Cannibalism: Custom a valid Justification?


Cannibalism can be defined as a practice of consuming or eating a member of one’s own species. This practice is prevalent among the members of various species including humans in which case it is often termed as Anthropophagy. Etymologically the word cannibal is derived from a Spanish term Canibal, derived from Caniba, a name for the Carib or Galibi Tribe.

There are numerous examples of cannibalism in popular culture. For instance, the episodes of Thyestes and Tereus in the ancient Greek mythology, William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Herman Melvill’s Typee and the more popular, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells which is a science fiction featuring cannibalism by the Morlocks.

Cannibalism has not been out rightly outlawed in most countries including the U.S. and Europe. Cannibals are generally charged with murder, desecration of corpses or necrophilia.

A brief history of Cannibalism

Throughout history, cannibalism has been sustained on a persistent theme that the vitality of the human body and spirit can be ingested to impart power and life force upon human beings. If anthropological data is to be believed, Homo antecessor considered being the link between Homo Neanderthals and Homo sapiens first practiced cannibalism solely for nutritional purposes. Later, the need for more advanced hunting techniques was developed since consumption of one human by another was not a sustainable source of food.

When Colombus visited America as early as 1492, he encountered a West Indies Tribes known as Carib Tribe, who practiced Cannibalism as a ritual. Their names were often mispronounced as Canibs. The first known use of the word Cannibalism was in 1553 as per Merriam-Webster.

From the 16th centuries, blood, ground bones etc. were being commonly used in medicinal cannibalism.

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Kinds of Cannibalism

Cannibalism can be of 2 major types

  • Survival Cannibalism and
  • Non-survival cannibalism[1].

Cannibalism as a necessity for survival

This cannibalism is practiced due to powerful self-preservation instincts possessed by humans. In cases when humans are trapped in a situation, in which there seems to be no other source of food, they may resort to cannibalism, which could be their only chance of survival. This is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. Yet, there have been instances in the past where the will to live conquered all other thoughts and emotions. For instance, Cannibalism was reported in Egypt during a famine when the Nile dried up for about 8 years. When French ship Medusa sunk in 1816, the survivors turned to cannibalism after 4 days adrift on a boat[2]. The classic case of Regina v. Dudley and Stephan[3] is one wherein 2 high-minded naval citizens, Dudley and Stevens, along with shipmates Brooks and Parker were stuck on a raft after their ship was destroyed in a storm. They had no food or fresh water with them and ended up starving and parched for many days. Parker, the youngest among them fell sick and dehydrated on drinking sea water. As he fell unconscious, Dudley killed him and the others ate his meat. On being tried for a murder they pleaded necessity as a defense, albeit it was not accepted by the court.

Cultural Cannibalism

As per the National Geographic News[4], there is ample evidence to show that it has been widespread among the ancient human culture. Scientists have discovered that it is due to it that genes protecting against brain diseases that can be spread by consuming contaminated flesh that has long been spread throughout the world.

Cultural or Customary Cannibalism has been a part and parcel of several cultures, especially the European, African, South American and most Island nations. For instance, among the Fijians, the Aztecs of South America, natives of American Southwest region and the Iroquoian Nation, human cannibalism was a morally acceptable and codified custom. They didn’t consume humans due to lack of protein resources but because the practice was an accepted part of their culture.

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In India, it is practiced by groups such as the Aghoris, Nagas, and the Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblo communities. Apart from these, the Bodo, Garo, Jaintia tribes of the North-eastern and Andaman and Nicobar Island Group also practice cannibalism occasionally.

Cannibalism as a customary practice justified or not?

From an ethical point of view, there are several arguments against this practice. The mere thought of consuming human flesh by another human is disturbing. This practice per se is highly immoral especially when resorted to as a cultural practice.

There are ongoing debates on whether cannibalism especially the one that borders on cultural and customary lines is justified. While talking of it what must be considered is that whether the person killed was killed in order to be eaten. For instance, in the case of Uruguayan Flight crash, the survivors did not initially consume those who were killed in the crash but waited until they starved. Here, the survivors had nothing to do with the death of those who were consumed. Similarly, in case of customary cannibalism too, a distinction can be made between cultures that sacrifice humans and consume their flesh for spiritual purposes and those that consume the dead as a ritual. Just as a person desperate to survive, who kills another person for the sake of his own survival, the culture that promotes and accepts the killing of a human for spiritual gain would be tantamount to depriving a person of his chance to live and live happily.

Another argument condemning cultural cannibalism is that a human ought to treat other humans as an end and not as a means. In consuming a human for the satisfaction of one’s spiritual desires, an individual is deprived of his dignity and hence this leads to the violation of the moral law.  Moreover, it has been found that diseases can be easily passed on through eating human meat compared to chicken and pork. Customary cannibalism also led to an easy transmission of several deadly diseases such as the kuru disease which is an incurable neurodegenerative disorder, the cause behind the death of several cannibal tribes.

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It is unjustifiable to validate it as a customary practice especially in cases where a life is sacrificed to meet societal demands. Further, the consumption of an individual after his death as per various rituals is also undesirable. A person’s body is considered to be the temple of his spirit which must be respected even after his death.

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[1]Also called as cultural or customary cannibalism

[2] Cannibalism

[3] (1884) 14 QBD 273 DC

[4] Cannibalism Normal For Early Humans?, John Roach, National Geographic News, April 10, 2003. (Last Visited   December 27, 2016)

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