The Ultimate Taboo: How Does Cannibalism Fit into Human History? | History Hit

The Ultimate Taboo: How Does Cannibalism Fit into Human History?

A 19th-century painting of cannibalism in Tanna, an island in the South Pacific.
Image Credit: Private collection / Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Cannibalism is one of the few topics that almost universally makes the stomach turn: humans eating human flesh is viewed almost as the desecration of something sacred, something totally against our nature. Despite our sensitivities to it, however, cannibalism is far from as unusual as we would perhaps like to believe it to be.

In times of dire need and extreme circumstances, people have resorted to eating human flesh more often than we care to imagine. From the survivors of the Andes Disaster eating one another out of desperation to survive to the Aztecs, who believed the consumption of human flesh would help them communicate with the gods, there are a myriad of reasons people have consumed human flesh throughout history.

Here is a brief history of cannibalism.

It’s a macabre topic to discuss, but also one that has fascinated people for generations. So what has archaeology revealed about cannibalism among prehistoric societies? And if cannibalism does seem to have been practised among certain groups, then why?
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A natural phenomenon

In the natural world, over 1500 species have been recorded as engaging in cannibalism. This tends to happen in what scientists and anthropologists describe as ‘nutritionally poor’ environments, where individuals have to fight to survive against their own kind: it’s not always a response to extreme food shortages or similar disaster-related conditions.

Research has also suggested that Neanderthals may well have engaged in cannibalism: bones snapped in half suggested that bone marrow was extracted for nutrition and teeth marks on the bones suggested that flesh was gnawed off them. Some have disputed this, but the archaeological evidence points to our ancestors being unafraid to consume each other’s body parts.

Medicinal cannibalism

A little-talked about part of our history, but an important one nonetheless, was the idea of medicinal cannibalism. Throughout medieval and early modern Europe, human body parts, including flesh, fat and blood, were treated as commodities, bought and sold as remedies to all kinds of illnesses and afflictions.

Romans supposedly drank the blood of gladiators as a cure against epilepsy, whilst powdered mummies were consumed as an ‘elixir of life’. Lotions made with human fat were supposed to cure arthritis and rheumatism, whilst Pope Innocent VIII supposedly tried to cheat death by drinking the blood of 3 healthy young men. Unsurprisingly, he failed.

The dawn of the Enlightenment in the 18th century brought an abrupt end to these practices: a new emphasis on rationalism and science signalled the close of an era where ‘medicine’ often revolved around folklore and superstition.

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Terror and ritual

For many, cannibalism was at least in part an act of power play: European soldiers were recorded to have consumed the flesh of Muslims on the First Crusade by multiple different eyewitness sources. Some believe this was an act of desperation because of famine, whilst others cited it as being a form of psychological power play.

It’s thought that in the 18th and 19th centuries, cannibalism in Oceania was practiced as an expression of power: there are reports of missionaries and foreigners being killed and eaten by local people after they trespassed or committed other cultural taboos. In other cases, such as in warfare, the losers were also eaten by the victors as a final insult.

The Aztecs, on the other hand, may have consumed human flesh as a means of communicating with the gods. The exact details of why and how the Aztecs consumed people remain something of a historical and anthropological mystery, however, with some scholars arguing that the Aztecs only practiced ritual cannibalism during times of famine.

A copy of an image from a 16th-century codex depicting Aztec ritual cannibalism.

Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


Some of the most famous acts of cannibalism today have been acts of desperation: faced with the prospect of starvation and death, people have consumed human flesh in order to survive.

In 1816, the survivors of the sinking of the Méduse resorted to cannibalism after days adrift on a raft, immortalised by Gericault’s painting Raft of the Medusa. Later in history, it’s believed the explorer John Franklin’s final expedition to the Northwest Passage in 1845 saw men consume the flesh of the recently dead in desperation.

There’s also the story of the Donner Party who, attempting to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains in winter between 1846–1847, resorted to cannibalism after their food ran out. There are also several examples of cannibalism during World War Two: Soviet POWs in Nazi concentration camps, starving Japanese soldiers and individuals involved in the Siege of Leningrad are all instances where cannibalism occurred.

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The ultimate taboo?

In 1972, some of the survivors of Flight 571, which crashed in the Andes, consumed the flesh of those who didn’t survive the disaster. When word spread that survivors of Flight 571 had eaten human flesh to survive, there was a huge amount of backlash despite the extreme nature of the situation they had found themselves in.

From rituals and war to desperation, people have resorted to cannibalism for a whole host of different reasons throughout history. Despite these historical instances of cannibalism, the practice is still very much seen as a taboo – one of the ultimate transgressions – and is scarcely practiced for cultural or ritualistic reasons around the globe today. In many nations, in fact, cannibalism is not technically legislated against because of the extreme rarity with which it occurs.

Sarah Roller