With the upsurge in the popularity of zombie-based TV shows and movies in the last several years, now is probably a perfect time to learn more about the subject of people – and animals – eating members of their own species, including sometimes their brains, the topic tackled by Bill Schutt in Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History.
Published this year by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, the book examines not only famous instances of human cannibalism like the Donner party in Colorado and in far-flung locals like New Guinea, but also among animals, all while diving into cannibals who inspired pop culture characters like Norman Bates of “Psycho,” which was adapted from a pulp novel about Edward Gein of Wisconsin, who left his mother’s room exactly as it was after she died and was eventually found to have murdered a local storeowner, whose heart was found in a frying pan in Gein’s house, which was filled with objects made from human body parts and an icebox stocked with human organs.
Despite such examples of real-life cannibalism, Schutt , a zoologist by trade, notes that accusations of cannibalism were often used to justify atrocities against other people, like the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and South America, who were classified as such by Spanish colonizers to make beating, conquering and killing them more acceptable to members of Christian societies.
Even amongst animals, however, cases of cannibalism are often less clear cut than they may seem at first, says the author, who was so dedicated to his research that he even went as far as to sample a dish made using human placenta on a trip to Texas.
In the case of golden hamsters, which are sold as pets and have often been observed to eat their young, the behaviour is attributed to the stress of living in captivity in an environment much different than their natural habitat. Similarly, though female black widow spiders are often described by many sources as commonly cannibalizing the males after mating, this behaviour is actually rare. Similarly, while cannibalism among polar bears has been blamed on global warming, it has been observed for over 100 years, though climate change may be increasing its frequency.
Much like the Donner party, one of whose members admitted to eating nothing but human bodies for two months while trapped in a snow-covered mountain pass and unable to accompany rescue parties down the hill because of a badly injured foot, other humans in difficult circumstances have relied on cannibalism to survive, including at least 2,000 people who were arrested for eating human bodies during the siege of Leningrad in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. In the Pacific theatre, a Japanese officer ordered soldiers to kill American airmen captured after a bombing raid and to remove and cook their organs to be fed to him and other officers. The officer in question was later convicted of a war crime, but it was for denying enemy soldiers an honourable burial rather than cannibalism itself, which was not classified as a war crime.
Schutt also looks at examples of cannibalism in popular culture, including Greek mythology and plays by Seneca and William Shakespeare, as well as the un-Disneyfied version of Snow White and the original, gorier Little red Riding Hood, in which the werewolf murders Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and then feeds her granddaughter some of her flesch and blood, which he tells her are meat and wine.
The real-life consequences of cannibalism are also examined, including the possibility that Neanderthals went extinct in part because of a disease similar to kuru, which claimed the lives of as many as one per cent of the population of New Guinea’s Fore tribes while they were engaging in the practice of eating their dead. The effects of feeding sheep and cows the bones and other body parts of their own species, which may have led to the mad cow disease outbreak are also discussed.
Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History is available at the Thompson Public Library.