The Sweetest Taboo: An Anthropology of Anthropophagy

Man eating human finger

Have you ever savored the sweetest gourmand delight of all? I hope not, but it turns out that our own kind’s tender gastronomy is neither as repugnant nor as taboo as we think. In times of feast as well as famine, the hunger for humans has been surprisingly widespread. Hunted as prey, or simply made use of after natural demise, we’ve been a prize entrée since the dawn of time. Grilled, dried, BBQ- the sweet porky taste of human meat has been through history a universal hit.

Anthropologists have averted attention from cannibalism to avoid racial stereotyping. The taboo is an easy insult to throw around at your adversary. The Chinese, denigrated the Koreans by calling them cannibals, and vice versa. The Africans thought the white ghosts were cannibals, but the Europeans reported that it was the Africans. With unsubstantiated (or is that transubstantiated?) insults hurled like arrows, it is difficult to be sure without eyewitness evidence or corroborated reports.

Though cannibalism most certainly took place in the South Seas, the story that missionary explorer Captain James Cook was captured and eaten by cannibals seems to be a myth of church lore and history books. Cook died in a skirmish with the natives of Hawaii but there were no cannibal tribes there at the time. We must keep in mind as well that people long ago were superstitious. Can we really trust the reports that Europeans left of their encounters in “darkest Africa” when they reported seeing Satan himself copulating with young women, and grandmas turning into hyenas before their very eyes? In short, no.

That said, once upon a time, we hunted each other for food, as we had any other animal, and made no distinction or taboo in differentiating human and animal meat. We were, after all, animals. There’s considerable evidence that Cro-Magnon man used skulls as bowls and cups. Remains also show breakages that indicate early man went right for the good stuff, scooping out brains and marrow. Anthropophagy, or “eating humans” still exists today in the far reaches of untouched worlds. But no one should feel smug or superior: the eating of human meat spanned not just the infamous Polynesian Islands but South America, Africa, North America, Australia, Asia, Mesopotamia, and Europe…that would be all of us. It may be of some interest to note that many species of the animal kingdom, including our cousin chimps, eat each other, too.

But humans for food seldom meant hunting to eat. Most epochs and regions of cannibalism simply made practical use of what was already dead, seeing it as immoral or just stupid to waste good protein. Dr. Hans Askenasy quotes an unnamed anthropologist in Papua, New Guinea. “The fact that we ourselves should persist in a superstitious, or at least sentimental prejudice against human flesh is more puzzling than the fact that the Orokaiva…should see fit to enjoy perfectly good meat when he gets it.”

Though some groups preferred their super duper dose of B12 raw and straight off the bone, Key Chong noted in Cannibalism in China that the “most popular ways of preparing human flesh were boiling, roasting, baking, and steaming. Next was pickling in salt, wine, and sauce…”

And picnics may never be the same again: the sweet savory (or unsavory!) scent of barbecue originated with our own meat. The natives of the Carib Islands used the word “barbricot” to denote the green boughs they used as a grill for the world’s tastiest hamburgers.

While some facts are lean, for the most part, there’s plenty of meat on the bones. “Ritual cannibalism” has been widely documented, and seems more politically correct to discuss than big game hunting. In these sacred rites, of which variations existed globally, a portion of the flesh of a fallen enemy or a beloved clansman was eaten to integrate the qualities of that person into the diner. By consuming the flesh of the dead, they would live through those left standing.

This widespread funerary belief, was or course, invariably linked to human sacrifice rituals. While the consumed victual was not always hunted for the purpose, he often was sacrificed specifically for ingestion. Appeasing the gods with flesh, in order to obtain food, rain, or salvation is perhaps our oldest rite. Its origin may be even more primitive- before understanding of fertility. it was believed that eating a human would mean growing one. This was a very early understanding of reincarnation.

Human sacrifice was a popular religious cornerstone throughout the world, including the infamous Aztecs. It’s easy and tasty to stir up a hearty recipe from south of the border: by simmering maize, tomatillos, onions, butternut squash and fresh meat together with chile peppers and you’ll have a delicious tlacatlaolli. That’s what the average Aztec family ate after their rituals. The thigh went to the supreme council, and the choice cuts to the nobles. But waste not, want not, and meat was precious – the leftovers were made by the peasants into a lip-smacking maize and man stew.

Not everyone who sacrificed humans to the gods ate them, but the idea of the sacred meal was simple: the victim, an offering to god, becomes god, and all who shared the flesh shared the memory, immortality, and redemption of that sacrifice. Sound familiar? Indeed, the very missionaries who looked upon such rituals as demonic barbarism were bringing with them the familiar symbolism inherent in their rites of mass. The sacrament is still the most widely practiced and most sacred ceremony in the world, a liturgy that feeds the spiritual hunger of millions of Christians every single day, reminding us of our triumph over death through Christ.

Clearly the consumption of one another has been an important part of human history, for food or for mystery, and anywhere the twain shall meet. Take comfort, however, that the most popular circumstance for the barbricot is starvation. Cannibalism has been most common in extreme circumstances like famines, disasters, economic depressions, and war- where the choice was eat to live, not live to eat. In dire situations, enterprising individuals not only ate available meat, but butchered and sold it with the understanding that there would be no questions asked. It’s easier for starving people to believe they’re buying beef, even if they ‘know.’

Starvation in colder climates like Russia and Ukraine forced survival cannibalism on the people. This unfortunate gore has also saved countless shipwrecked until help or shore. We all got cozy with this kind of emergency watching the true movie Alive, where a plane full of rugby players crashed in the snowy Andes. With nothing but endless snow, those who lasted the 72 days it took for help to arrive were those who chowed down on sawed off slabs of the dead.

Perhaps most distressing of all cannibals is the sexual fetishist, a not-so-rare breed that walks among us today. Most of these flesh eaters are unconsciously reenacting our sacred past. The consumed beloved is preserved, immortalizing or redeeming to the hunter. His or her qualities are taken in, merged in unholy matrimony. Did the wires of civilization somehow get crossed with our primordial prehistory in these sick minds?

Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa, who killed and ate a girl whom he was madly in love, has said in interviews that he is a weak, ugly and small man who wished to “absorb” the “energy” of his goddess. In case you are curious, he said her flesh melted in his mouth “like a perfect piece of tuna.” And British schizophrenic Peter Bryan, who killed three times before being put away forever, said human is chock full of protein and eating it is part of the natural food chain. He fried up the brains of one victim in butter; a ritual that he believed would transfer his victim’s power to him forever, making him “invincible” and immortal. Ed Gein is infamous for digging up dead people and decorating his house with bits and pieces of them. He had a set of soup bowls made from human skulls- perhaps just as enterprising as our Cro-Magnon ancestors?

Far more unnerving than the odd crackpot’s penchant for the macabre is the Cannibal Café that Mr. Nice Guy Armin Meiwes brought to light. Meiwes met online and arranged a dinner date with a real dish named Bernd Brandes. Rare among murderers was Meiwes’ lack of thrill in the kill. His partner had to desire being consumed as much as Armin wished to eat him. Bernd begged to be eaten and live on through Armin forever. But before getting down to big game, they shared Bernd’s…umm- well, they sautéed his bratwurst with some garlic and shared a romantic dinner. Then, while Bernd bled to death, Armin settled into a cozy chair and read some Star Trek. He ate for nearly a year to come, pragmatically making bone meal flour as well as roast. He had always dreamed of this, a lover whom he would become one flesh.

The mild-mannered cannibal was caught when his supplies were running low, and he went trolling for the next willing victim. There were hundreds of cannibals or dinners waiting to be matched up, but Armin found many of them to be strange ducks, or too fat. Now a model prisoner and Christian vegetarian, Armin urges cannibals to get help before it’s too late- and he estimates his kind are in the tens of thousands in his homeland Germany alone. The specialty cannibal-dating site has since been removed, but I didn’t roam too far into the net looking for another like it. They’re definitely out there.

And so it seems that sweet human tuna serves as both food and food of the gods, becoming permanently intertwined in the dawn’s earliest light of human consciousness. While today we may smugly reduce our appetite for destruction to something of the distant past, it could be argued that passing up the most obvious game is a major contributor to starvation. Consuming those who are already pushing daisies is a taboo that, if lifted, could do much to alleviate world hunger and cut down on factory farming, eliminating much environmental disaster. Well, you know how the bawdy old rhyme goes: smells like beef and tastes like chicken, if you like it, keep on diggin.’

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