Fall in Love With Cannibalism This Valentine’s Day

Pair your red wine and chocolate hearts with another delicious accompaniment: cannibalism, in the form of a new book

In nature and in human history, cannibalism is actually quite mainstream. No humans were harmed in the making of this image, which is of Ribeye steak. The Picture Pantry / Alamy

We "civilized" folk tend to write off cannibalism as a freak phenomenon reserved for psychopaths, starvation and weird animals (I’m looking at you, praying mantis). In fact, eating others of your kind is a well-established biological strategy employed throughout the animal kingdom. Moreover, our own species’ history is rich with examples of this "eccentric" behavior, from medicinal consumption of human body parts in Europe to more epicurean people-eating in China.

In Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, zoologist and author Bill Schutt uses science, humor and engaging storytelling to expose all the gory details of this underappreciated yet surprisingly scrumptious subject. We spoke with Schutt about some of the more intriguing tidbits he learned while on the cannibalism beat—perfect conversation starters for wooing your Valentine’s date over dinner. 

What’s the biggest misconception surrounding cannibalism in animals?

Until 15 years ago or so, the party line for scientists was that cannibalism was the result of one of two things: Either there’s no food, or we stuck these animals in a cage and now they’re acting bizarrely. In other words, it was caused by starvation or captive conditions. Researchers have recently discovered that that’s a real misconception. In fact, across the whole animal kingdom cannibalism has all sorts of functions—including parental care. 

For example, some birds lay eggs asynchronously as a "lifeboat strategy."  If there’s enough resources they’ll raise both chicks, but if not, they'll kill the younger chick and eat it so the older one survives. Cannibalism can also be a reproductive strategy: If a new male lion takes over the pride, for instance, he’ll kill and eat the existing cubs to make the females come into heat quicker.

Do you have a favorite example of cannibalism in the animal kingdom?

Probably my favorite example is this weird group of legless amphibians, the Caecilians. There are two types of Caecilians: egg-laying ones and ones that give birth to live young. Both have wild adaptations. In the egg layers, the hatchlings peel and eat their mother’s fat-laden skin—which grows back, only to be peeled again, for several weeks.

In the species that give birth to live young, on the other hand, the eggs hatch internally. Scientists were puzzled to find that the young are born with tiny teeth, which were lost soon after birth. They were like, “What’s going on here?” After dissecting some specimens, they found that the lining of the mother’s oviduct in the sections where the babies were developing—another area full of nutritious fat—was literally being eaten by them.

This behavior wasn’t aberrant; it was an evolved form of parental care. That blew me away.

What is cannibalism’s forgotten role in Western history?

The big surprise to me was finding out that medicinal cannibalism was practiced frequently throughout Europe, from the Middle Ages on and lasting even into the beginning of 20th century. When we talk about medicinal cannibalism, we’re talking about using human body parts or blood to treat disease. In most instances, people weren’t being killed to be eaten, although the bodies of the newly dead—or even the not-quite-dead—were often used after public executions. 

In fact, people believed that the more violent the death, the more potent and useful the person’s parts. From blood collected at executions and doled out to treat epileptic seizures to human fat used for skin ailments, to ground up skulls or mummies mixed into elixirs, nobility as well as commoners regularly consumed human parts. 

Why did cannibalism become taboo in the West?

Blame the Greeks. It started with Homer and the Cyclops—the one-eyed giant that eats Odysseus’ men—and then moved on to being demonized by the Romans and Shakespeare. It snowballed from there, with the Brothers Grimm turning it into a threat for children, to Robinson Crusoe and Freud—the list goes on and on. It was seen as something that monsters did.

Culture is king, and Western culture tells you that cannibalism is worst thing you can do in a moral sense. Elsewhere, though, cannibalism was not taboo. As a result, some cultural groups that did not get that kind of Western input were just as horrified to learn that we buried our dead as Westerners were mortified to hear that they cannibalized theirs.

What was the effect of such thinking on other cultures?

As explorers went out and stuck flags in places, one of the main things they started with was a spiel along the lines of, “Oh, and that cannibalism thing you guys practice? You’re not doing that anymore.” It was also used as a tool by these “explorers” to justify destroying whole cultures. If you were seen as a cannibal, then it was ok to hunt you with dogs and butcher you, because you were seen as less than human.

In Spain in the 15th century, Queen Isabella basically told Columbus, “You have to treat people nicely when you meet them—unless they’re cannibals, then all bets are off.” (Or words to that effect.) By labeling millions of people across the Caribbean and Mexico as “cannibals,” the Spanish gave themselves permission to beat, enslave and murder those they encountered. There is not a shred of evidence that indicates that most indigenous groups encountered by the Spaniards were cannibals.

How about in the East, where Western influence arrived much later?

In China, human flesh was baked, boiled, fried and made into soup for maybe 2,000 years. There are all sorts of descriptions about human flesh being preferred—of invaders coming in and eating kids and women because they liked the way they tasted best—and recipes for preparing human meat. China also has a Confucian concept called filial piety, which emphasizes respect and care of elders. In its extreme expression, people would cut off pieces of their own bodies—eyeballs plucked out, part of their own livers removed—all to feed to sick relatives as a last-resort medicinal treatment.

In other cases, it’s not culture but stressful circumstances that lead to cannibalism. You write about the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, for example, when starving residents resorted to cannibalism, or of the Donner Party snowbound in the wilderness in the mid-19th century and forced to eat their dead to survive. Could this happen again?

Absolutely. If you look in the animal kingdom, two of the reasons cannibalism occurs is because of overcrowding (tiger salamander larvae eat each other in too close of quarters) and a lack of alternative forms of nutrition (many spiders, insects and snails lay “trophic eggs”—unfertilized eggs that the young eat when they hatch).

If you put human beings in that position—whether it’s a famine, a siege or they’re stranded somewhere—and there’s no food, then they are going to go through predictable steps in the process of starvation. In the end, they’ll either die or they’re going to consume human flesh, if it’s available.

That’s not based on science fiction but on the history of what has happened when there’s nothing to eat. In the future, if there’s an agricultural collapse in a place where there are suddenly no other forms of nutrition, people might resort to cannibalism. Horrible? Yes, but not surprising or abnormal.

What do examples of stress-induced cannibalism say about the limits of human social norms and morality?

We have these sets of rules we try to follow. But when the going gets tough, that stuff eventually goes out the window. The Donner party were good Christians who never thought that they’d be consuming their own relatives because of the horrible conditions they found themselves in. There’s a biological directive to survive and at that point, when you reach that extreme, you’re not worried about the fact that there’s a taboo. You simply want to live.

Have you ever tasted human flesh?

While investigating the phenomenon of placentophagy (placenta-eating), I was invited to test some for myself. This was during my visit to what was basically a one-stop center for all your placenta-related needs. The husband of the woman who ran the place, a chef, prepared a bit of his wife's placenta osso bucco style. The consistency was like veal, but the flavor was more organ meat—like chicken gizzards. It was delicious.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.