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Cannibals of the Past Had Plenty of Reasons to Eat People

For a long time cannibalism was a survival technique, a cultural practice, and a legitimate source of protein

Image: Taryn

Earlier this week, a jury in New York City decided that the cop who dreamed of killing and eating his wife wasn’t simply fantasizing. The case sets an unusual precedent—people can be convicted of a crime they thought about but never committed. The implication here is that cannibalism is so terrifying and awful to us that anyone who could reasonably consider it must be dangerous. But cannibalism didn’t always have such a horrific association. Other cultures practiced cannibalism as part of religious rituals, and even in America’s past, many have turned to cannibalism out of desperation, when stranded by weather or lost in the wilderness.

Mental Floss has summed up some of the most famous people-eaters of the Old West, like Liver-Eating Johnson, whose wife was killed by members of the Crow tribe. Johnson spent the next twenty years killing something like 300 Crows and eating their livers. Then there’s Alferd Packer, also known as The Colorado Cannibal. Packer was serving as a guide for six men hiking in Colorado. When the men went missing in a snowstorm and Packer showed up alone and seemingly unfazed, people were suspicious. But Packer had a story. Here’s Mental Floss:

Packer was arrested and taken in for questioning. The tale he told then was quite different: Packer said that while they were stranded, Israel Swan (the oldest of the group) died and the others ate his body. Humphrey died next, of natural causes. Then Miller died of an undisclosed accident. Each of the bodies were eaten by the survivors. Then, according to Packer, Shannon Bell shot Noon in order to eat him. Then Bell tried to kill Packer as well, so Packer killed Bell in self-defense. Not long after telling his story, Packer escaped from jail and wasn’t seen again until 1883. Meanwhile, the remains of the other prospectors were found, showing evidence of violence. However, they were all lying near each other, and their feet were bound with strips of blanket.

Later Packer confessed to eating some human flesh, but it’s still pretty unclear what happened. And then there’s Boone Helm, the man who ate at least two companions during two separate storms. At Legends of America they have an account of one of those two instances:

He stayed on at this spot, and, like a hyena, preyed upon the dead body of his companion. He ate one leg of the body, and then, wrapping up the other in a piece of old shirt, threw it across his shoulder and started on further east. He had, before this on the march, declared to the party that he had practiced cannibalism at an earlier time, and proposed to do so again if it became necessary on this trip across the mountains.

The thing is, people used to find themselves in life or death situations far more than they do now. Survival cannibalism—eating another human because there is literally nothing else to eat and you will die otherwise—is easier for us to stomach. Mental Floss writes:

In 18th and 19th century seagoing communities, it was pretty much accepted as something that happened from time to time as a hazard of the occupation and lifestyle. By the 19th century, sailors and fishermen had even worked out some general guidelines should the “custom of the sea” need to be performed. Straws were drawn to decide who would be killed and eaten and who would have to do the killing (usually the second shortest straw made you the killer, and the shortest made you dinner).

Non-survival cannibalism is a whole other thing. And it didn’t used to be that uncommon either. Cultures all over the world have incorporated human flesh into rituals and events. Some of these rituals, like eating the flesh of a recently deceased person at the funeral, have positive associations. Some, meant to intimidate enemies, involved eating the flesh of their warriors. It’s not necessary to go that far back in the past to find that sort of intimidation, either. In World War II, a few Japanese soldiers were tried with war crimes for cannibalism. Except the U.S. realized it hadn’t really ever technically outlawed cannibalism in international law so it had to technically try them for something else. The Project to Enforce the Geneva Convetion writes:

Lieutenant General Joshio Tachibana, Imperial Japanese Army, and 11 other Japanese military personnel were tried for the beheadings of two American airmen in August, 1944, on Chichi Jima in the Bonin Islands. They were beheaded on Tachibana’s orders. One of the executed airmen, a U. S. Navy radioman third class, was dissected and his “flesh and viscera” eaten by Japanese military personnel. The U. S. also tried Vice Admiral Mori and a Major Matoba for A Global Forum for Naval murder in the deaths of five U. S. airmen, in February, 1945. Major Matoba confessed to cannibalism. However, military and international law had no provisions for punishment for cannibalism per se. They were accused of murder and “prevention of honorable burial.”

In fact, even today, most countries don’t have laws against cannibalism. Here’s Business Insider:

In the United States and most European countries there are no outright laws against the consumption of human flesh. Most criminals who commit acts of cannibalism are charged with murder, desecration of corpses, or necrophilia.

Because the victims often consent to the act it can be difficult to find a charge, which was what happened with the famous Miewes case in Germany. His victim responded to an internet ad: “looking for a well-built 18 to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed.” He’s now serving a life sentence.

And long before the the German case, or the cannibals of the old west, or the Maori, Neanderthals probably ate one another. Scientists have found several pieces of evidence that the bones of preserved Neanderthals were cut with the same blades they used to slice meat off other game. The signs of cannibalism might even live in our cells, writes National Geographic:

A growing body of evidence, such as piles of human bones with clear signs of human butchery, suggests cannibalism was widespread among ancient cultures. The discovery of this genetic resistance, which shows signs of having spread as a result of natural selection, supports the physical evidence for cannibalism, say the scientists.

“We don’t in fact know that all populations did select. The selection may have occurred during the evolution of modern humans before they spread around the world,” said Simon Mead, a co-author of the study from the Medical Research Center with University College, London.

Today, cannibals scare us, but for a long time cannibalism was a survival technique, a cultural practice, and a legitimate source of protein.

More from Smithsonian.com:

How Common Was Cannibalism?
Early Cannibalism Tied to Territorial Defense?

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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