Humans Still Eating Humans

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- The arrest of suspects accused of making meat pies out of human flesh proves that cannibalism still occurs.

- Although "corpse medicine" (a form of cannibalism) was once acceptable, it started to grow out of favor in the 16th century.

- Cannibalism can facilitate the spread of deadly prion diseases.

The recent arrest of three people in Brazil suspected of making empanadas out of human flesh (and then selling them) reminds us that though human cannibalism is rare in the modern world, it still persists.

Brazil, in particular, has been linked to cannibalism in recent years. The Lancet journal reported in 1994 "that eating human remains" was common among 250 people who lived in an Olinda slum. "Poverty and a lack of compliance with laws" were blamed, since the starving individuals were eating human body parts that they found in the Brazilian city's garbage dump.

"Cannibalism is an ethologic behavior widespread among human primates and non-human primates," Isabel Cáceres, a paleoecologist at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili, told Discovery News. Cáceres has studied the phenomenon -- going back up to 780,000 years ago in our ancestors.

"Probably, the practice of cannibalism in the genus Homo appears due to lack of resources and competition for territory in critical moments," she added.

The recent case was apparently a cruel twist on that strategy. The suspects confessed to murdering at least two women, eating parts of their bodies, and using the rest to make meat pies sold in the town of Garanhuns near Sao Paulo.

One quote from one of the suspects also points to other factors. Fifty-one-year old Jorge Beltrao Negroponte told SBT Television, "I did certain things for purification, to protect people and deliver them to God."

"Up until the late 18th century, the human body was a widely accepted therapeutic agent," said Richard Sugg, a member of the Centre for Seventeenth-Century Studies at Durham University. "The most popular treatments involved flesh, bone, or blood, along with a variety of moss sometimes found on human skulls."

In a paper for the Lancet, Sugg shared how a Franciscan monk in the 17th century made marmalade out of human blood, and even wrote a recipe for it. The instructions, in part, read: "stir it to a batter with a knife...pound it...through a sieve of finest silk."

Sugg also mentioned how the word "mummy" in early-modern texts frequently refers to flesh from mummified human bodies, which were "applied topically or mixed into drinks," since "this was a common remedy for bruising in the period." The French King Francis (1494-1547) even carried mummified human flesh "in his purse," according to Sugg, as a sort of good luck charm.

Opponents of this so-called "corpse medicine" began to emerge in the 16th century. By the late 18th century, hostility toward it became widespread and effective. The folklore about it, however, may persist in certain cultures, and not just due to health reasons.

"Thinking like past humans, without our present day tabu and social behavior that does not allow us to eat other humans and see this as a disgusting action, cannibalism could be observed as a clever strategy," Yolanda Fernandez-Jalvo, a paleobiologist at the Museo National de Ciencia Naturales, told Discovery News. She studied cannibalism that occurred some 12,000 years ago at a site called Gough's Cave in what is now Somerset, England.

"Think that if a member of your group dies (of natural causes), the body can give one day off from hunting, which was always dangerous at the time," she added. And it could prove to be a "good solution" for disposing of the body "that may attract other dangerous carnivores that may attack the group."

Modern science, however, suggests that humans are far from being good eats for our own species. Diseases can spread more readily, with some being particularly gruesome. Prion diseases, for example, are thought to have inflicted prehistoric cannibals. These illnesses are sometimes referred to as "spongiform encephalopathies" because they often cause the brain to become riddled with sponge-like holes.

At the very least, red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of total, cardiovascular and cancer mortality. A study published just a few weeks ago in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that one daily serving of unprocessed red meat was associated with a 13 percent increased risk of death.

The suspects confessed to murdering at least two women, eating parts of their bodies, and using the rest to make meat pies sold in the town of Garanhuns.

Extreme weather events, financial collapse, political unrest: With today's overabundance of apocalyptic worry, now is a good time to start thinking about what you’ll do if and when the bottom falls out. In a survival situation, shelter, fire and clean drinking water should be your top priorities, said Tom Brown, founder of Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracking, Nature and Wilderness Survival School. And, even though people can survive for up to three weeks without food, Brown said, extreme hunger can make you crazy. So it's worth stocking up on canned foods and other non-perishables. Read on to find out what else you can -- and really shouldn't -- eat when the cans run out.

DO: Pet food People end up eating pet food often enough -- and sales tend to go up during recessions -- that FDA standards require food made for animals to be suitable for humans to eat too, said Cody Lundin, founder and director of the Aboriginal Living Skills School in Prescott, Ariz. In an episode of the Discovery Channel show "Dual Survival", Lundin eats dog food cooked over a campfire -- and while he expresses hope that they'll catch raccoon for breakfast, he lived to tell the tale.

DO: Rodents It's easy to catch rats and other rodents, said Brown, author of "Tom Brown's Guide to City and Suburban Survival." Simply bury a five-gallon bucket in the ground up to its edges. Cover the mouth of the container with sticks and wood scraps, and wait for a startled mouse or chipmunk to scramble under the jumbled objects. The animal will fall right into your trap. Next, burn the hair off your prey, skin them, gut them and throw them into a stew pot with water and any grains, vegetables or flour you might have on hand. "Don't even bother filleting them or getting rid of the bones," Brown said. "Bone marrow is high in nutrition and protein."

DON'T: Leather During their infamous struggle against starvation, the Donner Party ate a wide variety of unappetizing objects, including leather, which is made from animal hides. Long ago, people used the tannins in oak tree bark to turn animal skins into leather, making it a safe food item. But modern leather products are tanned with chemicals that are surely poisonous, said Lundin, author of "When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes." Your belts may look as good as fruit roll-ups when you're really hungry. But it's best to leave them in the closet.

DO: Bugs Grasshoppers, cockroaches, ants, tarantulas: Virtually all insects are edible. Just make sure to cook them well enough to kill the wide variety of diseases they can carry, Brown said. You can even eat bees and scorpions as long as you remove their stingers first. One easy way to catch insects is to fill a sink with a little water and some food crumbs. Hungry bugs will go for the bait and either drown or get stuck in the tub. Ounce for ounce, Brown added, insects have up to four times more usable protein than other animals. Instead of a pound of beef, a quarter-pound grasshopper burger will do the same job.

DO: Weeds "Food plants grow everywhere," said John Kallas, director of Wild Food Adventures, an educational company, and author of "Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate." "All you need to do is go out in your backyard." You also need to build up some detailed knowledge about botany before all hell breaks loose because eating the wrong plants or the wrong parts of plants can kill you. Common vitamin-rich weeds include wild spinach, cattails, field mustard, garlic mustard, nipplewort and dandelions. No matter how hungry you are, Kallas warned, only eat a little amount of any one kind of vegetation at a time. "Dandelions have some vital chemicals that are great for you in small amounts, but too much will give diarrhea," he said. "That's what you don't want in a survival situation."

DON'T: Cardboard and Paper Cardboard boxes may seem appealing because they contain cellulose from wood pulp, which is used as a thickener, stabilizer and source of fiber in a variety of food products. And along with paper, cardboard can counter hunger pains by taking up space. But people cannot adequately digest the cellulose in cardboard and paper, Brown said. Also, many of these products are treated with chemicals that can be toxic.

DO: Acorns Like any nut, acorns can be delicious and filling, but you can't just pop them in your mouth like cashews. To make acorns edible, Brown advised, first take them out of their husks. Next, drop them in a pot of just-boiled water and let them steep for a couple hours. Drain and repeat this process two to four times until all of the bitter tannic acid is gone. At last, you can eat the acorns plain. You can roast them. Or you can grind them into flour that will accentuate your rodent stew. Play the "Dual Survival" challenge, featuring survival experts Cody Lundin and Dave Canterbury.