Jan 6, 2016

Posted by in Popular Culture, Rituals, Taboos | 0 Comments

The Most Forbidden Fruit: A Modern Look At Cannibalism

cannibalismCurrently one of the single most taboo behaviors in nearly every culture, cannibalism was once a widespread act among humans in several parts of the world. The term “cannibalism” is derived from the Island Carib people of the Lesser Antilles, and it refers to the willful act of dining on human flesh. According to legends recorded in the 17th Century, these islanders had a long history of cannibalistic behavior. Although cannibalism has been nearly abolished and outlawed in the majority of communities today, there are actually still a few isolated cultures that continue the practice even now.

In some cases, especially when practiced by tribal societies, cannibalism was considered a cultural norm. Endocannibalism is a term used to describe the act of consuming a member of the same community. Often, as part of a death ritual, recently deceased individuals would be eaten by living descendants. This custom was thought to aid in the grieving process and to ensure that the departed family member would be incorporated into the bodies of the living. Exocannibalism is the act of consuming a person from outside of the community. This form of cannibal activity was often associated with war and celebration of victories over rival tribes. In either case, it was a common assumption that eating a person’s flesh would in some way bestow upon the cannibal various characteristics of that person.

In parts of the world where cannibalism is not a cultural norm, there have still been instances reported of cannibal behavior in various situations. In certain extreme circumstances where the risk of starvation has been a factor, people have resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. One very notable account is the case of the Donner Party who became lost in the wilderness during a very severe winter and resorted to eating human flesh out of pure desperation. In these instances, people commonly carry out necro-cannibalism, the consumption of an already dead body. However, homicidal cannibalism, or killing someone for the purpose of eating them, has been reported in the cases of numerous murderers, like Jeffrey Dahmer and Albert Fish. Also in extremely rare instances, autophagia, or self-cannibalism, has been documented and was generally thought to be the result of severe mental illness.

In a highly publicized case of mortuary cannibalism in New Guinea, a tribe called the Fore became infected with the disease called kuru as a result of their human consumption. Kuru is an incurable degenerative neurological disorder that is spread by prions that are found in humans. Initially, the most common symptom is persistent shaking referred to as the “shiver”, but over time, more severe symptoms manifest and eventually lead to death.
Though it is believed that cannibalism has been practiced by humans and their ancestors for tens of thousands of years, even early cultures, like the Ancient Greeks, denied the behavior and associated it with lower level civilizations. In fact, though the claims were often unsubstantiated, they were known to shame other non-Hellenic societies by accusing them of cannibalism. It has been theorized that this was just a way of gaining cultural superiority.

Even though most cultures today believe that cannibalism is beyond the scope of acceptable human behavior, it would seem that they still have no problem exploiting the activity in modern television, literature, and movies. The subject has become a reoccurring theme in the popular horror genre of film, and during the late 1970s even reached a peak that is referred to as the “cannibal boom”. However, being typically depicted in media as savages or psychopaths has undoubtedly not benefited the cannibals’ already unfavorable reputation.

Whether cannibalism is something that you have developed a rigid ethical stance against or perhaps just an idea that you find grotesque or a bit creepy, it serves as a great opportunity to challenge the tolerance and understanding of cultural relativism in all of us. Because the practice of cannibalism is incredibly foreign to most of us, it is virtually impossible to completely understand cultures where it is considered a normal act. Therefore, it is imperative that we reserve judgment of cannibalistic societies and hope that the kindness might be returned to us some day in the form of acceptance of our own curiosities and differences.


  1. The Most Forbidden Fruit: A Modern Look At Cannibalism | Amiee Boyd - […] The Most Forbidden Fruit: A Modern Look At […]

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