History of Cannibalism and Cultural Differences

From one of our initial discussions in class, the subject of cannibalism stuck out to me because I didn’t know too much about it. Having grown up in a modern, developed society, most of us have an intrinsic aversion to this concept (at least I would hope)— eating another human being’s flesh is unfathomable and inhumane. However, do all societies feel this way and has it always been this way? And the answer is no.

I think a good place to start would be from an evolutionary standpoint, after all human beings are simply organisms— a highly adapted and specialized species— nonetheless, mere animals. In the animal kingdom, the ingestion of other members of species is not uncommon, and is in fact, a strategy for survival. In many species, eating another member is natural, even logical, in that you’re increasing your own fitness, while eliminating competition. This practice is seen in cobras, fish, praying mantis, spiders, cats, lobsters, octopuses, sharks, polar bears, and crabs, to name a few. So, I guess I can understand how an argument could be made that it wouldn’t be that weird for a human to eat another human (I mean I still think it’s incredibly unsettling though). But my research showed that, in fact, cannibalism was a rather common part of human history.

Both archeological and genetic accounts indicate that cannibalism has been practiced for thousands of years and were an important part of rituals and cultures (ex. removing the flesh, by eating, before burying the bones) and of survival (during periods of food shortages and starvation). There are many instances throughout history that we see cannibalism (Fun fact: for a while in the 16th century, Egyptian mummies were ground up and sold as medicine) and even some cannibalistic accounts exist still even today. While researching for this post, I ran into an interesting book written by Beth Conklin: Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society, which depicts modern cannibalistic practices in the Wari’ Indian tribe of the Amazonian rainforest, as an expression of compassion and a way for the loved ones to grieve and accept their loss. She explores their concept and culture of person, body, and spirit to explain why they prefer cannibalism to cremation or other burial practices, which I thought was a novel, yet interesting, take on this concept.

Then, when did we begin to see our Western cultural aversion in society? I contend that it was a myriad of factors: the increase in life longevity, religious practices and views, legal restrictions on fundamental human rights, and perhaps most importantly, an increase in interpersonal relations. In the past, disease was rampant, which meant lifespans were short. You didn’t really have time to form bonds and relations with other people, whether it be with your family or friends. Because the increase in scientific and medical knowledge and technology, our life expectancies are longer and intimate relationships are more likely to continue for years. This allowed for the development and stability of interpersonal relationships, which remain an important resource across our lifespan now, significantly reducing the need/ desire for cannibalism.

4 responses to “History of Cannibalism and Cultural Differences

  1. Once reading your post, I found it to be profoundly interesting how you brought up that the intimate social connections we make with people among other things has played a role in our cultural aversion to cannibalism. In my opinion, one other aspect of cannibalism that is grossly disturbing is when the decision to eat the victim is made before he or she dies. Even if it is done as part of a ritual practice or as a medium for survival, should we not consider the act of killing someone to eat them an act of murder? However, in certain cultures where subjects are killed to be eaten, it may likely not be thought of as an act murder. An interesting question would also be whether or not murder is thought of as an ethical issue within that culture and if so under what circumstances?
    For example, when we look at capital punishment in the United States, it is not considered murder, but rather it is considered a just punishment. For me however, any premeditated act of killing another human being (even if enacted by a larger organization such as a government) should be considered an act of murder. I do not think we should have the right to decide who dies and who lives. However, we do this everyday in our society, whether it be done directly or indirectly (through social inequalities).

  2. Eugenia Addie-Noye

    Hi Joyce,

    Thank you for the fascinating article. As an Anthropology and Human Biology major, one fundamental ideology that is thought is to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange in order to remain as objective as possible. But sometimes I find this particular hard to perform especially with a topic such as Cannibalism. Therefore, I am glad you chose to shed some light on this practice that takes place in certain societies for your blog post.
    You mentioned how cannibalism serves an advantage in the animal kingdom. Often when I hear about Cannibalism, it takes place as a response to starvation. For the most part, we are biologically wired to do all we can to remain alive. Regardless of that, I also wondered, like you, why the there is such aversion to it in certain cultures and not in others. I found the portion about the Wari’ Indian tribe of the Amazonian and how they use cannibalism as a way to express compassion, show grief and accept their loss particularly thought-provoking because it gives an angle to why the practice may exist in other cultures.

    Overall this was an interesting article to read.

    Thank you,


  3. I found this post extremely interesting. One thing that stood out to me the most was the discussion of the Amazonian tribe that practices cannibalism as a way to grief and show respect to a loved one. I can see how it would make it feel like your loved ones is close to you (literally inside of you), even though they have passed away which could make it easier to cope. It made me think of a show on TLC called My Strange Addiction. There is an episode about a woman who eats her husband’s ashes. I think this shows an interesting contrast between what we here in the US see as weird and strange and what is seen as something respectful and compassionate in the Wari’ tribe of the Amazon. This post has raised a lot of interesting questions and made me think about cannibalism in different cultural contexts.

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