Woodcut showing 12 people holding various human body parts carousing around an open bonfire where human body parts, suspended on a sling, are cooking.
Cannibalism, Brazil. Engraving by Theodor de Bry for Hans Staden's account of his 1557 captivity.

Cannibalism (from Caníbales, the Spanish name for the Carib people,[1] a West Indies tribe formerly well known for their practice of cannibalism[2]) is the act or practice of humans eating the flesh of other human beings. It is also called anthropophagy. A person who practices cannibalism is called a cannibal.

While the expression "cannibalism" has origins in the act of humans eating other humans, it has extended into zoology to mean the act of any animal consuming members of its own type or kind, including the consumption of mates.

A related word, "cannibalize" (from which "cannibalization" is derived), has several meanings which are metaphorically derived from cannibalism and originally referred to the reuse of military parts.[3] In manufacturing, it can refer to reuse of salvageable parts. In marketing, it may refer to the loss of a product's market share to another product from the same company. In publishing, it can mean drawing on material from another source.[4]

Cannibalism was widespread in the past among humans in many parts of the world, continuing into the 19th century in some isolated South Pacific cultures, and to the present day in parts of tropical Africa. In a few cases in insular Melanesia, indigenous flesh-markets existed.[5] Fiji was once known as the 'Cannibal Isles'.[6] Cannibalism has been well documented around the world, from Fiji to the Amazon Basin to the Congo to Māori New Zealand.[7] Neanderthals are believed to have practiced cannibalism,[8][9] and they may have been eaten by modern humans.[10]

Cannibalism has recently been both practiced and fiercely condemned in several wars, especially in Liberia[11] and Congo.[12] Today, the Korowai are one of very few tribes still believed to eat human flesh as a cultural practice.[13][14] It is also still known to be practiced as a ritual and in war in various Melanesian tribes.[15] Historically, allegations of cannibalism were used by the colonial powers to justify the enslavement of what were seen as primitive peoples; cannibalism has been said to test the bounds of cultural relativism as it challenges anthropologists "to define what is or is not beyond the pale of acceptable human behavior".[16] Anthropophagy is an uncommon act that is not illegal in most US states nor in most countries.[17] People who eat human flesh are usually charged with crimes not relating to anthropophagy, such as murder or desecration of a body.[17]

Cannibalism has been occasionally practiced as a last resort by people suffering from famine. Occasionally it has occurred in modern times. A famous example is the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, after which some survivors ate the bodies of dead passengers. Also, some mentally ill individuals obsess about eating others and actually do so, such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Albert Fish. There is a resistance to formally labelling cannibalism as a mental disorder.[18]

The theme of cannibalism has been featured in religion, mythology, fairy stories and in works of art; for example, cannibalism has been depicted in The Raft of the Medusa by the French lithographer Théodore Géricault in 1819. It has been satirized in popular culture, as in Monty Python's Lifeboat sketch.

Marble statue of naked woman eating a human leg with a child watching at her feet
Menschenfresserin by Leonhard Kern, 1650


Reasons for cannibalism

The reasons for cannibalism include the following:

There are fundamentally two kinds of cannibalistic social behavior: endocannibalism (eating humans from the same community) and exocannibalism (eating humans from other communities).

Cannibalism as an evolutionary strategy of predator control

Joseph Jordania recently suggested that removing the dead bodies through ritual cannibalism might have had a function of predator control in hominids and early humans, aiming to eliminate predators' and scavengers' access to hominid (and human) bodies.[19]

Homicidal cannibalism and necro-cannibalism

A separate ethical distinction can be made between killing a human for food (homicidal cannibalism) and eating the flesh of a person who was already dead (necro-cannibalism).

Cannibalism by performance artist

In 1988 performance artist Rick Gibson became the first person in British history to legally perform an act of cannibalism by eating a canapé of donated human tonsils in Walthamstow High Street, London, England.[20][21] A year later he publicly ate a slice of legally purchased human testicle in Lewisham High Street, London, England.[22][23] When he tried to eat another slice of human testicle in Vancouver, Canada in 1989, he was stopped by the police.[24][25] However, the charge was dropped and he finally ate a testicle hors d'œuvre in Vancouver in 1989.[26][27][28]


The Carib tribe in the Lesser Antilles, from whom the word cannibalism derives, for example, acquired a long-standing reputation as cannibals following the recording of their legends in the 17th century.[16] Some controversy exists over the accuracy of these legends and the prevalence of actual cannibalism in the culture.

The spread of human cannibalism (anthropophagy) in the late 19th century.

During their period of expansion in the 15th through 17th centuries, Europeans equated cannibalism with evil and savagery. In the 16th century, Pope Innocent IV declared cannibalism a sin deserving to be punished by Christians through force of arms and Queen Isabella of Spain decreed that Spanish colonists could only legally enslave natives who were cannibals, giving the colonists an economic interest in making such allegations. This was used as a justification for employing violent means to subjugate native people. This theme dates back to Columbus' accounts of a supposedly ferocious group of cannibals who lived in the Caribbean islands and parts of South America called the Caniba, which gave us the word cannibal.[16]

A well known case of mortuary cannibalism is that of the Fore tribe in New Guinea which resulted in the spread of the prion disease kuru.[29] Although the Fore's mortuary cannibalism was well documented, the practice had ceased before the cause of the disease was recognized. However, some scholars argue that although post-mortem dismemberment was the practice during funeral rites, cannibalism was not. Marvin Harris theorizes that it happened during a famine period coincident with the arrival of Europeans and was rationalized as a religious rite.

In pre-modern medicine, an explanation for cannibalism stated that it came about within a black acrimonious humour, which, being lodged in the linings of the ventricle, produced the voracity for human flesh.[30]

In 2003 a publication in Science received a large amount of press attention when it suggested that early humans may have practiced extensive cannibalism.[31][32] According to this research, genetic markers commonly found in modern humans worldwide suggest that today many people carry a gene that evolved as protection against the brain diseases that can be spread by consuming human brain tissue.[33] A 2006 reanalysis of the data questioned this hypothesis,[34] as it claimed to have found a data collection bias, which led to an erroneous conclusion.[35] This claimed bias came from incidents of cannibalism used in the analysis not being due to local cultures, but having been carried out by explorers, stranded seafarers or escaped convicts.[36] The original authors published a subsequent paper in 2008 defending their conclusions.[37]

Human meat is thought to be unsafe if eaten, especially if the human being eaten has any kind of disease or infection that could be passed on through consumption. According to the book The Hundred Year Lie by investigative journalist Randall Fitzgerald, our modern diet is so full of additives and chemicals that it would be toxic to consume human meat.[38]

During starvation

Cannibalism which took place in Russia and Lithuania during the famine of 1571

Cannibalism has been occasionally practiced as a last resort by people suffering from famine.

  • In colonial Jamestown, colonists resorted to cannibalism during a period known as the Starving Time, from 1609–1610. After food supplies were diminished, some colonists began to dig up corpses for food. During this time period, one man was tortured until he confessed to having killed, salted, and eaten his pregnant wife before he was burned alive as punishment.[39][40]
  • The accounts of the sinking of the Luxborough Galley in 1727 reported cannibalism amongst the survivors during their two weeks on a small boat in the mid-Atlantic.
  • The Essex was sunk by a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean in 1820. The survivors of Captain Pollard's boat spent 90 days in a small whaling boat before being rescued. All the members who died during the 90 days were eaten. When the boat was found there were two members remaining; they were found sucking on the marrow of a human bone. The tale of the Essex inspired Herman Melville to write his novel Moby-Dick.
  • In 1822 Alexander Pearce, an Irish convict, led an escape from Macquarie Harbour Penal Settlement in Tasmania. Pearce was captured near Hobart and confessed that he and the other escapees had successively killed and cannibalised members of their group over a period of weeks, he being the last survivor.
  • In the US, the group of settlers known as the Donner Party resorted to cannibalism while snowbound in the mountains for the winter of 1846–47.
  • The last survivors of Sir John Franklin's expedition 1848 were found to have resorted to cannibalism in their final push across King William Island, Canada towards the Back River.[41]
  • There are many claims that cannibalism was widespread during the famine of Ukraine in the 1930s, during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II,[42][43] and during the Chinese Civil War and the Great Chinese Famine (1958–1961), following the Great Leap Forward in the People's Republic of China.[44][45]
  • There were also rumors of several cannibalism outbreaks during World War II in the Nazi concentration camps where the prisoners were malnourished.[46]
  • Cannibalism was also practiced by Japanese troops as recently as World War II in the Pacific theater.[47]
  • A more recent example is of leaked stories from North Korean refugees of cannibalism practiced during and after a famine that occurred sometime between 1995 and 1997.[48]
  • Lowell Thomas records the cannibalization of some of the surviving crew members of the ship Dumaru after it exploded and sank during the First World War in his book, The Wreck of the Dumaru (1930). Another case of shipwrecked survivors forced to engage in cannibalism was that of the Medusa, a French vessel which in 1816 ran aground on the Banc d'Arguin (English: The Bank of Arguin) off the coast of Africa, about sixty miles distant from shore.
  • In 1972, the survivors of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, consisting of the rugby team from Stella Maris College in Montevideo and some of their family members, resorted to cannibalism while trapped at the crash site. They had been stranded since 13 October 1972 and rescue operations at the crash site did not begin until 22 December 1972. The story of the survivors was chronicled in Piers Paul Read's 1974 book, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, in a 1993 film adaptation of the book, called simply Alive, and in a 2008 documentary: Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains.
  • Jared Diamond has suggested in his book Collapse that cannibalism took place on Easter Island after the construction of the Moai contributed to environmental degradation when extreme deforestation destabilized an already precarious ecosystem. (The suggestion is contested by ethnographers and archaeologists who argue that the introduction of diseases carried by European colonizers and slave raiding had a much greater social impact than environmental decline.[49])

Themes in mythology and religion

Postage stamp showing Hansel imprisoned in a cage with the evil stepmother and Gretal standing outside.
Hansel and Gretel German stamp
Painting of a ghoulish, naked man holding a bloody, naked body and devouring the arm .
Saturn Devouring His Son, from the Black Paintings series by Francisco de Goya, 1819

Cannibalism features in many mythologies, and is most often attributed to evil characters or as extreme retribution for some wrong. Examples include the witch in Hansel and Gretel and Baba Yaga of Slavic folklore.

A number of stories in Greek mythology involve cannibalism, in particular cannibalism of close family members, for example the stories of Thyestes, Tereus and especially Cronus, who was Saturn in the Roman pantheon. The story of Tantalus also parallels this. These mythologies inspired Shakespeare's cannibalism scene in Titus Andronicus.

Hindu mythology describes evil demons called "asura" or "rakshasa" that dwell in the forests and practice extreme violence including devouring their own kind, and possess many evil supernatural powers. These are however the Hindu equivalent of "demons" and do not relate to actual tribes of forest-dwelling people.[citation needed]

The Wendigo (also Windigo, Weendigo, Windago, Windiga, Witiko, Wihtikow, and numerous other variants) is a mythical creature appearing in the mythology of the Algonquian people. It is a malevolent cannibalistic spirit into which humans could transform, or which could possess humans. Those who indulged in cannibalism were at particular risk,[50] and the legend appears to have reinforced this practice as taboo. The name is Wiindigoo in the Ojibwe language (the source of the English word),[51] Wìdjigò in the Algonquin language, and Wīhtikōw in the Cree language; the Proto-Algonquian term was *wi·nteko·wa, which probably originally meant "owl".[52]

As used to demonize colonized or other groups

Unsubstantiated reports of cannibalism disproportionately relate cases of cannibalism among cultures that are already otherwise despised, feared, or are little known. In antiquity, Greek reports of cannibalism, (often called anthropophagy in this context) were related to distant non-Hellenic barbarians, or else relegated in Greek mythology to the 'primitive' chthonic world that preceded the coming of the Olympian gods: see the explicit rejection of human sacrifice in the cannibal feast prepared for the Olympians by Tantalus of his son Pelops. All South Sea Islanders were cannibals so far as their enemies were concerned. When the whaleship Essex was rammed and sunk by a whale in 1820, the captain opted to sail 3000 miles upwind to Chile rather than 1400 miles downwind to the Marquesas because he had heard the Marquesans were cannibals. Ironically many of the survivors of the shipwreck resorted to cannibalism in order to survive.

However, Herman Melville happily lived with the Marquesan Typees (Taipi), rumored to have been the most vicious of the island group's cannibal tribes, but also may have witnessed evidence of cannibalism. In his semi-autobiographical novel Typee, he reports seeing shrunken heads and having strong evidence that the tribal leaders ceremonially consumed the bodies of killed warriors of the neighboring tribe after a skirmish.

William Arens, author of The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy,[53] questions the credibility of reports of cannibalism and argues that the description by one group of people of another people as cannibals is a consistent and demonstrable ideological and rhetorical device to establish perceived cultural superiority. Arens bases his thesis on a detailed analysis of numerous "classic" cases of cultural cannibalism cited by explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists. His findings were that many were steeped in racism, unsubstantiated, or based on second-hand or hearsay evidence. In combing the literature he could not find a single credible eye-witness account. And, as he points out, the hallmark of ethnography is the observation of a practice prior to description. In the end he concluded that cannibalism was not the widespread prehistoric practice it was claimed to be; that anthropologists were too quick to pin the cannibal label on a group based not on responsible research but on our own culturally determined pre-conceived notions, often motivated by a need to exoticize. He wrote:

Anthropologists have made no serious attempt to disabuse the public of the widespread notion of the ubiquity of anthropophagists. ... in the deft hands and fertile imaginations of anthropologists, former or contemporary anthropophagists have multiplied with the advance of civilization and fieldwork in formerly unstudied culture areas. ...The existence of man-eating peoples just beyond the pale of civilization is a common ethnographic suggestion.[54]

Arens' findings are controversial, and have been cited as an example of postcolonial revisionism.[55] His argument is often mischaracterized as "cannibals do not and never did exist",[citation needed] when in the end the book is actually a call for a more responsible and reflective approach to anthropological research. At any rate, the book ushered in an era of rigorous combing of the cannibalism literature. By Arens' later admission, some cannibalism claims came up short, others were reinforced.

Conversely, Michel de Montaigne's essay "Of cannibals" introduced a new multicultural note in European civilization. Montaigne wrote that "one calls 'barbarism' whatever he is not accustomed to." By using a title like that and describing a fair indigean society, Montaigne may have wished to provoke a surprise in the reader of his Essays.


Among modern humans it has been practiced by various groups.[56] In the past, it has been practiced by humans in Europe,[57][58] South America,[59] among Iroquoian peoples in North America,[60] Maori in New Zealand,[61] the Solomon Islands,[62] parts of West Africa[14] and Central Africa,[14] some of the islands of Polynesia,[14] New Guinea,[63] Sumatra,[14] and Fiji.[64] Evidence of cannibalism has been found in ruins associated with the Anasazi culture of the Southwestern United States as well.[65][66]


Some anthropologists, such as Tim White, suggest that cannibalism was common in human societies prior to the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic period. This theory is based on the large amount of "butchered human" bones found in Neanderthal and other Lower/Middle Paleolithic sites.[67] Cannibalism in the Lower and Middle Paleolithic may have occurred because of food shortages.[68]

In Gough's Cave, England, remains of human bones and skulls, around 15,000 years old, suggest that cannibalism took place amongst the people living in or visiting the cave,[69] and that they may have used human skulls as drinking vessels.[70][71]

According to one historical account, aboriginal tribes of Australia were most certainly cannibals, never failing to eat persons killed in a fight and always eating men noted for their fighting ability who died natural deaths. "... out of pity and consideration for the body."[72]

Early history

Cannibalism is mentioned many times in early history and literature. It is reported in the Bible during the siege of Samaria (2 Kings 6:25–30). Two women made a pact to eat their children; after the first mother cooked her child the second mother ate it but refused to reciprocate by cooking her own child. A similar story is reported by Flavius Josephus during the siege of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 AD, and the population of Numantia during the Roman Siege of Numantia in the 2nd century BC was reduced to cannibalism and suicide.

As in modern times, though, reports of cannibalism were often told as apocryphal second and third-hand stories, with widely varying levels of accuracy. St. Jerome, in his letter Against Jovinianus, discusses how people come to their present condition as a result of their heritage, and then lists several examples of peoples and their customs. In the list, he mentions that he has heard that Atticoti eat human flesh and that Massagetae and Derbices (a people on the borders of India) kill and eat old people.(The Tibareni crucify those whom they have loved before when they have grown old).[73] This points to the likelihood that St. Jerome's writing came from rumors and does not represent the situation accurately.[citation needed]

Researchers have found physical evidence of cannibalism in ancient times. In 2001, archaeologists at the University of Bristol found evidence of Iron Age cannibalism in Gloucestershire.[74] Cannibalism was practiced as recently as 2000 years ago in Great Britain.[75] In Germany, Emil Carthaus and Dr. Bruno Bernhard have observed 1,891 signs of cannibalism in the caves at the Hönne (1000 - 700 BC).[76]

Middle Ages

Painting of a bearded man and four children huddled on a stone floor with two large angels overhead.
Ugolino and his sons in their cell, as painted by William Blake circa 1826. Ugolino della Gherardesca was an Italian nobleman who, together with his sons Gaddo and Uguccione and his grand-sons Nino and Anselmuccio were detained in the Muda, in March 1289. The keys were thrown into the Arno river and the prisoners left to starve. According to Dante, the prisoners were slowly starved to death and before dying Ugolino's children begged him to eat their bodies.

During the Muslim-Qurayš wars in the early 7th century, cases of cannibalism have been reported. Following at the Battle of Uhud in 625, it is said that after killing Hamzah ibn Abdu l-Muṭṭalib, his liver was consumed by Hind bint ‘Utbah (the wife of Abû Sufyan ibn Harb one of the commanders of the Qurayš army)[77] who later reportedly converted to Islam and became the mother of Muawiyah I founder of the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate.

Reports of cannibalism were also recorded during the First Crusade, as Crusaders fed on the bodies of their dead opponents following the Siege of Ma'arrat al-Numan. Amin Maalouf also discusses further cannibalism incidents on the march to Jerusalem, and to the efforts made to delete mention of these from western history. The inhabitants of Hungary (which the Crusaders marched through to reach the Holy Land ) were also reported to be cannibals, as the Hungarians had only converted from paganism to Christianity in the 10th century. In fact, the French word for Hungarian, 'hongre, may be the source of the English word ogre.[78] During Europe's Great Famine of 1315–1317 there were many reports of cannibalism among the starving populations. In North Africa, as in Europe, there are references to cannibalism as a last resort in times of famine.[79]

The Moroccan Muslim explorer Ibn Batutta reported that one African king advised him that nearby people were cannibals (though this may have been a prank played on Ibn Batutta by the king in order to fluster his guest). However Batutta reported that Arabs and Christians were safe , as their flesh was "unripe" and would cause the eater to fall ill.

For a brief time in Europe, an unusual form of cannibalism occurred when thousands of Egyptian mummies preserved in bitumen were ground up and sold as medicine.[80] The practice developed into a wide-scale business which flourished until the late 16th century. This "fad" ended because the mummies were revealed actually to be recently killed slaves. Two centuries ago, mummies were still believed to have medicinal properties against bleeding, and were sold as pharmaceuticals in powdered form (see human mummy confection).[81]

In China during the Tang Dynasty, cannibalism was supposedly resorted to by rebel forces early in the period (who were said to raid neighboring areas for victims to eat), as well as both soldiers and civilians besieged during the rebellion of An Lushan. Eating an enemy's heart and liver was also claimed to be a feature of both official punishments and private vengeance.[82] References to cannibalizing the enemy has also been seen in poetry written in the Song Dynasty, though the cannibalizing is perhaps poetic symbolism, expressing hatred towards the enemy (see Man Jiang Hong).

While there is universal agreement that some Mesoamerican people practiced human sacrifice, there is a lack of scholarly consensus as to whether cannibalism in pre-Columbian America was widespread. At one extreme, anthropologist Marvin Harris, author of Cannibals and Kings, has suggested that the flesh of the victims was a part of an aristocratic diet as a reward, since the Aztec diet was lacking in proteins. While most pre-Columbian historians believe that there was ritual cannibalism related to human sacrifices, they do not support Harris's thesis that human flesh was ever a significant portion of the Aztec diet.[83][84][85] Others have hypothesized that cannibalism was part of a blood revenge in war.[86]

A scene depicting ritualistic cannibalism being practiced in the Aztex Codex folio 73r

Early modern era

European explorers and colonizers brought home many stories of cannibalism practiced by the native peoples they encountered. The friar Diego de Landa reported about Yucatán instances,[87] and there have been similar reports by Purchas from Popayán, Colombia, and from the Marquesas Islands of Polynesia, where human flesh was called long pig.[88] According to Hans Egede, the Inuits, when they killed a witch, ate a portion of her heart.[89] It is recorded about the natives of the captaincy of Sergipe in Brazil, "They eat human flesh when they can get it, and if a woman miscarries devour the abortive immediately. If she goes her time out, she herself cuts the navel-string with a shell, which she boils along with the secondine, and eats them both.'"[90]

The 1913 Handbook of Indians of Canada, (reprinting 1907 material from the Bureau of American Ethnology) claims that North American natives practicing cannibalism included "...the Montagnais, and some of the tribes of Maine; the Algonkin, Armouchiquois, Iroquois, and Micmac; farther west the Assiniboine, Cree, Foxes, Chippewa, Miami, Ottawa, Kickapoo, Illinois, Sioux, and Winnebago; in the South the people who built the mounds in Florida, and the Tonkawa, Attacapa, Karankawa, Caddo, and Comanche (?); in the Northwest and West, portions of the continent, the Thlingchadinneh and other Athapascan tribes, the Tlingit, Heiltsuk, Kwakiutl, Tsimshian, Nootka, Siksika, some of the Californian tribes, and the Ute. There is also a tradition of the practice among the Hopi, and mentions of the custom among other tribes of New Mexico and Arizona. The Mohawk, and the Attacapa, Tonkawa, and other Texas tribes were known to their neighbours as 'man-eaters.'"[91] The forms of cannibalism described included both resorting to human flesh during famines and ritual cannibalism, the latter usually consisting of eating a small portion of an enemy warrior. See also Captives in American Indian Wars.

As with most lurid tales of native cannibalism, these stories are treated with a great deal of scrutiny, as accusations of cannibalism were often used as justifications for the subjugation or destruction of "savages". However, there were several well-documented cultures that engaged in regular eating of the dead, such as New Zealand's Māori. In one infamous 1809 incident,about 66 passengers and crew of the ship the Boyd were killed and eaten by Māori on the Whangaroa peninsula, Northland. (See also: Boyd massacre) Cannibalism was already a regular practice in Māori wars.[92] In another instance, on 11 July 1821 warriors from the Ngapuhi tribe killed 2,000 enemies and remained on the battlefield "eating the vanquished until they were driven off by the smell of decaying bodies".[93] Māori warriors fighting the New Zealand government in Titokowaru's War in New Zealand's North Island in 1868–69 revived ancient rites of cannibalism as part of the radical Hauhau movement of the Pai Marire religion.[94]

Albert Eckhout. Tapuia woman. Brazil. 1641.

Other islands in the Pacific were home to cultures that allowed cannibalism to some degree. In parts of Melanesia, cannibalism was still practiced in the early 20th century, for a variety of reasons — including retaliation, to insult an enemy people, or to absorb the dead person's qualities.[95] One tribal chief, Ratu Udre Udre in Rakiraki, Fiji, is said to have consumed 872 people and to have made a pile of stones to record his achievement.[96][97] The ferocity of the cannibal lifestyle deterred European sailors from going near Fijian waters, giving Fiji the name Cannibal Isles. The dense population of Marquesas Islands, Polynesia, was concentrated in the narrow valleys, and consisted of warring tribes, who sometimes practiced cannibalism on their enemies. W. D. Rubinstein wrote:

"It was considered a great triumph among the Marquesans to eat the body of a dead man. They treated their captives with great cruelty. They broke their legs to prevent them from attempting to escape before being eaten, but kept them alive so that they could brood over their impending fate. ... With this tribe, as with many others, the bodies of women were in great demand. ... "[7]

This period of time was also rife with instances of explorers and seafarers resorting to cannibalism for survival. The survivors of the sinking of the French ship Méduse in 1816 resorted to cannibalism after four days adrift on a raft and their plight was made famous by Théodore Géricault's painting Raft of the Medusa. After the sinking of the Essex of Nantucket by a whale, on November 20, 1820, (an important source event for Herman Melville's Moby-Dick) the survivors, in three small boats, resorted, by common consent, to cannibalism in order for some to survive.[98] Sir John Franklin's lost polar expedition is another example of cannibalism out of desperation.[99] On land, the Donner Party found itself stranded by snow in a high mountain pass in California without adequate supplies during the Mexican-American War, leading to several instances of cannibalism.[100] Another notorious cannibal was mountain man Boone Helm, who was known as "The Kentucky Cannibal," for eating several of his fellow travelers from 1850 until his eventual hanging in 1864.

The case of R v. Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273 (QB) is an English case which dealt with four crew members of an English yacht, the Mignonette, who were cast away in a storm some 1,600 miles (2,600 km) from the Cape of Good Hope. After several days one of the crew, a seventeen year old cabin boy, fell unconscious due to a combination of the famine and drinking seawater. The others (one possibly objecting) decided then to kill him and eat him. They were picked up four days later. Two of the three survivors were found guilty of murder. A significant outcome of this case was that necessity was determined to be no defence against a charge of murder.

American consul James W. Davidson described in his 1903 book, The Island of Formosa how the Chinese in Taiwan ate and traded in the flesh of Taiwanese aboriginals.[101]

Roger Casement writing to a consular colleague in Lisbon on 3 August 1903 from Lake Mantumba in the Congo Free State said: "The people round here are all cannibals. You never saw such a weird looking lot in your life. There are also dwarfs (called Batwas) in the forest who are even worse cannibals than the taller human environment. They eat man flesh raw! It's a fact." Casement then added how assailants would "bring down a dwarf on the way home, for the marital cooking pot...The Dwarfs, as I say, dispense with cooking pots and eat and drink their human prey fresh cut on the battlefield while the blood is still warm and running. These are not fairy tales my dear Cowper but actual gruesome reality in the heart of this poor, benighted savage land." (National Library of Ireland, MS 36,201/3)

Modern era

World War II

Many instances of cannibalism by necessity were recorded during World War II. For example, during the 872-day Siege of Leningrad, reports of cannibalism began to appear in the winter of 1941–1942, after all birds, rats and pets were eaten by survivors. Leningrad police even formed a special division to combat cannibalism.[102][103] Following the Soviet victory at Stalingrad it was found that some German soldiers in the besieged city, cut off from supplies, resorted to cannibalism.[104]

Later following the German surrender in February 1945, roughly 100,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner of war (POW). Almost all of them were sent to POW camps in Siberia or Central Asia where, due to being chronically underfed by their Soviet captors, many resorted to cannibalism. Fewer than 5,000 of the prisoners taken at Stalingrad survived captivity. The majority, however, died early in their imprisonment due to exposure or sickness brought on by conditions in the surrounded army before the surrender.[105]

The Australian War Crimes Section of the Tokyo tribunal, led by prosecutor William Webb (the future Judge-in-Chief), collected numerous written reports and testimonies that documented Japanese soldiers' acts of cannibalism among their own troops, on enemy dead, and on Allied prisoners of war in many parts of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.[notes 1][106]:80 According to historian Yuki Tanaka, "cannibalism was often a systematic activity conducted by whole squads and under the command of officers".[107]

In some cases, flesh was cut from living people. An Indian POW, Lance Naik Hatam Ali (later a citizen of Pakistan), testified that in New Guinea: "the Japanese started selecting prisoners and every day one prisoner was taken out and killed and eaten by the soldiers. I personally saw this happen and about 100 prisoners were eaten at this place by the Japanese. The remainder of us were taken to another spot 50 miles [80 km] away where 10 prisoners died of sickness. At this place, the Japanese again started selecting prisoners to eat. Those selected were taken to a hut where their flesh was cut from their bodies while they were alive and they were thrown into a ditch where they later died."[108]

Another well-documented case occurred in Chichijima in February 1945, when Japanese soldiers killed and consumed five American airmen. This case was investigated in 1947 in a war crimes trial, and of 30 Japanese soldiers prosecuted, five (Maj. Matoba, Gen. Tachibana, Adm. Mori, Capt. Yoshii, and Dr. Teraki) were found guilty and hanged.[109] In his book Flyboys: A True Story of Courage, James Bradley details several instances of cannibalism of World War II Allied prisoners by their Japanese captors.[110] The author claims that this included not only ritual cannibalization of the livers of freshly killed prisoners, but also the cannibalization-for-sustenance of living prisoners over the course of several days, amputating limbs only as needed to keep the meat fresh.[111]

Papua New Guinea

The Korowai tribe of south-eastern Papua could be one of the last surviving tribes in the world engaging in cannibalism, although there have been media reports of soldiers/rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Liberia eating body parts[112] to intimidate child soldiers or captives.[113] Marvin Harris has analysed cannibalism and other food taboos. He argued that it was common when humans lived in small bands, but disappeared in the transition to states, the Aztecs being an exception.

Other cases

Further instances include cannibalism as ritual practice, and in times of drought, famine and other destitutions, as well as those being criminal acts and war crimes throughout the 20th century.

In West Africa, the Leopard Society was a secret society active into the mid-1900s and one that practiced cannibalism. Centred in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire, the Leopard men would dress in leopard skins, waylaying travelers with sharp claw-like weapons in the form of leopards' claws and teeth.[114] The victims' flesh would be cut from their bodies and distributed to members of the society.[115]

The Aghoris of northern India are a splinter sect of Hinduism who practice cannibalism in which they consume the flesh of the dead floated in the Ganges in pursuit of immortality and supernatural powers. Members of the Aghori drink from human skulls and practice cannibalism in the belief that eating human flesh confers spiritual and physical benefits, such as prevention of aging.[116][117][118]

During the 1930s, multiple acts of cannibalism were reported from Ukraine and Russia's Volga, South Siberian and Kuban regions during the Soviet famine of 1932–1933.[119]

Survival was a moral as well as a physical struggle. A woman doctor wrote to a friend in June 1933 that she had not yet become a cannibal, but was “not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you.” The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. ... At least 2,505 people were sentenced for cannibalism in the years 1932 and 1933 in Ukraine, though the actual number of cases was certainly much greater.[120]

Cannibalism was proven to have occurred in China during the Great Leap Forward, when rural China was hit hard by drought and famine.[121][122][123][124][125][126][127]

Prior to 1931, New York Times reporter William Buehler Seabrook, allegedly in the interests of research, obtained from a hospital intern at the Sorbonne a chunk of human meat from the body of a healthy human killed in an accident, then cooked and ate it. He reported, "It was like good, fully-developed veal, not young, but not yet beef. It was very definitely like that, and it was not like any other meat I had ever tasted. It was so nearly like good, fully developed veal that I think no person with a palate of ordinary, normal sensitiveness could distinguish it from veal. It was mild, good meat with no other sharply defined or highly characteristic taste such as for instance, goat, high game, and pork have. The steak was slightly tougher than prime veal, a little stringy, but not too tough or stringy to be agreeably edible. The roast, from which I cut and ate a central slice, was tender, and in color, texture, smell as well as taste, strengthened my certainty that of all the meats we habitually know, veal is the one meat to which this meat is accurately comparable."[128][129]

In the gulag, the Soviet writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn knew cases of cannibalism. In his book The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn described cases of cannibalism in 20th-century USSR. Of the famine in Povolzhie (1921–1922) he wrote: "That horrible famine was up to cannibalism, up to consuming children by their own parents — the famine, which Russia had never known even in Time of Troubles [in 1601–1603]..."[130]

He said of the Siege of Leningrad (1941–1944): "Those who consumed human flesh, or dealt with the human liver trading from dissecting rooms... were accounted as the political criminals..."[131] And of the building of Northern Railway Prisoners Camp ("SevZhelDorLag") Solzhenitsyn reports, "An ordinary hard working political prisoner almost could not survive at that penal camp. In the camp SevZhelDorLag (chief: colonel Klyuchkin) in 1946–47 there were many cases of cannibalism: they cut human bodies, cooked and ate."[132]

The Soviet journalist Yevgenia Ginzburg was a former long-term political prisoner who spent time in the Soviet prisons, Gulag camps and settlements from 1938 to 1955. She described in her memoir, Harsh Route (or Steep Route) of a case, which she was directly involved in the late 1940s, after she had been moved to the prisoners' hospital.[133]

...The chief warder shows me the black smoked pot, filled with some food: 'I need your medical expertise regarding this meat.' I look into the pot, and hardly hold vomiting. The fibres of that meat are very small, and don't resemble me anything I have seen before. The skin on some pieces bristles with black hair (...) A former smith from Poltava, Kulesh worked together with Centurashvili. At this time, Centurashvili was only one month away from being discharged from the camp (...) And suddenly he surprisingly disappeared. The wardens looked around the hills, stated Kulesh's evidence, that last time Kulesh had seen his workmate near the fireplace, Kulesh went out to work and Centurashvili left to warm himself more; but when Kulesh returned to the fireplace, Centurashvili had vanished; who knows, maybe he got frozen somewhere in snow, he was a weak guy (...) The wardens searched for two more days, and then assumed that it was an escape case, though they wondered why, since his imprisonment period was almost over (...) The crime was there. Approaching the fireplace, Kulesh killed Centurashvili with an axe, burned his clothes, then dismembered him and hid the pieces in snow, in different places, putting specific marks on each burial place. ... Just yesterday, one body part was found under two crossed logs.

When Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed into the Andes on October 13, 1972, the survivors resorted to eating the deceased during their 72 days in the mountains. Their story was later recounted in the books Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors and Miracle in the Andes as well as the film Alive, by Frank Marshall, and the documentaries Alive: 20 Years Later (1993) and Stranded: I've Come from a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains (2008).

Cannibalism was reported by the journalist Neil Davis during the South East Asian wars of the 1960s and 1970s. Davis reported that Cambodian troops ritually ate portions of the slain enemy, typically the liver. However he, and many refugees, also report that cannibalism was practiced non-ritually when there was no food to be found. This usually occurred when towns and villages were under Khmer Rouge control, and food was strictly rationed, leading to widespread starvation. Any civilian caught participating in cannibalism would have been immediately executed.[134]

An 1873 Victorian illustration of a "Juju house" on the Gold Coast showing fetishised skulls and bones.

It has been reported by defectors and refugees that, at the height of the North Korean famine in 1996, cannibalism was sometimes practiced in North Korea.[48]

African reports

In the 1980s, Médecins Sans Frontières, the international medical charity, supplied photographic and other documentary evidence of ritualized cannibal feasts among the participants in Liberia's internecine strife to representatives of Amnesty International who were on a fact-finding mission to the neighboring state of Guinea. However, Amnesty International declined to publicize this material; the Secretary-General of the organization, Pierre Sane, said at the time in an internal communication that "what they do with the bodies after human rights violations are committed is not part of our mandate or concern". The existence of cannibalism on a wide scale in Liberia was subsequently verified.[135]

The self-declared Emperor of the Central African Republic, Jean-Bédel Bokassa (Emperor Bokassa I), was tried on 24 October 1986 for several cases of cannibalism although he was never convicted.[136][137] Between 17 April and 19 April 1979 a number of elementary school students were arrested after they had protested against wearing the expensive, government-required school uniforms. Around 100 were killed. Bokassa is said to have participated in the massacre, beating some of the children to death with his cane and allegedly ate some of his victims.[138]

Cannibalism has been reported in several recent African conflicts, including the Second Congo War, and the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. A U.N. human rights expert reported in July 2007 that sexual atrocities against Congolese women go "far beyond rape" and include sexual slavery, forced incest, and cannibalism.[139] This may be done in desperation, as during peacetime cannibalism is much less frequent;[140] at other times, it is consciously directed at certain groups believed to be relatively helpless, such as Congo Pygmies, even considered subhuman by some other Congolese.[141] It is also reported by some that witch doctors sometimes use the body parts of children in their medicine.[142]In the 1970s the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was reputed to practice cannibalism.[143][144]

In Uganda, the Lord's Liberation Army routinely engage in ritual or magical cannibalism.[145]

Recent examples

Albert Fish (first known victim, 1924) caused much argument over whether he was insane because he consumed his victims. He confessed to molesting more than four hundred children over twenty years and is believed to have murdered somewhere between six and fifteen children.[146] Psychiatrist Frederick Wertham described Fish as looking like “a meek and innocuous little old man, gentle and benevolent, friendly and polite. If you wanted someone to entrust your child to, he would be the one you would choose”.[147] Fish’s most infamous murder is that of a little girl whose flesh he cut into strips, cooked with carrots, onions, and strips of bacon. This excited him sexually.[148] Wertham described how Fish’s account of the culinary process was “like a housewife describing her favorite methods of cooking. You had to remind yourself that this was a little girl he was talking about”.[149] When the same psychiatrist declared Fish mad, Fish disagreed and stated he was just “queer”.[150]

Michael Woodmansee was convicted in 1983 of kidnapping and killing 5 year old Jason Foreman in 1975 in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. There was evidence at the time that Woodmansee wrote in his journal of eating the flesh of young Jason.[151]

Another serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer of the United States, experimented with cannibalism before his arrest and imprisonment in 1991.

For Andrei Chikatilo (convicted in 1992), eating formed part of the sexual frenzy. It was an extreme extension of the love-bite.[150] It involved biting off his victims' nipples, progressed to slicing off the tips of tongues, cutting off sexual organs, or biting off the boys’ testicles. With female victims, he removed the uterus. Chikatilo said, “I did not so much chew them as bite them, they were so beautiful and elastic”.[152]

A court submission at the trial of perpetrators of the Bodies in barrels murders in South Australia revealed that two of the murderers fried and ate a part of their final victim in 1999.[153]

Dorangel Vargas known as "El comegente", Spanish for "people-eater", was a serial killer and cannibal in Venezuela. Vargas killed and ate at least 10 men in a period of two years preceding his arrest in 1999.

In March 2001 in Germany, Armin Meiwes posted an Internet ad asking for "a well-built 18 to 30 year old to be slaughtered and consumed". The ad was answered by Bernd Jürgen Brandes. Meiwes stabbed Brandes in the neck with a kitchen knife, kissing him first then chopped him up into several pieces. He placed several piece of Mr Brandes in the freezer. Over the next few weeks, Meiwes defrosted and cooked parts of Brandes in olive oil and garlic and eventually consumed 20kg of human flesh. Meiwes was convicted of manslaughter and later, murder. The songs "Mein Teil" by Rammstein and "Eaten" by Bloodbath are based on this case.

In a 2003 drug-related case, the rap artist Big Lurch was convicted of the murder and partial consumption of an acquaintance while both were under the influence of PCP.[154]

In February 2004, a 39 year-old Briton named Peter Bryan from East London was caught after he killed and ate his friend. He had been arrested for murder previously, but was released shortly before this act was committed.[155]

In 2005, in Noida, India, a man named Pandher was charged with sexually abusing and eating body parts of children of the nearby areas.[156]

In September 2006, Australian television crews from current affairs programs 60 Minutes and Today Tonight attempted to rescue a six year-old boy who they believed would be ritually eaten by his tribe, the Korowai, from West Papua, Indonesia.[157]

A count of 25 albino Tanzanians have been murdered since March 2007 reportedly through witch doctor butchery arising from prevailing superstition.[158][159] In 2008, Tanzania's President Kikwete publicly condemned witch doctors for killing people with albinism for their body parts, which are thought to bring good luck.

On September 14, 2007, a man named Özgür Dengiz was captured in Ankara, the Turkish capital, after killing and eating a man. After cutting slices of flesh from his victim's body, Dengiz distributed the rest to stray dogs on the street, according to his own testimony. He ate some of the man's flesh raw on his way home. Dengiz, who lived with his parents, arrived at the family house and placed the remaining parts of the body in the fridge without saying a word to his parents.[160][161]

In January 2008, notorious Liberian ex-rebel and reformed warlord Joshua Blahyi, 37, confessed to participating in human sacrifices which "included the killing of an innocent child and plucking out the heart, which was divided into pieces for us to eat." The cannibalism of many children occurred during the conflict in which Blahyi fought against Liberian president Charles Taylor's militia.[162]

During the same Charles Taylor's war crimes trial on March 13, 2008, Joseph Marzah, Taylor's chief of operations and head of Taylor's alleged "death squad", accused Taylor of ordering his soldiers to commit acts of cannibalism against enemies, including peacekeepers and United Nations personnel.[163]

The murder of Tim McLean occurred on the evening of July 30, 2008. McLean, a 22-year-old Canadian man, was stabbed, beheaded and cannibalized while riding a Greyhound Canada bus. According to witnesses, McLean was sleeping with his headphones on when the man sitting next to him, Vince Weiguang Li, suddenly produced a large knife and began stabbing McLean in the neck and chest. The attacker then decapitated McLean, severed other body parts, and consumed some of McLean's flesh.

In a documentary by Colombian journalist Hollman Morris, a demobilized paramilitary confessed that during the mass killings that take place in Colombia's rural areas, many of the paras performed cannibalism. He also confesses that they were told to drink the blood of their victims in the belief that it would make them want to kill more.[164]

In November 2008, a group of 33 illegal immigrants from the Dominican Republic who were en route to Puerto Rico, resorted to cannibalism after they were lost at sea for over 15 days before being rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat.[165]

In January 2009, Maxim Golovatskikh and Yury Mozhnov were accused of murdering and eating 16 year-old Karina Barduchian in Russia.[166]

As of February 9, 2009, five members of the Kulina tribe in Brazil were wanted by Brazilian authorities on the charge of murdering, butchering and eating a farmer in a ritual act of cannibalism.[167]

On November 14, 2009, three homeless men in Perm, Russia were arrested for killing and eating the parts of a 25 year-old male victim. The remaining body parts were then sold to a local pie and kebab house.[168]

In April, 2011, in the town of Darya Khan, Punjab, Pakistan, two brothers were arrested for eating human corpses stolen from graves. They were cooking body parts for meal when arrested; the police also recovered remains of human body parts from their house.[169]

In August 2011, the police found, along parts of other person's bodies, in Matej Curko's "fridge of horrors", body parts of two Slovakian women who disappeared in 2010[170].

In September 2011, German media reported that investigators were certain that Henri Haiti killed, dismembered and ate German tourist Stefan Ramin on a round-the-world trip with his partner.[171]

See also


  1. ^ In September 1942, Japanese daily rations on New Guinea consisted of 800 grams of rice and tinned meat. However, by December, this had fallen to 50 grams. Happell (2008), p. 78.


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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Cannibalism — Can ni*bal*ism, n. [Cf. F. cannibalisme.] The act or practice of eating human flesh by mankind. Hence; Murderous cruelty; barbarity. Berke. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • cannibalism — 1796, from CANNIBAL (Cf. cannibal) + ISM (Cf. ism). Perhaps from Fr. cannibalisme, from the same year …   Etymology dictionary

  • cannibalism — cannibalistic, adj. cannibalistically, adv. /kan euh beuh liz euhm/, n. 1. the eating of human flesh by another human being. 2. the eating of the flesh of an animal by another animal of its own kind. 3. the ceremonial eating of human flesh or… …   Universalium

  • cannibalism — n. to engage in, practice cannibalism * * * [ kænɪbəlɪz(ə)m] practice cannibalism to engage in …   Combinatory dictionary

  • cannibalism — [[t]kæ̱nɪbəlɪzəm[/t]] N UNCOUNT If a group of people practise cannibalism, they eat the flesh of other people. They were forced to practise cannibalism in order to survive …   English dictionary

  • Cannibalism —    The seemingly ubiquitous fear of cannibalism is expressed in many similar myths and allegations about cannibals in many cultures. Shamans may be expected to protect their communities from human or other than human cannibals who threaten this… …   Historical dictionary of shamanism

  • cannibalism — kanibalizmas statusas T sritis ekologija ir aplinkotyra apibrėžtis Vidurūšinės konkurencijos forma – kaikurių gyvūnų savybėėsti tos pačios rūšies gyvūnus. atitikmenys: angl. cannibalism vok. Kannibalismus, m rus. каннибализм, m …   Ekologijos terminų aiškinamasis žodynas

  • cannibalism — cannibal ► NOUN ▪ a person who eats the flesh of other human beings. DERIVATIVES cannibalism noun cannibalistic adjective. ORIGIN Spanish Canibales, a variant of Caribes, a West Indian people reputed to eat humans; related to CARIB(Cf. ↑Carib) …   English terms dictionary

  • cannibalism — noun Date: 1796 1. the usually ritualistic eating of human flesh by a human being 2. the eating of the flesh of an animal by another animal of the same kind 3. an act of cannibalizing something • cannibalistic adjective …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • cannibalism — eating members of one s own species, common in fishes …   Dictionary of ichthyology

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