Cannibalism – The Secret Story


Few people in the Western world have ever known know what it is to be desperately hungry. We feel sympathy when we see photographs of the starving children in sub-Saharan Africa, a pity we quickly forget when we tuck into our calorie-laden, Sunday lunch. We feel disgust when we watch newsreel shots of people in Haiti fighting to get an unfair share of the food brought in by the relief agencies. In doing so we forget the primitive, and ruthless streak of self-preservation that lies untamed beneath our own, public personas. When food deliveries were disrupted during the recent spell of icy weather, otherwise law-abiding citizens raided the supermarket shelves in a sudden wave of panic buying. People bought, and hoarded, vast quantities of food that they didn’t need and couldn’t possibly eat. The veneer of civilisation is exceedingly thin. A fire breaks out in a crowded disco and people are trampled to death in the Gadarene stampede for the exit doors. Our lives have become so cosseted and cushioned that we’ve forgotten how to act responsibly when crisis strikes.

Most tribes have a taboo against cannibalism. Dog may eat dog, but men and women are discouraged from consuming their next door neighbours. Nevertheless, when the chips are down, this unwritten law is honoured more in the breach than in the observance. On several, well-documented, occasions shipwrecked sailors have eaten their weaker comrades when they’ve been cast adrift for days without food. In 1972 a plane, carrying a team of young rugby players, crashed into the barren upper slopes of the Andes. The survivors were without food for eight weeks, before being reached by a rescue team. They kept alive by eating their least able team mates. Something similar happened during the First World War, when the German underworld sold human flesh which was said to taste like pork. It was called gehamstertes fleisch or smuggled meat, and was often sold from hot-dog stalls.

Our taste in meat varies. We find it strange that the French should eat horse flesh, and the Chinese make a delicacy of abandoned dogs. Even odder is the knowledge that many races have cultivated a positive preference for eating human flesh. This was once very popular in the Caribbean Islands, in fact the word ‘cannibalism’ is derived from canibalis, which it the Spanish term for the Caribbean people. On occasions people have been castrated and raised in cages like battery hens to improve their flavour and fat content. One Nigerian chief had his victims injected with palm oil a few days before they were slaughtered, believing that this in vitro marination improved the flavour of the meat. The Maoris were equally discriminating. They gave up eating English flesh, which they found too salty, and concentrated instead on the rumps and haunches of their fellow countrymen which were sweeter and more to their taste. This cuisine still has its devotees in the Orient, according to a 1991 report in Hainan Daily, an official Chinese newspaper. This revealed that a local restaurant was serving cheap and delicious spicy dumplings made from human remains. The meat was supplied by the owner’s brother who ran a nearby crematorium. This was judged to be perfectly acceptable by legal experts, for while Chinese law stipulates that it’s illegal to kill, a nineteenth century high court judgment ruled that it is not an offense to eat the flesh of dead corpses.

There are lessons to be learnt from these macabre practices. The first is that the ways of man are bizarre and infinitely varied. We have powers of adaptation that are denied to other animal species. Given the will, we can endure earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, famines, bitter winters and horrendous floods. But only the fittest can cope with the demands of these physical calamities and dark nights of the soul. This will be the subject of my next posting. What is it that makes a person resilient? Why do some survive while others succumb?

Source by Donald Norfolk