Cannibalism—the Ultimate Taboo—Is Surprisingly Common

It's a toad-eat-toad, spider-eat-spider, and yes, human-eat-human world.

Of all the screen villains, none is so disturbing as Hannibal Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs. It’s not just that he kills people. He also eats them, thus contravening one of our deepest and most ancient taboos: that to consume human flesh is the ultimate betrayal of our humanity. But as zoologist and author Bill Schutt shows in his new book, Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, not all cultures have shared this taboo. In ancient China, for instance, human body parts would appear on Imperial menus. [Find out what happened to one of the Uruguayan rugby players who ate his teammates after their plane crashed.]

When National Geographic caught up with Schutt by phone at his home on Long Island, the author explained how, in the animal kingdom, cannibalism is extremely common; why mad cow disease and a degenerative brain condition found in the highlands of New Guinea were both caused by cannibalism; and how climate change could trigger mass cannibalism.

You write, “Cannibalism makes perfect evolutionary sense.” Explain that idea, with some examples, please.

It came as a surprise to me that cannibalism was so widespread across nature. Initially, the party line was that the only times you would see cannibalism—unless you were dealing with black widow spiders or praying mantises—would be when it was stress-related or due to a lack of alternative forms of food. But starting in the 1970s and ’80s, researchers started to uncover many instances across the animal kingdom where it was completely natural behavior.

For instance, spadefoot toads, in the American Southwest, lay their eggs in transient ponds, some no larger than puddles. Because of the climate, these ponds are in danger of drying up at any moment. So if you are a tadpole, it pays, from an evolutionary perspective, to get out of the pool as quickly as possible. If the pond dries out, you’re dead. As a result, they’ve evolved a mechanism by which a certain percentage of the tadpoles turn huge, overnight, with large jaw muscles, wild-looking teeth, and shortened digestive tracts. What they are doing is eating their brethren in the ponds. By doing so, they mature faster and are able to get out quicker than their herbivorous brothers and sisters.

Sensational instances of cannibalism in the West, like New York City’s “Cannibal Cop,” always hit the headlines. Why are we so drawn to the idea of people eating each other?

Since Homer and the Greeks, we have been taught that cannibalism is the ultimate taboo. That continues from Homer through the Romans to Shakespeare, the brothers Grimm, Daniel Defoe, and Freud. You had this snowball effect where we were taught that cannibalism is this horror. If you combine this ultimate taboo with our fascination with food, what you get is a fascination with the topic.

The suspicion of cannibalism was used by the West to justify conquest, particularly in the New World. Explain how that worked.

When Columbus first arrived in the New World, he described the indigenous people as friendly and causing no problems. He had been told by Queen Isabella to treat these people with respect and kindness, except if it became clear they are cannibals, in which case, all bets were off. Initially, the Spanish were looking for gold and, when they didn’t find it, they figured that the next best thing was slaves.

Lo and behold, when Columbus came back, the indigenous people who had previously been classified as friendly were suddenly described as cannibals, so you could do anything to them. You could enslave them, take their land, murder them, and treat them like pestilence. And that’s exactly what happened, with the result that a lot of the islands were de-populated. The idea of cannibalism as a taboo was used to de-humanize the people encountered on these conquests.

Cannibalism is a taboo in nearly every culture. But not in China. Tell us about the history of “gourmet cannibalism”—and how Mao unleashed a new wave of famine-driven cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution.

During the Cultural Revolution, privately owned farms were collectivized. These techniques did not work, though, which resulted in a lot of people starving. Many people across China were reduced to incidents of what is known as “starvation cannibalism,” similar to the Donner Party. Families were often reduced to trading their children for the children of their neighbors, so they wouldn’t wind up killing and eating their own kids.

China is a special case because it was never exposed to the taboo against cannibalism. This is a Western taboo. If your culture dictates that, if you’re an emperor, you’re allowed to eat human body parts, then there’s nothing wrong with that. There are numerous descriptions of emperors and other members of the imperial court enjoying humans as a type of food, prepared in all different ways.

The most famous example of “survival cannibalism” is the Donner Party. Is the jury still out on whether they really did eat each other?

In 1847, the Donner Party set out to go to California, and wound up getting stuck in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Rather than backtracking to the flatlands, they decided to over-winter in the Sierras with the hope that they might be able to push through at a later date. That became impossible, and there were a number of rescue missions that also ran into problems with the weather. The Donners split the party into two camps about seven miles apart, and there was cannibalism at both of them.

Do we have bones? No. Is there physical evidence? No. But there were descriptions by many members of the Donner Party themselves and the rescue teams that went in. There was no controversy at the time. The only controversy arose in 2010 when some over-eager public relations folks at a college put out a sensational headline claiming that there was no proof the Donner Party had eaten humans. But a couple of summers ago I spent some time with Donner Party researchers, and there’s no doubt whatsoever that cannibalism took place.

Christians might be offended by your assertion that the Eucharist is, effectively, cannibalism. Explain what you mean—and how that idea helped that famous Uruguayan rugby team survive in the Andes.

Nowadays, the idea that this is the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ is not taken literally. But in the Middle Ages, that was not the case. Transubstantiation was believed to have taken place: The host and the wine literally became the flesh and blood of Christ. Therefore, in some sense, it was an act of cannibalism.

What happened with the Uruguayan rugby team is that, after they came out from the mountains and it was discovered that they had cannibalized the dead in order to survive, the public did not take that very well. They were not regarded as heroes but were looked down upon. Later one of the survivors made a statement saying that the reason they thought it was okay to eat their friends was because, during Communion, you were consuming the flesh of Christ. They figured, if they could do that, they could eat the flesh of their friends.

Years later, they interviewed this guy and asked, “Were you really thinking about Communion when you ate your friends?” He responded, “No, we were hungry. That’s what we were thinking and that’s why we did it.”

Cannibalism can also cause havoc in the food chain, can’t it? Tell us about mad cow disease and its connection to a condition in New Guinea named kuru.

One of the seriously negative aspects of cannibalism is that there are cannibalism-associated diseases, like kuru and mad cow disease. These are degenerative brain disorders, are always fatal, and come from eating nervous tissue that is infected with either prions, if you go for the prion theory, or some as-yet-unidentified virus. Both of these arguments are strong and I don’t think that this has been decided.

There are other diseases like scrapie, which you find in sheep, and a spongiform encephalopathy in mink, that do the same thing. In the cattle industry they started to feed ground up entrails from other cows to cattle, as a protein supplement. That is what led to this outbreak of mad cow disease. By consuming meat from these cows, the spongiform encephalopathy disease was transmitted to humans. This caused a huge tragedy in the 1980s in the U.K. and led to a ban on British beef to the U.S., which is only just now about to be lifted.

This same type of disease almost wiped out an indigenous group in New Guinea called the Fore. When the scientists went in and started to study this, they realized that what they were seeing in the brains of these kuru victims was very similar to the effects of mad cow disease. Over the course of about nearly two decades, they put together the theory that funerary cannibalism among the Fore, especially kids and women, who were involved in the preparation of the corpses and cannibalizing body parts including the brain, was causing this horrible disease. Once they got it out to them that this was probably not a good thing to be doing, and laws were passed against eating their dead brethren, the disease was curtailed and the Fore did not become extinct. These spongiform encephalopathies serve as a negative selection pressure against cannibalism.

You end the book on a somber note: Climate change may eventually lead to famine-related cannibalism. Connect the dots for us.

I don’t want to make it sound like an assertion that this is going to happen. But if you look at the key reasons why cannibalism occurs across nature, it is usually due to overcrowding or a lack of alternative forms of nutrition. In the West we have a layer of culture that prevents us from cannibalizing. But we know that cannibalism has taken place with humans during famine. And with all of the changes that are taking place due to global warming, like desertification, it’s not a stretch that cannibalism might occur if large groups of people were suddenly without food.

What surprised you most in your research? And how did writing this book change your view of your fellow human beings?

In non-human cannibalism, the biggest surprise for me was how widespread it is across nature, for all sorts of reasons other than stress or lack of food. That blew me away. With human cannibalism, what shocked me was how extensive medicinal cannibalism was in Europe for hundreds of years. Human body parts were used right up to the beginning of the 19th century.

I don’t know if it’s changed my view of my fellow human beings. I think, if we didn’t have these Western taboos, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more cannibalism. We’ve certainly been doing it for thousands and thousands of years, under certain circumstances. If those circumstances were to arise again, I can’t see why cannibalism wouldn’t also happen again.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at


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