Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Cannibalism: The Ancient Taboo in Modern Times

Divine Hunger

The exact origin of cannibalism is a mystery and will most likely remain so. Some anthropologists believe that cannibalism began in earliest human history and proliferated with mans increasing attempt to appease the gods, survive famine, or exact revenge on or control his enemies. To date, archeological evidence suggests that cannibalism was practiced as far back as the Neolithic Period and Bronze Age in what is now Europe and the Americas.

According to Tim White in Once Were Cannibals, evidence found in Croatia points to cannibalism amongst Neanderthal tribes. The bones of Neanderthals were discovered during an archeological excavation, which suggest that humans ate the brains of other humans. Panche Hadzi-Andonov wrote in Cannibalism and Archeology that some of the criteria archeologists use to identify cannibalism from human remains includes evidence of brain exposure, facial mutilation, burnt bone, dismemberment, cut marks, bone breakage hammerstone abrasions, and missing vertebrae. Although not all of the criteria was met when studying the bones found in Croatia, the most crucial key elements were present, including crushing of the heads and bones, burning of the bodies, suggesting they had been roasted over fire and evidence of a hammering to split the brain open.

A wealth of archeological and anthropological evidence discovered in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Far East and Middle East further suggests the far-reaching capabilities of cannibalistic practices. The motivations behind the practice of cannibalism vary cross-culturally and per situation and cannot be easily categorized. However, there are several forms of cannibalism that appear to be more prevalent in certain areas of the world and in certain situations.

Spiritual and Ritualistic Cannibalism

There are many forms of spiritual and ritualistic cannibalism worldwide. Exocannibalism is defined as a culture, group or tribes consumption of another culture, group or tribe. This form of cannibalism has been associated with tribal power, murder and aggression and has been used in an effort to scare off possible invading enemies, to get rid of captured enemies of war and slaves. Many cannibalistic tribes believed that consuming ones enemy would allow them to obtain and absorb the spirit and skills of the victim. 

Conversely, the consumption of members within ones own culture, group or tribe is called endocannibalism, which is often associated with ritual burial ceremonies and has been controversially referred to on occasion as compassionate cannibalism. Mortuary cannibalism has been considered to be the most widely practiced form of endocannibalism, often excluding murder and focusing on already deceased corpses.

For example, according to anthropologist Beth Conklin in article by Ellie Shick mortuary cannibalism amongst the Wari tribe of the Amazon rainforest had a socially integrative dimension. Upon consumption of the deceased group member, the spirit of the dead was believed to be absorbed by the entire tribe and was considered by them to be one of the most respectful ways to treat a human body.

Sketch: Indians practicing mortuary cannibalism
Sketch: Indians practicing mortuary cannibalism
Throughout the world, anthropologists have discovered that cannibalistic tribes incorporate many different forms of cannibalism. It is not uncommon for one particular group, culture or tribe to practice a mixture of ritualistic endo and exo-cannibalism, as well as other forms such as survival and epicurean/nutritional cannibalism (consumption of human flesh for the taste or nutritional value).   

The ancient Aztecs in Mexico were believed to have sacrificed and cannibalized thousands of humans on an annual basis. The Aztecs were believed to have practiced exocannibalism, as well as endocannibalism and survival cannibalism. Human sacrifice and cannibalism was practiced in an effort to create a universal balance between of the world and the cosmos.

Divine Hunger
Divine Hunger
Aztecs believed that sacrificing humans, either from their own culture or from an outside culture, would appease the gods and if they failed to do so, it would mark the destruction of all humanity. According to Peggy Sanday in her book Divine Hunger, cannibalism was a holy act, which allowed men to obtain divine powers through communication with their gods. Cannibalism was also practiced during times of great famine.

Cannibal Killers
Cannibal Killers

Other cultures participated in endo- and exo-cannibalism for similar reasons, such as The North American Indians, known as the Iroquoian. They believed that sacrificing and consuming the bodies of their enemies would satisfy their war god and lead to their spirit being transferred and absorbed into their own bodies. The absorbed spirit was believed to empower the cannibal with the attributes of the dead person. Moira Martingale, author of Cannibal Killers, claims that this form of ritualistic cannibalism was practice by the Iroquoian culture as recently as 1838. 

New Guinea cannibal chief
New Guinea cannibal chief
There have also been reports of tribes in Papua, New Guinea, known to have practiced endo- and exo-cannibalism up until the 1960s for ritualistic purposes. Some of the tribes partook of cannibalism for purposes other than ritual reasons, such as for the taste. However, a majority of the tribes were known to mostly consume their dead relatives tissues and brains in a ceremonial and traditional display of respect. The practice did have deadly repercussions.

It was discovered that many of the tribes people were suffering from a fatal disease believed by scientists to be related to their cannibalistic activities. According to anthropologist Margaret Mackenzie, a scientific team led by Carleton Gajdusek and Baruch Blumberg discovered that women were passing on a disease to their children, believed to be the human equivalent of Mad Cow Disease in the late 1970s.

The disease, which became more wide-spread over a short period of time was due to an infectious agent introduced by the consumption of deceased human tissues, especially that of the brain. The disease, referred to as Kuru, was highly infectious and was transferred in a variety of methods, including through bodily fluids. The spread of this disease only began to diminish when the practice of cannibalism decreased.

Ritualistic cannibalism is frowned upon by most cultures; however it plays an integral part of those cultures that do practice it. In many ways, the act has been a traditional custom representing their values and belief system for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. However, with the fear of disease, which has the possibility of extinguishing cultures permanently, tribes are forced to find away around their practices and possibly incorporate a more symbolic and less literal form of ritual.

It is not disease alone, which has caused a reduction in many forms of ritualistic and spiritual cannibalism. The spread of Christianity by missionary agencies has also led to a significant decrease in the practice. A National Geographic article, Island of the Pacific: For a Man-size Appetite, stated that by the close of the 19th century, Christian influences ended cannibalistic practices on the island of Fiji. In fact, the spread of Christianity is believed to have significantly diminished cannibalism worldwide.    

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