Cannibalism: A History of People Who Eat People
It's not easy to stomach the fact that humans and our ancestors practiced cannibalism for hundreds of thousands of years.
Any shopper walking down the aisles of a modern grocery is spoiled for choice when it comes to food options. As of 2008, the number of products carried by the average supermarket stood around 47,000, according to Consumer Reports.
There is one particular item, however, that shouldn't ever appear in anyone's shopping cart, despite its place as a historical foodstuff, particularly during desperate times: human meat.
Cannibalism strikes the human conscience like few other taboo acts, eliciting a mix of dread, disdain and plain old nausea. But as seen in this slideshow, humans eating other humans has been an inseparable part of our history.
Even before modern humans walked the Earth, human ancestors practiced cannibalism.
Homo antecessor, the last common ancestor between Neanderthals and modern humans, relied on cannibalism regularly, even when other food sources were available. These humans would sometimes hold cannibal feasts, with members of rival groups on the menu.
The remains of the victims were found alongside the bones of ancient bears, mammoths, foxes and other animals.
In the early history of our species, Neanderthals and humans coexisted. They lived together. They interbred. They ate together, and even ate each other.
During periods of starvation, Neanderthals supplemented their diets with cannibalism, according to a 2006 study on eight 43,000-year-old Neanderthal skeletons. The bones bore evidence of cut and tearing, indications that these individuals were butchered. The remains were excavated from an underground cave in El Sidrón, Spain.
The earliest humans in Europe 32,000 years ago practiced ritual cannibalism, according to a study published in 2011 in the journal PLoS One. The oldest evidence of cannibalism suggests that humans ate other humans not for nutritional purposes but rather as a part of funeral rites.
The advent of siege warfare more than 5,000 years ago set off an arms race between the invaders, who sought ever more damaging weapons, and the defenders, who built taller, stronger fortifications to fend off attack.
Caught in the middle stood the entire population of a city or town, sometimes for weeks, months or even years. During that time, if cut off from outside supplies, city dwellers had to resort to extreme means of survival, including cannibalism. During the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., which ended with the destruction of the Second Temple and the sacking of the city, starvation and plague wore down the city residents, who resorted to cannibalism to stay alive.
The victims of a siege weren't always the ones who had to resort to cannibalism to survive. Following the Siege of Maarat in 1098, the victorious crusaders, short on supplies, turned to the dead bodies of the vanquished Muslims for their source of food.
Up until the Middle Ages, cannibalism was primarily practiced as a means to supplement nutrition. Starting around the 12th century, the practice of incorporating human remains into medical remedies was common practice.
The deceased who unwillingly donated their bodies to medical science were stolen from Egyptian tombs or abducted from Irish burial sites, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Treatments called for the use of bones, blood or fat for conditions as common as a headache.
Nevermind that consuming other humans could be detrimental to a person's health. Prion diseases spread by cannibalism can cause the brain to form sponge-like holes, condition known as "spongiform encephalopathies."
The use of "corpse medicine" started to fall out of favor in the 16th century, but remained in use until the late 18th century. In some parts of Africa, a similar but much more severe form of barbarism still occurs, with albinos in particular murdered and butchered for magical protections and remedies.
The Age of Discovery brought together civilizations that had no reference for one another, and culture clashes -- in addition to the many physical conflicts -- were inevitable.
When Jesuits encountered Iroquois, Mowak and other tribes, they noted with surprise and disgust that these Native American groups practiced cannibalism. Eating human flesh wasn't simply a gastronomic experience, as noted by the Colonial Williamsburg Journal; it was part of a ritual aimed at strengthening the tribe or humiliating an enemy.
The same held true for Central and South American tribes, such as the Aztec or the Inca, who engaged in cannibalism as part of a sacrificial religious rite.
A handful of Native American tribes weren't the only cannibals in the New World; some colonists themselves had to resort to desperate measures to stay alive.
As the first permanent English settlement in the New World, Jamestown opened the door of the New World to the British. Established in 1607, the colony endured even through the difficult period of 1609-1610, known as the "starving time," when three-quarters of the colonists perished.
The colony grew so desperate that they even resorted to eating the body of a 14-year-old girl, archaeological evidence suggests. Skull and bone fragments show patterns that "tentativeness, trial and complete lack of experience in butchering animal remains," Doug Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., noted of the discovery.
The girl, who archaeologists named "Jane," likely arrived at Jamestown in August 1609, months before winter set in. According to the researchers, she likely wasn't the only one cannibalized by the 60 or so colonists that made it to spring.
Even before the discovery of gold at Sutter's mill set off a massive wave of migration to the West in 1849, American pioneers traveled by wagon train to the West to seek out better lives. The effort was grueling, over many hundreds of miles that included mountains and desert. As many as one in 10 migrants died, and the Oregon trail would become known as the nation's longest graveyard.
Perhaps no cautionary tale from the trail resonated with pioneers quite so much as that of the ill-fated Donner Party. The groups spent the winter of 1846-87 snowbound in the Sierra Mountains in Nevada after making the unfortunate decision to attempt a new route to California called Hastings Cutoff. Many of the colonists froze or starved to death during the nearly four months between being trapped in November and the first relief group arriving in February.
The Donner Party left Independence, Mo., in 1846 with 87 members; they arrived in California with 48 survivors.
The 20th century ushered in an agricultural revolution that would allow modern civilizations to produce more than enough food to meet global demand. Unfortunately the Green Revolution could only increase food production, not necessarily food security.
Famine in the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s claimed millions of lives and forced survivors to turn to cannibalism. The Great Leap Forward in China, which caused the Great Chinese Famine, similarly took a toll in the tens of millions and led many to rely on eating the dead for survival. When famine struck North Korea in the 1990s under the regime of Kim Jong Il, tourists visiting the Hermit Kingdom reported they witnessed instances of cannibalism.
The Korowai tribe is among the last known consumers of human flesh, known as "long pig" in cannibal folklore. According to Australian journalist Paul Raffaele, who spent time with the tribe in 2006, when a tribe member dies due to mysterious circumstances, most often disease, the Korowai believe that person to have succumbed to khakhua, a witch. In order to counteract the effects of the witch magically eating the deceased from the inside out, tribal custom dictates members have to consume the flesh of the dead as a kind of revenge.
That doesn't mean all cannibalism follows a natural death. Tribesmen also kill rivals and consume them in ritualistic fashion. In 2012, authorities in Papua New Guinea charged 29 members of one tribe with the deaths of seven witch doctors. The cannibals believed that by eating the witch doctors' organs, they would be imbued with supernatural powers, according to The Telegraph.