A cannibal feast on Tanna, Vanuatu, c. 1885–1889

Human cannibalism is the act or practice of humans eating the flesh or internal organs of other human beings. A person who practices cannibalism is called a cannibal. The meaning of "cannibalism" has been extended into zoology to describe animals consuming parts of individuals of the same species as food.

Neanderthals are believed to have practised cannibalism,[1][2] and may have been eaten by anatomically modern humans.[3] Cannibalism was occasionally practised in Egypt during ancient and Roman times, as well as later during severe famines.[4][5] The Island Caribs of the Lesser Antilles, whose name is the origin of the word cannibal, acquired a long-standing reputation as eaters of human flesh, reconfirmed when their legends were recorded in the 17th century.[6] Some controversy exists over the accuracy of these legends and the prevalence of actual cannibalism in the culture.

Cannibalism has been well documented in much of the world, including Fiji (once nicknamed the "Cannibal Isles"),[7] the Amazon Basin, the Congo, and the Māori people of New Zealand.[8] Cannibalism was also practised in New Guinea and in parts of the Solomon Islands, and human flesh was sold at markets in some parts of Melanesia[9] and of the Congo Basin.[10][11] A form of cannibalism popular in early modern Europe was the consumption of body parts or blood for medical purposes. Reaching its height during the 17th century, this practice continued in some cases into the second half of the 19th century.[12]

Cannibalism has occasionally been practised as a last resort by people suffering from famine. Well-known examples include the ill-fated Donner Party (1846–1847) and the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 (1972), after which the survivors ate the bodies of the dead. Additionally, there are cases of people engaging in cannibalism for sexual pleasure, such as Albert Fish, Issei Sagawa, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Armin Meiwes. Cannibalism has been both practised and fiercely condemned in recent several wars, especially in Liberia[13] and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[14] It was still practised in Papua New Guinea as of 2012, for cultural reasons.[15][16]

Cannibalism has been said to test the bounds of cultural relativism because it challenges anthropologists "to define what is or is not beyond the pale of acceptable human behavior".[17] A few scholars argue that no firm evidence exists that cannibalism has ever been a socially acceptable practice anywhere in the world,[18] but such views have been largely rejected as irreconcilable with the actual evidence.[19][20]


The word "cannibal" is derived from Spanish caníbal or caríbal, originally used as a name for the Caribs, a people from the West Indies said to have eaten human flesh.[21] The older term anthropophagy, meaning "eating humans", is also used for human cannibalism.[22]

Reasons and types

Cannibalism has been practised under a variety of circumstances and for various motives. To adequately express this diversity, Shirley Lindenbaum suggests that "it might be better to talk about 'cannibalisms'" in the plural.[23]

Institutionalized, survival, and pathological cannibalism

One major distinction is whether cannibal acts are accepted by the culture in which they occur – institutionalized cannibalism – or whether they are merely practised under starvation conditions to ensure one's immediate survival – survival cannibalism – or by isolated individuals considered criminal and often pathological by society at large – cannibalism as psychopathology or "aberrant behavior".[24]

Institutionalized cannibalism, sometimes also called "learned cannibalism", is the consumption of human body parts as "an institutionalized practice" generally accepted in the culture where it occurs.[25]

By contrast, survival cannibalism means "the consumption of others under conditions of starvation such as shipwreck, military siege, and famine, in which persons normally averse to the idea are driven [to it] by the will to live".[26] Also known as famine cannibalism,[27][28] such forms of cannibalism resorted to only in situations of extreme necessity have occurred in many cultures where cannibalism is otherwise clearly rejected. The survivors of the shipwrecks of the Essex and Méduse in the 19th century are said to have engaged in cannibalism, as did the members of Franklin's lost expedition and the Donner Party. Such cases often involve only necro-cannibalism (eating the corpse of someone already dead) as opposed to homicidal cannibalism (killing someone for food). In modern English law, the latter is always considered a crime, even in the most trying circumstances. The case of R v Dudley and Stephens, in which two men were found guilty of murder for killing and eating a cabin boy while adrift at sea in a lifeboat, set the precedent that necessity is no defence to a charge of murder. This decision outlawed and effectively ended the practice of shipwrecked sailors drawing lots in order to determine who would be killed and eaten to prevent the others from starving, a time-honoured practice formerly known as a "custom of the sea".[29]

In other cases, cannibalism is an expression of a psychopathology or mental disorder, condemned by the society in which it occurs and "considered to be an indicator of [a] severe personality disorder or psychosis".[26] Well-known cases include Albert Fish, Issei Sagawa, and Armin Meiwes. Fantasies of cannibalism, whether acted out or not, are not specifically mentioned in manuals of mental disorders such as the DSM, presumably because at least serious cases (that lead to murder) are very rare.[30]

Exo-, endo-, and autocannibalism

Within institutionalized cannibalism, exocannibalism is often distinguished from endocannibalism. Endocannibalism refers to the consumption of a person from the same community. Often it is a part of a funerary ceremony, similar to burial or cremation in other cultures. The consumption of the recently deceased in such rites can be considered "an act of affection"[31] and a major part of the grieving process.[32] It has also been explained as a way of guiding the souls of the dead into the bodies of living descendants.[33]

In contrast, exocannibalism is the consumption of a person from outside the community. It is frequently "an act of aggression, often in the context of warfare",[31] where the flesh of killed or captured enemies may be eaten to celebrate one's victory over them.[33]

Both types of cannibalism can also be fuelled by the belief that eating a person's flesh or internal organs will endow the cannibal with some of the characteristics of the deceased.[34] However, several authors investigating exocannibalism in New Zealand, New Guinea, and the Congo Basin observe that such beliefs were absent in these regions.[35][36][37]

A further type, different from both exo- and endocannibalism, is autocannibalism (also called autophagy or self-cannibalism), "the act of eating parts of oneself".[38] It does not ever seem to have been an institutionalized practice, but occasionally occurs as pathological behaviour, or due to other reasons such as curiosity. Also on record are instances of forced autocannibalism committed as acts of aggression, where individuals are forced to eat parts of their own bodies as a form of torture.[38]

Additional motives and explanations

Exocannibalism is thus often associated with the consumption of enemies as an act of aggression, a practice also known as war cannibalism.[39][40] Endocannibalism is often associated with the consumption of deceased relatives in funerary rites driven by affection – a practice known as funerary[39][41] or mortuary cannibalism.[42] But acts of institutionalized cannibalism can also be driven by various other motives, for which additional names have been coined.

Medicinal cannibalism (also called medical cannibalism) means "the ingestion of human tissue ... as a supposed medicine or tonic". In contrast to other forms of cannibalism, which Europeans generally frowned upon, the "medicinal ingestion" of various "human body parts was widely practiced throughout Europe from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries", with early records of the practice going back to the first century CE.[31] It was also frequently practised in China.[43]

Sacrificial cannibalism refers the consumption of the flesh of victims of human sacrifice, for example among the Aztecs.[38] Human and animal remains excavated in Knossos, Crete, have been interpreted as evidence of a ritual in which children and sheep were sacrificed and eaten together during the Bronze Age.[44] According to Ancient Roman reports, the Celts in Britain practised sacrificial cannibalism,[45] and archaeological evidence backing these claims has by now been found.[46]

Infanticidal cannibalism or cannibalistic infanticide refers to cases where newborns or infants are killed because they are "considered unwanted or unfit to live" and then "consumed by the mother, father, both parents or close relatives".[41][47] Infanticide followed by cannibalism was practised in various regions, but is particularly well documented among Aboriginal Australians.[47][48][49] Among animals, such behaviour is called filial cannibalism, and it is common in many species, especially among fish.[50][51]

Human predation is the hunting of people from unrelated and possibly hostile groups in order to eat them. In parts of the Southern New Guinea lowland rain forests, hunting people "was an opportunistic extension of seasonal foraging or pillaging strategies", with human bodies just as welcome as those of animals as sources of protein, according to the anthropologist Bruce M. Knauft. As populations living near coasts and rivers were usually better nourished and hence often physically larger and stronger than those living inland, they "raided inland 'bush' peoples with impunity and often with little fear of retaliation".[52] Cases of human predation are also on record for the neighbouring Bismarck Archipelago[53] and for Australia.[54][55] In the Congo Basin, there lived groups such as the Zappo Zaps who hunted humans for food even when game was plentiful.[56][57][58]

The term gastronomic cannibalism has been suggested for cases where human flesh is eaten to "provide a supplement to the regular diet"[42] – thus essentially for its nutritional value – or, in an alternative definition, for cases where it is "eaten without ceremony (other than culinary), in the same manner as the flesh of any other animal".[59] While the term has been criticized as being too vague to clearly identify a specific type of cannibalism,[60] various records indicate that nutritional or culinary concerns could indeed play a role in such acts even outside of periods of starvation. Referring to the Congo Basin, where many of the eaten were butchered slaves rather than enemies killed in war, the anthropologist Emil Torday notes that "the most common [reason for cannibalism] was simply gastronomic: the natives loved 'the flesh that speaks' [as human flesh was commonly called] and paid for it".[61] The historian Key Ray Chong observes that, throughout Chinese history, "learned cannibalism was often practiced ... for culinary appreciation".[62]

In his popular book Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond suggests that "protein starvation is probably also the ultimate reason why cannibalism was widespread in traditional New Guinea highland societies",[63] and both in New Zealand and Fiji, cannibals explained their acts as due to a lack of animal meat.[64] In Liberia, a former cannibal argued that it would have been wasteful to let the flesh of killed enemies spoil,[65] and eaters of human flesh in the Bismarck Archipelago expressed the same sentiment.[66] In many cases, human flesh was also described as particularly delicious, especially when it came from women, children, or both. Such statements are on record for various regions and peoples, including the Aztecs,[67] today's Liberia[68] and Nigeria,[69] the Fang people in west-central Africa,[68] the Congo Basin,[70][56][71] China up to the 14th century,[72][73] Sumatra,[74] Borneo,[75] Australia,[54][76] New Zealand,[77] and Fiji[78] as well as various other Melanesian and Polynesian islands.[79]

There is a debate among anthropologists on how important functionalist reasons are for the understanding of institutionalized cannibalism. Diamond is not alone in suggesting "that the consumption of human flesh was of nutritional benefit for some populations in New Guinea" and the same case has been made for other "tropical peoples ... exploiting a diverse range of animal foods", including human flesh. The materialist anthropologist Marvin Harris argued that a "shortage of animal protein" was also the underlying reason for Aztec cannibalism.[23] The cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, on the other hand, rejected such explanations as overly simplistic, stressing that cannibal customs must be regarded as "complex phenomen[a]" with "myriad attributes" which can only be understood if one considers "symbolism, ritual, and cosmology" in addition to their "practical function".[80]

While not a motive, the term innocent cannibalism has been suggested for cases of people eating human flesh without knowing what they are eating. It is a subject of myths, such as the myth of Thyestes who unknowingly ate the flesh of his own sons.[38] There are also actual cases on record, for example from the Congo Basin, where cannibalism had been quite widespread and where even in the 1950s travellers were sometimes served a meat dish, learning only afterwards that the meat had been of human origin.[81][82]

In pre-modern medicine, an explanation given by the now-discredited theory of humorism for cannibalism was that it was caused by a black acrimonious humor, which, being lodged in the linings of the ventricles of the heart, produced a voracity for human flesh.[83] On the other hand, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne understood war cannibalism as a way of expressing vengeance and hatred towards one's enemies and celebrating one's victory over them, thus giving an interpretation that is close to modern explanations. He also pointed out that some acts of Europeans in his own time could be considered as equally barbarous, making his essay "Of Cannibals" (c. 1580) a precursor to later ideas of cultural relativism.[84][85]

Body parts and culinary practices

Nutritional value of the human body

Archaeologist James Cole investigated the nutritional value of the human body and found it to be similar to that of animals of similar size.[86] He notes that, according to ethnographic and archaeological records, nearly all edible parts of humans were sometimes eaten – not only skeletal muscle tissue ("flesh" or "meat" in a narrow sense), but also "lungs, liver, brain, heart, nervous tissue, bone marrow, genitalia and skin", as well as kidneys.[87] For a typical adult man, the combined nutritional value of all these edible parts is about 126,000 kilocalories (kcal).[88] The nutritional value of women and younger individuals is lower because of their lower body weight – for example, around 86% percent of a male adult for an adult woman and 30% for a boy aged around 5 or 6.[89][88]

As the daily energy need of an adult man is about 2,400 kilocalories, a dead male body could thus have feed a group of 25 men for a bit more than two days, provided they ate nothing but the human flesh alone – longer if it was part of a mixed diet.[90] The nutritional value of the human body is thus not insubstantial, though Cole notes that for prehistoric hunters, large megafauna such as mammoths, rhinoceros, and bisons would have been an even better deal as long as they were available and could be caught, because of their much higher body weight.[91]

Hearts and livers

Cases of people eating human livers and hearts, especially of enemies, have been reported from across the world. After the Battle of Uhud (625), Hind bint Utba ate (or at least attempted to) the liver of Hamza ibn Abd al-Muttalib, an uncle of the prophet Muhammad. At that time, the liver was considered "the seat of life".[92] French Catholics ate livers and hearts of Huguenots at the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in 1572, in some cases also offering them for sale.[93][94]

In China, medical cannibalism was practised over centuries. People voluntary cut their own body parts, including parts of their livers, and boiled them to cure ailing relatives.[95] Children were sometimes killed because eating their boiled hearts was considered a good way of extending one's life.[96] Emperor Wuzong of Tang supposedly ordered provincial officials to send him "the hearts and livers of fifteen-year-old boys and girls" when he had become seriously ill, hoping in vain this medicine would cure him. Later private individuals sometimes followed his example, paying soldiers who kidnapped preteen children for their kitchen.[97]

When "human flesh and organs were sold openly at the marketplace" during the Taiping Rebellion in 1850–1864, human hearts became a popular dish, according to some who afterwards freely admitted having consumed them.[98] According to a missionary's report from the brutal suppression of the Dungan Revolt of 1895–1896 in northwestern China, "thousands of men, women and children were ruthlessly massacred by the imperial soldiers" and "many a meal of human hearts and livers was partaken of by soldiers", supposedly out of a belief that this would give them "the courage their enemies had displayed".[99]

During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), hundreds of incidents of cannibalism occurred, mostly motivated by hatred against supposed "class enemies", but sometimes also by health concerns.[100] In a case recorded by the local authorities, a school teacher in Mengshan County "heard that consuming a 'beauty's heart' could cure disease". He then chose a 13- or 14-year-old student of his and publicly denounced her as a member of the enemy faction, which was enough to get her killed by an angry mob. After the others had left, he "cut open the girl's chest ..., dug out her heart, and took it home to enjoy".[101] In a further case that took place in Wuxuan County, likewise in the Guangxi region, three brothers were beaten to death as supposed enemies; afterwards their livers were cut out, baked, and consumed "as medicine".[102] According to the Chinese author Zheng Yi, who researched these events, "the consumption of human liver was mentioned at least fifty or sixty times" in just a small number of archival documents.[103] He talked with a man who had eaten human liver and told him that "barbecued liver is delicious".[104]

In World War II, Japanese soldiers ate the livers of killed Americans in the Chichijima incident.[105]

During a massacre of the Madurese minority in the Indonesian part of Borneo in 1999, reporter Richard Lloyd Parry met a young cannibal who had just participated in a "human barbecue" and told him without hesitation: "It tastes just like chicken. Especially the liver – just the same as chicken."[106] In 2013, during the Syrian civil war, Syrian rebel Abu Sakkar was filmed eating parts of the lung or liver of a government soldier while declaring that "We will eat your hearts and your livers you soldiers of Bashar the dog".[107]

Breasts and palms

Various accounts from around the world mention women's breasts as a favourite body part. Also frequently mentioned are the palms of the hands and sometimes the soles of the foots, regardless of the victim's gender.

Jerome, in his treatise Against Jovinianus, claimed that the British Attacotti were cannibals who regarded the buttocks of men and the breasts of women as delicacies.[108] During the Mongol invasion of Europe in the 13h century and their subsequent rule over China during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), some Mongol fighters practised cannibalism and both European and Chinese observers record a preference for women's breasts, which were considered "delicacies" and, if there were many corpses, sometimes the only part of a female body that was eaten (of men, only the thighs were said to be eaten in such circumstances).[109]

After meeting a group of cannibals in West Africa in the 14th century, the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta recorded that, according to their preferences, "the tastiest part of women's flesh is the palms and the breast."[110] Centuries later, the anthropologist Percy Amaury Talbot [fr] wrote that, in southern Nigeria, "the parts in greatest favour are the palms of the hands, the fingers and toes, and, of a woman, the breast."[111] Regarding the north of the country, his colleague Charles Kingsley Meek added: "Among all the cannibal tribes the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet were considered the tit-bits of the body."[112] Among the Apambia, a cannibalistic clan of the Azande people in Central Africa, the palms of the hands and the soles of the foots were considered the best parts of the human body, while their favourite dish was prepared with "fat from a woman's breast", according to the missionary and ethnographer F. Gero.[113]

Similar preferences are on record throughout Melanesia. According to the anthropologists Bernard Deacon and Camilla Wedgwood, women were "specially fattened for eating" in Vanuatu, "the breasts being the great delicacy". A missionary confirmed that "a body of a female usually formed the principal part of the repast" at feasts for chiefs and warriors.[114] The ethnologist Felix Speiser [de] writes: "Apart from the breasts of women and the genitals of men, palms of hands and soles of feet were the most coveted morsels." He knew a chief on Ambae, one of the islands of Vanuatu, who, "according to fairly reliably sources", dined on a young girl's breasts every few days.[115][114] When visiting the Solomon Islands in the 1980s, anthropologist Michael Krieger met a former cannibal who told him that women's breasts had been considered the best part of the human body because they were so fatty, with fat being a rare and sought delicacy.[116][114] They were also considered among the best parts in New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago.[117]

Modes of preparation

Based on theoretical considerations, the structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss suggested that human flesh was most typically boiled, with roasting also used to prepare the bodies of enemies and other outsiders in exocannibalism, but rarely in funerary endocannibalism (when eating deceased relatives).[118]

But an analysis of 60 sufficiently detailed and credible descriptions of institutionalized cannibalism by anthropologist Paul Shankman failed to confirm this hypothesis.[119] Shankman found that roasting and boiling together accounted for only about half of the cases, with roasting being slightly more common. In contrast to Lévi-Strauss's predictions, boiling was more often used in exocannibalism, while roasting was about equally common for both.[120] Shankman observed that various other "ways of preparing people" were repeatedly employed as well; in one third of all cases, two or more modes where used together (e.g. some bodies or body parts were boiled or baked, while others were roasted).[121] Human flesh was baked in steam on preheated rocks or in earth ovens (a technique widely used in the Pacific), smoked (which allowed to preserve it for later consumption), or eaten raw.[120] While these modes were used in both exo- and endocannibalism, another method that was only used in in the latter and only in the Americas was to burn the bones or bodies of deceased relatives and then to consume the bone ash.[121]

Medical aspects

A well-known case of mortuary cannibalism is that of the Fore tribe in New Guinea, which resulted in the spread of the prion disease kuru.[122] Although the Fore's mortuary cannibalism was well-documented, the practice had ceased before the cause of the disease was recognized. However, some scholars argue that although post-mortem dismemberment was the practice during funeral rites, cannibalism was not.[123] Marvin Harris theorizes that it happened during a famine period coincident with the arrival of Europeans and was rationalized as a religious rite.

In 2003, a publication in Science received a large amount of press attention when it suggested that early humans may have practised extensive cannibalism.[124][125] According to this research, genetic markers commonly found in modern humans worldwide suggest that today many people carry a gene that evolved as protection against the brain diseases that can be spread by consuming human brain tissue.[126] A 2006 reanalysis of the data questioned this hypothesis,[127] because it claimed to have found a data collection bias, which led to an erroneous conclusion.[128] This claimed bias came from incidents of cannibalism used in the analysis not being due to local cultures, but having been carried out by explorers, stranded seafarers or escaped convicts.[129][failed verification] The original authors published a subsequent paper in 2008 defending their conclusions.[130]

Myths, legends and folklore

Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by Arthur Rackham
Painting of a ghoulish, naked man holding a bloody, naked body and devouring the arm.
Saturn Devouring His Son, from the Black Paintings series by Francisco Goya, 1819

Cannibalism features in the folklore and legends of many cultures and is most often attributed to evil characters or as extreme retribution for some wrongdoing. Examples include the witch in "Hansel and Gretel", Lamia of Greek mythology and the witch Baba Yaga of Slavic folklore.

A number of stories in Greek mythology involve cannibalism, in particular the eating of close family members, e.g., the stories of Thyestes, Tereus and especially Cronus, who became Saturn in the Roman pantheon. The story of Tantalus is another example, though here a family member is prepared for consumption by others.

The wendigo is a creature appearing in the legends of the Algonquian people. It is thought of variously as a malevolent cannibalistic spirit that could possess humans or a monster that humans could physically transform into. Those who indulged in cannibalism were at particular risk,[131] and the legend appears to have reinforced this practice as taboo. The Zuni people tell the story of the Átahsaia – a giant who cannibalizes his fellow demons and seeks out human flesh.

The wechuge is a demonic cannibalistic creature that seeks out human flesh appearing in the mythology of the Athabaskan people.[132] It is said to be half monster and half human-like; however, it has many shapes and forms.


William Arens, author of The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy,[18] questions the credibility of reports of cannibalism and argues that the description by one group of people of another people as cannibals is a consistent and demonstrable ideological and rhetorical device to establish perceived cultural superiority. Arens bases his thesis on a detailed analysis of various "classic" cases of cannibalism reported by explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists. He claims that all of them were steeped in racism, unsubstantiated, or based on second-hand or hearsay evidence. Though widely discussed, Arens's book generally failed to convince the academic community. Claude Lévi-Strauss observes that, in spite of his "brilliant but superficial book ... [n]o serious ethnologist disputes the reality of cannibalism".[19] Shirley Lindenbaum notes that, while after "Arens['s] ... provocative suggestion ... many anthropologists ... reevaluated their data", the outcome was an improved and "more nuanced" understanding of where, why and under which circumstances cannibalism took place rather than a confirmation of his claims: "Anthropologists working in the Americas, Africa, and Melanesia now acknowledge that institutionalized cannibalism occurred in some places at some times. Archaeologists and evolutionary biologists are taking cannibalism seriously."[20]

Lindenbaum[133] and others point out that Arens displays a "strong ethnocentrism". His refusal to admit that institutionalized cannibalism ever existed seems to be motivated by the implied idea "that cannibalism is the worst thing of all" – worse than any other behaviour people engaged in, and therefore uniquely suited to vilifying others. Kajsa Ekholm Friedman calls this "a remarkable opinion in a culture [the European/American one] that has been capable of the most extreme cruelty and destructive behavior, both at home and in other parts of the world."[134]

She observes that, contrary to European values and expectations, "in many parts of the Congo region there was no negative evaluation of cannibalism. On the contrary, people expressed their strong appreciation of this very special meat and could not understand the hysterical reactions from the white man's side."[135] And why indeed, she goes on to ask, should they have had the same negative reactions to cannibalism as Arens and his contemporaries? Implicitly he assumes that everybody throughout human history must have shared the strong taboo placed by his own culture on cannibalism, but he never attempts to explain why this should be so, and "neither logic nor historical evidence justifies" this viewpoint, as Christian Siefkes commented.[136]

See also: The Man-Eating Myth § Reception

Accusations of cannibalism could be used to characterize indigenous peoples as "uncivilized", "primitive", or even "inhuman."[137] While this means that the reliability of reports of cannibal practices must be carefully evaluated especially if their wording suggests such a context, many actual accounts do not fit this pattern. The earliest firsthand account of cannibal customs in the Caribbean comes from Diego Álvarez Chanca, who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage. His description of the customs of the Caribs of Guadeloupe includes their cannibalism (men killed or captured in war were eaten, while captured boys were "castrated [and used as] servants until they gr[e]w up, when they [were] slaughtered" for consumption), but he nevertheless notes "that these people are more civilized than the other islanders" (who did not practice cannibalism).[138] Nor was he an exception. Among the earliest reports of cannibalism in the Caribbean and the Americas, there are some (like those of Amerigo Vespucci) that seem to mostly consist of hearsay and "gross exaggerations", but others (by Chanca, Columbus himself, and other early travellers) show "genuine interest and respect for the natives" and include "numerous cases of sincere praise".[139]

Reports of cannibalism from other continents follow similar patterns. Condescending remarks can be found, but many Europeans who described cannibal customs in Central Africa wrote about those who practised them in quite positive terms, calling them "splendid" and "the finest people" and not rarely, like Chanca, actually considering them as "far in advance of" and "intellectually and morally superior" to the non-cannibals around them.[140] Writing from Melanesia, the missionary George Brown explicitly rejects the European prejudice of picturing cannibals as "particularly ferocious and repulsive", noting instead that many cannibals he met were "no more ferocious than" others and "indeed ... very nice people".[141]

Reports or assertions of cannibal practices could nevertheless be used to promote the use of military force as a means of "civilizing" and "pacifying" the "savages". During the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire and its earlier conquests in the Caribbean there were widespread reports of cannibalism, and cannibals became exempted from Queen Isabella's prohibition on enslaving the indigenous.[142] Another example of the sensationalism of cannibalism and its connection to imperialism occurred during Japan's 1874 expedition to Taiwan. As Robert Eskildsen describes, Japan's popular media "exaggerated the aborigines' violent nature", in some cases by wrongly accusing them of cannibalism.[143]

This Horrid Practice: The Myth and Reality of Traditional Maori Cannibalism (2008) by New Zealand historian Paul Moon received a hostile reception by some Māori, who felt the book tarnished their whole people. However, the factual accuracy of the book was not seriously disputed and even critics such as Margaret Mutu grant that cannibalism was "definitely" practised and that it was "part of our [Māori] culture."[144]


See also: List of incidents of cannibalism

Among modern humans, cannibalism has been practised by various groups.[126] It was practised by humans in Prehistoric Europe,[145][146] Mesoamerica,[147] South America,[148] among Iroquoian peoples in North America,[149] Maori in New Zealand,[150] the Solomon Islands,[151] parts of West Africa[22] and Central Africa,[22] some of the islands of Polynesia,[22] New Guinea,[16] Sumatra,[22] and Fiji.[152] Evidence of cannibalism has been found in ruins associated with the Ancestral Puebloans of the Southwestern United States as well (at Cowboy Wash in Colorado).[153][154][155]


There is evidence, both archaeological and genetic, that cannibalism has been practised for hundreds of thousands of years by early Homo sapiens and archaic hominins.[156] Human bones that have been "de-fleshed" by other humans go back 600,000 years. The oldest Homo sapiens bones (from Ethiopia) show signs of this as well.[156] Some anthropologists, such as Tim D. White, suggest that cannibalism was common in human societies prior to the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic period. This theory is based on the large amount of "butchered human" bones found in Neanderthal and other Lower/Middle Paleolithic sites.[157]

It seems likely that not all instances of prehistoric cannibalism were due to the same reason, just as cannibalistic acts known from the historical record have been motivated by a variety of reasons.[23] One suggested reason for cannibalism in the Lower and Middle Paleolithic have been food shortages.[158] It has been also suggested that removing dead bodies through ritual (funerary) cannibalism was a means of predator control, aiming to eliminate predators' and scavengers' access to hominid (and early human) bodies.[159] Jim Corbett proposed that after major epidemics, when human corpses are easily accessible to predators, there are more cases of man-eating leopards,[160] so removing dead bodies through ritual cannibalism (before the cultural traditions of burying and burning bodies appeared in human history) might have had practical reasons for hominids and early humans to control predation.

The oldest archaeological evidence of hominid cannibalism comes from the Gran Dolina cave in northern Spain. The remains of several individuals who died about 800,000 years ago and may have belongs to the Homo antecessor species show unmistakable signs of having been butchered and consumed in the same way as animals whose bones were also found at the site.[161] They belong to at least eleven individuals, all of which were young (ranging from infancy to late teenhood).[162] A study of this case considers it an instance of "nutritional" cannibalism, where individuals belonging to hostile or unrelated groups were hunted, killed, and eaten much like animals. Based on the placement and processing of human and animal remains, the authors conclude that cannibalism was likely a "repetitive behavior over time as part of a culinary tradition", not caused by starvation or other exceptional circumstances.[163] They suggest that young individuals (more than half of which were children under ten) were targeted because they "posed a lower risk for hunters" and because this was an effective means for limiting the growth of competing groups.[164]

Several sites in Croatia, France, and Spain yield evidence that the Neanderthals sometimes practised cannibalism, though the interpretation of some of the finds remains controversial.[165][166]

Further information: Neanderthal behaviour § Cannibalism, Krapina Neanderthal site § Hypotheses on cannibalism and burials, and Sidrón Cave § Neanderthal finds

Neanderthals could also fall victim to cannibalism by anatomically modern humans. Evidence found in southwestern France indicates that the latter butchered and ate a Neanderthal child about 30,000 years ago; it is unknown whether the child was killed by them or died of other reasons. The find has been considered as strengthening the conjecture that modern humans might have hunted Neanderthals and in this way contributed to their extinction.[167]

A maxilla from Gough's Cave with cut marks near the teeth

In Gough's Cave, England, remains of human bones and skulls, around 14,700 years old, suggest that cannibalism took place amongst the people living in or visiting the cave,[168] and that they may have used human skulls as drinking vessels.[169][170][171]

The archaeological site of Herxheim in southwestern Germany was a ritual center and a mass grave formed by people of the Linear Pottery culture in Neolithic Europe. It contained the scattered remains of more than 1000 individuals from different, in some cases faraway regions, who died around 5000 BCE. Whether they were war captives or human sacrifices is unclear, but the evidence indicates that their corpses were spit-roasted whole and then consumed.[172]

At Fontbrégoua Cave in southeastern France, the remains of six people who lived about 7,000 years ago were found (two children, one adolescent, and three adults), in addition to animal bones. The patterns of cut marks indicate that both humans and animals were skinned and processed in similar ways. Since the human victims were all processed at the same time, the main excavator, Paola Villa, suspects that they all belonged to the same family or extended family and were killed and butchered together, probably during some kind of violent conflict. Others have argued that the traces were caused by defleshing rituals preceding a secondary burial, but the fact that both humans and wild and domestic animals were processed in the same way makes this unlikely; moreover, Villa argues that the observed traces better fit a typical butchering process than a secondary burial.[173]

Researchers have also found physical evidence of cannibalism from more recent times, including from Prehistoric Britain. In 2001, archaeologists at the University of Bristol found evidence of cannibalism practised around 2000 years ago in Gloucestershire, South West England.[46] This is in agreement with Ancient Roman reports that the Celts in Britain practised human sacrifice, killing and eating captured enemies as well as convicted criminals.[45]

Early history

Sarcophagus and funerary chamber in Unas' pyramid, where the Cannibal Hymn was found

Cannibalism is mentioned many times in early history and literature. The oldest written reference may be from the tomb of the ancient Egyptian king Unas (24th century BCE). It contained a hymn in praise of the king portraying him as a cannibal who eats both "men" and "gods", thus indicating an attitude towards cannibalism quite different from the modern one.[174]

Herodotus claimed in his Histories (5th century BCE) that after eleven days' voyage up the Borysthenes (Dnieper River) one reached a desolated land that extended for a long way, followed by a country of man-eaters (other than the Scythians), and beyond it by another desolated and uninhabited area.[175]

The Stoic philosopher Chrysippus approved of eating one's dead relatives in a funerary ritual, noting that such rituals were common among many peoples.[176]

Cassius Dio recorded cannibalism practised by the bucoli, Egyptian tribes led by Isidorus against Rome. They sacrificed and consumed two Roman officers in a ritualistic fashion, swearing an oath over their entrails.[177]

According to Appian, during the Roman siege of Numantia in the 2nd century BCE, the population of Numantia (in today's Spain) was reduced to cannibalism and suicide.[178] Cannibalism was also reported by Josephus during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE.[179]

Jerome, in his letter Against Jovinianus (written 393 CE), discusses how people came to their present condition as a result of their heritage, and lists several examples of peoples and their customs. In the list, he mentions that he has heard that the Attacotti (in Britain) eat human flesh and that the Massagetae and Derbices (two Central Asian peoples) kill and eat old people, considering this a more desirable fate than dying of old age and illness.[108]

Middle Ages

The Americas

Scene depicting the Aztec god Mictlāntēcutli and ritualistic cannibalism in prehispanic Mesoamerica. From the Codex Magliabechiano.

There is universal agreement that some Mesoamerican people practised human sacrifice, but there is a lack of scholarly consensus as to whether cannibalism in pre-Columbian America was widespread. At one extreme, the anthropologist Marvin Harris, author of Cannibals and Kings, has suggested that the flesh of the victims was a part of an aristocratic diet as a reward, since the Aztec diet was lacking in proteins. While most historians of the pre-Columbian era accept that there was ritual cannibalism related to human sacrifices, they often reject suggestions that human flesh could have been a significant portion of the Aztec diet.[180][181] Cannibalism was also associated with acts of warfare, and has been interpreted as an element of blood revenge in war.[182]

West Africa

When the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta visited the Mali Empire in the 1350s, he was surprised to see sultan Sulayman give "a slave girl as part of his reception-gift" to a group of warriors from a cannibal region who had come to visit his court. "They slaughtered her and ate her and smeared their faces and hands with her blood and came in gratitude to the sultan." He was told that the sultan did so every time he received the cannibal guests.[110] Though a Muslim like Ibn Battuta himself, he apparently considered catering to his visitors' preferences more important than whatever reservations he may have had about the practice. Other Muslim authors writing around that time also report that cannibalism was practised in some West Africa regions and that slave girls were sometimes slaughtered for food, since "their flesh is the best thing we have to eat."[183]

Europe and Europeans

Painting of a bearded man and four children huddled on a stone floor with two large angels overhead.
Ugolino and his sons in their cell, as painted by William Blake. According to Dante, the prisoners were slowly starved to death and before dying, Ugolino's children begged their father to eat their dead bodies in order to survive.

Cases of cannibalism were recorded during the First Crusade, as there are various accounts of crusaders consuming the bodies of their dead opponents following the sieges of Antioch and of Ma'arra in 1097–1098.[184][185][186][187] While the Christian sources all explain these acts as due to hunger, Amin Maalouf is sceptical of this justification, arguing that that the crusaders' behaviour indicates they might have been driven by "fanaticism" rather than, or in addition to "necessity".[188] Thomas Asbridge states that, while the "cannibalism at Marrat is among the most infamous of all the atrocities perpetrated by the First Crusaders", it nevertheless had "some positive effects on the crusaders' short-term prospects", since reports of their brutality convinced many Muslim commanders to accept truces rather than trying to fight them.[189]

During Europe's Great Famine of 1315–1317, there were various reports of cannibalism among starving people.[190][191]

Western Asia

Charges of cannibalism were levied against the Qizilbash of the Safavid Ismail I.[192]


Cannibalism has been repeatedly recorded throughout China's well-documented history. The sinologist Bengt Pettersson found references to more than three hundred different episodes of cannibalism in the Official Dynastic Histories alone. Most episodes occurred in the context of famine or war, or were otherwise motivated by vengeance or medical reasons. More than half of the episodes recorded in the Official Histories describe cases motivated by food scarcity during famines or in times of war.[193] Pettersson observes that the records of such events "neither encouraged nor condemned" the consumption of human flesh under such circumstances, rather accepting it as an unavoidable way of "coping with a life-threatening situation".[194]

In other cases, cannibalism was an element of vengeance or punishment – eating the hearts and livers, or sometimes the whole bodies, of killed enemies was a way of further humiliating them and sweetening the revenge. Both private individuals and state officials engaged in such acts, especially from the 4th to the 10th century CE, but in some cases right until the end of Imperial China (in 1912). More than 70 cases are listed in the Official Histories alone.[195] In warfare, human flesh could be eaten out of a lack of other provisions, but also out of hatred against the enemy or to celebrate one's victory. Not just enemy fighters, but also their "servants and concubines were all steamed and eaten", according to one account.[196]

At least since the Tang dynasty (618–907), the consumption of human flesh was considered a highly effective medical treatment, recommended by the Bencao Shiyi, an influential medical reference book published in the early 8th century, as well as in similar later manuals.[197] Together with the ethical ideal of filial piety, according to which young people were supposed to do everything in their power to support their parents and parents-in-law, this idea lead to a unique form of voluntary cannibalism, in which a young person cut some of the flesh out of their body and gave it to an ill parent or parent-in-law for consumption. The majority of the donors were women, frequently daughters-in-law of the patient.[198]

The devoted daughter-in-law would tie her thigh or her arm very tightly with a piece of clothing. She would then use a very sharp knife to quickly slice off a piece from her upper arm or upper thigh. The flesh would immediately be mixed in with soup or gruel, which had been heated in preparation, and this would then be offered to the dying mother-in-law or father-in-law.[198]

The Official Histories describe more than 110 cases of such voluntary offerings that took place between the early 7th and the early 20th century.[199] While these acts were (at least nominally) voluntary and the donors usually (though not always) survived them, several sources also report of children and adolescents who were killed so that their flesh could be eaten for medical purposes.[96][97]

Further information: Medical cannibalism § China

During the Tang dynasty, cannibalism was supposedly resorted to by rebel forces early in the period (who were said to raid neighbouring areas for victims to eat),[200] and (on a large scale) by both soldiers and civilians during the siege of Suiyang, a decisive episode of the An Lushan Rebellion.[201][202] Eating an enemy's heart and liver was also repeatedly mentioned as a feature of both official punishments and private vengeance.[200] The final decades of the dynasty were marked by large-scale rebellions, during which both rebels and regular soldiers butchered prisoners for food and killed and ate civilians. Sometimes "the rebels captured by government troops were [even] sold as food", according to several of the Official Histories, while warlords likewise relied on the sale of human flesh to finance their rebellions.[203][204] An Arab traveller visiting China during this time noted with surprise: "cannibalism [is] permissible for them according to their legal code, for they trade in human flesh in their markets."[205]

References to cannibalizing the enemy also appear in poetry written in the subsequent Song dynasty (960–1279) – for example, in Man Jiang Hong – although they are perhaps meant symbolically, expressing hatred towards the enemy. The Official Histories covering this period record various cases of rebels and bandits eating the flesh of their victims.[205]

The flesh of executed criminals was sometimes cut off and sold for consumption. During the Tang dynasty a law was enacted that forbade this practice, but whether the law was effectively enforced is unclear.[206] The sale of human flesh is also repeatedly mentioned during famines, in accounts ranging from the 6th to the 15th century. Several of these accounts mention that animal flesh was still available, but had become so expensive that few could afford it.[207][208] Dog meat was five times as expensive as human flesh, according to one such report.[209][210] Sometimes, poor men sold their own wives or children to butchers who slaughtered them and sold their flesh.[209] Cannibalism in famine situations seems to have been generally tolerated by the authorities, who did not intervene when such acts occurred.[211]

A number of accounts suggests that human flesh was occasionally eaten for culinary reasons. An anecdote told about Duke Huan of Qi (7th century BCE) claims that he was curious about the taste of "steamed child", having already eaten everything else. His cook supposedly killed his own son to prepare the dish, and Duke Huan judged it to be "the best food of all".[212][213] In later times, wealthy men, among them a son of the 4th-century emperor Shi Hu and an "open and high-spirited" man who lived in the 7th century CE, served the flesh of purchased women or children during lavish feasts.[214][215][216] The sinologist Robert des Rotours [fr] observes that while such acts were not common, they do not seem to have been rare exceptions, and the hosts apparently did not have to face ostracism or legal prosection.[217] Key Ray Chong even concludes that "learned cannibalism was often practiced ... for culinary appreciation, and exotic dishes [of human flesh] were prepared for jaded upper-class palates".[62]

The Official Histories mention 10th-century officials who liked to eat the flesh of babies and children,[218] and during the Jin dynasty (1115–1234), human flesh seems to have been readily available at the home of a general, who supposedly served it to one of his guests as a practical joke.[219] Accounts from the 12th to 14th centuries indicate that both soldiers and writers praised this flesh as particularly delicious, considering especially children's flesh as unsurpassable in taste.[220]

Pettersson observes that people generally seem to have had less reservations about the consumption of human flesh than one might expect today. While survival cannibalism during famines was regarded a lamentable necessity, accounts explaining the practice as due to other reasons, such as vengeance or filial piety, were generally even positive.[221]

Early modern and colonial era

See also: List of incidents of cannibalism § 16th century and beyond

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The Americas

The first known depiction of cannibalism in the New World. German, ca. 1505, People of the Islands Recently Discovered.... Woodcut by Johann Froschauer for an edition of Amerigo Vespucci's Mundus Novus.

European explorers and colonizers brought home many stories of cannibalism practised by the native peoples they encountered. In Spain's overseas expansion to the New World, the practice of cannibalism was reported by Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean islands, and the Caribs were greatly feared because of their supposed practice of it. Queen Isabel of Castile had forbidden the Spaniards to enslave the indigenous, unless they were "guilty" of cannibalism.[222] The accusation of cannibalism became a pretext for attacks on indigenous groups and justification for the Spanish conquest.[223] In Yucatán, shipwrecked Spaniard Jerónimo de Aguilar, who later became a translator for Hernán Cortés, reported to have witnessed fellow Spaniards sacrificed and eaten, but escaped from captivity where he was being fattened for sacrifice himself.[224] In the Florentine Codex (1576) compiled by Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún from information provided by indigenous eyewitnesses has questionable evidence of Mexica (Aztec) cannibalism. Franciscan friar Diego de Landa reported on Yucatán instances.[225]

Tapuia woman holding a severed human hand and showing a human leg in her basket. By the Dutch painter Albert Eckhout, Brazil, 1641.

In early Brazil, there is reportage of cannibalism among the Tupinamba.[226] It is recorded about the natives of the captaincy of Sergipe in Brazil: "They eat human flesh when they can get it, and if a woman miscarries devour the abortive immediately. If she goes her time out, she herself cuts the navel-string with a shell, which she boils along with the secondine [i.e. placenta], and eats them both."[227] (see human placentophagy).

The 1913 Handbook of Indians of Canada (reprinting 1907 material from the Bureau of American Ethnology) claims that North American natives practising cannibalism included

the Montagnais, and some of the tribes of Maine; the Algonkin, Armouchiquois, Iroquois, and Micmac; farther west the Assiniboine, Cree, Foxes, Chippewa, Miami, Ottawa, Kickapoo, Illinois, Sioux, and Winnebago; in the south the people who built the mounds in Florida, and the Tonkawa, Attacapa, Karankawa, Caddo, and Comanche; in the northwest and west, portions of the continent, the Thlingchadinneh and other Athapascan tribes, the Tlingit, Heiltsuk, Kwakiutl, Tsimshian, Nootka, Siksika, some of the Californian tribes, and the Ute. There is also a tradition of the practice among the Hopi, and mentions of the custom among other tribes of New Mexico and Arizona. The Mohawk, and the Attacapa, Tonkawa, and other Texas tribes were known to their neighbours as 'man-eaters'.[228]

The forms of cannibalism described included both resorting to human flesh during famines and ritual cannibalism, the latter usually consisting of eating a small portion of an enemy warrior. From another source, according to Hans Egede, when the Inuit killed a woman accused of witchcraft, they ate a portion of her heart.[229]

Woodcut showing 12 people holding various human body parts carousing around an open bonfire where human body parts, suspended on a sling, are cooking.
Cannibalism in Brazil. Engraving by Theodor de Bry for Hans Staden's account of his 1557 captivity.

As with most lurid tales of native cannibalism, these stories are treated with a great deal of scrutiny, as accusations of cannibalism were often used as justifications for the subjugation or destruction of "savages".[230] The historian Patrick Brantlinger suggests that Indigenous peoples that were colonized were being dehumanized as part of the justification for the atrocities.[231]

Among settlers, sailors, and explorers

This period of time was also rife with instances of explorers and seafarers resorting to cannibalism for survival. There is archaeological and written evidence for English settlers' cannibalism in 1609 in the Jamestown Colony under famine conditions, during a period which became known as Starving Time.[232][233][234]

See also: Starving Time

Sailors shipwrecked or lost at sea repeatedly resorted to cannibalism to face off starvation. The survivors of the sinking of the French ship Méduse in 1816 resorted to cannibalism after four days adrift on a raft. Their plight was made famous by Théodore Géricault's painting Raft of the Medusa. After a whale sank the Essex of Nantucket on November 20, 1820, the survivors, in three small boats, resorted, by common consent, to cannibalism in order for some to survive. This event became an important source of inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.[235]

The case of R v Dudley and Stephens (1884) is an English criminal case which dealt with four crew members of an English yacht, the Mignonette, who were cast away in a storm some 2,600 kilometres (1,600 mi) from the Cape of Good Hope. After several days, one of the crew, a seventeen-year-old cabin boy, fell unconscious due to a combination of the famine and drinking seawater. The others (one possibly objecting) decided to kill him and eat him. They were picked up four days later. Two of the three survivors were found guilty of murder. A significant outcome of this case was that necessity in English criminal law was determined to be no defence against a charge of murder.[236] This was a break with the traditional understanding among sailors, which had been that selecting a victim for killing and consumption was acceptable in a starvation situation as long as lots were drawn so that all faced an equal risk of being killed.[237]

See also: Custom of the sea

On land, travellers through sparsely inhabited regions and explorers of unknown areas sometimes ate human flesh after running out of other provisions. In a famous example from the 1840s, the members of Donner Party found themselves stranded by snow in the Donner Pass, a high mountain pass in California, without adequate supplies during the Mexican–American War, leading to several instances of cannibalism, including the murder of two young Native American men for food.[238][239] Sir John Franklin's lost polar expedition, which took place at approximately the same time, is another example of cannibalism out of desperation.[240]

In frontier situations where there was no strong authority, some individuals got used to killing and eating others even in situations where other food would have been available. One notorious case was the mountain man Boone Helm, who become known as "The Kentucky Cannibal" for eating several of his fellow travellers, from 1850 until his eventual hanging in 1864.

See also: Boone Helm § Serial murder and cannibalism

West Africa

The Leopard Society was a cannibalistic secret society that existed until the mid-1900s and was active mostly in regions that today belong to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast. The Leopard men would dress in leopard skins and waylay travellers with sharp claw-like weapons in the form of leopards' claws and teeth.[241] The victims' flesh would be cut from their bodies and distributed to members of the society.[242]

Central Africa

A German map published in 1893 depicting the distribution of human cannibalism as seen by the publishers.
Pink areas thought to still be "fully" cannibalistic at that time; light green areas considered formerly or rarely cannibalistic.

Cannibalism was practised widely in the some parts of the Congo Basin, though it was by no means universal. Some peoples, such as the Bakongo, rejected the practice altogether. In some other regions human flesh was eaten "only occasionally to mark a particularly significant ritual occasion, but in other societies in the Congo, perhaps even a majority by the late nineteenth century, people ate human flesh whenever they could, saying that it was far tastier than other meat", notes the anthropologist Robert B. Edgerton.[70]

Many people not only freely admitted eating human flesh, but were surprised when they heard that Europeans did not eat it.[243] Emil Torday observed: "They are not ashamed of cannibalism, and openly admit that they practise it because of their liking for human flesh", with the primary reason for cannibalism being a "gastronomic" preference for such dishes.[61] Torday once received "a portion of a human thigh" sent as a well-intended gift, and other Europeans were offered pieces of human flesh in gestures of hospitality.[244] People expected to be rewarded with fresh human flesh for services well performed and were disappointed when they received something else instead.[245]

In addition to enemies killed or captured in war, slaves were frequent victims. Many "healthy children" had to die "to provide a feast for their owners".[246] Young slave children were at particular risk since they were in low demand for other purposes and since their flesh was widely praised as especially delicious, "just as many modern meat eaters prefer lamb over mutton and veal over beef".[247] Such acts were not considered controversial – people did not understand why Europeans objected to the killing of slaves, while themselves killing and eating goats; they argued that both were the "property" of their owners, to be used as it pleased them.[248]

Further information: Child cannibalism § Consumption of slave children

A third group of victims were persons from other ethnic groups, who in some areas were "hunt[ed] for food" just like animals.[57] Many of the victims, who were usually killed with poisoned arrows or with clubs, were "women and children ... who had ventured too far from home while gathering firewood or fetching drinking water" and who were targeted "because they were easier to overpower" and also considered tastier than adult men.[249]

In some regions there was a regular trade in slaves destined to be eaten, and the flesh of recently butchered slaves was available for purchase as well.[250] Some people fattened slave children to sell them for consumption; if such a child became ill and lost too much weight, their owner drowned them in the nearest river instead of wasting further food on them, as a French missionary once witnessed.[251] Human flesh not sold the same day was smoked, so it could be "sold at leisure" during subsequent weeks.[252] Europeans were often hesitant to buy smoked meat since they knew that the "smoking of human flesh to preserve it was ... widespread", but once meat was smoked, its origin was hard to determine.[81]

Instead of being killed quickly, "persons to be eaten often had both of their arms and legs broken and were made to sit up to their necks in a stream for [up to] three days, a practice said to make their flesh more tender, before they were killed and cooked."[70] Both adults and children, and also animals such as birds and monkeys, were routinely submitted to this treatment prior to being slaughtered.[253]

Various reports indicate that living slaves were exposed on marketplaces, so that purchasers could choose which body parts to buy before the victim was butchered and the flesh distributed.

It often happens that the poor creature destined for the knife is exposed for sale in the market. He walks to and fro and epicures come to examine him. They describe the parts they prefer, one the arm, one the leg, breast, or head. The portions which are purchased are marked off with lines of coloured ochre. When the entire body is sold, the wretch is slain.[254]

This custom, reported around both the central Congo River and the Ubangi in the north, seem to have been motivated by a desire to get fresh rather than smoked flesh, since without refrigeration there was no other way to preserve flesh from spoiling quickly.[255][256]

Killed or captured enemies made another sort of victims, even during wars fought by the colonial state. During the 1892–1894 war between the Congo Free State and the SwahiliArab city-states of Nyangwe and Kasongo in Eastern Congo, there were reports of widespread cannibalization of the bodies of defeated combatants by the Batetela allies of the Belgian commander Francis Dhanis.[257] In April 1892, 10,000 Batetela, under the command of Gongo Lutete, joined forces with Dhanis in a campaign against the Swahili–Arab leaders Sefu and Mohara.[258] After one early skirmish in the campaign, Dhanis's medical officer, Captain Sidney Langford Hinde, "noticed that the bodies of both the killed and wounded had vanished." When fighting broke out again, Hinde saw his Batetela allies drop human arms, legs and heads on the road; now he had to accept that they had really "carried them off for food", which he had initially doubted.[258][259]

According to Hinde, the conquest of Nyangwe was followed by "days of cannibal feasting" during which hundreds were eaten, with only their heads being kept as mementos.[260][261] During this time, Lutete "hid himself in his quarters, appalled by the sight of thousands of men smoking human hands and human chops on their camp fires, enough to feed his army for many days." Hinde also noted that the Batetela town Ngandu had "at least 2,000 polished human skulls" as a "solid white pavement in front" of its gates, with human skulls crowning every post of the stockade.[258]

A Congolese man, Nsala, looking at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter who was killed, cooked, and cannibalized by members of the Congo Free State's Force Publique in 1904[262][263]

Soon after, Nyangwe's surviving population rose in a rebellion, during whose brutal suppression a thousand rioters were killed by the new government. One young Belgian officer wrote home: "Happily Gongo's men ... ate them up [in a few hours]. It's horrible but exceedingly useful and hygienic.... I should have been horrified at the idea in Europe! but it seems quite natural to me here. Don't show this letter to anyone indiscreet".[264] Hinde too commented approvingly on the thoroughness with which the cannibals "disposed of all the dead, leaving nothing even for the jackals, and thus sav[ing] us, no doubt, from many an epidemic."[265] Generally the Free State administration seems to have done little to suppress cannibal customs, sometimes even tolerating or facilitating them among its own auxiliary troops and allies.[266][267][268]

Further information: Congo Free State § Cannibalism

In August 1903, the UK diplomat Roger Casement wrote from Lake Tumba to a consular colleague: "The people round here are all cannibals.... There are also dwarfs (called Batwas) in the forest who are even worse cannibals than the taller human environment. They eat man flesh raw! It's a fact." He added that assailants would "bring down a dwarf on the way home, for the marital cooking pot.... The Dwarfs, as I say, dispense with cooking pots and eat and drink their human prey fresh cut on the battlefield while the blood is still warm and running. These are not fairy tales ..., but actual gruesome reality in the heart of this poor, benighted savage land."[269]

The origins of Congolese cannibalism are lost in time. The oldest known references to it can be found in Filippo Pigafetta's Report of the Kingdom of Congo, published in the late 16th century based on the memories of Duarte Lopez, a Portuguese trader who had lived for several years in the Kingdom of Kongo. Lopez reported that farther up the Congo River, there lived a people who ate both killed enemies and those of their slaves which they could not sell for a "good price".[270][271]

Oral records indicate that, already at a time when slavery was not widespread in the Congo Basin, people assumed that anyone sold as a slave would likely be eaten, "because cannibalism was common, and slaves were purchased especially for such purposes".[272] In the 19th century, warfare and slave raids increased in the Congo Basin as a result of the international demand for slaves, who could no longer be so easily captured nearer to the coasts.[273] As a result, the consumption of slaves increased as well, since most of those sold in the Atlantic slave trade were young and healthy individuals aged from 14 to 30, and similar preferences existed in the Arab–Swahili slave trade. However, many of the captives were younger, older, or otherwise considered less saleable, and such victims were often eaten by the slave raiders or sold to cannibals who purchased them as "meat".[274]

Most of the accounts of cannibalism in the Congo are from the late 19th century, when the Atlantic slave trade had come to a halt, but slavery still existed in Africa and the Arab world. Various reports indicate that around the Ubangi River, slaves were frequently exchanged against ivory, which was then exported to Europe or the Americas, while the slaves were eaten. Some European traders seem to have directly and knowingly taken part in these deadly transactions, while others turned a blind eye.[275] The local elephant hunters preferred the flesh especially of young human beings – four to sixteen was the preferred age range, according to one trader – "because it was not only more tender, but also much quicker to cook" than the meat of elephants or other large animals.[276]

While sceptics such as William Arens sometimes claim that there are no credible eyewitness accounts of cannibal acts, there are numerous such accounts from the Congo. David Livingstone "saw human parts being cooked with bananas, and many other Europeans" – among them Hinde – "reported seeing cooked human remains lying around abandoned fires."[57][265] Soldiers of the German explorer Hermann Wissmann saw how people captured and wounded in a slave raid were shot by a Swahili–Arab leader and then handed over "to his auxiliary troops, who ... cut them in pieces and dragged them to the fire to serve as their supper".[277] Visiting a village near the Aruwimi River, the British artist Herbert Ward saw a man "carrying four large lumps of human flesh, with the skin still clinging to it, on a stick", and soon afterwards "a party of men squatting round a fire, before which this ghastly flesh, exposed on spits, was cooking"; he was told that the flesh came from a man who had been killed a few hours before. Another time, when "camping for the night with a party of Arab raiders and their followers", he and his companions felt "compelled to change the position of our tent owing to the offensive smell of human flesh, which was being cooked on all sides of us."[278]

The Belgian colonial officer Camille Coquilhat saw "the remaining half of [a] steamed man" – a slave who had been purchased for consumption and slaughtered a few hours earlier – "in an enormous pot" and discussed with the slave's owner, who at first thought that Coquilhat was joking when he objected to his cannibalistic customs.[248] Near the Ubangi River, which formed the border between the Belgian and the French colonial enterprises, the French traveller Jacques d'Uzès [fr] saw local auxiliaries of the French troops kill "some women and some children" after a punitive expedition, then cooking their flesh in pots and "enjoy[ing]" it.[279]

Among the Mangbetu people in the north-east, Georg A. Schweinfurth saw a human arm being smoked over a fire. At other occasion, he watched a group of young women using boiling water for "scalding the hair off the lower half of a human body" in preparation for cooking it. A few years later, Gaetano Casati saw how the roasted leg of a slave woman was served at the court of the Mangbetu king.[280] More eyewitness accounts could be added.[281]


Cannibalism in Lithuania during the Livonian War in 1571, German plate

Various cases of revenge-driven cannibalism are on record. The historian Angelica Montanari has investigated a number of accounts from Italy between the 14th and 16th centuries, showing that the consumption of entrails or body parts of those considered enemies is repeatedly mentioned in local chronicles, sometimes without any expression of condemnation or disapproval.[282] Another case of this type of cannibalism happened in 1672, when Dutch stadtholder Johan de Witt and his brother were lynched and partially eaten for failing to fend off a French invasion.[283][page needed]

Egyptian mummy seller in 1875

From the 16th century on, an unusual form of medical cannibalism became widespread in several European countries, for which thousands of Egyptian mummies were ground up and sold as medicine. Powdered human mummy – called mummia – was thought to stop internal bleeding and to have other healing properties. The practice developed into a widespread business that flourished until the early 18th century. The demand was much higher than the supply of ancient mummies, leading to much of the offered "mummia" being counterfeit, made from recent Egyptian or European corpses – often from the gallows – instead. In a few cases, mummia was still offered in medical catalogues in the early 20th century.[284][285][286][287] [288]


Cannibalism was repeatedly practised during famines, when other provisions were exhausted.

During the chaotic transition from the Ming to the Qing dynasty in the 17th century, severe famines repeatedly lead to cannibalism. During a famine in 1622, government troops took the providing of human flesh into their own hands, "openly butcher[ing] and [selling] people in a market where one jin [c. 600 grams] of flesh could be exchanged for one liang [c. 40 grams] of silver."[289] Around 1640, a drought in Henan and Shandong became so bad that "women and babies were arrayed in the market as human food and were sold by the slaughterers just like mutton and pork." Sometimes women and children were slaughtered in the back rooms of butcher shops while customers were waiting for fresh meat.[290] A few years later in Sichuan, "hundreds of the young and weak" were kidnapped, killed, and eaten; in the markets, men's flesh was sold at a somewhat lower price than that of women, which was considered tastier.[291]

Contemporary reports indicate that in Shaanxi – located between Henan and Sichuan – cannibalism became so common in the early Qing period that the local government "officially sanctioned" the sale and consumption of human flesh. Butchers legally turned towards killing people sold to them and then "sell[ing] their meat"; human-based dishes were also served in restaurants.[292] The History of Ming, one of the Official Dynastic Histories that documented cannibalistic acts, accepted them as inevitable in bad times. "When driven towards dangers, what choices do they have?" it asked rhetorically about a famine in 1611, where people were "selling their daughters and sons, and eating their wives and children".[289]

Centuries later, during the Taiping Rebellion in 1850–1864, "human flesh and organs" – gained by dismembering corpses or by butchering kidnapped persons – "were sold openly at the marketplace" and "some people killed their own children and ate them" to alleviate their hunger.[293] Human hearts became a popular dish, according to some who afterwards freely admitted having purchased and enjoyed them.[98] Zeng Guofan, the general leading the army that suppressed the rebellion, confirmed the open sale of human flesh in his diary – once even complaining about its high price, which had risen again.[294]

Reports of cannibalism and the sale of human flesh during severe famines continued into the early 20th century, up to the final years of Imperial China.[295] Various cases were reported during the Northern Chinese Famine of 1876–1879,[296] with eyewitnesses reporting the sale of human flesh in markets and butcher shops and various (unverified) rumours indicating that it might also have been served in restaurants.[297]

Outside of famines, the flesh of executed criminals was frequently sold for consumption, a traditional custom that lasted until the 19th century.[298]

The indigenous population of Taiwan (then known as Formosa) repeatedly rebelled against Chinese rule. The Chinese army reacted drastically by not only killing suspected rebels, but sometimes also eating and selling their flesh.[299][300] The American journalist James W. Davidson wrote:

One horrible feature of the campaign against the savages was the sale by the Chinese in open market of savage flesh.... After killing a savage, the head was commonly severed from the body and exhibited.... The body was then either divided among its captors and eaten, or sold to wealthy Chinese and even to high officials, who disposed of it in a like manner. The kidney, liver, heart, and soles of the feet were considered the most desirable portions, and were ordinarily cut up into very small pieces, boiled, and eaten somewhat in the form of soup. The flesh and bones were boiled, and the former [latter?] made into a sort of jelly.... During the outbreak of 1891, savage flesh was brought in – in baskets – the same as pork, and sold like pork in the open markets of Tokoham before the eyes of all, foreigners included. Some of the flesh was even sent to Amoy [on the mainland] to be placed on sale there. It was frequently on sale in the small Chinese villages near the border, and often before the very eyes of peaceful groups of savages who happened to be at the place.[301]

Newspaper reports also document the open sale of indigenous flesh.[300] Robert des Rotours has interpreted these acts as due to "contempt for an inferior race", who were seen as so inferior that they could be treated like animals.[302]


There are various reports of Dayaks eating human flesh, especially in the context of headhunting expeditions. James Brooke, who founded the Raj of Sarawak in northwestern Borneo, collected eyewitness accounts of the consumption of killed enemies after war campaigns. He also heard (though not from eyewitnesses) that in some areas a "fat child" was traditionally served at Makantaun,[303] an annual festival held at the end of the harvest season.[304]

The Norwegian explorer Carl Bock, who visited Borneo in the late 1870s, met a Dayak chief named Sibau Mobang who told him that "his people did not eat human meat every day", but rather in the context of "head-hunting expeditions". Mobang had just returned from such an expedition, in which "no less than seventy victims, men, women and children", had been killed and partially eaten. Bock also met a local priestess who said that human "palms [were] considered the best eating", together with "the brains, and the flesh on the knees" – these parts were always eaten, even if the rest of the body was not.[305] The naturalist Albert S. Bickmore, who travelled through Borneo in the 1860s, agreed that some Dayak groups practised cannibalism. Both captured enemies and those found guilty of a crime (such as theft) were killed and eaten, out of revenge and due to an "appetite" for human flesh, which was considered uniquely tasty.[306]


While it is generally accepted that some forms of cannibalism were practised in Australia in certain circumstances, the prevalence and meaning of such acts in pre-colonial Aboriginal societies are disputed.[307] Before colonization, Aboriginal Australians were predominantly nomadic hunter-gatherers at times lacking in protein sources. Reported cases of cannibalism include killing and eating small children (infanticide was widely practised as a means of population control and because mothers had trouble carrying two young children not yet able to walk)[308][309] and enemy warriors slain in battle.[310][311]

In the late 1920s, the anthropologist Géza Róheim heard from Aboriginals that infanticidal cannibalism had been practised especially during droughts. "Years ago it had been custom for every second child to be eaten" – the baby was roasted and consumed not only by the mother, but also by the older siblings, who benefited from this meat during times of food scarcity. One woman told him that her little sister had been roasted, but denied having eaten of her. Another "admitted having killed and eaten her small daughter", and several other people he talked to remembered having "eaten one of their brothers".[312] The consumption of infants took two different forms, depending on where it was practised:

When the Yumu, Pindupi, Ngali, or Nambutji were hungry, they ate small children with neither ceremonial nor animistic motives. Among the southern tribes, the Matuntara, Mularatara, or Pitjentara, every second child was eaten in the belief that the strength of the first child would be doubled by such a procedure.[313]

Usually only babies who had not yet received a name (which happened around the first birthday) were consumed, but in times of severe hunger, older children (up to four years or so) could be killed and eaten too, though people tended to have bad feelings about this. Babies were killed by their mother, while a bigger child "would be killed by the father by being beaten on the head".[314] But cases of women killing older children are on record too. In 1904 a parish priest in Broome, Western Australia, stated that infanticide was very common, including one case where a four-year-old was "killed and eaten by its mother", who later became a Christian.[315]

Daisy Bates with a group of Aboriginal women, circa 1911

The journalist and anthropologist Daisy Bates, who spent a long time among Aboriginals and was well acquainted with their customs, knew an Aboriginal woman who one day left her village to give birth a mile away, taking only her daughter with her. She then "killed and ate the baby, sharing the food with the little daughter." After her return, Bates found the place and saw "the ashes of a fire" with the baby's "broken skull, and one or two charred bones" in them.[316] She states that "baby cannibalism was rife among these central-western peoples, as it is west of the border in Central Australia."[317]

The Norwegian ethnographer Carl Sofus Lumholtz confirms that infants were commonly killed and eaten especially in times of food scarcity. He notes that people spoke of such acts "as an everyday occurrence, and not at all as anything remarkable."[318]

Some have interpreted the consumption of infants as a religious practice: "In parts of New South Wales ..., it was customary long ago for the first-born of every lubra [Aboriginal woman] to be eaten by the tribe, as part of a religious ceremony."[319] However, there seems to be no direct evidence that such acts actually had a religious meaning, and the Australian anthropologist Alfred William Howitt rejects the idea that the eaten were human sacrifices as "absolutely without foundation", arguing that religious sacrifices of any kind were unknown in Australia.[320]

Another frequently reported practise was funerary endocannibalism, the cooking and consumption of the deceased as a funerary rite.[321][322][323][324]

When anyone dies, provided he or she be not too old, certain of the male relatives take the body out into the bush and cook it in a native oven.... When all the flesh is removed – apparently everything is eaten – the bones are collected, and, with the exception of the long ones from the arm, are wrapped in paperbark and handed over to the custody of a relative.[322]

According to Bates, exocannibalism was also practised in many regions. Foreigners and members of different ethnic groups were hunted and eaten much like animals. She met "fine sturdy fellows" who "frankly admitted the hunting and sharing of kangaroo and human meat as frequently as that of kangaroo and emu." The bodies of the killed were roasted whole in "a deep hole in the sand". There were also "killing vendettas", in which a hostile settlement was attacked and as many persons as possible killed, whose flesh was then shared according to well-defined rules: "The older men ate the soft and virile parts, and the brain; swift runners were given the thighs; hands, arms or shoulders went to the best spear-throwers, and so on." Referring to the coast of the Great Australian Bight, Bates writes: "Cannibalism had been rife for centuries in these regions and for a thousand miles north and east of them." Human flesh was not eaten for spiritual reasons and not only due to hunger; rather it was considered a "favourite food".[54]

Lumholtz similarly notes that "the greatest delicacy known to the Australian native is human flesh", even adding that the "appetite for human flesh" was the primary motive for killing. Unrelated individuals and isolated families were attacked just to be eaten and any stranger was at risk of being "pursued like a wild beast and slain and eaten".[325] Acquiring human flesh is this manner was something to be proud of, not a reason for shame.[326] He stresses that such flesh was nevertheless by no means a "daily food", since opportunities to capture victims were relatively rare.[327] One specific instance of kidnapping for cannibal purposes was recorded in the 1840s by the English immigrant George French Angas, who stated that several children were kidnapped, butchered, and eaten near Lake Alexandrina in South Australia shortly before he arrived there.[328]


In parts of Melanesia, cannibalism was still practised in the early 20th century, for a variety of reasons – including retaliation, to insult an enemy people, or to absorb the dead person's qualities.[329] One tribal chief, Ratu Udre Udre in Rakiraki, Fiji, is said to have consumed 872 people and to have made a pile of stones to record his achievement.[330][331] Fiji was nicknamed the "Cannibal Isles" by European sailors, who avoided disembarking there.


The first encounter between Europeans and Māori may have involved cannibalism of a Dutch sailor.[332] In June 1772, the French explorer Marion du Fresne and 26 members of his crew were killed and eaten in the Bay of Islands.[333] In an 1809 incident known as the Boyd massacre, about 66 passengers and crew of the Boyd were killed and eaten by Māori on the Whangaroa peninsula, Northland. Cannibalism was already a regular practice in Māori wars.[334] In another instance, on July 11, 1821, warriors from the Ngapuhi tribe killed 2,000 enemies and remained on the battlefield "eating the vanquished until they were driven off by the smell of decaying bodies".[335] Māori warriors fighting the New Zealand government in Tītokowaru's War in New Zealand's North Island in 1868–69 revived ancient rites of cannibalism as part of the radical Hauhau movement of the Pai Marire religion.[336]

The dense population of the Marquesas Islands, in what is now French Polynesia, was concentrated in narrow valleys, and consisted of warring tribes, who sometimes practised cannibalism on their enemies. Human flesh was called "long pig".[337][338] W. D. Rubinstein wrote:

It was considered a great triumph among the Marquesans to eat the body of a dead man. They treated their captives with great cruelty. They broke their legs to prevent them from attempting to escape before being eaten, but kept them alive so that they could brood over their impending fate. ... With this tribe, as with many others, the bodies of women were in great demand.[8]

Early 20th century to present

See also: List of incidents of cannibalism § 1920s and beyond

Finnish soldiers show the skin of Russian soldiers eaten by members of a Soviet patrol during the Continuation War

After World War I, cannibalism continued to occur as a ritual practice and in times of drought or famine. Occasional cannibal acts committed by individual criminals are documented as well throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

World War II

Many instances of cannibalism by necessity were recorded during World War II. For example, during the 872-day siege of Leningrad, reports of cannibalism began to appear in the winter of 1941–1942, after all birds, rats, and pets were eaten by survivors. Leningrad police even formed a special division to combat cannibalism.[339][340]

Some 2.8 million Soviet POWs died in Nazi custody in less than eight months during 1941–42.[341] According to the USHMM, by the winter of 1941, "starvation and disease resulted in mass death of unimaginable proportions".[342] This deliberate starvation led to many incidents of cannibalism.[343]

Following the Soviet victory at Stalingrad it was found that some German soldiers in the besieged city, cut off from supplies, resorted to cannibalism.[344] Later, following the German surrender in January 1943, roughly 100,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner of war (POW). Almost all of them were sent to POW camps in Siberia or Central Asia where, due to being chronically underfed by their Soviet captors, many resorted to cannibalism. Fewer than 5,000 of the prisoners taken at Stalingrad survived captivity.[345]

Cannibalism took place in the concentration and death camps in the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), a Nazi German puppet state which was governed by the fascist Ustasha organization, who committed the Genocide of Serbs and the Holocaust in NDH.[346][347][348][349] Some survivors testified that some of the Ustashas drank the blood from the slashed throats of the victims.[347][350]

The Australian War Crimes Section of the Tokyo tribunal, led by prosecutor William Webb (the future Judge-in-Chief), collected numerous written reports and testimonies that documented Japanese soldiers' acts of cannibalism among their own troops, on enemy dead, as well as on Allied prisoners of war in many parts of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In September 1942, Japanese daily rations on New Guinea consisted of 800 grams of rice and tinned meat. However, by December, this had fallen to 50 grams.[351]: 78–80  According to historian Yuki Tanaka, "cannibalism was often a systematic activity conducted by whole squads and under the command of officers".[352]

In some cases, flesh was cut from living people. A prisoner of war from the British Indian Army, Lance Naik Hatam Ali, testified that in New Guinea: "the Japanese started selecting prisoners and every day one prisoner was taken out and killed and eaten by the soldiers. I personally saw this happen and about 100 prisoners were eaten at this place by the Japanese. The remainder of us were taken to another spot 80 kilometres (50 miles) away where 10 prisoners died of sickness. At this place, the Japanese again started selecting prisoners to eat. Those selected were taken to a hut where their flesh was cut from their bodies while they were alive and they were thrown into a ditch where they later died."[353]

Another well-documented case occurred in Chichi-jima in February 1945, when Japanese soldiers killed and consumed five American airmen. This case was investigated in 1947 in a war crimes trial, and of 30 Japanese soldiers prosecuted, five (Maj. Matoba, Gen. Tachibana, Adm. Mori, Capt. Yoshii, and Dr. Teraki) were found guilty and hanged.[354] In his book Flyboys: A True Story of Courage, James Bradley details several instances of cannibalism of World War II Allied prisoners by their Japanese captors.[355] The author claims that this included not only ritual cannibalization of the livers of freshly killed prisoners, but also the cannibalization-for-sustenance of living prisoners over the course of several days, amputating limbs only as needed to keep the meat fresh.[356]

There are more than 100 documented cases in Australia's government archives of Japanese soldiers practising cannibalism on enemy soldiers and civilians in New Guinea during the war.[357][358] For instance, from an archived case, an Australian lieutenant describes how he discovered a scene with cannibalized bodies, including one "consisting only of a head which had been scalped and a spinal column" and that "in all cases, the condition of the remains were such that there can be no doubt that the bodies had been dismembered and portions of the flesh cooked".[357][358] In another archived case, a Pakistani corporal (who was captured in Singapore and transported to New Guinea by the Japanese) testified that Japanese soldiers cannibalized a prisoner (some were still alive) per day for about 100 days.[357][358] There was also an archived memo, in which a Japanese general stated that eating anyone except enemy soldiers was punishable by death.[358] Toshiyuki Tanaka, a Japanese scholar in Australia, mentions that it was done "to consolidate the group feeling of the troops" rather than due to food shortage in many of the cases.[357] Tanaka also states that the Japanese committed the cannibalism under supervision of their senior officers and to serve as a power projection tool.[359]

Jemadar Abdul Latif (VCO of the 4/9 Jat Regiment of the British Indian Army and POW rescued by the Australians at Sepik Bay in 1945) stated that the Japanese soldiers ate both Indian POWs and local New Guinean people.[359] At the camp for Indian POWs in Wewak, where many died and 19 POWs were eaten, the Japanese doctor and lieutenant Tumisa would send an Indian out of the camp after which a Japanese party would kill and eat flesh from the body as well as cut off and cook certain body parts (liver, buttock muscles, thighs, legs, and arms), according to Captain R. U. Pirzai in a The Courier-Mail report of August 25, 1945.[359]

South America

When Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed on a glacier in the Andes on October 13, 1972, the survivors resorted to eating the deceased during their 72 days in the mountains. Their experiences and memories became the source of several books and films. Survivor Roberto Canessa described how they "agonized" for days in the knowledge that "the bodies of our friends and team-mates, preserved outside in the snow and ice, contained vital, life-giving protein that could help us survive. But could we do it?" Ultimately he and the other 15 people who were rescued months later decided they could, realizing there was no other way to face off starvation.[360]

North America

See also: Category:American cannibals

In 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was arrested after one of his intended victims managed to escape. Found in Dahmer's apartment were two human hearts, an entire torso, a bag full of human organs from his victims, and a portion of arm muscle. He stated that he planned to consume all of the body parts over the next few weeks.[361]

West Africa

In the 1980s, Médecins Sans Frontières, the international medical charity, supplied photographic and other documentary evidence of ritualized cannibal feasts among the participants in Liberia's internecine strife preceding the First Liberian Civil War to representatives of Amnesty International. Amnesty International declined to publicize this material; the Secretary-General of the organization, Pierre Sane, said at the time in an internal communication that "what they do with the bodies after human rights violations are committed is not part of our mandate or concern". The existence of cannibalism on a wide scale in Liberia was subsequently verified.[362]

A few years later, reported of cannibal acts committed during the Second Liberian Civil War and Sierra Leone Civil War emerged.[363][364]

Central Africa

Reports from the Belgian Congo indicate that cannibalism was still widely practised in some regions in the 1920s. Hermann Norden, an American who visited the Kasai region in 1923, found that "cannibalism was commonplace".[57] People were afraid of walking outside of populated places because there was a risk of being attacked, killed, and eaten. Norden talked with a Belgian who "admitted that it was quite likely he had occasionally been served human flesh without knowing what he was eating" – it was simply a dish that appeared on the tables from time.[365]

Other travellers heard persistent rumours that there was still a certain underground trade in slaves, some of whom (adults and children alike) were regularly killed and then "cut up and cooked as ordinary meat", around both the Kasai and the Ubangi River. The colonial state seems to have done little to discourage or punish such acts. There are also reports that human flesh was sometimes sold at markets in both Kinshasa and Brazzaville, "right in the middle of European life."[366]

Norden observed that cannibalism was so common that people talked about it quite "casual[ly]": "No stress was put upon it, nor horror shown. This person had died of fever; that one had been eaten. It was all a matter of the way one's luck held."[367]

The culinary use of human flesh continued in some cases even after World War II. In 1950, a Belgian administrator ate a "remarkably delicious" dish, learning after he had finished "that the meat came from a young girl."[81] A few years later, a Danish traveller was served a piece of the "soft and tender" flesh of a butchered woman.[82]

During the Congo Crisis, which followed the country's independence in 1960, body parts of killed enemies were eaten[368][369] and the flesh of war victims was sometimes sold for consumption.[367] In Luluabourg (today Kananga), an American journalist saw a truck smeared with blood. A police commissioner investigating the scene told her that "sixteen women and children" had been lured in a nearby village to enter the truck, kidnapped, and "butchered ... for meat." She also talked with a Presbyterian missionary, who excused this act as due to "protein need.... The bodies of their enemies are the only source of protein available."[370]

In conflict situations, cannibalism persisted into the 21st century. During the first decade of the new century, cannibal acts have been reported from the Second Congo War[371] and the Ituri conflict in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to UN investigators, fighters belonging to several factions "grilled" human bodies "on a barbecue"; young girls were boiled "alive in ... big pots filled with boiling water and oil" or "cut into small pieces ... and then eaten."[372][373][374]

A UN human rights expert reported in July 2007 that sexual atrocities committed by rebel groups as well as by armed forces and national police against Congolese women go "far beyond rape" and include sexual slavery, forced incest, and cannibalism.[375] In the Ituri region, much of the violence, which included "widespread cannibalism", was consciously directed against pygmies, who were believed to be relatively helpless and even considered subhuman by some other Congolese.[376][377]

UN investigators also collected eyewitness accounts of cannibalism during a violent conflict that shook the Kasai region in 2016/2017. Various parts of killed enemies and beheaded captives were cooked and eaten, including their heads, thighs, and penises.[378][379][371]

Jean-Bédel Bokassa, self-crowned emperor suspected of cannibalism

Cannibalism has also been reported from the Central African Republic, north of the Congo Basin. Jean-Bédel Bokassa ruled the country from 1966 to 1979 as dictator and finally as self-declared emperor. Tenacious rumours that he liked to dine on the flesh of opponents and political prisoners were substantiated by several testimonies during his eventual trial in 1986/1987. Bokassa's successor David Dacko stated that he had seen photographs of butchered bodies hanging in the cold-storage rooms of Bokassa's palace immediately after taking power in 1979.[380] These or similar photos, said to show a walk-in freezer containing the bodies of schoolchildren arrested in April 1979 during protests and beat to death in the 1979 Ngaragba Prison massacre, were also published in Paris Match magazine.[381] During the trial, Bokassa's former chef testified that he had repeatedly cooked human flesh from the palace's freezers for his boss's table. While Bokassa was found guilty of murder in at least twenty cases, the charge of cannibalism was nevertheless not taken into account for the final verdict, since the consumption of human remains is considered a misdemeanor under CAR law and all previously committed misdemeanors had been forgiven by a general amnesty declared in 1981.[380]

Further acts of cannibalism were reported to have targeted the Muslim minority during the Central African Republic Civil War which started in 2012.[382][383]

East Africa

In the 1970s the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was reputed to practice cannibalism.[384][385] More recently, the Lord's Resistance Army has been accused of routinely engaging in ritual or magical cannibalism.[386] There are also reports that witch doctors in the country sometimes use body parts of children in their medicine.[387]

During the South Sudanese Civil War, cannibalism and forced cannibalism have been reported from South Sudan.[388][389]

Central and Western Europe

William Seabrook, American journalist and cannibal

Before 1931, The New York Times reporter William Seabrook, apparently disappointed that he had been unable to taste human flesh in West Africa, obtained from a hospital intern at the Sorbonne a chunk of this meat from the body of a healthy man killed in an accident, then cooked and ate it. He reported,

It was like good, fully developed veal, not young, but not yet beef. It was very definitely like that, and it was not like any other meat I had ever tasted. It was so nearly like good, fully developed veal that I think no person with a palate of ordinary, normal sensitiveness could distinguish it from veal. It was mild, good meat with no other sharply defined or highly characteristic taste such as for instance, goat, high game, and pork have. The steak was slightly tougher than prime veal, a little stringy, but not too tough or stringy to be agreeably edible. The roast, from which I cut and ate a central slice, was tender, and in color, texture, smell as well as taste, strengthened my certainty that of all the meats we habitually know, veal is the one meat to which this meat is accurately comparable.[390][391]

Karl Denke, possible Carl Großmann and Fritz Haarmann, as well as Joachim Kroll were German murderers and cannibals active between the early 20th century and the 1970s. Armin Meiwes is a former computer repair technician who achieved international notoriety for killing and eating a voluntary victim in 2001, whom he had found via the Internet. After Meiwes and the victim jointly attempted to eat the victim's severed penis, Meiwes killed his victim and proceeded to eat a large amount of his flesh. He was arrested in December 2002. In January 2004, Meiwes was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years and six months in prison. Despite the victim's undisputed consent, the prosecutors successfully appealed this decision, and in a retrial that ended in May 2006, Meiwes was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.[392]

See also: Category:German cannibals

On July 23, 1988, Rick Gibson ate the flesh of another person in public. Because England does not have a specific law against cannibalism, he legally ate a canapé of donated human tonsils in Walthamstow High Street, London.[393] A year later, on April 15, 1989, he publicly ate a slice of human testicle.[394][395] When he tried to eat another slice of human testicle as "hors d'oeuvre" at the Pitt International Galleries in Vancouver on July 14, 1989, the police confiscated the testicle.[396] However, the charge of publicly exhibiting a disgusting object was dropped, and two months later he finally ate the piece of human testicle on the steps of the Vancouver court house.[397]

In 2008, a British model called Anthony Morley was imprisoned for the killing, dismemberment and partial cannibalisation of his lover, magazine executive Damian Oldfield.[398]

See also: Category:British cannibals

Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union

Cannibalism during the Russian famine of 1921–1922

In his book, The Gulag Archipelago, Soviet writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described cases of cannibalism in 20th-century Soviet Union.[399] Of the famine in Povolzhie (1921–1922) he wrote: "That horrible famine was up to cannibalism, up to consuming children by their own parents – the famine, which Russia had never known even in the Time of Troubles [in 1601–1603]".[399]

The historian Orlando Figes observes that "thousands of cases" of cannibalism were reported, while the number of cases that were never reported was doubtless even higher. In Pugachyov, "it was dangerous for children to go out after dark since there were known to be bands of cannibals and traders who killed them to eat or sell their tender flesh." An inhabitant of a nearby village stated: "There are several cafeterias in the village – and all of them serve up young children."[400] This was no exception – Figes estimates "that a considerable proportion of the meat in Soviet factories in the Volga area ... was human flesh." Various gangs specialized in "capturing children, murdering them and selling the human flesh as horse meat or beef", with the buyers happy to have found a source of meat in a situation of extreme shortage and often willing not to "ask too many questions".[401]

Cannibalism was also widespread during the Holodomor, a man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine between 1932 and 1933.[402][403][404]

Survival was a moral as well as a physical struggle. A woman doctor wrote to a friend in June 1933 that she had not yet become a cannibal, but was "not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you". The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. ... At least 2,505 people were sentenced for cannibalism in the years 1932 and 1933 in Ukraine, though the actual number of cases was certainly much higher.[405]

Most cases of cannibalism were "necrophagy, the consumption of corpses of people who had died of starvation". But the murder of children for food was common as well. Many survivors told of neighbours who had killed and eaten their own children. One woman, asked why she had done this, "answered that her children would not survive anyway, but this way she would". She was arrested by the police. The police also documented cases of children being kidnapped, killed, and eaten, and "stories of children being hunted down as food" circulated in many areas.[406] When nearly all grain and all kinds of animal meat had been exhausted, "a black market arose in human flesh" and it "may even have entered the official economy." The police kept a close eye on butcher shops and slaughterhouses, trying to prevent them from bringing human flesh into circulation.[407] The Italian consul, Sergio Gradenigo, nevertheless reported from Kharkiv that the "trade of human meat becomes more active."[408]

In March 1933, the secret police in Kiev Oblast collected "ten or more reports of cannibalism every day" but concluded that "in reality there are many more such incidents", most of which went unreported. Those found guilty of cannibalism were often "imprisoned, executed, or lynched". But while the authorities were well informed about the extent of cannibalism, they also tried to suppress this information from becoming widely known, the chief of the secret police warning "that written notes on the subject do not circulate among the officials where they might cause rumours".[406]

The Holodomor was part of the Soviet famine of 1930–1933, which devastated also other parts of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. Multiple cases of cannibalism were also reported from Kazakhstan.[409]

A few years later, starving people again resorted to cannibalism during the siege of Leningrad (1941–1944). About this time, Solzhenitsyn writes: "Those who consumed human flesh, or dealt with the human liver trading from dissecting rooms ... were accounted as the political criminals".[410]

See also: § World War II

Of the building of Northern Railway Labor Camp ("Sevzheldorlag") Solzhenitsyn reports, "An ordinary hard working political prisoner almost could not survive at that penal camp. In the camp Sevzheldorlag (chief: colonel Klyuchkin) in 1946–47 there were many cases of cannibalism: they cut human bodies, cooked and ate."[411]

The Soviet journalist Yevgenia Ginzburg was a long-term political prisoner who spent time in the Soviet prisons, Gulag camps and settlements from 1938 to 1955. She described in her memoir, Harsh Route (or Steep Route), of a case which she was directly involved in during the late 1940s, after she had been moved to the prisoners' hospital.[412]

The chief warder shows me the black smoked pot, filled with some food: "I need your medical expertise regarding this meat." I look into the pot, and hardly hold vomiting. The fibres of that meat are very small, and don't resemble me anything I have seen before. The skin on some pieces bristles with black hair ... A former smith from Poltava, Kulesh worked together with Centurashvili. At this time, Centurashvili was only one month away from being discharged from the camp ... And suddenly he surprisingly disappeared ... The wardens searched for two more days, and then assumed that it was an escape case, though they wondered why, since his imprisonment period was almost over ... The crime was there. Approaching the fireplace, Kulesh killed Centurashvili with an axe, burned his clothes, then dismembered him and hid the pieces in snow, in different places, putting specific marks on each burial place. ... Just yesterday, one body part was found under two crossed logs.


The Aghori are Indian ascetics who believe that eating human flesh confers spiritual and physical benefits, such as prevention of ageing. They claim to only eat those who have voluntarily granted their body to the sect upon their death,[413] but an Indian TV crew witnessed one Aghori feasting on a corpse discovered floating in the Ganges[414] and a member of the Dom caste reports that Aghori often take bodies from cremation ghats (or funeral pyres).[415]


Cannibalism is documented to have occurred in rural China during the severe famine that resulted from the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962).[416][417][418][419][420]

During Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), local governments' documents revealed hundreds of incidents of cannibalism for ideological reasons, including large-scale cannibalism during the Guangxi Massacre.[421] Cannibal acts occurred at public events organized by local Communist Party officials, with people taking part in them in order to prove their revolutionary passion.[422][423] The writer Zheng Yi documented many of these incidents, especially those in Guangxi, in his 1993 book, Scarlet Memorial.[424]

Pills made of human flesh were said to be used by some Tibetan Buddhists, motivated by a belief that mystical powers were bestowed upon those who consumed Brahmin flesh.[425]


In Joshua Oppenheimer's film The Look of Silence, several of the anti-Communist militias active in the Indonesian mass killings of 1965–66 claim that drinking blood from their victims prevented them from going mad.[426]

During a massacre of the Madurese minority in the Indonesian part of Borneo in 1999, "more than 200 people, including young babies, [were] decapitated and cannibalised", according to reporter Richard Lloyd Parry.[427] Parry saw "two arms, numerous pieces of heart and liver, and a dismembered torso being cooked over a fire by the side of the road" in a "human barbecue". He met a Dayak teenager who told he had helped to kill and eat four Madurese people "because we hate the Madurese.... Mostly we shoot them first, and then we chop the body. It tastes just like chicken." A Dayak teacher explained that "when people do not respect our [traditions], they become enemies, and we don't consider our enemies to be human any more. They become animals in our eyes. And the Dayaks eat animals." Parry also saw at least seven severed heads, some of them apparently taken just hours before and placed on "oil drums on either side of the road" as trophies in a revival of the traditional practice of headhunting. The teenager he talked to assured him that "We don't kill babies", but only those "around 13 or 15" or older.[106] However, he met a village chief who had "seen six or seven children with their heads cut off" and stated "they kill everyone, including babies. They chop their heads off and they eat them."[427]

When visiting a town market, Parry saw "a charred femur ... among the embers of a fire" and met a Dayak man who held "a lump of what he said was human meat" and then started to eat it. Unsure how to react, Parry asked about the taste and the man replied: "Delicious".[428][429] Parry remarked that, after the first shock had passed, "the most devastating thing about cannibalism and headhunting is not the fear and the blood, but the terrible, profound banality."[106]

Two years later, during the Sampit conflict, Dayaks went again "on a rampage of killing and decapitation with the aim of driving the Madurese from the province." According to their own reports, they "killed 2,000 Madurese, in many cases cutting off their heads as trophies, drinking their blood and cutting out their hearts and eating them on the spot." A Dayak spokesperson said that, because of their anger and resentment against the Madurese settlers, "They don't recognize whether they are women or children. They just see them as animals that have to be destroyed."[430] A Madurese survivor mourned his murdered children and grandchildren: "They cut off their heads and then cut them up and took them away to eat." Police and army, though called to the scene, seem to have done little to stop the violence until at least 500 people were dead.[431]

East Asia

Reports of widespread cannibalism began to emerge from North Korea during the famine of the 1990s[432][433] and subsequent ongoing starvation. Kim Jong Il was reported to have ordered a crackdown on cannibalism in 1996,[434] but Chinese travellers reported in 1998 that cannibalism had occurred.[435] Three people in North Korea were reported to have been executed for selling or eating human flesh in 2006.[436] Further reports of cannibalism emerged in early 2013, including reports of a man executed for killing his two children for food.[437][438][439]

There are conflicting claims about how widespread cannibalism was in North Korea. While refugees reported that it was widespread,[440] Barbara Demick wrote in her book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2010), that it did not seem to be.[441]


Korowai people of New Guinea practised cannibalism until very recent times

The Korowai tribe of south-eastern Papua could be one of the last surviving tribes in the world engaging in cannibalism.[16] A local cannibal cult killed and ate victims as late as 2012.[15]

As in some other Papuan societies, the Urapmin people engaged in cannibalism in war. Notably, the Urapmin also had a system of food taboos wherein dogs could not be eaten and they had to be kept from breathing on food, unlike humans who could be eaten and with whom food could be shared.[442]

See also


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Further reading

  • Abler, Thomas S (1980). "Iroquois Cannibalism: Fact not Fiction". Ethnohistory. 27 (4): 309–316. doi:10.2307/481728. JSTOR 481728.
  • Berdan, Frances F. The Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial Society. New York 1982.[ISBN missing]
  • Dickeman, Mildred (1975). "Demographic Consequences of Infanticide in Man". Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. 6 (1): 107–137. doi:10.1146/annurev.es.06.110175.000543. JSTOR 2096827.
  • Dole, Gertrude E (1962). "Endocannibalism among the Amahuaca Indians". Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences. 24 (2): 567–573. doi:10.1111/j.2164-0947.1962.tb01432.x.
  • Earle, Rebecca. The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race, and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492–1700. New York: Cambridge University Press 2012.[ISBN missing]
  • Forsyth, Donald W (1983). "The Beginnings of Brazilian Anthropology: Jesuits and Tupinamba Cannibalism". Journal of Anthropological Research. 39 (2): 147–178. doi:10.1086/jar.39.2.3629965. S2CID 163258535.
  • Harner, Michael (1977). "The Ecological Basis for Aztec Sacrifice". American Ethnologist. 4: 117–135. doi:10.1525/ae.1977.4.1.02a00070.
  • Jáuregui, Carlos. Canibalia: Canibalismo, calibanismo, antropofagía cultural y consumo en América Latina. Madrid: Vervuert 2008.[ISBN missing]
  • Lestringant, Frank. Cannibals: The Discovery and Representation of the Cannibal from Columbus to Jules Verne. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 1997.[ISBN missing]
  • Métraux, Alfred (1949). "Warfare, Cannibalism, and Human Trophies". Handbook of South American Indians. 5: 383–409.
  • Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R (1978). "Aztec Cannibalism: An Ecological Necessity?". Science. 200: 116–117.
  • Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R. Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition. New Brunswick 1990.[ISBN missing]
  • Read, Kay A. Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos. Bloomington 1998.[ISBN missing]
  • Sahlins, Marshall. "Cannibalism: An Exchange." New York Review of Books 26, no. 4 (March 22, 1979).
  • Schutt, Bill. Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books 2017.[ISBN missing]
  • Sturtevant, William C. "Cannibalism". The Christopher Columbus Encyclopedia. 1: 93–96.[ISBN missing]
  • Whitehead, Neil L (1984). "Carib, Cannibalism, the Historical Evidence". Journal de la Société des Américanistes. 70: 69–98. doi:10.3406/jsa.1984.2239.