Consumption of human flesh has occurred on all continents over the ages, yet never in a systematic or continuous manner. It declined from the third millennium BCE, with the emergence of the great civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus valley. Although it continued on the American continent and in Oceania until the 16th century, the practice has now become rare and a cultural taboo.
The history of anthropophagy
Anthropophagy is absolutely forbidden in post-industrial societies and many countries have not even considered including it in their penal codes. During the great exploratory voyages of the 16th century, Europeans discovered anthropophagy on the American continent, then in Africa and Oceania. The Conquerors, colonists, missionaries, travellers and explorers were both horrified and fascinated at the same time, and recounted the facts in detail, sometimes putting a fanciful spin on things. In particular, Georges Schweinfurth (1868-1871) an explorer and naturalist, said of the Niam-Niam in Central Africa: “The Niam-Niam, who are unashamed of their cannibalism, admit that all of their corpses are considered fit to eat, except of those who suffered from a skin disease.” Owing to the unreliability of historical sources, anthropologists have often played down the phenomenon.
Anthropophagy and cannibalism
Ethnologists make a distinction between anthropophagy, the act of eating human flesh, and cannibalism, which is always practised in groups and is considered a ritual and social institution. The term ‘anthropophagy’ was borrowed in the 15th century from the Ancient Greek ‘anthropos’ (man) and ‘phagein’ (to eat). Later on, the word ‘cannibalism’ came from the Spanish canibal, an alteration of cariba, which referred to the inhabitants of the Caribbean and meant ‘hardy’. Under Spanish influence, it took on the meaning of ‘savage’ or ‘cruel’ and designated anthropophagi.
Endocannibalism and exocannibalism
Cannibalism exists in two separate forms that are mutually exclusive: endocannibalism and exocannibalism. In exocannibalism, the victims belong to another social group, enemies killed in combat or prisoners of war, with the aim being to take revenge or assimilate such virtues as their strength or courage. In the Fiji Islands, for example, people did not eat enemies who were considered cowards. Conversely, endocannibalism refers to the ritual consumption of the deceased from one’s own social group, to guarantee that the dead person’s spirit would remain amongst the living, in order to perpetuate their presence or maintain continuity between life and death. This funerary cannibalism might consist of eating the grilled, ground or diluted bones of fellow tribe members.
Most researchers believe that anthropophagy has a magical-religious aspect, linked to the depiction of life and death, and the cults of ancestors. This practice contributes to the social organisation and unity of a group. In many ways, the consumption of human flesh exhibits the same ‘regulatory’ and ritual characteristics as the consumption of animal flesh, i.e. it creates social bonds, whether horizontal, between the living, or vertical, between generations. On a scale from civilisation to savagery, the lower stage generally involves anthropophagy.
Anthropophagy has been in continual decline since the 16th century. Whether rumours or proven facts, accounts of recent anthropophagy still circulate today, as with the striking example of the ‘Rotenburg Cannibal’ in 2001. Films have also taken inspiration from real-life criminals, as with the character Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs.
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