When People Ate People...
By Khalidha Naushad Ceylon Today Features
In a time where people choose to practice vegetarianism rather than consume meat, it’s hard to look back at the surprising history of how humans ate other humans. Is it possible to eat flesh of your own species or flesh of your own self? Absolutely, and this behaviour in people is called as anthropophagy or commonly known as cannibalism. This tradition dates back to early human history and has been found among people on most continents and is still alive today in some regions where eating human flesh is considered a part of their culture.
A brief history of cannibalism
In 1493, when Christopher Columbus returned to the Queen of Spain from his second voyage, he described the indigenous people of the island of Guadaloupe as friendly and peaceful but he also mentioned a rumour about a group called the ‘caribs,’ who made violent raids to cook and eat their prisoners. As a response, Queen Isabella allowed Columbus to capture and enslave anyone who ate human flesh. Taking advantage of the power, when the people of the island refused to produce the gold he was looking for and opposed his looting and abduction, they were labelled as a ‘Caribe.’ In fact, Columbus may even have originated the term himself.
Cannibalism as a Remedy
Although it is awful to consume human flesh, there were reasons for the cultures to normalise eating flesh of human under ordinary circumstances. For an instance, a brown powder made by grinding human mummies often sold as ‘mummia’ was used by the Europeans back in the 15th century as a remedy for epilepsy, bruising, nausea and haemorrhage. This powder was believed to be a miracle cure and could be mixed into drinks or eaten straight up. Human blood, liver, gall stones, oil distilled from human brains, and heart, in either grinded or liquid form were popular medical mixtures at that time. Going back to almost 2,000 years ago, China has a written record of socially accepted cannibalism where children would offer a piece of their flesh as a remedy for a sick parent. It usually was flesh from thigh or finger.
Cannibalism in China
There are oral reports of cannibalism during The Great Chinese famine, widely regarded as the deadliest and one of the greatest man-made disaster in human history. About 36 million lives were wiped out by starvation over three short years. In an official documentation, it was reported that a teenage orphan killed and ate the flesh of her four-year-old brother out of hunger. When people died in the family, they ate the corpses and even fought over them. People of Gansu killed and ate strangers who passed through and parents ate their children as well. Besides the famine, a massive human cannibalism occurred in Guangxi during the Cultural Revolution (1966- 1976). Almost 100-150 people were eaten by others and at least thousands of people were reported practicing cannibalism. Official documents details various forms of cannibalism such as eating people as a snack, slicing off the meat in large parties, barbecuing the meat and so on. In a couple of small towns they began to ritualistically eat each other. So, there are very welldocumented cases of ritual cannibalism.
Cannibalism in New Guinea
Culturally sanctioned cannibalism of Fore People of New Guinea is perhaps the best known example. Members of the community would make their preferences of their own funeral in advance, at times requesting the family members to gather to consume their dead body which resulted in the spread of a disease called ‘kuru.’ A well-known tribe called ‘Korowai’ is one of the last to have been cannibals, as reported. It was obligatory to kill and eat a person they believed was possessed by ‘khakua’ (a demon) as they have strong belief in evil spirits. However, unbelievably, there is talk that this practice is still on-going.
Cannibalism in Russia
A great famine hit Russia by the years 1921 and early 1922 which left many Russians malnourished and starving. This famine resulted from the effects of Russian Revolution and Civil War. This situation aggravated when Lenin (Former Premier of the Soviet Union) ordered his Red Army Troop too seize from peasants. The situation was worse in rural villages. Despite many fleeing to other regions leaving their dead family behind, those who survived consumed whatever they could – seeds, grasses and even corpses of dead animals. Starvation made people take unimaginable measures to survive as there were reports of parents killing and eating their own children. The officials in a town advised the starving residents to consume bread by baking grinded dry bones of animals. Furthermore, starving peasants began digging up recently buried corpses for their meal. As reported, one woman refused to hand over the dead body of her husband as she wanted to have it as a meal. Amidst these historical stories, terrible incidents and practices, there is no one history of cannibalism. But we know for a fact that people have been eating each other or flesh of one’s own self and volunteering themselves to be eaten. But it’s even horrible to know that these practice continues, whether legal or otherwise.