Why Do Cannibals Eat People?

For thousands of years, human beings ranging from English kings to concerned fathers have devoured parts of other humans.

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Last week, in a brief clip on the CNN show Believer, the show’s host Reza Aslan participated in an Aghori ritual in which he seemed to ingest human brains.

Even though Aslan went to great pains to emphasize that cannibalism is a fringe religious practice, even among the Aghori, the episode drew criticism. In particular, some groups were concerned that viewers would be unable to distinguish between Aghori practices and mainstream Hinduism and thus the show unwittingly promotes the stigmatization of Hindus. For others, however, the controversy is beside the point, the real question is: ‘what do human brains taste like?’ To that, Aslan replied, “Charcoal.”

Cannibalism has a lengthy history. In the fifth century BCE, Herodotus, the world’s first social historian, spoke with horror about the cannibalistic practices of the Issedones (from the Ural mountain region), the Massagetae (from central Asia), the Scythians (from the Eurasian steps),and the Kallatiae (Indians, near the Indus river).

What’s interesting is that Herodotus recognizes that cannibalism isn’t all the same thing. Christopher Baron, a professor of classics at the University of Notre Dame and editor of the forthcoming Herodotus encyclopedia, told The Daily Beast that “Among the Issedones a son honors his dead father by preparing a feast of his flesh mixed with that of their livestock.” The Massagetae actually preferred to die and be eaten by their loved ones. Baron notes that they refused to eat the flesh of one who died of illness, “considering it a misfortune that he did not live long enough to be killed.” The Padaioi (another Indian tribe), he added, “kill those who show signs of illness and eat them before they lose the chance to do so, even if the soon-to-be deceased denies being sick!”

It’s unclear exactly how accurate Herodotus’s descriptions are. Baron suggests that Herodotus probably heard stories from Greek-speakers in the Crimea and from his Persian contacts. Archeological evidence from Scythian related cultures does show uncut human bones mixed in with kitchen refuse and animal bones. But even if we can’t be sure exactly which groups ate the dead, he initiated a literary tradition in which inhabitants of distant lands are rendered by barbaric by insinuations of cannibalism. The geographer Strabo, for example described the Irish as more savage that the Britons because they are “man-eaters.” Baron told me, “there is a sense in which eating human flesh is the sort of thing that happens at the edges of the world, at the farthest remove from civilized society.”

Very quickly, therefore, accusations of cannibalism become associated with barbarism and difference. This is something of which first Christians and later Jews were accused. Second century pagan writers evidently heard rumors that Christians were eating babies when they celebrated the Eucharist. And by the medieval period Jews were regularly accused of “blood libel” (the use of the blood of Christian children in their Passover ceremonies). The blood libel is the most persistent and longest-lived anti-Semitic myth in history, aside from the claim that the Jews killed Jesus.

Given its association with barbarism you might think that cannibalism would have died out or gone deep underground. But it did not. On the contrary, by the early modern period cannibalism had gone up market. During the 16th and 17th centuries priests, scientists, and even members of royal families regularly ingested medical treatments that included human bones and fat. Richard Sugg, author of Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires, writes that the preferred source of body parts was Egyptian mummies, which were crumbled into dust and used to make tinctures. Skulls, were a particular favorite; like mummies they were pulverized into powder and used as antidotes for headaches. The 17th century medic Thomas Willis designed an ingenious “hot chocolate” recipe that included powdered skull. Even Charles II of England had his own skull tincture, known as “The King’s Drops.” For those who could afford them the drops were extremely popular, if only for the calming effects of the alcohol they contained.

The rationale here was, as historian Louise Noble, author of Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature, has written, that “like attracts like.” If you have a malady of the brain, skull will cure that. Sugg gives an example from 1847 in which a man mixed the skull of a young woman with treacle and fed it to his daughter in a bid to cure her epilepsy.

Anthropologist Jon Marks, a professor at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte, told me that cannibalism is taboo not in the sense that people don’t do it, but rather in the sense that it is done under special circumstances. “No human societies normatively eat human flesh for dietary purposes, as far as we know. Normative human cannibalism is always ritualistic, medical, funerary, etc. It’s symbolic, special, meaningful, powerful, and magical.” The symbolism is important, Marks added, in distinguishing between humans and nonhumans: “If I’m eating people, it’s for a good reason, like absorbing the body of my god, or my ancestor, or my enemies. If you are eating people, you are a degenerate monster, like Hannibal Lecter.” In other words our own cannibalism is rational, the cannibalism of others is monstrous.

Marks said that the distinction between who you can and cannot eat exists even in the animal kingdom. Chimps eat dead baby chimps, but not adult ones. They might sample an adult corpse just to make sure, but they will tear up and distribute the carcass of a baby chimp.

Even in its modern forms, it’s easy to exoticize cannibalism as something utterly alien. When South Korean customs agents seized a shipment of powdered flesh capsules in 2012, people were rightly horrified. The fact that the source for the flesh was likely to be infants only added to the disgust. But the question of what counts as cannibalism and what within that category is “bad” is constantly shifting.

Catholics think of the transubstantiation of the host (the wafer) into the body of Jesus as a positive spiritually sustaining sacrament, but some Protestants have called it cannibalism. And when it comes to bodily fluids, we don’t even consider that cannibalism. Your saliva contains cells from the lining of the mouth and, thus, your DNA; but you wouldn’t be accused of cannibalism for wanting to lock lips with a partner. In many ways, our own history of man-eating is much closer than we’d think.