What Prompts People to Eat Human Flesh?

Power, violence, revenge—and the heat of the moment


Throughout human history, cannibalism has been documented all over the world, from North America to Africa to Oceana. Often, it took the form of exocannibalism—the act of eating a person from outside of the immediate community to demonstrate triumph over enemies. Centuries ago, consuming an enemy, according to the Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, "was an extreme form of racism that served to heighten enthusiasm for warfare. Desiring to eat the enemy was an expression of fierceness that elevated the status of the warrior and struck fear into his enemies."

These days, we're more likely to hear about cannibalism as part of a stunt, or the act of a lone murderer. But it can also occur in times of heightened violence, in the midst of a mob or during wartime.

The BBC, for example, just released a video interview with "Mad Dog," a Christian man from the Central African Republic who took revenge for his pregnant wife's murder by publicly eating pieces of a leg of a burned and mutilated Muslim man—a random victim of mob violence. "Mad Dog," whose real name is Ouandja Magloire, told the BBC he attacked and ate the Muslim man because he was angry. In 2008, during the war crimes trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor, a former aide said that Taylor had ordered his men to commit acts of cannibalism, Reuters reports. In the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012, a young girl asked a France 24 crew, "Do you want me to show you what we do with criminals who come here?” before biting into a burnt piece of a mob victim. And last May, Syria made headlines when a video of Khalid Al-Hamad, a rebel leader, depicted him cutting out a man's heart or liver (it was unclear) and taking a bite, while exclaiming to the camera, "I swear to God, you soldiers of Bashar, you dogs, we will eat from your hearts and livers!"

 Antropologist Adam Blitz noted in The Times of Israel following the incident:

The retaliatory act, or dare of dismemberment,  coupled with the proclamation...resides in a ritualised notion of empowerment and demarcation. This shares more in common with Shamanism than it does with the Islamic reference the Farouq Brigade seek to inscribe.  It can be traced to the rite of exo-cannibalism....

As much as cannibalism's been caricatured, it remains a very real, very human and very modern act.  

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