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Cannibalism and culture: survival or savory treat?

by Breonnah Colon - Copy Editor
Tue, Feb 28th 2017 09:25 pm
Photo taken from Wikipedia Commons

Cannibalism is a practice which has been heavily scrutinized for hundreds of years. While most people view it as a reaction to life threatening situations, it is also a cultural implentation existent in multiple civilizations. For example, Hans Staden's depiction of Brazil in 1557 (above).
Photo taken from Wikipedia Commons Cannibalism is a practice which has been heavily scrutinized for hundreds of years. While most people view it as a reaction to life threatening situations, it is also a cultural implentation existent in multiple civilizations. For example, Hans Staden's depiction of Brazil in 1557 (above).

 There are certain taboos in place that most people would simply agree with without a doubt. One such taboo is cannibalism, or the action of eating something of the same species. The reason cannibalism is taboo, specifically in Western culture, is because it's typically viewed as inhumane to eat another human being. However, cannibalism is not limited only to the human species, as there are several species who participate in the act of cannibalism. An article posted on theweek.com entitled, "7 Animals that eat their own kind" by Chris Gayomali explains that creatures such as polar bears, hamsters, tiger sharks, spiders, chickens, tiger salamanders and parasitic wasps all practice cannibalism. 

It may not seem too extraordinary to consider animals in the wild eating members of their own species; nature is based on survival of the fittest, after all. However, what is interesting about these circumstances is the fact that, as Bill Schutt explained in an National Geopraphic article, "Cannibalism—the Ultimate Taboo—Is Surprisingly Common" by Simon Worrall, "starting in the 1970s and '80s, researchers started to uncover many instances across the animal kingdom where [cannibalism was] completely natural behavior." 

Schutt also explained that while most people often times think of animals like praying mantises and spiders participating in cannibalism for reproduction, cannibalism is typically seen as a forced reaction either to not having enough food or some other type of life threatening or stressful situation. 

Science has found that's not the case, not with animals in the wild nor with (prepare yourselves) humans throughout history. Yes, humans have historically eaten other humans under circumstances which were not life-threatening. However, the idea or act of cannibalism has been taboo for almost as long as the idea of cannibalism has existed within society and has been used as a means of dehumanizing different groups of people. Schutt explains the conquering of the indigenous people Christopher Columbus encountered on his way to finding the "New World" was carried out through Columbus' allegations that the natives practiced cannibalism. 

"When Columbus first arrived in the New World, he described the indigenous people as friendly and causing no problems," Schutt wrote. "He had been told by Queen Isabella to treat these people with respect and kindness, except if it became clear they are cannibals, in which case, all bets were off. Lo and behold, when Columbus came back, the indigenous people who had previously been classified as friendly were suddenly described as cannibals, so you could do anything to them."

Schutt used this example to show just how long cannibalism was viewed negatively. He also explained that the idea of the taboo being viewed as horrific and inhumane is a view held by Western civilization and is not necessarily a perspective held worldwide. One culture where cannibalism was considered acceptable as a cultural norm without being carried out as a means for survival: China. 

"China is a special case because it was never exposed to the taboo against cannibalism," Schutt wrote. "There are numerous descriptions of emperors and other members of the imperial court enjoying humans as a type of food, prepared in all different ways."

While the cultural practices in China are unique in that does not view the cannibalism as inhumane, it's not the only culture to do so. The indigenous people of New Guinea called the Fore followed a cannibalistic funeral ritual during which parts of their loved ones, including the brain, were eaten. Schutt explained this ritual almost caused the Fore to go extinct because eating their dead spread a disease which came to be known as kuru. The Fore were not able to fight kuru and the result was an exponential death rate for the people. After scientists studied the group, they realized what was taking place and suggested the practice cease. Upon following the advice, the Fore stopped their ritual and the disease was eradicated. 

While the example of the Fore seems extreme and even scary, it is not the only instance of cannibalism resulting in a fatal disease. The same thing occurred when the cattle industry began to feed entrails of other cows to cattle in order to increase protein intake. This resulted in mad cow disease, which is "a transmissible, slowly progressive, degenerative, and fatal disease affecting the central nervous system of adult cattle," according to webmd.com. There have also been instances of similar diseases in sheep as well as minxes.

However, before we get all huffy about how wrong and harmful cannibalism is, we should also remember times when cannibalism has been used as a way to save people's' lives, like in the case of the Donner Party. Schutt also explained climate change could cause humans to resort to cannibalism in the future.

"With all of the changes that are taking place due to global warming, like desertification, it's not a stretch that cannibalism might occur if large groups of people were suddenly without food," Schutt said.

So, let's think twice about recycling, our lives could literally be at stake.


 bcolo1@brockport.edu