Breast or thigh?: A history of cannibalism

Last week I wrote about aphrodisiacs, which was a fun pre-Valentine’s date-night foray into the type of food history I don’t usually do. If, however, your ideal date night ends with you deboning something instead, perhaps today’s offering will be more suitable…

(I’m not sure I can get away with that joke. Sorry, mum.)

Cannibalism is a topic that seems to interest a lot of people; there’s a whole Wiki page dedicated to ‘cannibalism in popular culture’. Not to mention an entire horror movie subgenre called ‘cannibal films’. I haven’t seen any of them because I’m still recovering from watching Shaun of the Dead, which puts my tolerance for horror at roughly that of a seven year old child. Nevertheless, I remain very intrigued by this topic.

Is it technically food though? Not to get too Merriam-Webster about it, but the dictionary counts food as “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth.” In some circumstances, such as the ones I outline below, I think some forms of cannibalism can be seen through a food lens.

Er, would now be a good time to ask how your husband is?

He’s delicious. Sorry, I meant fine. He’s fine.

The word ‘cannibal’ comes from the Spanish word for an indigenous West Indies tribe called the Carib, who practised it. Incidentally, we also get the word barbeque from the Carib tribe too.

Girolamo Benzoni’s La historia del Mondo Nuovo. Credit here.

And here is where I encountered my first problem with the topic. The practice of eating people without ascribing the term ‘cannibal’ to it is prehistoric – human bones dating to 14,700 years ago bearing butchering marks have been found at Cheddar Gorge in England. And that’s relatively modern, too; some Homo Sapiens bones have been found dating to around 600,000 years old that bear similar marks.

It’s when people begin to slap terms on the practice of eating other people – especially when one civilisation uses the name of another to describe it – that things get messy. Messier.

And that’s because a lot of the earliest accounts of cannibalism are exaggerated. Herodotus wrote about cannibalism being practiced by a tribe called the Androphagi in his 5th century BC work The Histories. He describes them thusly:

The Man-eaters are the most savage of all men in their way of life; they know no justice and obey no law. They are nomads, wearing a costume like the Scythian, but speaking a language of their own; of all these, they are the only people that eat men.

Herodotus 4.106 trans. A. D. Godley.

Not one to hold back his feelings, Herodotus.

He was also not one for telling the truth. Many of his accounts in Histories – especially when concerning other civilisations than Greece – are exaggerated, vilified or just plain made up. So whether or not the Androphagi were truly ‘savage men eaters’ is up for debate.

Well what about later accounts?

Unfortunately it seems hardwired in humans to appreciate a good story over accurate history.

Many early-modern European accounts of cannibalism are also wildly exaggerated. They’re stories travellers brought back to make themselves seem more heroic and to make whatever violent acts they committed seem less serious. Think about it: if you’re a 15th century explorer retelling the story of your travels to your kid what would sound better? “I burned a civilisation to the ground and stole its riches for no other reason than greed and the hope that the queen would bang me” or “I destroyed a monstrous community of cannibals while also furthering our economy in the hope that the queen would bang me.”

Probably neither is appropriate for small children, but you get the picture.

Isabella of Castile patronised Christopher Columbus’ voyage to ‘discover’ America – much to the surprise all the people already living there.

That’s not to say that some civilisations weren’t cannibals, by the way, just that accounts of their desire for human flesh and how often they actually consumed it were misrepresented. Actually, (just to confuse things further) sometimes these civilisations, when they came into contact with Europeans, exaggerated stories of their cannibalistic ways to appear fiercer or just for their own amusement.

My point is, it’s not possible to take every early European account of cannibalism at face value.

No-one expects the Spanish… conquistadors.

Perhaps the most famous civilisation to practice cannibalism was the Aztecs (here referring to the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan – now Mexico City.)

The Spanish conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo fought alongside Hernán Cortés to destroy the Aztec Empire in Mexico during the 16th century. His account of what he saw there is perhaps one of the biggest pieces of pro-Spanish/anti-Aztec racist propaganda there is, but also shows how gripping these kinds of tales were to people.

Indeed hardly a day passed by that these people did not sacrifice three or four Indians [Aztecs], tearing the hearts out of their bodies to present them to the idols and smear the blood on the wall of the temple. The arms and legs of these unfortunate beings were then cut off and devoured, just the same way we should fetch meat from a butcher’s shop and eat it: indeed I even believe that human flesh is exposed for sale cut up, in their markets.”

The Memoirs of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, trans. John Ingram Lockhart.

Castillo also talks about how the Aztecs cooked people with “the salt, the pepper and the tomatoes.” The idea of Aztecs selling human at meat proto-farmer’s markets alongside artisan cheeses and homemade jam might have been fabricated, but that they ate people definitely wasn’t. Archaeologists have found butcher marks on human bones along with scorch marks to suggest roasting and even staining that shows the meat was cooked with certain spices. Fun fact: Castillo’s gory cannibal recipe is also the first recorded Western recipe that uses tomatoes.

“Human legs! Get your human legs, only £2 per kilo!”

Del Castillo was at least honest about his reasons for being in Mexico; he admitted that it was to “serve God and also to get rich or die trying.” And so he always links cannibalism with heathenism (which must be eradicated) hoping that people will see a connection between the two.

Culture or survival?

Del Castillo’s account of Aztec cannibalism reads as though it was an everyday part of their culture and religion. But was it purely ritualistic?

Well, no.

It’s true that cannibalism was practiced as part of ceremonies and rituals but, according to author and historian Tom Nealon, one other reason for it might come down to a good old fashioned Malthusian threat.

Basically this is the principle that suggests that sudden population growth will eventually lead to disastrous food shortages, ultimately ending in famine and extinction unless something stopped it. Usually this would be something like a war or the development of really tip-top birth control but in this case it might also have been… eating people.

There’s evidence to suggest that this is what happened to the Aztec empire. In Food Fights and Culture Wars, Nealon asserts that by the 16th century, the population had grown so rapidly that food was in short supply. Maize was the staple and most common crop, but the Aztecs didn’t domesticate any animals like pigs or sheep, and most people lived pretty precarious lives in various states of malnourishment.

Combine a nutritionally-unstable diet with a deeply hierarchical and rapidly growing society where no-one questioned the leader (and add in a few vengeful Gods who could only be appeased through human sacrifice) and you have near-perfect conditions for cannibalism.

In the end it boils down to this: if you’re going to sacrifice someone to please the gods, and there was the constant risk of food shortages, you’re kind of going to end up eating people because, well, waste not want not.

If you and your friends were trapped on a desert island, who would you eat first?

It’s a game we’ve all played before (haven’t we?) If you were trapped with your friends and nearing starvation would it be better to eat Toby (whose dedication to the gym could make for some pretty juicy burgers), or Sarah (whose over-enthusiastic use of peach body spray might give a fruity picancy to kebabs)? Choices, choices…

Cannibal survival stories are very common. Distressingly so. I cover the Donner Party with my GCSE groups and we often spend time picking apart the survivor accounts and discussing the perils of the journey to west America in the 19th century. For those that don’t know, the Donner party was a group of American pioneers who travelled westwards to California in 1846. Unfortunately they ended up stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountain range halfway through their journey. In freezing conditions, with winter setting in, they had no option but to stay put in an inhospitable territory and, as the days turned into weeks and months, eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Patrick Breen, a member of the Donner party, wrote in February 1847 “Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that thought she would commence on Milt & eat him. I don[‘]t that she has done so yet, it is distressing.”

It’s a theme echoed in the horrific accounts of the 1972 Andes flight disaster, which saw survivors of a plane crash in the Andes resort to the cannibalism of their dead friends and relatives in order to stay alive.

But rather than just retell these well-known events I want to talk about another survival story, one that often gets overlooked.

The case of the hungry sailors and the unfortunate cabin boy

In 1884 the yacht Mignonette set sail from Southampton, England to Sydney, Australia. There were four men aboard: Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brook and Richard Parker.

About two months after setting sail disaster struck and a wave partially destroyed the yacht. The captain – Tom Dudley – ordered the crew into the lifeboat.

“That’s it: the more the merrier. We can get a really good stew going now.”

They survived for about two weeks by eating tins of turnips, the carcass of an unfortunate turtle, and by drinking their urine. By the third week 17 year old Richard Parker was slipping in and out of consciousness, possibly due to extreme dehydration.

The other men now faced a choice: die of dehydration themselves or kill Parker and drink his blood. When Stephens protested, Dudley reportedly responded “the boy is dying. You have a wife and five children and I have a wife and three children. Human flesh has been eaten before.” Nice.

Parker was killed on around the 25th July and his blood was caught in a chronometer case and passed between the three men to drink. They (a bit weirdly, I think) then chose to eat his heart and liver straight away, saving bits of his arms and legs for later.

On the 29th July – only 4 days afterwards – they were saved by a German ship. Interestingly this ship was called the Moctezuma, named after a famous Aztec leader who was himself a cannibal. Funny, right? I mean probably not for poor Richard Parker, but he got the last laugh when Yan Martel named the tiger in his novel Life of Pi after him (the novel also touches briefly on the idea of cannibalism.)

The men were pretty honest about their actions and almost as soon as they arrived in England they were put on trial to find out whether or not they had committed an unforgivable murder or whether their need to survive – their need for food – was an acceptable excuse to kill and eat someone.

The case – Regina v Dudley & Stephens, as it was known – was a huge case at the time, despite being a total shambles. 

Firstly, the judge basically instructed the jury to find them guilty saying that the law “could not recognise necessity as justification for killing”.

But the jury wouldn’t find Dudley and Stephens guilty. So the case was moved to a higher court where a panel of 5 judges found the men guilty. The men were sentenced to death but the Home Office intervened and reduced the sentence to six months imprisonment – a pretty huge climb down if ever there was one.

Ultimately though, the verdict wasn’t overturned. The Home Office agreed with the courts that despite the men’s argument, the killing of Richard Parker could not be deemed a defence of necessity. Notice here that it’s not the cannibalism that the judge had the biggest issue with, but the killing of the boy in order to eat him. Had they waited until he was already dead, perhaps the verdict would have been different. But perhaps they would have been dead by then too. Choices, choices indeed…

Is anyone else getting hungry?

And this is where I’ll leave it for today.

I’ll do a future post on cannibalism in mythology because that’s where things get really crazy, but it seemed sensible to start with the stuff that actually happened first.

For now, I seem to be overcome with desire for fried liver with a nice chianti. Or even better: steak tartare with salt, pepper and tomatoes. Bon appétit!

E x

(I promise my husband is fine.)