Are We Too Comfortable with Cannibalism?

It's all too easy for us to accept humans eating other humans. What does that say about us?

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Maarten Wouters / Getty Images
Maarten Wouters / Getty Images

In the past week, there were three separate reports of incidents of cannibalism, prompting the CDC to officially deny — tongue in cheek — that there’s a virus behind it. Last week in Miami, a young man named Rudy Eugene feasted on the face of a homeless man in broad daylight until he was shot by cops; in Baltimore, a college student killed an older family friend and roommate and cooked and ate his organs. And in San Antonio, a mother apparently ate her three week old child.

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The eating of human flesh is a primeval horror that makes a rare appearance in the Greek tragedies and in the Bible, specifically in relation to the siege of Jerusalem. There is something about this level of savagery that we find riveting. As technology advances beyond our ability to keep track of it, moving humanity into sophisticated realms of communication, travel, and medical care, our imaginations are ever more attuned to the possibility of a world reduced to such a state of prehistoric extremis that we would all bare our fangs.

Cannibalism had been on my mind recently because I’m taking a trip into the Arctic with my nine-year-old daughter later this week, sailing into the Polar Sea from an island off the frozen northern coast of Norway. Preparing for my voyage, I had picked up an 1895 book called True Tales of the Frozen North, from a bin of dusty used tomes and came across an account of a trip known as “Franklin’s Lost Expedition.”

As voyages go, it started off well enough, in the summer of 1845. An Englishman named Sir John Franklin and his ships were last seen by Europeans in late July of that year, moored to an iceberg and aiming to cross the last un-navigated section of the Northwest passage, that fabled prize opening to the Orient that had lured countless previous expeditioneers. But neither Franklin nor his men were ever seen again. Nine years later, the Scottish explorer John Rae, encountered Inuit who described the Franklin expedition’s fate: the ships froze in ice, the men were without provisions, and after resorting to that most extreme of survival measures, cannibalism, all perished. The British searchers found further proof of this and reported: “From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource — cannibalism — as a means of prolonging existence.”

The ladies and gentleman of Victorian England refused to accept this report. They simply could not imagine a situation in which their fellow English could so thoroughly abandon the rules of civilized society. Franklin’s widow disregarded the story, as did Charles Dickens, no shrinking violet when it came to witnessing man’s bestiality. He wrote a newspaper article insisting that no British citizen would resort to such “horrible means” to stay alive.

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Another famous incident of cannibalism, that of the Donner Party, has been hotly contested. The Donner Party consisted of 81 pioneers who spent the winter of 1846-7 at a frigid campsite near Truckee, Calif. and were reduced to eating cows, family pets, bone and string and, finally, each other. In a book published last year and based on an archeological excavation researchers concluded that while they didn’t find evidence of human bones having been cooked, the last Donner survivors likely cut the human flesh from the corpses.

While there has been much interest in the recent string of incidents, there has also been surprisingly little skepticism.Unlike the British ladies and gentleman of Victoria’s England, we 21st Century moderns, blessed with health and longevity and technology that people could only dream about a generation ago, can easily imagine total lawlessness and the primeval horror that goes with it, in inverse proportion to our distance from it. Not only can we imagine it, but we have turned it into a form of entertainment, as “zombie apocalypse” trends on Google with each new report and the CDC gets in on the joke. The cannibals among us remind us that we are more savage than we think.

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