Cannibalism Isn't as Edgy as You Think

Zoologist Bill Schutt's new book takes the bite out of Western taboos that consider eating another person the worst thing you could do.

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Feb 2 2017, 8:24pm

If you've ever considered the circumstances under which you might partake in cannibalism, odds are you think they'd have to be dire. If you and your comrades, besieged on all sides by the Luftwaffe, were facing dwindling food and fuel supplies in sub-zero temperatures and had already consumed your pets, the city's zoo animals, and much of the leather belt you were wearing when you came home to find your apartment building had been bombed. If you were stranded for days without food or water in some harsh, limitless landscape and your trusty companion, who had refused to partake in even a slice of bicep, finally perished. If Donald Trump makes it a full term.

If you've ever considered the circumstances under which other humans have eaten one another, it's likely, too, that they resemble these extreme scenarios, or involve a psychopath. But according to zoologist Bill Schutt's new book, Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, the practice is a lot more complicated—and common—than starvation and violent crime.

In order to broaden our understanding of cannibalism, which he says vacillates between "the sensationalistic shit" and academic studies, Schutt examined the animal kingdom and applied what he learned to examples of cannibalism among humans, as well as the Western taboos that have led us to consider it unthinkable. From the Chinese children who would "provid[e] parts of their own bodies for the consumption and benefit of their elders" as a demonstration of "filial piety" to the new mothers who grind up their placenta into rejuvenating smoothies today, Schutt's wide-ranging book manages to make cannibalism slightly less unfathomable—though I can't say I finished it wanting to taste human flesh. We spoke over the phone about his research process, the future of cannibalism, and the politician he thinks is most likely to eat another person during the End Times.

Photo by Jerry Ruotolo/courtesy of Algonquin Books

VICE: What surprised you most during your research?
Bill Schutt: I'm a zoologist, and I was really surprised at how widespread cannibalism was in the animal kingdom. There are major groups where it doesn't occur very often, but then there are other groups—fish, insects, spiders—where it happens as almost the rule. And the other thing, with humans, the biggest surprise was just how common it was in Europe for hundreds of years, right up until the early part of the 20th century.

What was the most recent example of cannibalism that you found?
That would be placentophagy. I found that cannibalism was more commonly practiced in places that didn't have the Western influence, and I expected it would be the Chinese who would be eating placenta (more on that in a second), but it really wasn't them—it was groups of hippie types in the 1970s, and then recently as a form of alternative medicine. I don't know how many people do it—there's a small group of people who find comfort in it and think they're getting a medical benefit.

But there's not really a medical benefit, correct?
There's certainly a placebo effect. The woman I interviewed down in Texas believed the placebo effect was a big deal. She also believed that if you didn't cook this stuff, then it might be able to replenish hormones—progesterone, estrogen—that were missing after giving birth, and in a sense it could cure the baby blues, or at least could contribute to you feeling better. They're all proteins, these hormones, so if you cook the placenta, they get denatured and probably can't work. So some people get around that by making a Slurpee out of it.

"Cannibalism is, in a sense, a normal response to extreme conditions."

You write about how Western settlers used cannibalism as a way to justify eliminating native peoples—if people were cannibals, they were considered savages, so the Europeans felt they could take their land, kill them, whatever. When did the taboo against cannibalism emerge?
I think the taboo started with Homer's Odyssey. Odysseus and his men get mugged by Polyphemus, the [man-eating] Cyclops. And from Homer, which was around the 8th century BCE, there's a snowball effect that says eating someone else is the worst thing you can do—that this is what monsters do. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe really contributed to this idea that cannibals are doing all this nasty stuff. Then the Brothers Grimm turned it around and said, "Not only is this nasty, but this is what's going to happen to you, children, if you don't behave!"

Once this Western idea became strong, then you saw less and less of the practice, as Westerners exerted influence wherever they went. If cannibalism was the worst thing you could do, then it was OK to do anything we wanted to cannibals, because they were considered hardly human. You can sort of imagine why cannibalism became less frequent as the ages passed—it wasn't going to get you anywhere with these new guys.

So am I a colonialist for being repulsed by cannibalism?
No, I don't think so. We've been ingrained since we could have something read to us that cannibalism is the worst thing you could do, so you don't think about why other groups might choose to consume their dead rather than bury them. There were indigenous groups that were just as mortified of the concept of burying their dead as the anthropologists and missionaries who interviewed them. So I don't think that you're a colonialist; I think that you're somebody who's influenced by Western culture.

Can you explain the concept of "learned cannibalism"?
What's not learned cannibalism is a reaction to a situation that is incredibly stressful—you have no food, and you're either stranded or besieged. Learned cannibalism is when you're taught that consuming a dead loved one allows them to leave the earth, or imparts their goodness in you. Or it's culinary cannibalism—there were rulers who thought that humans tasted great.

China has long dynastic histories, and they took great records—they didn't have the taboos that we have, so they weren't secretive about writing this stuff down. [In my research,] there were many, many instances over long periods of time where they talked about eating their concubines. And during the Renaissance in Europe, epileptics would line up at executions and suck down the blood from the guys who'd just gotten killed because they believed it cured epilepsy. The more violently someone died, the more medicinal value in his body parts.

"If cannibalism was the worst thing you could do, then it was OK to do anything we wanted to cannibals, because they were considered hardly human."

What is the actual nutritional benefit of human flesh and blood? Because I'm thinking of blood sausage, for example—that has a lot of iron. Why not have human blood sausage?
Sure. Though if you're trying to cure epilepsy, I think most of that was misguided.

So it's the same nutritional value as anything. Do you see cannibalism having a future at all?
If you look at the animal kingdom, besides the reasons that you wouldn't expect (parental care or reproductive behavior), overcrowding and a lack of alternative nutrition both cause cannibalism. When you look at humans in those types of conditions, there are the famous examples: the Donner Party, the rugby team in the Andes, the besieged Russians during World War II. This is not science fiction. Cannibalism is, in a sense, a normal response to extreme conditions.

There are going to be some people who will not eat bodies—they will starve to death. There will be others who will eat bodies—who, when it comes down to it, will kill to consume someone. There's a series of steps that take place during starvation, and at the end of that line, cannibalism occurs. Could it occur again? Absolutely. Would it be a horror show? I think so—beyond consuming bodies and murder, the fact that we have diseases that are cannibalism-related, like mad cow disease and kuru.

I tried to stay away from sensationalism in this book, so when I got to the end of this thing I was like, all right, I can't really have a happy ending, so I just started to think about a future in which this could happen. I think we need to be aware of that.

Which contemporary politician do you feel is most likely to, in that hypothetical future, resort to cannibalism? 
Definitely Dick Cheney. Though after the Trumpocalypse, he'll probably be slain by Keith Richards in a battle over Cher. 

Follow Lauren Oyler on Twitter.

Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt is out February 14 from Algonquin Books.

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