Society - People
By: - at June 11, 2013

Cannibalism in History and the Modern World

The origin
It is not fully known where the practice of cannibalism originated from exactly – but it has been practiced worldwide for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence suggests that cannibalism may have been practiced as far back as the Neolithic Period and the Bronze Age, in both America and Europe. Cannibalism was widespread among humans worldwide, and it continued into the 19th century in some isolated South Pacific cultures.

Cannibalism Depicted in the Aztec Codex Magliabechiano:
Cannibalism Depicted in the Aztec Codex Magliabechiano:

There are some parts of tropical Africa that still practice cannibalism today. Human remains found by archaeologists also suggest that humans ate the brains of other humans.

Is it Still Practiced Today?
It is astonishing to know that cannibalism is not actually illegal in most countries; most cannibals who get arrested for their acts are sentenced for the act of killing who they ate. Though uncommon today, Cannibalism is still practiced in some remote parts of Asia. Some tribes also practice cannibalism today. The Korowai are one of the very few tribes that still eat human flesh as a cultural practice. In many tribes, it is a sign of respect to eat the deceased.


Many people believe that they are inheriting the personality traits or strengths of a person that they are consuming. So they only consume those that are well respected and strong as they hope to inherit their positive qualities.

Korowai Man:
Korowai Man
By 710928003  via Wikimedia Commons

Cannibalism is mostly known to be practiced by tribal societies. In total there are 15 tribal societies that have practiced cannibalism. They are:

  • Akokisa
  • Androphagi
  • Asmat people
  • Atakapa people
  • Beti-Pahuin people
  • Fore people
  • Harakmbut people
  • Issedones
  • Kombai people
  • Korowai people
  • Marind people
  • Massagetae
  • Sawi people
  • Wari people

The Fore people live in the Okapa district of the Eastern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea. They believe in ritual cannibalism. The Sawi people are also a tribe from New Guinea, and were known to be cannibalistic head hunters as recently as the 1950’s. Since then, most of the tribe have converted to Christianity. The Wari people practiced cannibalism as a form of respect for their fellow people, as previously mentioned. The relatives of the deceased were encouraged to eat whatever meat they could, although this was usually not much. The body was often left for 3 days before the funeral resulting in the body becoming bloated and discolored, rotting in the Amazon heat. Much of the body was then burned, but the heart and liver would be eaten.

Reasons for Cannibalism

Jeffrey Dahmer:

By Jbarta via Wikimedia Commons

The reason for cannibalistic tendencies among humans has been questioned for hundreds of years – with many variable answers. The Aztecs and Mayans would sacrifice humans for the Gods. Cannibalism is sometimes used as a last resort survival tactic in cases of severe hunger and famine. Two well known cases of this would be the Donner Party, and the crash of the Uruguay rugby team. The Donner party incident took place in the winter of 1846 – 1847, and the rugby team crash in 1972. Some well known cannibals have claimed that events that occurred in their childhood made them feel compelled to kill and or eat human beings. Albert Fish believed that the fact that he was abused in an orphanage as a child was the reason for his cannibalistic tendencies. The act of eating another person can be appealing to people who have lost control of their lives. The absolute dominance over another person is a big theme in cannibalism; it brings power and control over a person’s unfortunate fate. Sexual interest in cannibalism can also be another factor involved; this is called Vorarephilia. Certain individuals can receive sadistic pleasure from this act- a well known example would be Jeffrey Dahmer.

Well known cannibals
Some well known cannibals in the world are:

  • Carib West Indian tribes
  • Armin Meiwes
  • Mauerova Family
  • Andrei Chikatilo
  • Stella Maris College rugby team
  • Issei Sagawa
  • Alferd Packer
  • Albert Fish
  • Jeffrey Dahmer

Cannibal Armin Meiwes:

Recent examples of cannibalism include the case of Armin Meiwes, a man in Germany who posted an internet ad asking for a well built male aged between 18 – 30 to give themselves to him to be slaughtered and consumed. The ad was answered, the act took place, and Meiwes was later arrested despite the ‘victim’ giving consent. Rap artist ‘Big Lurch’ was arrested in 2003 for the murder and partial consumption of a friend, under the influence of PCP. In 2005, a man named Pandher in India was charged with eating body parts of local children, as well as carrying out acts of sexual abuse upon them. In 2008, an ex-rebel Liberian Joshua Blahyi, 37, participated in human sacrifices and admitted to the murder of an innocent child and the consumption of its heart. In 2009, 2 men were accused of eating a 16 year old female from Russia. As you can see, although cannibalism is not as common as it once was, it is still very much an appealing concept for some.

Where in the world are people searching about cannibalism?
Using Google Trends, I was able to find out where in the world people were searching the web for information on cannibalism. As you can see, it is still a popular search topic in the modern world. Many people are extremely curious and fascinated by the practice, whether it be in the form of ancient tribal culture or sadistic acts carried out by an individual.

Cannibalism as a theme in music and film
Cannibalism as a theme in heavy metal/death metal music is very common. It is also somewhat common among hardcore rappers. Cover art depicting cannibalistic acts is also considered normal in the death metal and grind-core culture. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the American death metal band Cannibal Corpse.Their first album was dedicated to Alfred Packer, known for eating children’s flesh.

mein teil heavy metal cannibalism

Rammstein’s ‘Mein Teil’ is a song based on the Armin Miewes case mentioned previously, as well as Bloodbath’s ‘Eaten’. Another example would be ‘Human Consumption’ by Necro. Cannibalism has also been famously part of many works of literature over the years, including; ‘Exquisite Corpse’, a horror novel by Poppy Brite, The Republic of Wine, a novel by Mo Yan, The Enemy by Charlie Higson, American Psycho by Bret Easton Hills and of course the Hannibal Lecter series written by Thomas Harris.

hannibal lecter

The concept of cannibalism is one that most people would rather not think about. Though not commonly occurring in the modern world, it remains a popular concept in film, music and literature. Intriguing and taboo, I'm sure that the dark fascination with the practice will continue for years to come.





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