A brief history of Cannibalism

Cannibalism, a frowned upon act which society vehemently opposes or so we think. Cannibalism is the act of consuming another individual of the same species as food. Organisms from the animal kingdom practice cannibalism on a regular basis in fact more than 1,500 species alone practice it. Even as society frowns upon it, human cannibalism is well documented, both in ancient and in recent times. So how did this start? The word cannibal is dated back to the time of Christopher Columbus, which he may even have coined himself. It was first recorded in Columbus’s reports to the queen of Spain. He described the indigenous people as friendly and peace loving but sparked rumors about a group called Caribs, who apparently raided, plundered and ate their prisoners. The queen granted permission of capture and enslaving of anyone who ate flesh. However once Columbus found that he would not get gold from any of the locals, he began labeling any who resisted him as a Caribe. As the term reached Europe, somewhere along the way it had transformed from Carib to Canibe to Cannibal.

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It was first used by colonizers to dehumanize indigenous people; it has since been applied to anyone who eats flesh. The term comes from an account with no hard evidence but it does have a real and complex history. Throughout the course of history, it has taken diverse forms such as 15th century Europeans believed they had hit upon a miracle cure: a remedy for epilepsy, hemorrhage, bruising, nausea and virtually any other medical ailment. It was a brown powder known as “mumia,” and was made by grinding up mummified human flesh. It had a large demand in 15th century Europe so much so that the stolen mummies from Egypt used to keep up with the mumia craze started dwindling. This opened up avenues for opportunists to use stolen bodies from European cemeteries to keep up with the craze. The use of mumia was so widespread that it continued for hundreds of years. It was even listed in Merck index a popular medical encyclopedia into the 20th century. During various famines, sieges and wars there have been accounts of survival cannibalism as the only options were starving or eating the dead. But various cultures saw a normalization of consumption of human flesh even in ordinary circumstances. Blood in liquid or powdered form used to treat epilepsy, human liver, gall stones, oil from human brains and pulverized hearts were popular medical concoctions back in the day. In china the written record of socially accepted cannibalism goes back to 2000 years. One form of cannibalism was filial cannibalism where adult sons and daughters provided a piece of their flesh to their sick parents and often seen as a last-ditch effort to save them. Cannibalistic funerary rites were yet another form of culturally sanctioned cannibalism. The best-known example came from the Fore people of New guinea. Through the mid-20th century, members of the community would, make their funerary preferences known in advance, often requesting family members to consume their flesh after death, however even though this honored the dead it bore the spreading of a deadly disease known as Kuru throughout the community.

Between fictionalized stories, verified facts and big gaps that still exist in our knowledge, there is no one history of cannibalism, however one thing we can be sure of that humans throughout the course of history have eaten and volunteered to be eaten by their fellow man. As Michel de Montaigne wrote Everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in one’s own country”.