Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Cannibalism: The Ancient Taboo in Modern Times

Survival Cannibalism

Perhaps the only generally accepted form of cannibalism is when humans eat the flesh of other humans in an attempt to stay alive in adverse and desperate situations. Survival cannibalism is rare and explicable in many cases, yet is still an act that is often punishable by law. There have been several prominent cases of survival cannibalism over the last two hundred years, including that of the Donner Party expedition and the more recent cases that occurred in the Andes Mountains following a plane crash.

Donner Party monument
Donner Party monument
In 1846, a group of eighty-nine men, women and children led by a man named George Donner set out across the Sierra Nevada Mountains enroute to California. During the trek, the weather took and unexpected turn and they were forced to take an alternative route. The travelers began to run out of food and other resources. Many died from exposure and starvation.

Half of the travelers perished before the remaining people eventually succumbed to their situation and began to feed on the flesh of the dead in an attempt to survive. The forty-six survivors were eventually rescued, however upon reaching civilization they were regarded as monstrous criminals and tried for their actions. The travelers served around six months before they were re-released back into their communities.

In 1972, a group of rugby players, their friends and families left on an airplane for Chile from Urugua. The plane crashed into the snow-covered Andes Mountains killing thirteen of the forty-five passengers onboard the aircraft. Many of the passengers died over the weeks from crash-related injuries. Without any provisions, those left alive resorted to cannibalizing the dead. Those who refused to eat the human flesh died of starvation. After seventy days in the mountains, sixteen survivors were rescued and taken home.  

Even in the most extreme cases, the act of cannibalism is treated with scorn and disgust by many cultures and is sometimes punishable by social ostracization, institutionalization in a mental facility, arrest, incarceration or even death. Cannibalism is most commonly believed to be the epitome of savage behavior. Although disease and religion have greatly diminished the practice, it continues to be practiced worldwide.

Disorganized cannibalistic practices amongst criminals have been steadily increasing over the last century, especially in the Western Hemisphere. Lawmakers around the world have been forced to update laws pertaining to cannibalism or establish new laws where none existed before. Criminal cannibalism has become the concern of the future.

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