by Green Deane

in Blog

Oddly there is a right way and a wrong way to commit cannibalism

There is no way to approach the topic of cannibalism without offending someone. Apologies offered. Cannibalism, the last great social taboo, is committed sometimes as a criminal act, sometimes to survive. Other times it is just bizarre as in a case reported 6 May 2012 in South Korea. There authorities cracked down on the smuggling of powdered baby flesh. Consumers bought the Chinese capsules for reasons ranging from fighting cancer to (yeph, you guessed it) improved sexual performance. The capsules sold for (in 2012 dollars) about $35 to $44 each.

In 1886 Alfred Packer was sentenced to 40 years for manslaughter that involved cannibalism. At the time it was the longest sentenced handed out in the United States. He was pardoned in 1901.

Criminals have long been associated with the practice of cannibalism, some by turn of mind others to conveniently eliminate evidence. Most criminal cannibals are loners and do not commit other crimes such as rape. Cannibalism was not unknown in sailing/shipwreck days. It was also practiced by various tribes for sundry reasons in tropical areas of the world, including the Caribbean and perhaps currently in remote Africa and south sea islands. There it is sometimes accompanied by a human wasting disease related to Mad Cow Disease, human spongiform encephalopathy (caused by nearly indestructible proteins that destroy brain cells.) Some equatorial tribes committed funerary cannibalism, that is, consuming their dead relatives to spare them the indignity of rotting. In fact, in some south sea cultures a young couple — a boy and a girl just past puberty — were feted in ceremony and then had sex in front of the entire tribe. A lean-to of heavy logs was dumped on them at the height of intercourse killing the couple. Their bodies were dragged out of the wreckage and then consumed, which is endocannibalism, within the group. As horrific as we may view this the natives did not. To them it was an affirmation of what many equatorial cultures viewed as the great circle, out of death comes life and that all eating is a eucharistic communion. To them it was a deeply religious act affirming their world and cosmological view. In North America Iroquoi tribes practiced ritualistic enemy-related cannibalism as late as 1838.

Cannibalism, or anthropophagy, is mentioned several times in the Bible, one of the more specific verses is II Kings 6:26-29. In the arts cannibalism was part of the genesis for the novel Moby Dick. The musical Sweeny Todd is based on the theme of cannibalism and, not unlike the capsules mentioned above, so was the 1973 movie Soylent Green. And one should mention the infamous Hannibal Lecter M.D. From a factual point of view group cannibalism has been decreasing for the last 100 years and individual cannibalism has been on the increase.

While socially condemned cannibalism is rarely specifically illegal. For example, Florida statutes do not mention “cannibals” or “cannibalism.” However, “a person who mutilates… or otherwise grossly abuses a dead human body commits a felony of the second degree…” A jury would probably agree cannibalism fits that law under some conditions. Legal, criminal and moral issues set aside for a moment, does cannibalism save lives in difficult or emergency situations? The answer is yes and no. The issue is fat.

Humans cannot survive long-term without ingesting fat. We can live without meat if we eat well and get a balance of amino acids. We can live completely without carbohydrates if we have enough fat and proteins (meat or amino acids) to eat. In fact we can live for a long time on just fat and water. But, we cannot live without fat, and fat is the make or break issue with cannibalism in regards to survival. Even ancient man preferred fat, bone marrow, and brains over muscle meat as evidenced by how he butchered animals and his occasional fellow man.

The Essex’ crew resorted to cannibalism after being sunk by a whale.

If a group is starving together and are equally skinny eating one of the group is not going to help much or forestall death. Why? Because you have all been loosing fat together and have zero fat stores unless someone was more fat than the rest to begin with. Eating a person with little to no fat will provide proteins but not enough fat to survive. It is similar to documented cases of  “Rabbit Starvation” which is dying from eating only rabbit meat which has little fat. Thus the Donner Party, which was stuck in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846/47, resorted to cannibalism when it did little good, that is, after everyone had not eaten for a long time. (Though it should be mentioned some new research suggests they were not as cannibalistic as once thought.) The same situation as the Donner Party existed with the whaling ship Essex in the 1820s which was the inspiration for the novel Moby Dick. However, the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 that crashed Friday, 13 October 1972 was totally different.

Survivors of the Andes flight.

Of the 45 on board the plane that crashed in the Andes 29 survived only to see eight killed in an avalanche later. They were at 11,800 feet. The dead froze within a matter of hours which is what saved those who later consumed them; their fat stores were available. The living were not rescued for 72 days and then only after two managed to climb down in spring weather and walk out for help. Crash survivors who did not participate in cannibalism died of starvation.

James F. Reed and his wife, Margret W. Keyes Reed, in the 1850s, were survivors of the 1846/47 Donner Party.

Let’s look at some nitty gritty statistics from these two events. First the Donner party.  The survivors were on average 7.5 years younger than those who died; children between 6 and 14 had a much higher survival rate than infants and children under the age of 6 or adults over the age of 35. Then again, they were also cared for by the dying adults. No adults over the age of 49 survived. Deaths among males between 20 and 39 were “extremely high” at more than two out of three. Men metabolize protein faster, and women do not require as high a caloric intake. Women also store more body fat, which delays the effects of physical degradation caused by starvation and overwork. Men also tend to take on more dangerous tasks, and in the Donner case, the men before being snowed in were required to clear brush and engage in heavy labor, adding to their physical debilitation and less fat stores. Those traveling with family members had a higher survival rate than bachelors probably because family members more readily shared food with each other.

Thomas Nickerson, one of the Essex Survivors

The Essex case was similar regarding the men. It was an all male working whaling ship. When the ship was intentionally struck and sunk by a sperm whale all hands made to smaller boats. The men began to die almost immediately and at first they were buried at sea. Then the decision was made to save their bodies. When they ran out of bodies they drew lots to decide whom to eat and who would kill that person to eat. The captain, George Pollard, actually ended up eating his cousin. Still men died, and the boats got separated. In the end three men left on a island managed to live as did a few who remained in boats.

Roberto Canessa and Nando Parrado, 1974, who survived the Andes crash and walked out to save their friends.

In the Andes case all the final survivors were male as well but they were also the majority of passengers. Further most of the males were young men in top physical condition at the time of the accident, unlike the Donner Party who had been laboring against the trail for weeks. The Andes crash survivors also knew they had to eat their teammates and other passengers to survive. Fortunately those bodies had frozen fast and had fat (and bone marrow.)  A point to consider is all three groups of men had low fat stores, the athletes, the able-bodied sailors, and the men clearing a wagon train path. The most successful group, the athletes, were the only one with access to flash-frozen fat. They were also the youngest.

So, what do people taste like? The term “long pig” was coined just for that purpose. There has even been some speculation, by no less than the august commentator Christopher Hitchens, that the Semitic ban on eating pig is because the intelligent pig tasted like and sounded too much like humans, particularly in slaughter.  In 1910, the American anthropologist, A. P. Rice, reported how natives of the Marquesas Islands ritualistically killed their human captives, called exocannibalism, or outside the group.

“First, they broke their legs, to stop them running away, then they broke their arms, to stop them resisting. This was an unhurried killing, because the Marquesans enjoyed observing their victim contemplating his fate. Eventually, the man would be skewered and roasted.”  Eyes, brain and cheeks were regarded as delicacies by some cannibals.

While there are credible reports of native cannibalism as late as the 1970s, and perhaps even 2008, here’s an Australian account from 5 August 1865:

“… an observation of six males from the Kgut’dhirri (clan) … taken hold of a white male… was affronted by five of the Kgut’dhirri males… sudden movement of the sixth native who had come in from behind… attacker hit hard and cracked open his skull with the force of a large club… dead at the moment of striking despite the contortions of his body on the ground… With great haste, they took away his clothing leaving him naked on the ground…”

“… three of them produced sharp European knives… relieved him of his innards… arms and legs were trussed with vine in the manner of a captured iguana… in two swift strokes, cut away the victim’s appendices… held them high in his hand… gave forth a cry of victory… placed his trophy in a dilly bag… carried forth the poor soul’s body on a pole towards their camp… old women… examined the body… placed large logs on the fire… given a coat of grease to the body… the body was in place on the coals of the fire… knew of no other time or place where a white man was killed and eaten… “

And one from 11 June 1854: “… taken to cover overlooking a large camp of natives… was able to observe an orgy of utter revulsion… in a frenzied motion uttering sounds of madness… consumed a liquid resembling the content and color of blood… dark bodies were coated with much spillage… witness to a human feast… some ten corpses… ten more victims awaiting a similar fate… a victim brought forward… struck from behind… neck was cut… blood filled containers… head was severed and split… old men took possession of the brain, eyes and tongue… separate cooking stones… body was then gutted… heart was handed to the leader… placed also on the special cooking stones… strips of sweet meat were taken from the lower back… given to all the (old) men and placed on the stones… these parts are important… men gained the knowledge, the sight, speech skills, soul and the strength of the victim…”

“… the victors took portions of the liver and all of the male’s appendix parts… liver was eaten raw… the man’s prides were placed on the coals for roasting… body was trussed and hung on a frame above the coals. The odor drifting in the air was of burning flesh. When cooked, the arms and legs or preferred portions of those limbs were shared between the men… why such rituals are performed… told that the liver of a man resembled life because it was full of blood… quenches the thirst like water… eating of the male’s appendices passed on the prowess of the victim in his mating capacity… legs and arm pieces represented the strengths of the victim… all the males duly shared. The ritual of sharing the body was completed when the rest was left to the women and the children.”

There are many such gruesome reports and pictures.  Most recently in October of 2015 there was a news report from Argentina in which a 25-year old, one Leandro Acosta, was arrested on murder charges. He ate his step-father, Ricardo Klein, and said the 54-year old “tasted like pork, a tad salty but delicious.”

Modern scholars say “cannibalism” was misunderstood by European explorers who also used or consumed human flesh from blood to mummy remains to treat disease and… improve sexual performance… The scholars tell us the cultural clash was used as an excuse to colonize.

While that may indeed be true there are among the anthropophagy accounts, interestingly, the gastronomic view that people who use tobacco don’t taste good when roasted. Perhaps a skinny chain smoker has the greatest chance of not being dinner….

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

KLee September 23, 2014 at 15:25

Thanks for a common sense approach to this subject. We “civilized” folks may find this subject repulsive and uncomfortable, but ignoring a subject because it is so, does not change the fact that these things did occur in the past and probably still occur today. Many things considered taboo today were done without blinking an eye in the past. The conquerors call the shots, make the rules and rewrite history as they see fit. Had events in the past happened differently, we all might still practice cannibalism and think nothing of it.


Magnus Magnuson January 11, 2014 at 11:57

Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking….
Wonder if alcoholics taste better than teetotalers.


Juan April 21, 2013 at 15:58

According to your research, one could surmise that corn-fed, obese, Americans would have the most survival food value. (Could that be the hidden reason corn is in almost every store-bought American food?)

About the Prions… I saw a documentary about in-tribe cannibalism, where they asked for outside help about that about half their tribe were dying from madness.

They would get giddy and crazy-happy for a few days, and then die. So they got their DNA tested and it seems that about 45%
that have a Gene that allows them to Survive eating People! AND This same Gene
is in about 45% of the General Population! (Shh! It’s Humanitys Creepy Little

Just like a mad cow burger, the Prions survive regular cooking… But maybe they won’t survive pressure cooking? Or the quick decompression of a pressure cooker? (Taking the gauge off…)

So, while it’s good to know about this (Stalingrad, Holodomor, etc…), it’s also like Russian roulette with a 55% loaded revolver!

Of course, if you’re starving anyway – and your not in that “safe” 45% – then at least you’ll die happy!

Thank you. You’re great!


aarone April 5, 2013 at 03:18

Very interesting and well constructed article. As an anthropologist I’d like to point out though that cannibalism in North America was somewhat anomalous, but was actively encouraged among native peoples by the British and French colonisers in an effort to wipe each other out and scare them off. Furthermore, one of the chief obstacles to conversion to Christianity by native peoples the world over has been the perception that it is cannibalistic. Try explaining the doctrine of transubstantiation (wafer & wine as body &blood of Christ) to someone and you’ll see what I mean.


Green Deane April 5, 2013 at 08:51

Thanks… as you might guess reaction to the topic is across the board from interesting to “how dare you…”


heather macleod March 23, 2013 at 09:39

Not a good read with morning coffee, but the info is great. Will start sucking in my belly around those I suspect.


RM McWilliams March 22, 2013 at 11:01

So, Deane, does this mean that Homo (maybe not so) sapiens is now classified as a ‘weed’? Maybe even a noxious invasive?


chad February 10, 2013 at 11:27

One of the most interesting articles I have read. Well done Deane.


Jason February 9, 2013 at 13:42

Very interesting. A lot of people ask themselves if they could do that, eat another person. I don’t think there’s any good way to know until you get in to a situation like that.


Lauren January 22, 2013 at 10:54

Fascinating, if a bit disgusting. Handy to know though…If something ever happens, I’ll be the first eaten! Maybe not, I’m trying to lose weight.

My husband won’t be eaten, if all goes well. He’s a skinny chain smoker. Lucky guy.


Green Deane January 23, 2013 at 07:27

The cannibalism article get a spectrum of email from “how dare you” to those who are intimately involved with the details of the Andes crash. it’s a side of humanity that interests and repels at the same time. However, the most letters of complaint I get are about eating turtles. Apparenlty I am on the hit list of several pet turtle groups.


Branden Davis July 22, 2012 at 20:10

Does this go on the list of “Things To Try Before I Die? Well done article, by the way. I wonder about the taboo of the practice, and how/if it has changed through the years… One thing I have always considered in my mind is the nutritional value of eating “long pig”… In my mind it should have everything the body needs to get on, I mean, it IS the body… Would like to see a study done on that!


Elizabeth Angus July 21, 2012 at 13:07

Had a hard time with this one. I threw up a little in my mouth…..

I find the dead baby capsules especially repulsive.

An interesting article though.


Green Deane July 22, 2012 at 16:20

It seemed like a topic that could be covered and I thought I could do it well.


Kat Warnick June 20, 2012 at 16:00

Love the web site and this article. Thanks for taking a logical and sane view of historical events. Also good to know that skinny people aren’t worth eating!


Steph Tietjen June 19, 2012 at 14:28

This is a superb article–the historical accounts fascinating–I couldn’t take my eyes away. But it’s lunchtime and for some reason I don’t care to eat, maybe I’ll have a cigarette for insurance.


Green Deane July 22, 2012 at 16:42

Ha ha… thanks…


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