Cannibalism, or the consumption of human flesh or organs by humans, is perhaps the ultimate cultural taboo in Western society. In fact, the word cannibal, originally derived from the indigenous Caribs tribe of the Lesser Antilles, also has routes in the Spanish word for “savage”.
While the existence of cannibalism has been widely disputed among scholars, especially in ancient contexts, there is much evidence for its practice. An incredible example comes from the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea where the practice of funerary cannibalism was often observed. The practice was so common that much of the tribe contracted a rare disease called Kuru – and it was transmitted through the consumption of the brains of the infected.
Unfortunately, we know that ritual and tradition are not the only reasons behind cannibalism. Join us as we explore four shocking reasons behind this practice.
You might be surprised to learn that in the United States and in the United Kingdom the practice of cannibalism itself is not illegal – it is simply considered socially unacceptable. Those who have been found to practice cannibalism are usually charged with another, directly related crime such as: grave robbery, necrophilia and even murder.
While it would be comforting to think that cannibalism does not exist in this so-called enlightened age, there are hundreds of documented cases within the last 100 years. There are four primary types of criminal cannibalism: aggression cannibalism; sexual cannibalism; ritual cannibalism; and nutritional cannibalism. As you might expect, there are varying degrees of overlap between these types.
1. Aggression cannibalism
Most acts of modern cannibalism are motivated by a desire to express power or control over the victim. Aggression cannibalism encompasses acts of cannibalism that are primarily motivated by feelings of anger that create a need to exert power, revenge or control over a victim by consuming them – often after committing their murder.
A terrifyingly recent example is that of Anna Zimmerman, the German Cannibal Murderess. After murdering her boyfriend in a fit of anger, she dissected his body into manageable steak size pieces and froze them. She would then defrost portions, cook and feed him to her unsuspecting children.
Aggression cannibalism is one of the more common forms of cannibalism and often overlaps with other types especially ritualistic and sexual cannibalism.
2. Sexual cannibalism
Sexual cannibalism is classified as a psychosexual disorder – it involves a person sexualising the consumption of another human being. This type of cannibalism is often associated with the act of necrophilia (you can read more about this disturbing practice here).
According to Lesley Hensel, author of Cannibalism as a Sexual Disorder, eating human flesh can cause an increase in levels of vitamin A and amino acids, which causes a chemical reaction in the brain that could possibly lead to the euphoric, verging on orgasmic state that some cannibals have claimed to experience. However, this theory has not been substantiated by other research.
Heard of Andrei Chikatilo? He was a a Russian serial killer responsible for the murders of at least fifty two boys and girls. He would often mutilate and then consume the flesh of his victims, with a particular focus of the more intimate body parts. Chikatilo claimed that he was disgusted by the “loose morals” of many of his victims, who served as painful reminders of his own sexual impotence. In fact, it is suspected that he was only able to achieve sexual gratification when torturing, murdering and subsequently consuming his victims.
3. Ritualistic cannibalism
Modern ritualistic cannibalism is quite similar to the cannibalism observed in tribes and past civilisations. Nowadays, it is more often associated with satanic or cult rituals. While these instances of cannibalism are often performed in groups, there are cases of individuals partaking in these rituals. Famous examples include Jeffrey Dahmer and Edmund Kemper, who claimed that when they consumed their victims, the victims became a spiritual part of the perpetrator.
4. Nutritional cannibalism
It is (hopefully) likely that very few of you have ever seriously considered investigating what human flesh tastes like. But, in case you were curious, according to Nicolas Claux, also known as the Vampire of Paris, it tastes just like steak tartare. Nutritional cannibalism is motivated by an enjoyment of the taste of human flesh or the consumption of it for perceived nutritional value.
Convicted in 1994 for the murder of Thierry Bissonier as well as several counts of grave robbery, Claux was a practicing satanist who preferred the taste of raw human flesh above all else. A former worker at a children’s hospital morgue, he confessed to removing strips of flesh from corpses on the morgue slab to take home and consume. Disturbingly, Claux also admitted to prowling graveyards and digging up fresh graves for ingredients to create a cocktail made of human blood mixed with cremation ashes.
Your turn: Do you have any stories of modern cannibalism to share? Do you think that this practice should be made illegal once and for all? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.