Cannibalism, also known by its far more scientific name anthropophagy, is the act of a human eating another human being. Historically, there have been times when humans have had no choice but to resort to cannibalism to survive. In Ukraine, during the famine called Holodomor when Russia blocked supply lines and food, hundreds of thousands starved or, in desperation, began to eat the bodies of those around them.
But there are other, far more sinister occurrences that are a little less understandable than survival cannibalism. Across history and in different cultures and groups, cannibalism has been ritualistic, used sadistically, or even as fetish material. Sexy.
Let’s take a look at 7 facts about cannibalism through history. Hopefully, you’ll still be human and not a cannibalistic Wendigo by the end of it.
7. Early cannibalism was often ritualistic
Back when humans were still relatively brand new, it’s highly likely we engaged in a little bit of cannibalistic ritualism. Archaeological findings of 15,000-year-old bones, show signs of being chomped, gnawed, and marrow sucked out, suggesting people used them in some sort of ritual. Or it could even have been an early tradition to eat each other after death as a way of celebrating the person’s life.
Early civilizations also partook in ritual cannibalism. For instance, in Aztec culture, sacrifices to the God Xipe Totec involved dismembering and consuming the victims. Choosing one sacrifice per day for 40 days, at the end of the ritual the individuals would have their hearts removed and then their bodies dismembered for eating. Yummy.
Either way it seems cannibalism has been around as long as humanity itself. What that says about us isn’t too great…
6. Jamestown cannibalism
Perhaps more upsettingly in the wide world of facts about cannibalism is that it wasn’t just ancient people who liked a munch. In fact, it’s highly likely your not-as-distant-as-you’d-like ancestors at some point ingested or consumed human body parts.
Jamestown, Virginia, was the first colony in the United States, and aside from plowing the land, taking indigenous people as slaves, and generally just doing what white people had done for hundreds of years – colonizing; there’s also evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown.
In 1630, 23 years after colonists first arrived at Jamestown, there was a brutally harsh winter leading to the “Starving Time” – months where those who lived at Jamestown did what they had to to survive. In 2013 it was discovered that that included cannibalism.
In Jamestown, cannibalism was likely a last resort thanks to starvation caused by the brutal winter. But researchers discovered bones of a 14-year-old girl they nicknamed Jane that had undeniably human teeth marks.
With this evidence, the New World, Jamestown settlers go from colonialists to cannibals.
However, while the Jamestown people did resort to cannibalism, it now seems extremely likely that they did so out of desperation and after they had killed most of the animals for food.
5. Cases of cannibalism in Medieval Europe
It wasn’t just the gents and ladies of Jamestown. Across the pond, medieval Europeans couldn’t wait to chow down on human body parts as they believed they had immense medicinal value.
During the Middle Ages, some believed that ingesting human body parts could cure ailments and even grant eternal youth. The cases of cannibalism in medieval Europe were driven by the prevailing belief in the “Doctrine of Signatures.” According to this doctrine, the appearance of a substance provided clues to its healing properties. As a result, people believed that human body parts, such as skulls, blood, and fat, possessed medicinal value because they resembled the organs they were meant to treat.
Medical cannibalism seemed almost logical to medieval Europeans. For example, people saw human blood as a cure for blood-related ailments, and human fat was thought to aid in treating obesity.
Medical cannibalism also led to a black market for body parts, with remains from executed criminals or deceased individuals fetching high prices… if you knew where to look. In fact, physicians would even prescribe remedies made from human parts, making cannibalistic practices an unsettlingly ordinary part of day-to-day medieval life.
4. The Korowai tribe: modern cannibalism
There have been reports of multiple remote tribes still engaging in cannibalism in the 20th century. Until at least the 1950s, the Fore people of Papua New Guinea were confirmed to be acting as cannibals.
Now, however, only one group remains. An extremely remote Indonesian tribal people, the Korowai tribe, is the only known collection of humans still practicing cannibalism.
But in 2006, the Korowai were still enjoying human snacks.
As reported by the Smithsonian, the Korowai believe in a devil or witch-like creature known as the Khakhua. The khakhua disguises themselves as friends or relatives before eating their victims’ insides as they sleep. Just before dying the victim would whisper the name of the khakhua to those present; not dissimilarly to some of the ways witches were discovered during the Salem Witch Trials.
But in a very different way, the only solution for these monsters is to in turn, kill and eat them. Chillingly, the Korowai tribe people feel no remorse. To them, they are not eating human flesh at all, but the flesh of the evil khakhua.
3. The Donner Party
This is where facts about cannibalism get truly grisly.
In an early American tale of starvation, not dissimilar to the Jamestown cannibalism stories, a group of people now known as the Donner Party after one of the most prominent families involved, faced starvation after becoming trapped in the Sierra-Nevada mountain range.
It was 1847 and the pass was impassable, forcing the Donner party into cannibalism in order to survive. With approximately 60 people trapped, and little food, it wasn’t long before more than just the oxen started to look tasty. They survived, however, without cannibalizing each other. Except for a group of 17 who decided to venture out early and brave the snowy winter to pass through the mountains.
This group soon faced starvation and drew lots on who would survive… and who would get eaten. Although initially, the chosen victims of cannibalism were those who succumbed to the climate; later, the two Native Americans traveling with the party were shot as they neared death to supply the others with their flesh. As is typical of the time period, little remorse was shown for killing the two men, and for the few who escaped the mountain, little consequence was to be had.
Not only a fact about cannibalism in this instance but a sad fact about colonial life for the indigenous settlers.
2. Cannibalism as a sexual fetish
Things are about to get really weird.
Not everyone who finds themselves a cannibal does so out of desperation, ritualism, or superstition. Sexual cannibalism, lust murder, or ‘erotophonophilia’ (its scientific name) is an actual documented fetish type.
The most famous example of a sexual cannibal is Jeffrey Dahmer, the American serial killer who lured teenage boys to his home. He would kill his victims and engage in acts of necrophilia, before dismembering them for later eating.
Psychologists believe that Jeffrey Dahmer’s sexual fetishism of the bodies and cannibalistic tendencies were directly linked. His behavior was a primary example of the highly disturbing act of sexual cannibalism.
Dahmer’s certainly not the only sexually driven cannibal, however. In 2014 in the UK, a man named Dale Bolinger was revealed as a regular visitor of dark fetish sites where he discussed killing and beheading female victims before eating them. Luckily, authorities apprehended him before his first murder, but Bolinger was close to giving Ted Bundy a run for his money in terms of creep factor.
But wait… there’s more!
There’s a whole other separate area of sexual cannibalism that still exists today. Those who get sexually aroused by the idea of eating, being eaten, or watching someone being eaten; which is scientifically referred to as vorarephilia. This differs from erotophonophilia in that it’s the specific act of cannibalism that’s arousing.
1. Cases of cannibalism today
Like Bolinger, there are still cases of cannibalism occurring worldwide today. Although, thankfully, rare; there have been proven instances.
Probably the most famous known cannibal today is the German cannibal Armin Meiwes, who reportedly was a sufferer of vorarephilia. Meiwes had one lifelong, desperate dream: to kill and eat another human.
But he wasn’t a total monster, so instead of tracking down someone and murdering them, Meiwes very reasonably put out an ad displaying his intentions and asking for volunteers.
Enter: Bernd Jurgen Armando Brandes. A man who was perfectly happy to be eaten – and even took part in some of the process himself. Upon meeting Meiwes, the two men even sat down and dined on Brandes’ genitalia first.
Later with Brandes consent, Meiwes killed him, giving him a truly bizarre death as he knew he would be eaten after. Meiwes then spent the next few months enjoying his desired meals of human flesh. Delicious cannibalism.
These facts about cannibalism highlight the different types and why people may resort to cannibalism even today. Let’s hope next time you’re on a long hike none of your friends get hungry.