The cannibalism at Moula-Guercy wasn’t an isolated incident in prehistory. In the past decade, researchers have reported other evidence that Neanderthals continued eating each other until just before their disappearance. In one particularly grisly discovery at the El Sidrón cave in Spain, paleontologists discovered that an extended family of 12 individuals had been dismembered, skinned and then eaten by other Neanderthals about 50,000 years ago.
When early Homo sapiens began engaging in cannibalism is a topic of debate, although it is clear they eventually did, says Sandra Bowdler, an emeritus professor of archeology at the University of Western Australia. Evidence is scant that this happened in early human hunter-gatherer communities, she says, although in 2009 Fernando Rozzi, at the Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique, in Paris, reported finding a Neanderthal jaw bone that may have been butchered by early humans.
Even if Europe’s Homo sapiens didn’t consume each other in prehistory, they certainly did in more modern times. References to acts of cannibalism are sprinkled throughout many religious and historical documents, such as the reports that cooked human flesh was being sold in 11th-century English markets during times of famine, says Jay Rubenstein, a historian at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
However, the world’s first cannibal incident reported by multiple, independent, first-hand accounts took place during the Crusades by European soldiers, Rubenstein says.
These first-hand stories agree that in 1098, after a successful siege and capture of the Syrian city Ma’arra, Christian soldiers ate the flesh of local Muslims. Thereafter the facts get murky, Rubenstein says. Some chroniclers report that the bodies were secretly consumed in “wicked banquets” borne out of famine and without the authorization of military leaders, Rubenstein says. Other reports suggest the cannibalism was done with tacit approval of military superiors who wished to use stories of the barbaric act as a psychological fear tactic in future Crusade battles.
Either way, post-Crusade European society was not comfortable with what happened at Ma’arra, Rubenstein says. “Everybody who wrote about it was disturbed,” he says. “The First Crusade is the first great European epic. It was a story people wanted to celebrate.” But first they had to deal with the embarrassing stain.
Part of the problem was that cannibalism at Ma’arra simply didn’t fit in with the European self-image. In medieval times, cultural enemies—not military or religious heroes—were commonly depicted as cannibals or giants, “especially in narratives of territorial invasion and conquest,” argues Geradine Heng, in Cannibalism, The First Crusade and the Genesis of Medieval Romance. “Witches, Jews, savages, Orientals, and pagans are conceivable as—indeed, must be—cannibals; but in the 12th-century medieval imaginary, the Christian European subject cannot.”
By the 16th century, cannibalism was not just part of the mental furniture of Europeans; it was a common part of everyday medicine from Spain to England.
Initially, little bits of pulverized mummies imported from Egypt were used in prescriptions against disease, but the practice soon expanded to include the flesh, skin, bone, blood, fat and urine of local cadavers, such as recently executed criminals and bodies dug up illegally from graveyards, says University of Durham’s Richard Sugg, who published a book in 2011 called Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians.
Medicinal cannibalism reached a feverish pitch around 1680, Sugg says. But the practice can be traced back to the Greek doctor Galen, who recommended human blood as part of some remedies in the 2nd century A.D., and it continued all the way into the 20th century. In 1910, a German pharmaceutical catalog was still selling mummy, says Louise Noble, who also wrote a book on the topic called Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture.