Have you ever had the urge to eat human calf muscle?
|August 12, 2011||Posted by Amy Proudfoot under science|
According to a rather terrifying website I stumbled across, this is a very common urge, although personally I’ve always been more a breast than a leg girl myself. However, human cannibalism isn’t just the prerogative of creepy forums, but is in fact a part of our history. Evidence suggests that it was happening as long ago as 780,000 BC and with reports of mass cannibalism occurring less than ten years ago during the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, cannibalism seems to be something that humanity can’t shake.
Cannibalism occurring during times of war is not a rarefied event, for instance in the Second World War there were many reports of cannibalism, the siege of Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg, Russia) being one such example. During the winter of 1941/2, the citizens had no food rations for several weeks amidst temperatures below -30°C and many people starved to death, or died trying to fight through the cold to the nearest food handout station. At first the people resorted to eating the frozen bodies that littered the streets, but as the situation worsened further gangs formed to attack unarmed civilians, forcing the police to form a special unit specifically to combat this problem. Leningrad was by no means the only example of this during WWII, with many incidents in both the USSR, which suffered particular food shortages, and Japan, who were perhaps taking their desire for the Asian block to have an autonomous food supply a step too far. Cannibalism in wars is normally due to desperation but is occasionally used as punishment, where people are forced to eat their slaughtered relatives.
However, cannibalism doesn’t always occur without consent, one example being endocannibalism, the practice of eating members of your own culture. Most endocannibalism occurred in Indigenous Australian or native American tribes, who practised it for a variety of reasons, from gaining certain attributes (for example, eating a brain would increase your intelligence) to believing that it helped the souls of the dead to be reincarnated. However, before you go bounding off to request an unconventional bequest (I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone including their calf muscles in their will before), eating humans comes with its own unique health risks. If your human meal died of a disease, it may still be lurking inside them and feasting on their calves is the perfect way for the disease to hotfoot it over to your body. For instance, some members of the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea, where endocannibalism was practiced in order to return the “life force” of the dead back to the community, developed a neurological disease called Kuru, which spread between them rapidly due to the eating of the dead. Kuru is thought to have originated when the brain tissue of someone with the incurable brain disease CJD, also known as human mad cow disease, was eaten. It was particularly common in the women and children, who ate the brain and spinal cord more often, since these are considered the second-rate cuts. Kuru has many symptoms including shaking, joint pain and uncontrollable hysteric laughter but unavoidably results in death, so not much “life force” was being taken on board. Interestingly, a scientist investigating the disease found genes that give resistance to Kuru in many areas of the world that would have arisen originally due to a population in which the disease was endemic, suggesting that perhaps endocannibalism has been present throughout the world at various stages.
Another form of consensual cannibalism occurred in Germany in 2001, when Bernd Jürgen Brandes apparently gave consent to be eaten by Armin Meiwes after he responded to an internet advert asking for a “well-built 18 to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed”. This raised the question when Meiwes was arrested as to whether he had committed a crime at all, since Brandes had given his consent. However, in 2004 he was convicted for manslaughter and given a sentence of eight years, which was later upgraded to murder and a life sentence when evidence concerning Brandes’ mental capacity to give consent was reconsidered. The story caused great media interest and is the subject of a song by German band Rammstein called Mein Teil (literally a part, or member, but also a slang word for penis, which is what Meiwes and Brandes allegedly shared before Brandes passed out from blood loss) and also was the subject of an episode of the comedy series The IT Crowd (since Meiwes had been an IT technician).
Unfortunately, cannibalism isn’t always a desperate last measure, a consensual part of a culture or even a weird variation on a suicide pact and all too often plays a part in the demented fantasies of serial killers. Hamilton “Albert” Fish was one such killer, with three confirmed victims and many more suspected ones. In a letter to the parents of one of his victims, ten-year-old Grace Budd, Fish gave graphic details of what he did to their daughter, including how “sweet and tender her little ass was roasted in the oven” and that he spent nine days eating her. Later, during his trial, Fish commented “what a thrill that will be if I have to die in the electric chair”, painting an image of the sort of madness normally reserved for horror movies. In fact, some horror films are at least partially based on real-life events. For instance, Ed Gein was a cannibalistic serial killer, who wore both the parts of the people he had killed and those of the cadavers he had obtained from graveyards, and he was the inspiration for the main killers in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs.
In this country at least, cannibalism will probably remain a deep taboo for a long time, although in theory, aside from some health risks, there is nothing particularly wrong with eating humans that are already dead. After all, many other species practice cannibalism to utilise every source of protein they can, and with an increasing human population and rising global temperatures, our food supply may begin to run short in the not too distant future. Who knows what humans will resort to then?