If you’re reading this, you probably think cannibalism is gross. We know this because we asked you after our interview with a Reddit user who served his friends tacos made from his own amputated foot went viral. What is it we hate the idea of eating human flesh, exactly? In this case, it was technically ethical, but readers still reacted with collective horror.
We made a poll on Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat: “Would you try human meat if it were ethically, consensually sourced?” Across all three social media networks and over 500,000 responses, the ratio was pretty much the same: about a quarter said sure, and around 75 percent said hell no. (Yes: 114,625; No: 424,761). If the moral implications of hurting another sentient being—the primary horror in cannibal classics like Silence of the Lambs—aren’t why cannibalism is repulsive, then what is it?
We reached out to Bill Schutt, author of Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, to explain what was going through the minds of people who mashed that “No” button.
VICE: Why do so many people seem to have an innate repulsion to eating human flesh?
Bill Schutt: I’m not so sure it’s innate. It’s deeply ingrained in Western culture. We’ve been reading this memo since the time of the ancient Greeks. From Homer and Herodotus through the Romans and then Shakespeare and Daniel Dafoe and Sigmund Freud, the snowball kept growing. You’re talking over 2,000 years. Cannibalism, to these writers, was the worst taboo. Add that to Christianity and Judaism where it’s important to keep the body intact and you get the knee-jerk reaction to the very mention of the word we have right now.
It has historically been convenient for Westerners to stigmatize cannibalism. If you’re Columbus and you can accuse people of being cannibals, then you can treat them like vermin. They’re not human to you. You can destroy these cultures. But there are other cultures [such as the pre-20th century Wari' of western Brazil] where they’d be just as mortified to learn we bury our dead as we would be to learn that they eat their loved ones.
Culture is king, and our culture dictates that cannibalism is this horrible taboo.
VICE: How do the people who think about this kind of stuff deal with the ethics of different kinds of cannibalism?
Before I wrote my book, I had to define what cannibalism was. There’s ritual cannibalism, there’s medicinal cannibalism, there’s funerary rights-related cannibalism, terror cannibalism, starvation cannibalism. And, of course, criminal cannibalism.
Cannibalism isn’t taboo in all cultures. Up until fairly recently in China, cannibalism wasn’t the type of taboo we have in the West. It’s only because of the Western influence that it has gone away. The same with other cultures as well, especially more isolated, smaller cultures in South America and Africa where it’s probably not being done anymore, and if it is being done, it’s in secret. Because you don’t want to upset the Westerners. Our culture is so pervasive now that cannibalism has been wiped from places it was practiced until fairly recently.
If you look at starvation cannibalism, the Donner party, the Rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes in the 1970s, these people aren’t thinking about ethics. They were thinking about survival. And when your body is getting to the point that it is literally consuming itself, that’s when all bets are off. That’s when the decision is going to be made whether you’re going to live, whether your kids are going to live, or you’re going to die. One of the ways you can live, if there are bodies around, is to consume them.
That’s very different from someone who is consuming their placenta after they’ve given birth because they’re convinced that it will restore the hormones they’ve lost after childbirth and cure the baby blues. That person has a very different outlook on cannibalism—if they even consider it cannibalism.
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Based on your research, if you did want to engage in ethical, legal cannibalism—what would be the tastiest part of the body to eat?
Depending on what you ate, it would taste differently, and you would prepare it differently. In the same way you could get steaks from a cow, you could get the same types of cuts from muscle tissue. People who are into organ meat—I’m not sure you’d find a difference between the taste of a human liver or a human kidney and a sheep’s kidney or a cow liver. It all depends on what part and how it was prepared. In that regard, there’s really not a lot of difference. You’re looking at a mammal with different tissue types that would, if you decided to consume them (and I don’t advocate for that), they would certainly taste differently.
I ate placenta and it tasted like organ meat. It didn’t taste like chicken, it didn’t taste like steak, it didn’t taste like pork. But that was only because it was organ meat. If it had been a slice of bicep—first of all I wouldn’t have eaten it, because that wasn’t what I was looking to do—but it all depends on where on the body it comes from. If [the guy who made tacos from his amputated foot] had cut his liver out and eaten it, it would have tasted very different than the gamey taste he described from his foot.
If you were invited to the foot taco brunch, would you say yes?
No. Nope. No. No. No. No. Been there, done that. The placenta that I had, the guy’s wife did this for a living. She prepared placentas for clients. She made tinctures out of them and painted them and pressed them against thick art stock and turned them into pictures of balloons. But she also prepared them for her clients to consume. When I heard about this, she invited me visit her and eat her placenta. And I thought, 10 years down the road if I decided not to do this I’d be kicking myself in the ass. Within 10 minutes I had booked my plane ticket. I went down there and it was a real adventure. It worked out spectacularly well, but I would not do it again… It tasted great. The chef cooked it up ossobuco style. I cleaned my plate. But I just don’t see the need to do it again.
What are the dangers of eating human meat?
There is the possibility that the tissue could be contaminated. Not to scare this guy, but there are diseases that can be transmitted from eating human flesh. There were cultural groups in places like Papua New Guinea that almost went extinct from their habits of consuming the dead. A group called The Fore in the highlands of New Guinea were dying of this horrible neurological disease called Kuru, which it was determined was caused by eating contaminated human flesh. That’s not to say this guy might have had it, but there are pathogens that could have been passed from consuming that flesh.
Probably the same type of pathogens you can get from a deer you just shot. It could be bacteria. It could be E. coli. It’s an individual decision. This guy decided to do it and his friends did too, and the likelihood that they’ll be fine is quite high. But I wouldn’t do it. If you want to see something like Kuru, look at Alzheimers and what it does to the brain. These are incurable. You get this, you die. It’s a horrible degenerative nerve disease that basically turns your brain into Swiss cheese. The very thought of that possibility would keep me from consuming human flesh.
What most surprised you in your research about cannibalism?
Something that surprised me was how prevalent cannibalism was across the animal kingdom for reasons that have nothing to do with a lack of food. That blew me away. As far as humans go, what really shocked me was how prevalent medicinal cannibalism was in Europe, despite the stigma originating with the ancient Greeks. Body parts were ground up, mashed up, turned into tinctures. Cooked, eaten raw for hundreds of years to cure every malady you can think of. They drank blood to cure epilepsy and consumed fat to take care of stomach disorders. It blew me away. I came across no reports of people getting sicker from medicinal cannibalism.
It started in the middle ages and went right through the Renaissance to the modern age. Up until the 20th Century when the Merck Index listed Mummia… was actually a mistranslation of an Arabic word for bitumen, the tar they used in the preparation of their mummies and to bind wounds. The Europeans looked at that and interpreted it as Mummy—wrapped up dead guy—so there was a run on mummies because they were thought to have medicinal value. But they ran out of mummies and started producing ersatz mummies to mimic the condition of the Egyptian mummies. They’d grind them up into powder and consume them. And that was right up into the 20th century. It blew me away. The last vestiges of that are the idea that you may get some medical benefit from eating your placenta.
What does modern cannibalism look like today?
Cannibalism still occurs. Just look in places where there are famines. There have certainly been reports of cannibalism taking place in North Korea. Just look anywhere there’s a lot of poor people who have suddenly run out of food. That’s where you’re going to find cannibalism today.
Cultures that regularly did it in the past mostly don’t anymore, because of the guys who bring in the t-shirts and sneakers. The prevalence of Western culture has curtailed the rituals of many indigenous populations held sacred for hundreds or thousands of years. It’s difficult to find people who still do it.
Could ethical cannibalism ever become more culturally acceptable?
I’ve done a lot of work on this over the last couple of years to put this book together, and I just don’t see it becoming something that is culturally acceptable, mainly because of this deep-seated taboo.
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