A brief history of cannibalism – Bill Schutt

15th century Europeans believed
they had hit upon a miracle cure: a remedy for epilepsy, hemorrhage,
bruising, nausea, and virtually any other
medical ailment. This brown powder could be mixed
into drinks, made into salves or eaten straight up. It was known as mumia and made
by grinding up mummified human flesh. The word “cannibal” dates from the
time of Christopher Columbus; in fact, Columbus may even have
coined it himself. After coming ashore on the
island of Guadaloupe, Columbus’ initial reports back
to the Queen of Spain described the indigenous people as
friendly and peaceful— though he did mention rumors of a
group called the Caribs, who made violent raids and then cooked
and ate their prisoners. In response, Queen Isabella granted
permission to capture and enslave anyone who ate human flesh. When the island failed to produce the gold
Columbus was looking for, he began to label anyone who resisted his
plundering and kidnapping as a Caribe. Somewhere along the way, the word “Carib”
became “Canibe” and then “Cannibal.” First used by colonizers to dehumanize
indigenous people, it has since been applied to anyone
who eats human flesh. So the term comes from an account that
wasn’t based on hard evidence, but cannibalism does have a real and
much more complex history. It has taken diverse forms— sometimes,
as with mumia, it doesn’t involved recognizable parts
of the human body. The reasons for cannibalistic practices
have varied, too. Across cultures and time periods, there’s
evidence of survival cannibalism, when people living through a famine,
siege or ill-fated expedition had to either eat the bodies of the dead
or starve to death themselves. But it’s also been quite common
for cultures to normalize some form of eating human
flesh under ordinary circumstances. Because of false accounts
like Columbus’s, it’s difficult to say exactly how common
cultural cannibalism has been— but there are still some examples of
accepted cannibalistic practices from within the cultures practicing them. Take the medicinal cannibalism in Europe
during Columbus’s time. Starting in the 15th century, the demand
for mumia increased. At first, stolen mummies from Egypt
supplied the mumia craze, but soon the demand was too great to be
sustained on Egyptian mummies alone, and opportunists stole bodies from
European cemeteries to turn into mumia. Use of mumia continued for
hundreds of years. It was listed in the Merck index,
a popular medical encyclopedia, into the 20th century. And ground up mummies were far from
the only remedy made from human flesh that was common throughout Europe. Blood, in either liquid or powdered form,
was used to treat epilepsy, while human liver, gall stones, oil
distilled from human brains, and pulverized hearts were popular
medical concoctions. In China, the written record of socially accepted
cannibalism goes back almost 2,000 years. One particularly common
form of cannibalism appears to have been filial cannibalism, where adult sons and daughters would
offer a piece of their own flesh to their parents. This was typically offered as a last-ditch
attempt to cure a sick parent, and wasn’t fatal to their offspring— it usually involved flesh from the thigh
or, less often, a finger. Cannibalistic funerary rites are another
form of culturally sanctioned cannibalism. Perhaps the best-known example came
from the Fore people of New Guinea. Through the mid-20th century, members
of the community would, if possible, make their funerary
preferences known in advance, sometimes requesting that family members
gather to consume the body after death. Tragically, though these rituals
honored the deceased, they also spread a deadly disease known
as kuru through the community. Between the fictionalized stories,
verifiable practices, and big gaps that still exist
in our knowledge, there’s no one history of cannibalism. But we do know that people have
been eating each other, volunteering themselves to be eaten, and accusing others of eating
people for millennia.

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