For humans, cannibalism is the ultimate taboo. In one experiment, participants were asked to listen to a hypothetical case of a man who consented to his friend eating parts of him once he died of natural causes. In the story, this act was permitted due to cultural reasons—that the act was meant to honor the deceased and that the flesh was cooked so that there was no chance of disease. Despite the consent from the man and assurance that there would be no health implications, about half of the participants still insisted that the act was invariably wrong.
Cannibalism as Humanity’s Ultimate Taboo
The experiment showed humans' strong aversion to cannibalism, in which consent and ethics count for little. Cannibalism remains almost beyond contemplation even in the starkest of situations. Survivors of the 1972 Andes plane crash, for instance, waited until near starvation before succumbing to reason and eating those who had already died.
According to The Conversation, a network of not-for-profit media outlets that publish news stories written by academics and researchers, a survivor named Roberto Canessa said that he felt that eating his fellow passengers would be “stealing their souls” and descending towards “ultimate indignity.” For centuries, accusations of cannibalism have often been falsely made to demonize groups.
The truth is, the practice is driven by one’s culture. The Fore people of Papua New Guinea, for instance, were reported to have participated in funerary cannibalism, believing it better that the body was eaten by people who loved the deceased than by worms and maggots. Several historical accounts have also shown that parts of mummies were eaten for medicinal purposes in post-Renaissance Europe.
Mainstream religions have always frowned on cannibalism, labeling it as barbarous and driving it almost to extinction. This is one of the major reasons why the practice has become increasingly taboo in modern history. While they label cannibalism as immoral and disgusting, these same people simultaneously use it as justification for colonial exploitation.
When Columbus first arrived in the New World, he described the indigenous people as friendly and causing no problems. According to National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, Queen Isabella ordered Columbus to treat these people with respect and kindness, except if it became clear they are cannibals. They were looking for gold for then, however, they didn’t find any. This is when they decided to turn them into slaves.
Schutt said that since then, the idea of cannibalism as a taboo was used to dehumanize the people encountered on these conquests. “Lo and behold, when Columbus came back, the indigenous people who had previously been classified as friendly were suddenly described as cannibals, so you could do anything to them. You could enslave them, take their land, murder them, and treat them like a pestilence. And that’s exactly what happened, with the result that a lot of the islands were depopulated,” he said.
Cannibalism is Common in the Animal Kingdom
In zoologist and author Bill Schutt’s book titled “Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History,” he explained that cannibalism is extremely common in the animal kingdom. In fact, this ecological interaction has been recorded in more than 1,500 species. Male spiders, for instance, pay the ultimate sacrifice by curling up immediately after mating to provide a delicious snack for the female. A study found that spiderlings of the female that ate her mating partner were 20% larger and survived 50% longer compared to those whose parents didn’t indulge in a bit of post-copulation cannibalism.
Back in 1977, British primatologist Jane Goodall recorded chimpanzees eating other chimps. Since then, several documented examples of cannibalism among the great apes were recorded, with reasons ranging from nutrition, survival, and perhaps even insurrection. Cannibalism is also very much present underwater. Scientists discovered that when the first embryo of sand tiger sharks reaches a certain size, it starts feasting on all its younger siblings. Studies about Orthacanthus sharks found evidence that they have been eating their own young.
“The Carboniferous Period was a time when marine fishes were starting to colonize freshwater swamps in large numbers. It’s possible that Orthacanthus used inland waterways as protected nurseries to rear its babies, but then consumed them as food when other resources became scarce,” co-author Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang of the Royal Holloway University of London said.
Previous studies suggest that one of the reasons why animals succumb to this practice is to gain extra nutrition. The tadpoles of cane toads prefer to dine on their own kind, helping them grow up big and strong, and cutting down on future competition. Another study revealed that their bigger cane toads lure younger cane toads close enough to be eaten. According to Wired, a monthly American magazine that focuses on how emerging technologies affect culture, the economy, and more, the researchers found out that in a sample of 28 cane toads, 64% of their diet was made up of other cane toads.
Some animals even use cannibalism to expand their species. For years, scientists have wondered how comb jelly, a marine invertebrate invader from North America that now frequently washes up on Baltic shores, managed to expand from the east coasts of North and South America to Eurasian coastal waters. It was earlier assumed that they were able to persist due to a lack of native predators. However, a recent study published in Communications Biology showed that cannibalism helps them survive severe conditions.
According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, the researchers showed that adult jellies were actually consuming the blooms of their own offspring by combining the population dynamics of this species with experimental feeding and geochemical tracers. "In some ways, the whole jelly population is acting as a single organism, with the younger groups supporting the adults through times of nutrient stress. Overall, it enables jellies to persist through extreme events and low food periods, colonizing further than climate systems and other conditions would usually allow,” Thomas Larsen, a co-author of the study at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, said.