Cannibalism: An ancient taboo in modern times

Historical Perspective

The phenomenon of cannibalism, throughout history, has been shrouded in layers of mystery, mythology, symbolism, and fear, remaining one of the last great taboos in most world cultures. William Arens, in his work ‘The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology & Anthropophagy,’ notes that the earliest known record of cannibalism comes from the chronicles of the expedition to the West Indies led by Christopher Columbus. According to these narratives, Columbus and his crew reportedly identified the West Indian Carib tribe as engaging in cannibalistic practices, specifically the ritual consumption of human flesh.

This initial encounter with cannibalism, through a linguistic misunderstanding, gave rise to the term ‘Canibs,’ which eventually evolved into the Spanish word ‘caníbales,’ denoting cruelty and voracity. This term was translated into English as ‘cannibalism,’ becoming the standard nomenclature to describe the act of consuming human flesh. In academic circles, especially in anthropology and archaeology, the technical term used is ‘anthropophagy.’

The existence of cannibalism, though widely debated, is robustly documented through a variety of sources including historical accounts, symbols, legends, archaeological evidence and direct testimony. The practice has not only persisted across centuries and cultures, but has also been interpreted variously depending on the cultural context: in some societies it is seen as an atrocity and sacrilegious act, while in others it is considered a sacred and respected tradition. Despite the controversies, cannibalism is established as an undeniable historical fact with deep roots that extend into the present day.

Divine Hunger

The exact origin of cannibalism is lost in the mists of prehistory and its exact beginning may never be fully understood. However, anthropologists such as Tim White, in his work ‘Once Were Cannibals,’ speculate that cannibalism may have arisen among early humans as a means of appeasing the gods, surviving famines, or as a form of revenge or dominance over enemies. Archaeological evidence suggests that this practice was already present during the Neolithic and Bronze Age in regions now corresponding to Europe and the Americas.

In particular, discoveries in Croatia indicate that cannibalism was practised among Neanderthal tribes, with finds of bones showing signs of having been used to consume human brains. Panche Hadzi-Andonov, in ‘Cannibalism and Archeology,’ mentions that archaeologists use specific criteria to identify cannibalistic practices through skeletal remains, such as signs of brain exposure, facial mutilation, burnt bones, dismemberment, cut marks, and evidence of bone fracture with stone tools. While not all of these criteria were present in the remains found in Croatia, key indicators such as crushed skulls, burning of bodies, and hammer marks suggesting the removal of brains were observed.

The wealth of archaeological and anthropological evidence found in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Far and Middle East reinforces the idea that cannibalism has been a widespread and complex practice, with motivations and manifestations varying widely across cultures and historical circumstances. Although forms of cannibalism may differ considerably, certain types appear to be more prevalent in some regions of the world and under certain conditions.

Spiritual and ritual cannibalism

Cannibalism, in its spiritual and ritual forms, manifests itself in multiple ways throughout the world, reflecting a deep connection between the dietary practices and spiritual beliefs of diverse cultures. Exocannibalism, where an individual or group consumes members of a different culture, group or tribe, is a practice historically associated with tribal power and aggression. This form of cannibalism has been used both to intimidate and deter potential invaders and to eliminate captured enemies or slaves. There is a widespread belief among many practising tribes that by consuming an enemy, one can acquire their spirit and skills, an idea that reinforces both fear and respect for cannibalism in contexts of war and power.

On the other hand, endocannibalism, which involves the consumption of individuals within the same community, group or tribe, is often associated with funeral rituals and, in some contexts, has been described as an act of compassionate cannibalism. Mortuary cannibalism, a common form of endocannibalism, generally excludes murder and focuses on the remains of the deceased. Beth Conklin, quoted by Ellie Shick, describes mortuary cannibalism among the Wari tribe of the Amazon as a socially inclusive practice, where it is believed that the spirit of the deceased is dispersed among the tribe, considering this act as one of the most respectful ways of honouring a body.

In various parts of the world, it is common for certain cultures to practice a combination of endocannibalism and exocannibalism, as well as other variants such as survival cannibalism and epicurean or nutritional cannibalism, where human flesh is consumed for its taste or nutritional value. Among the Aztecs of ancient Mexico, they are known to have performed human sacrifice and cannibalism on a large scale as part of efforts to maintain the universal balance between the cosmos and the earthly world. They believed that these sacrifices would appease the gods and prevent the destruction of humanity, as Peggy Sanday discusses in her work ‘Divine Hunger’.

In addition, cannibalism has been a practice observed in other cultures such as the Iroquois in North America, who consumed the bodies of their enemies in the belief that this would satisfy their war god and transfer the enemy’s spirit into their bodies, giving them the abilities and attributes of the fallen. This practice, according to Moira Martingale in ‘Cannibal Killers’, continued well into the 19th century.

In regions such as Papua New Guinea, both endo- and exocannibal cannibalism for ritualistic reasons was practised until the 1960s. Many tribes there consumed tissues and brains of their deceased relatives as a gesture of respect and ceremonial tradition. However, this practice had devastating consequences, such as the spread of Kuru disease, a deadly disease linked to the consumption of human brain tissue. Research led by scientists such as Carleton Gajdusek and Baruch Blumberg in the 1970s revealed that this disease was transmissible through the consumption of contaminated tissues and body fluids.

Over time, fear of diseases such as Kuru and the influence of external practices and beliefs, such as Christianity introduced by missionaries, have led to a significant decline in ritual and spiritual cannibalism in many cultures. According to an article in National Geographic, Christian influence contributed to the abolition of cannibalistic practices in places such as the island of Fiji towards the end of the 19th century, showing how the spread of new religious beliefs has had a considerable impact on the decline of cannibalism worldwide.

Survival Cannibalism

Survival cannibalism represents, perhaps, the only manifestation of this practice that, under certain extreme circumstances, is generally accepted or at least understood by society. This type of cannibalism occurs when individuals, faced with adverse and desperate conditions, resort to the consumption of human flesh as a last resort to stay alive. Although a rare and situational phenomenon, survival cannibalism remains an act that is criminalized by law in many contexts, reflecting the complex intersection between morality, survival and legislation.

In recent history, there are several notorious examples that illustrate these desperate extremes. One of the most celebrated cases is that of the Donner Party expedition in 1846, where a group of eighty-nine people, including men, women, and children led by George Donner, attempted to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California. The expedition faced brutally unexpected weather and adverse conditions that forced them to take a more difficult and dangerous route. As their supplies ran low and the cold and hunger intensified, many members of the group died from starvation and exposure to the cold.

Eventually, the survivors were driven to consume the bodies of those who had died in order to stay alive. Of the forty-six survivors rescued, many were met with horror and stigmatization by society, being labeled as monsters and put on trial for their desperate actions.

Another notable case occurred in 1972, when a plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team along with family and friends crashed in the Andes. Of the forty-five passengers, thirteen died on impact and others succumbed later to their injuries. The survivors, faced with a total lack of provisions and under extreme cold conditions, opted for cannibalism as a last resort to survive. After seventy days in extreme conditions, sixteen of them were finally rescued.

Despite the occasional realization of the necessity of such actions, cannibalism, even in extreme survival situations, is often treated with disgust and contempt by many cultures. Survivors may face social ostracism, psychiatric confinement, arrest or even harsher sentences, depending on the legal and cultural context. Cannibalism continues to be seen as a reflection of the most savage and desperate human behavior, a measure of last resort that, while mitigated in its frequency by advances in security and logistics, still occurs in many countries.

Criminal Cannibalism

Criminal cannibalism, characterized by the consumption of human flesh outside of immediate survival situations, has seen a marked increase in its incidence, especially in the Western hemisphere over the last century. This phenomenon has forced governments around the world to review and update existing legislation or, in some cases, to institute new laws to address this disturbing form of human behavior.

In the modern context, the killing of a person for the purpose of consuming their flesh, or the use of corpses for the same purpose, is categorized as criminal cannibalism or anthropophagy. However, legal definitions and associated penalties vary significantly from country to country. In many parts of the world, cannibalism is not recognized as a stand-alone crime, but is dealt with judicially in concurrence with other crimes such as murder, grave robbing or necrophilia.

For example, in jurisdictions such as Great Britain and the United States, cannibalism per se is not illegal but is socially unacceptable and those who practice it often face criminal charges directly related to the act. In contrast, in other cultures, practices that might be considered criminal cannibalism may be seen as acceptable under certain historical or cultural circumstances, as was the case with the alleged consumption of enemies during World War II by tribes in Papua New Guinea.

The debate over cannibalism in the modern, civilized era continues to rage, with many refusing to believe that such a practice can persist. Nonetheless, documentary evidence suggests that cannibalism, in its various forms-sexual, aggression, spiritual, ritual, and nutritional-continues to occur, sometimes intertwining motives ranging from the desire for power and control to the pursuit of spiritual or sexual gratification. These incidents, though infrequent, underscore the complex challenges modern society faces in trying to understand and regulate one of the most extreme and disturbing expressions of human behavior.

Sexual cannibalism

Sexual cannibalism is considered a psychosexual disorder that consists of a person sexualizing the consumption of another person’s flesh. This does not necessarily suggest that the cannibal achieves sexual gratification only in the act of consuming human flesh, but may also release sexual frustration or repressed anger. Sexual cannibalism is considered a form of sexual sadism and is often associated with the act of necrophilia (sex with corpses). There have been several high-profile cases involving sexual cannibalism, including Andrei Chikatilo, Edward Gein, Albert Fish, Armin Mewes, and Jeffrey Dahmer.

In the 1920s, Americans were confronted with the horrors of Albert Fish, who was said to have raped, murdered, and eaten several children. Fish was a sexual cannibal in the strictest sense of the term and claimed to have experienced enormous sexual pleasure when he imagined eating a person or when he indulged his fantasies.

Andrei Chikatilo, Russian serial killer, was responsible for the murders of dozens of children. For most of his life, Chikalito suffered from impotence and was only able to gain sexual gratification from the torture and murder of others. He often mutilated and then consumed the flesh of his victims, including breasts, genitals and internal sex organs, as well as other body parts. It is possible that he also obtained sexual gratification from cannibalizing. Chikatilo claimed to be repulsed by the “loose morals” of many of his victims, who served as painful reminders of his own sexual incompetence. Moira Martingale writes in Cannibal Killers that many of the murders Chikatilo committed occurred after viewing sexually explicit or violent videos.

Edward Gein, a farmer from Plainfield, Wisconsin, is believed to have killed at least three people, including his brother, a bar manager named Mary Hogan and local hardware store owner Bernice Worden. In 1957, police searched Gein’s home and found Worden’s body along with the remains of fifteen other women. Most of the remains found at the crime scene were stolen from a nearby cemetery. Gein is believed to have had sexual contact with the bodies.

He was also a self-confessed transvestite, who delighted in dismembering the bodies and tearing the skin off the corpses so he could carry them around the house. Gein is known to have cannibalized some of the bodies, including Worden’s, whose heart was in a frying pan on the stove at the time of the police search of the house. It is unclear whether Gein sexualized the consumption of his victims. However, there was a strong link between his necrophilia and his cannibalistic behavior.

Interestingly, some people who claim to be cannibals have admitted to feeling a sense of euphoria and/or intense sexual stimulation when consuming human flesh. In an article written by Clara Bruce entitled Chew On This: You’re What’s for Dinner, anthropophagists compared eating human flesh to having an orgasm. In addition, the experience was believed to elicit an out-of-body sensation with effects comparable to mescaline.

According to Lesley Hensel, author of Cannibalism as a Sexual Disorder, eating human flesh can cause an increase in vitamin A and amino acid levels, which can cause a chemical effect in the blood and brain. This chemical reaction could lead to the altered states that some cannibals have claimed to have experienced. However, this theory has not been substantiated by scientific evidence.

In Fascination with Cannibalism has Sexual Roots, Josh Cannon writes about psychologist Steven Scher and his team, who conducted one of the only known studies of sex and cannibalism at Eastern Illinois University in 2002. The study surveyed several groups of people who were asked questions related to cannibalism and sexual interests. The results of the study revealed that people were more likely to eat someone they were sexually attracted to than not. This suggests that there may be an important sexual component to the practice of cannibalism.

Aggressive Cannibalism

Aggressive cannibalism manifests itself as an extreme form of violence where the act of consuming human flesh is used to exert absolute dominance over the victim. This practice, deeply rooted in the desire to control, dominate and take revenge, constitutes one of the most brutal expressions of power. Cannibalism, in this context, not only becomes an act of physical violence, but also a profound violation of human dignity, transforming the consumption of meat into a supreme act of possession and subjugation.

This form of cannibalism is considered one of the most common types of anthropophagy and is often interrelated with other types, such as sexual, spiritual and ritual cannibalism. In recent years, notorious cases of aggressive cannibalism have captured the attention of the global media, highlighting profiles such as those of Anna Zimmerman and Ed Kemper, whose actions sparked not only horror but also intense debate about the psychology behind such acts.

In 1981, Anna Zimmerman, a German mother of two, committed a crime that shocked the community. At the age of 26, Zimmerman murdered her boyfriend driven by a mixture of rage and desire for revenge. She then dismembered his body and froze the remains, which she later thawed and consumed with her children, who were unaware of the meat’s origin. This case is one of the few documented cases where a woman is directly involved in the murder.

Edmund Kemper, meanwhile, offers an even more disturbing case study. He was convicted of the murders of six young women, his grandparents, his mother and a friend of her mother. Experts believe his string of crimes and penchant for cannibalism were largely the result of a deep contempt for his mother and a childhood marked by abuse. Kemper recounted how his mother psychologically abused him, going so far as to confine him to a cold, dark basement during his childhood, a factor that contributed to the development of his homicidal impulses.

The sexual component was prominent in many of Kemper’s murders, and he admitted to raping his victims before killing them and, on occasion, abusing the corpses. However, his actions were largely motivated by a deep resentment toward his mother, who he claimed was the primary influence behind his violent and cannibalistic fantasies. Kemper argued that his tumultuous relationship with her was what catalyzed his spiral of violence, which culminated in murder and cannibalism.

These cases illustrate how aggressive cannibalism is not only sustained by the need for physical control over the victim, but also by a complex web of negative emotions such as hatred, anger and revenge. By consuming their victims, aggressors carry out a symbolic and literal act of total domination, which, in its most extreme form, seeks to annihilate the identity and very existence of the other person. This type of cannibalism highlights the darker aspects of the human psyche and challenges our understanding of the boundaries between aggression, sexuality and power.

Ritual Cannibalism

Spiritual and ritual cannibalism in the modern era bears many similarities to practices observed in tribal cultures, but has evolved in criminal contexts often associated with satanic or cult rituals, rather than the traditions of isolated tribes.

In Helsinki, Finland, in 1999, a notorious case involved two men and a teenage girl who were convicted of torture, murder and cannibalism of a twenty-three-year-old boy, in what they described as a satanic ritual murder. According to Karen Jones’ “Satanism and Ritual Abuse File,” the perpetrators received sentences of just over two and a half years for this brutal crime.

Jones documents another incident in 1999, in Kiev, where Dmitry Dyomin and two accomplices abducted and murdered a fifteen-year-old girl in a similar ritual. Dyomin consumed the victim’s tongue and, along with his accomplices, decapitated the girl and kept her skull as a trophy.

Beyond groups, there are individuals whose cannibalistic acts also incorporate spiritual and ritual elements. Infamous figures such as Dahmer and Kemper believed that by consuming their victims they absorbed part of their essence or power, considering their acts not only as nourishment but as a spiritual fusion with the other.

Nutritional Cannibalism

Nutritional cannibalism is defined by the consumption of human flesh based on taste or nutritional value. This form of cannibalism is exceptionally rare and is often seen as a submotivation in survival or sexual cannibalism contexts.

One of the most notorious cases is that of Issei Sagawa, a Japanese student who, in 1981 in France, committed a horrendous crime driven by his cannibalistic desires. After being rejected by a Dutch friend, Sagawa murdered her, abused her corpse and proceeded to eat parts of her body, such as her breasts and buttocks, claiming that he had never tasted anything so delicious. Declared mentally incompetent to stand trial in France, Sagawa was confined in a mental institution for just over a year before being sent back to Japan, where he has surprisingly enjoyed a sort of celebrity status.

In a separate case in France, Nicolas Claux, convicted in 1994 of the murder of Thierry Bissonier, also admitted to consuming human flesh. Claux, who had worked in a children’s hospital morgue, confessed to stealing and consuming meat from deceased children, preferring to eat it raw and comparing its taste to steak tartar. Claux was also known for his links to Satanism, suggesting that his acts of cannibalism may also have had a ritual or symbolic dimension.

These cases highlight the complexity of cannibalism in its ritual and nutritional forms, showing how these macabre acts can be motivated by a variety of reasons, from spiritual beliefs to simple taste preference, each with its own disturbing justifications and legal and social consequences.

Psychological Perspectives on Criminal Cannibalism

In the field of psychology, there is intense debate about the factors that may lead a person to engage in criminal cannibalism. Numerous theories have been proposed ranging from overfeeding in the first months of life to extreme stress. Despite this, the evidence supporting most of these theories is limited, although they offer a useful framework for exploring possible psychological factors underlying cannibalism.

Sally Talwani in her article, “Experts Debate What Forces Create a Cannibal,” mentions Dr. Clancy McKenzie, professor of psychology at Capital University in Washington, D.C., who argues that cannibalism may result from traumas, especially those experienced in childhood. McKenzie suggests that the separation anxiety a child experiences after weaning may lead him or her to fantasize about devouring the mother. Under certain circumstances, an adult who has experienced these traumas may return to that developmental stage in response to trauma or stress, resorting to cannibalism as a way of seeking satisfaction.

This hypothesis finds support in Eli Sagan’s cross-cultural study of cannibalism. According to Sagan, as cited in Sandays’ Divine Hunger, cannibalism may be a psychological response to anger and frustration, manifested through oral aggression and the desire to literally absorb the person consumed. Sagan postulates that this impulse may be directed toward an enemy that threatens the integrity of the individual, particularly in those who were overly dependent on their mothers due to overfeeding during childhood.

Psychological interviews with cannibals provide some support for the idea that aggression toward the mother may be a factor in cannibalism, as observed in the case of Ed Kemper. However, it is not clear whether this aggression is a direct cause of cannibalism and, in general, it is difficult to obtain conclusive evidence to fully support this theory.

On the other hand, Dr. Park Dietz, quoted in the same article by Talwani, cautions against over-interpreting childhood experiences of cannibals. Dietz points out that sudden traumatic stress, such as that experienced by Dahmer after a family breakup, can be a crucial trigger that leads someone to cannibalism. However, this theory does not fully encompass the motivations behind cannibalism, nor does it explain Dahmer’s cannibalistic fantasies in his youth.

In addition, some theories suggest that cannibalism could be classified as a sexual disorder or even an eating disorder. Schizophrenia and other personality disorders are frequently diagnosed among cannibals, such as Andrei Chikatilo, Albert Fish, Edward Gein, and Issei Sagawa. According to Rebers Dictionary of Psychology, schizophrenia includes a range of psychotic disorders that may manifest dissociation between emotional and cognitive functions, and is characterized by delusions, hallucinations, and a break with reality. These symptoms could explain the altered states reported by cannibals, including blackouts, heightened self-perception, hallucinations, and disorganized thinking.

Finally, the possible prevalence of schizophrenia-related psychotic traits in small, genetically isolated tribes suggests a heritable component that could influence cannibalistic behavior, although this theory still requires further exploration.

The lack of conclusive research in the area of modern criminal cannibalism underscores the need for further study to fully understand the causes that lead some individuals to this extreme behavior.

The courts in the face of cannibalism

Media attention has recently focused on what is believed to be the first recorded case of cannibalism in Germany. Armin Meiwes, a middle-aged computer technician, has caused a stir both in court and in public opinion with his unusual statements. Despite the seriousness of his crimes, Meiwes was relaxed and restrained during the trial. He has been charged with murder motivated by sexual pleasure, a crime that can carry up to 15 years in prison. However, Meiwes maintains that his victim, Bernd-Juergen Brandes, voluntarily consented to being killed and consumed, which he claims eliminates the criminal nature of murder in his action.

This unusual case began when Meiwes posted an ad on the Internet seeking a willing volunteer to be killed and consumed. According to Meiwes, there are more than 400 websites and forums dedicated to cannibalism, and more than 200 men responded positively to his proposal. Brandes was one of these men, and the two agreed to meet at Meiwes’ home in Rotenburg to carry out the macabre plan. On the night of the meeting, details about how events unfolded are murky, including the fact that Brandes apparently offered to make his penis the first course at dinner.

Meiwes recounted that Brandes expressed a desire to have his penis cut off, which they did together before cooking and eating it. Meiwes subsequently stabbed Brandes and dismembered his body, storing body parts in the freezer for later consumption. Meiwes also videotaped these acts, which he considered entertaining enough to review in the future.

The case might have remained hidden were it not for a student who saw one of Meiwes’ postings alerting the police. During his trial, which began on December 3, 2003, Meiwes claimed that Brandes had come voluntarily and described his death as “pleasant,” noting that prior to his death, Brandes had consumed large amounts of alcohol and sleeping pills.

Although cannibalism itself is not specifically prohibited by German law, it does warrant a psychiatric evaluation. The psychiatric examination of Meiwes revealed that his fascination with cannibalism began as a child, influenced by horror movies, and he even fantasized about eating his classmates. The defense argued that there was no murder since Brandes volunteered, but the prosecution warned about the dangers of Meiwes’ tendencies and argued for his permanent incarceration.

The Kassel court ruled that Meiwes did not act with “nefarious motives,” thus avoiding a murder conviction and resulting in a sentence of eight and a half years in prison, although the prosecutors did not want him to be sentenced to life imprisonment. This unprecedented case in German law could escalate all the way to the Supreme Court. Germany’s Constitutional Court has rejected an appeal on behalf of Meiwes, but another case of cannibalism in Germany continues to capture international attention.

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