuru is well documented and not seriously questioned by modern anthropologists. This case, however, has also been questioned by those claiming that although post-mortem dismemberment was the practice during funeral rites, cannibalism was not. Marvin Harris theorizes that it happened during a famine period coincident with the arrival of Europeans and rationalized as a religious rite.
Fijian cannibalism is also generally accepted as historically factual.
The fictional history of Robinson Crusoe (fl. 1658-1695) described how the Caribs took their poor victims, and hit them with a mace. Paul Serre del Sagués, who was almost his contemporary, recorded the same of the Caribs of Costa Rica, but was more detailed: The victim was sacrificed by a blow to the back of their heads. Then the saman opened the chest by an obsidian knife, took the heart, and tasted it. Meanwhile his assistants cut up the body to eat it, and distributed grains of maize painted with blood as fetishes. (See Entierros Indígenas en Costa Rica in Revista de Costa Rica, Year III (San José, 1921: 71).
The cannibal name is a corruption of caribal, the Spanish word for Carib. Others (Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, Volume XIV, 1905: 451) claim that "Cannibal" meant "valiant man" in the language of the Caribs. Richard Hakluyt's Voyages introduced the word to English. Shakespeare transposed it, anagram-fashion, to name his monster servant in The Tempest 'Caliban'.
Cannibalism was quite common in each cardinal direction from Cocos Island. It was reported in Mexico, the flower wars of the Aztec Empire being the most massive manifestation of cannibalism. The friar Diego de Landa reported about Yucatan instances, Yucatan before and after the Conquest, translated from Relación de las cosas de Yucatan, 1566 (New York: Dover Publications, 1978: 4). Similarly, by Purchas from Popayan, Colombia, and from the Marquesas Islands of Polynesia, where man-eating was called long-pig (Alanna King, ed., Robert Louis Stevenson in the South Seas, London: Luzac Paragon House, 1987: 45-50). It is recorded about the natives of the captaincy of Seregipe in Brazil, They eat human flesh when they can get it, and if a woman miscarries devour the abortive immediately. If she goes her time out, she herself cuts the navel-string with a shell, which she boils along with the secondine, and eats them both. (See E. Bowen, 1747: 532.)
The autobiography of famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera claims that during a period in 1904, he and his companions ate "nothing but cadavers" purchased from the local morgue. Rivera was fully aware of the shock value of this tale. Ribera claims that he thought cannibalism a way of the future, remarking "I believe that when man evolves a civilization higher than the mechanized but still primitive one he has now, the eating of human flesh will be sanctioned. For then man will have thrown off all of his superstitions and irrational taboos." Readers may be reminded of the savage satire of Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal.
However, when about 1972, a medium-sized airplane crashed in the Andes near the border between Chile and Argentina, after several weeks of starvation and struggle for survival, the numerous survivors began to eat the body of the captain and others. Two men of the survivors of the airplane crash decided to venture down in the ice and snow, and finally saw a man with a horse, who helped to take them to a telephone. A military helicopter of Chile arrived and saved the rest of the people.
Cannibalism is known to have been practised by the participants of the First Crusade. Some of the crusaders fed on the bodies of their dead opponents after the capture of the Arab town of Ma’arat. It was also practised by foraging parties on the later stages of the march on Jerusalem. In both cases, it seems possible that it may have been due to a combination of causes; in addition to hunger, there was also the feverish state of mind of the crusaders, and perhaps a desire to terrorise their opponents. Some Crusaders refused to eat the bodies of fellow Christians, but were not adverse to eating the bodies of defeated Muslims.
In the 1930s, during the widespread hunger in Ukraine, cannibalism was very common. According to BBC, children were eaten by their parents, spouses sometimes killed each other for food. Some 9 million people died during the two worst years of hunger, but many deaths were actually due to cannibalism. Ukraine is still the country with the highest number of living cannibals.
'Cannibalism' as cultural libel
A skeptical reading of unsubstantiated reports of cannibalism may identify a disproportionate rate of cases of cannibalism among cultures that are already otherwise despised. The 'Blood libel' that accused Jews of eating Christian children is merely the most notorious example. In antiquity, Greek reports of anthropophagi were related to distant, non-Hellenic barbarians, or else relegated in myth to the 'primitive' chthonic world that preceded the coming of the Olympian gods. In the modern world, such libels must be presented as 'reports' in order to be believed. In 1994, printed booklets reported that in a Yugoslavian concentration camp of Manjaca the Bosnian refugees were forced to eat each other's bodies. These reports await confirmation.
William Arens, The Man-Eating Myth (1979), downplays cannibalism as an approved, institutional form of behavior and argued that the description by one group of people of another people as cannibals is an ideological and rhetorical device to establish moral superiority over them.
Conversely, Montaigne's essay "Of cannibals" introduced a new multicultural note in European civilization. Montaigne wrote that "one calls 'barbarism' whatever he is not accustomed to."
Sexualized cannibalism (fantasies and real)
The wide use of the Internet has highlighted that thousands of people harbor sexualized cannibalistic fantasies. Discussion forums and user groups exist for the exchange of pictures and stories of such fantasies. Typically, people in such forums fantasize about eating or being eaten by members of their sexually preferred gender. As such, the cannibalism fetish or paraphilia is one of the most extreme sexual fetishes.
Rarely ever do such fetishes leave the realm of fantasies (aided by modern technology for photo modification or completely computer generated images). There have been extreme cases of real life sexualized cannibalism, such as those of the serial killers Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, Sascha Spesiwtsew and Fritz Haarmann ("the Butcher of Hannover"). In December 2002, a highly unusual case was uncovered in the town of Rotenburg in Hessen, Germany. In 2001 Armin Meiwes, an 41-year-old computer administrator, had posted messages like his more recent ones (see messages) in Internet newsgroups on the subject of cannibalism, repeatedly looking for "a young Boy, between 18 and 25 y/o" to butcher. At least one of his requests was successful: Jürgen B., another computer administrator, offered himself to be slaughtered. The two men agreed on a meeting. Jürgen B. was, with his consent, killed and eaten by Armin M. Before killing him, Armin M. cut off his victim's penis, and the two men ate it together. The whole act was recorded on video. Meiwes was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in jail for manslaughter (Totschlag, less than murder but more than killing on demand)
This is not the first consensual killing mediated through the Internet, but it is the first such known case of consensual cannibalism.
The existing cases of sexualized cannibalism involved homosexuals to a disproportionate extent. Some observers have linked this to the higher likelihood of homosexuals to suppress their sexual urges. Armin M., for example, came from a conservative family, and in spite of having homosexual fantasies, had several unsuccessful heterosexual relationships.
Cannibal themes in myth
Whether modern humans ate the Neanderthals they undoubtedly killed is not proven. On a primitive level, ritually eating part of the slaughtered enemy is a way of assuming the life-spirit of the departed. In a funeral ritual this may also be done with a respected member of one's own clan, ensuring immortality. Cannibal ogresses appear in folklore around the world, the witch in 'Hansel and Gretel' being the most immediate example. On the mythological level the cannibal mother is magnified to a universal principal, such as the Hindu goddess Kali, the Black One. The opening of Hell, the Zoroastrian contribution to Western mythology, is a mouth.
According to Catholic dogma, bread and wine are transubstantiated into Jesus Christ's real blood and flesh, which is then distributed by the priest to the faithful.
Cannibalism in fiction
Some examples of cannibalism in fiction are: