The Wild West provided many horror stories. But few can beat the fate of George Donner’s wagon train, taking new settlers to California. In August 1846 it took a wrong turn and got lost in the Sierra Nevada. Starving, the 26 men, 14 women and 44 children decided on a new method of staying alive. They ate each other. The settlers became cannibals - and they are not alone.
CASES OF CANNIBALISM
During Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in 1812 some 12,000 men perished at Vilna in December. Over three days the cold and starvation got so much that many began to eat parts of the already dead. Some four years later - in July 1816 - the French frigate Medusa ran aground off Senegal. Some 151 men built a raft and attempted to escape. Starvation, drowning and eventually murder led to ten surviving. Many of them had been eaten. One of the worst modern cases concerned a Uruguayan plane en route to Chile in the winter of 1972, with 45 people onboard. It crashed in the Andes. Slowly they began to die of cold and starvation. After ten days it was decided to eat the recently dead in order to survive. Although eight died in an avalanche, only 19 of the original 45 survived.
CANNIBALS OF THE PAST
In the above cases we can see people turning to cannibalism in order to survive. But there is much more to cannibalism than this. The practice seems to be ancient indeed. Engravings of early Native Americans depict them eating limbs. Many African tribes were cannibal, bringing us the stereotypical image of placing the missionary in the pot. Remains of Peking Man, discovered in 1972 near Choukoutein in China, and possibly half a million years old, show evidence of human skulls split open and their brains extracted. The Christian St Jerome wrote of cannibalism in Scotland in the 4th century AD. Greek historian Strabo said that tribes in Ireland practised it. As a normal tribal practice, it survived longest in Borneo and the Amazon basin - areas where Christian missionaries were wary of going.
WHAT EATS US?
So fascinated have we been of the practice that writers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and Jules Verne used cannibals as fictional heroes; and to this day we like a good fictional cannibal, Hannibal Lecter being an obvious example. When survival isn’t an obvious reason for cannibalism, why did so many people indulge? The Missionary James Chambers decided, after studying people in New Guinea in the 1940s, that it was all down to taste. Human flesh simply tasted the best. This agreed with 19th century explorer Alfred St Johnston, who argued the Fijians ate human flesh for its own sake. Studies of modern western cannibals offer another dimension.
FLESH EATING KILLERS
When Wisconsin necrophile Ed Gein was arrested in 1957 he was found to be sexually frustrated, and had been digging up new female corpses for years. As well as satisfying himself sexually, he devoured parts of them. Wayne Boden, arrested in Calgary, Canada, in 1971, was dubbed as the ‘Vampire Rapist’. This is misleading. Raping and killing four women, most of whom he had already dated, he would bite deeply into breasts and neck. This is as close to cannibalism as you can get. Many sexual assaults - usually caused by being ‘too rough’ with a sexual partner - can go as far as biting off nipples and swallowing them. At the lower end of the scale we have the love bite.
SEX AND SPIRITUALITY
Many researchers argue that this is a sexual form of absolute possession, and extremely sexually charged. It seems that many of us are closer to being cannibals than we dare to admit. Cannibalism tended to die out in tribal societies when Christian missionaries arrived. Some researchers argue this is because these tribes suddernly understood the concept of the soul. However, this does not stand up to scrutiny. The Christian Eucharist involves symbolic cannibalism with bread and wine being symbolic of the body and blood of Christ. A further problem is that virtually all tribal societies understood a form of soul. Indeed, ritualised cannibalism of this sort can be seen as ’soul’ driven. In eating dead enemies, cannibalism can be seen as controlling the spirits of their enemies. When eating relatives - especially older ones - it is as if the cannibal is imbibing the attributes of wisdom or courage of the ‘victim’. For instance, some Amazon tribes ate the bone ash of their kin - this is certainly not taste driven, but far more fundamental.
ENHANCING THE HUMAN
As late as 1654 a Silesian bandit was recorded eating an unborn baby’s heart to make himself stronger. Again, we have the hint that cannibalism is an enabling practice. Hungarian anthropologist Oscar Maerth went so far as to argue that cannibalism was responsible for the birth in intelligent thought. Half a million years ago we became human through eating the brains of other humans, thus increasing our intelligence. This idea seems absurd, yet an experiment with planarian worms is worrying. Taught to navigate a maze, the worm is killed and fed to another. This other worm is able to negotiate the maze immediately. Even more interesting is the fact that some tadpoles eat adult members of their own species so that they grow to adulthood faster.
IT’S DEADLY, YOU KNOW
Cannibalism is a far more interesting subject than the horror of it suggests. The word itself is derived from the Caribs of South America and the Caribbean, who were said to eat people by their Spaniard conquerers. Yet, with recent knowledge of Kuru - a spongiform brain disease exhibited by cannibals in the South Pacific in the 1950s - we are beginning to see that cannibalism is deadly. This presents a paradox. If cannibalism was so widespread, how did tribal societies survive? If they all indulged, why did they not all die of a spongiform disease? Perhaps because only a select few may have become cannibals in any one tribe.
Most tribal ritual throughout the world was orchestrated by a hysteric known as a shaman. He has many other names such as witchdoctor or medicine man. These special people were chosen at an early age and brought up differently to other tribesmen. Usually natural schizophrenics, they could go into trances and speak with spirits. Another essential practice of many tribal societies was sacrifice. In this way, they appeased the spirits. Yet could it be that early tribal societies realised that eating certain parts of the same species - brains, for instance - caused a strange affliction many years down the road, which we could identify as a spongyform? If so, a stage of delerium would come where many of the attributes of shamanism would be seen. And with the end result being sacrifice, perhaps cannibalism was a real route through which a tribe communed with their gods.