You come from Cannibals

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A man “lies crumpled on the sand … Behind him a dark trail leads back to the spot from which he has just been dragged. Looking closer, we notice something slightly odd about the figure crouching over the wounded man. His posture does not suggest a doctor attempting to staunch bleeding, or even to check heartbeat or pulse. Look a little closer still, and you may be inclined suddenly to reel back or to close your eyes. The man sprawled at such an odd angle beside the injured [man] has his face pressed against a gaping tear in [his] throat. He is drinking blood fresh from the wound…” Why? Well, to cure his epilepsy, of course. The date is 24 AD, the injured man is a gladiator, and the man drinking the blood must have bribed his way to the front of the line because he’s getting what a lot of other people in Ancient Rome routinely sought. A nice blood meal, for medicinal purposes, of course.

Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires

And that is not the most shocking thing you’ll read if you devour Ricahrd Sugg’s Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. In this scholarly yet macabre book, Sugg documents the practice of consuming or wearing or otherwise messing around with human flesh, skin, fat, brains, and blood as generally recommended by the best and most reputable healers, and as generally practiced by people of means and education, among others. “James I refused corpse medicine; Charles II made his own corpse medicine; and Charles I was made into corpse medicine.” Corpse medicine. Sounds like cannibalism to me!

Suddenly, the Eucharist makes sense. The consumption of human tissue in Europe for quite some time was a primarily Christian practice. Some of the tissues were harvested from the bodies of the freshly executed. Were the fabled crowds gathered to see the bad men hang after something other than a good show? Was it like a drive-through, a buffet, or more of a sit-down affair? Interestingly, though the roots of this tradition go back to the Classical Period, and it was developed to its full science during the Medieval Period, Medical Cannibalism seems to have reached it’s height during the early Renaissance and continued into the Victorian Era, though much reduced in fashion. You have to read this book.

Is cannibalism normal?

In my last essay on Cannibalism (Among Cannibals) I asked if you thought that cannibalism could ever be considered as just one of many of the diverse modes of human behavior, recently abandoned by virtually all societies and thus seen as much odder and demented than it should be viewed. In particular, I was asking about cannibalism where you go and kill someone so you could eat them. The stuff I mention above, from Sugg’s book, seems a bit more like ritual cannibalism where you eat your ancestors, perhaps cremated and calcined and made into a sort of soup, as part of a ritual. So maybe, if you are of European Ancestry, you can keep believing that your people have never really been cannibals. But I’m not so sure. Sucking the blood from the gaping wound of a dying gladiator is probably not what you were thinking as an example of “not demented” or fully ritualized. And, once there is a sufficient demand for human body parts, tissues, and fluids, would you think for a moment that there were not agents who could provide these valuable items in ways that were exactly the same as killing someone so you could eat them … because people were killed, so they could be eaten, then, well, eaten?

No. Sorry. If you are of European Ancestry, you come from Cannibals.

One way to make sense of this all is to consider blood, and bodily fluids in general. These days, in Western society, we know that these things are dangerous. Some people (smart people) carry around portable shields that allow them to give mouth-to-mouth to strangers and not get a disease. Ambulance workers and other first responders routinely don protective materials to avoid contact with fluids. I’m not sure … do mothers still suck the blood from their children’s wounds like they did when I was a kid? Probably not. Do people still suck the blood from their own wounds? (Not counting when you bite your own tongue.) I’m not sure, you tell me. When was the last time you tasted human blood?

Our fear of fluids has gone so far that you can’t get a good piece of red meat out any more unless you go to the highly specialized restaurant’s, where despite the availability of Pittsburgh you will see people ordering “medium” or even, gasp, “well done.”

Given this, the whole idea of paying to suck the blood from the gaping wound of a dying gladiator is enough to put you off your lunch, but I submit that this disgust is a cultural trait that you need not be endowed with. I’m not saying sucking blood is a good thing. I’m just saying that it is a bad thing, to you, because you learned to be that way. And in other times and other places, the distaste for human body parts, tissues, or fluids may not have been routinely learned.

It’s all cultural

And maybe in some cases, quite the opposite may have happened: Such a taste may have been cultivated. And once you’ve got a culture where eating raw human liver or rendered human fat or whatever is seen as a good thing, it is very hard to not define such a culture as “Cannibals.”

So why, then, is it the case that in our Western literature the prevailing notion (over the last couple of centuries) is that dark skinned people living in far off lands are sufficiently cannibalistic (even when they aren’t) that the term “Cannibals” can actually become the primary term by which they are referred (used in much of the literature more often than “Natives”), but French, English Germans, and others who, if of sufficient status, mainstream, and solvent, did it whenever they could but are not thusly labeled?

Because the meaning of the word “cannibal” has almost nothing to do with who eats whom.

See more on Cannibalism

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12 thoughts on “You come from Cannibals

  1. Hi
    I just had to say a note & at least give a thanks .
    But maybe not for the usual reasons. I read a lot of medical literature concerning neurology and brain science anyway ,but more to study my own condition than anything (Epilepsy)
    As a result of this I have also recently become dyslexic and a poor speller .
    So even though I read the title many times I always read
    “You came from CANNABIS” not Cannibals.
    Sorry but I thought that was worth a chuckle anyway.
    That was educational though and I understood about bloodletting,drinking blood for things ,But I never had read about being a “cure” for seizures? interesting .
    I like the link to the Europeans being cannibals too.Also the link to the word “Cannibal” That is interesting . I also teach a “gifted” teen daughter and use word play for everything ,this will now be our next “word of the day” should be interesting what the different dictionary’s do with it. Thanks so much. Rick Wichita Kansas

  2. It seems that cannibalism concerned only ancient civilization. In their case it was even justified, because they stood on a high intellectual level. Eating someone from another group representing the power of the tribe. However, they did not know that cannibalism was detrimental to their lives. Modern scientists believe that eating human flesh by the Neanderthals, has led to their extinction.

  3. 250 episodes of Alton Brown’s Good Eats, and none for the 21st century cannibal. Well, maybe we need an Andrew Zimmer episode first to bring the concept to the masses.

  4. I always find it fascinating when reading post-apocolyptic literature, the ultimate horror, ultimate evil always seems to be cannibalism. I always think, meh, risky for health and I’d like to think I wouldn’t murder, but eating someone who’s already dead? Beats starving and they don’t need the meat anymore.

  5. Currently, the idea of cannibalism seems very strange and unacceptable in most societies, but when one thinks about it, our ancestors were being conservative, using the meat and edible parts for food and medical purposes. We do similar things with animals such as pigs, snakes, and cows. So, from a purely scientific standpoint, the idea of cannibalism isnâ??t so bizarre.

  6. Wow, I had no clue that cannibalism was so… common back then. Today, many view cannibalism as a disgusting, inhumane activity. Without this post, I would have never expected that in past times, some people accepted cannibalism, even though they didn’t think of it that way, either for medicinal or cultural purposes.

  7. I was offerred the option of using Alloderm, which is cadaver tissue harvested for reconstructive surgery that I needed. I found it disgusting, especially since I am vegetarian, and declined what I termed a “Frankenstein” procedure. So there is medical cannibalism to this very day!

  8. Laura, good point. Now that you mention it, I’ve got some cadaver in my jaw. Not sure if it actually human or something else. The dentist refused to answer my questions directly.

  9. Do the negative health issues related to cannibalism extend beyond the ease of transmission of disease due to close similarity of tissues? I know that parasites are readily transferred in improperly cooked meat, and that viruses transfer more easily in more closely related species. Our diets today can be fairly broad, and yet one of our more common food sources – swine – are a higher risk for this reason. It is in all likelihood one of the reasons that the Abrahamic religions all have proscribed it as unclean flesh, even though germ-theory, an understanding of microbiology, etc. were all centuries off.

  10. These thinigs are not really known. Undercooked human brain can transmit prions, and the famous Kuru is an example of an endemic disease that arose from this. Otherwise, if proper handling techniques including thorough cooking are applied human meat, especially if marinated because it tends to be tough, should be fine.

    Regarding prohibitions against pig: More cultures don’t have a prohibition against pig than do, and there are foods that are potentially more unhealthy than pig eaten by cultures around the world. There have been several anthropological models that could explain these prohibitions from a functional perspective (i.e., health, control of protein in the food supply by elites, etc.) as well as symbolically (having the wrong number of legs is icky). I don’t think any of these explanations have avoided intensive criticism.

    More important, perhaps, is the apparent fact that there are many, many food prohibitions that make no sense at all. It may be that most food prohibitions don’t make sense, though perhaps a few had origins that kinda made sense at the time.

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