Cannibalism: From tradition to repulsion

Cannibalism has a social stigma attached to it – it is considered a perversion reserved for the psychologically disturbed. The story of Armin Meiwes, the German 41-year old who had his ad answered by Bernd Brandes in 2001 allowing him to eat him, shocked and horrified Germans and captured the attention of the world. Other cannibal killers, such as Jeffrey Dahmers or Issei Sagawa, are cited as further evidence that cannibalism is a behavior shared in the social deviant and the monstrous. An appetite for the human flesh is a symptom of deep-rooted evil. Elements of this interpretation are true in the context of today’s system of morality. But, this view was not always this way, nor was it universal. Whereas war, rape, and other forms of violence have always had similar meanings attached to them throughout history, cannibalism has not. Human cannibalism and how it is viewed has been dependent on period and civilization. Looking at those components certainly explains why it is viewed as being repugnant today.

Cannibal Hannibal Lecter

Cannibal Hannibal Lecter

The reasons for why cannibalism has existed in human civilizations vary, but there are two main causes: First, cultural or religion sacrifices adopted it. The Inca civilization saw human sacrifices as offering to the Gods. Not wanting to have their human sacrifices go to waste, cannibalistic feasts were reported by Spanish conquerors in Inca communities following sacrifices. A second cause for cannibalism is explained by the ancestors of those on Easter Island that is referred as Cannibal Island. While they too offered human sacrifices to gods, the main reason for their cannibalistic society was because its pastures and land offered little else in the way of fresh mammal meat. Cannibalism was a sanctioned cultural norm because it was enjoyed too and necessary for survival. However, even then, it had its limitations. Anthropologists have long documented tales of revenge by family members whose relatives were sacrificed and eaten, mainly children and women. Even in communities of cannibals, cannibalistic social behavior was twofold: First, endocannibalism in where cannibals eat human flesh from the same community. Second, exocannibalism in where they ate human flesh from other communities. In cannibalistic societies, the consequences of each were very different.

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The pattern of cannibalistic societies can be reduced to primarily isolated civilizations. In regions with little separation, such as Europe, increasing number of communities came together because of increased population, creation of political statehood, and increased access to other meats due to the domestication of crops and animals. On a spiritual level too, newer societies in Europe and the Middle East created moral systems that forbid this appetite for the human flesh. Indeed, the end of cannibalism in the history of Cannibal Island communities coincided with the arrival of Christianity – imposed by the conquerors, but in turn creating a shift in behavior in the indigenous populations. The isolated nature theory linked to cannibalism also explains why islands, such as Fiji that earned the nickname Cannibal Island, and isolated tribal communities earned the reputation of nurturing cannibal habits. As the globe became increasingly closer together via colonialism, technology, and economics, cannibalism faded to the point of extinction. Today, cannibalism legally violates human rights and has become so uncommon and reviled that mainstream thought characterizes it as antithetical to human nature.

Cannibalism existed because of reasons of religious, cultural, or survival. Today, the sexual perversions that are linked to the cannibal killers reflect that cannibalism is monopolized by the ostracized. It is an expression of power and hedonism. Equating cannibalism to sexual gratification offers a new meaning that was not common in cannibalistic societies. That is why cannibalism needs to be understood as evolving. After the Armin Meiwes case, German police stated that there must be around 8.000- 10.000 people only in Germany who desire eating human flesh.  This shows how terrifying the number of potential cannibals is in the world. And that is why it cannot be treated as something that will ever fade away.


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