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Could Cannibalism Ultimately Be the Most Reliable Way to Sustain the World’s Food Supply?

Beyond morals, beyond laws and beyond simple disgust, there’s a very good reason Soylent Green is unlikely to be in our future

When I was about nine years old, I was alarmed and disturbed to discover we had a cannibal living next-door. It wasn’t any of the four humans — they were nice. It was their pet rabbit, whose name may or may not have been Snowy and who one day, after she had recently given birth to a litter of blind, mewling kits, devoured the lot and turned her hutch into a grisly death cage strewn with blood and baby-bunny bits.

God knows it was a traumatic episode for the family — especially for the daughter, around my age, who discovered the carnage when she went down to the shed that morning to feed lettuce to the blood-matted mom (who had already decided against salad and opted instead for the baby breakfast buffet). But it also preyed on my mind for some time. Much more so than being bitten by a dog when I was three or watching lions savaging zebras on David Attenborough documentaries, this was my first real, visceral exposure to the animal kingdom as it truly is — a remorseless, alien world full of atrocities that we sensitive apes can never really come to terms with — rather than the fuzzy, rainbow-painted Muppet Noah’s Ark I had pictured until then.

“It’s unfortunate, and probably thousands and thousands of kids have gone through that little horror,” says Bill Schutt, biology professor at LIU-Post and author of the book Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History. “Whether it’s rabbits, gerbils or hamsters — which are really famous for doing this — when they’re put into a stressful condition and they’re scared to death, one of the responses can be cannibalism.” While these fluffier instances might be well-known to pet-store owners and scientists, as Schutt says, “Most people, when they think of animal cannibalism, think of praying mantises and black widow spiders.” Even for a zoologist like him, though, “It was a huge surprise to me when I started to do this work just how widespread it was.”

As Schutt’s book details, diverse species indulge in cannibalism for a wide variety of routine survival and gene-propagation reasons, and not just when they’re in desperate straits like stress or starvation. Among his favorite greedy grotesques are Arizona’s spadefoot toads, among whose tadpoles a brutish minority suddenly develop into supersized carnivorous monsters that swim around the pond Hoovering up their unlucky normal brethren (this, he explains, is an insurance policy in an arid climate where ponds often dry up; a tadpole diet fast-tracks the killers’ development into toadlets who can hop to safety sooner). Pre-birth, sand tiger sharks will pursue each other inside their mothers’ oviducts until there are only two left to be born. The black lace-weaver spider produces trophic (or nutritional) eggs for her brood, until, says Schutt, “there are no more eggs left to eat, and the mother just kind of thrums on the web and calls the babies to her and hunkers down, and they eat her” instead.

Male lions taking over a new pride will kill and eat the cubs in order to bring their mothers into estrus (that is, ready to mate again) more rapidly; chimps have been known to adopt this strategy too: “If a female chimp comes into a group and she’s got a baby, sometimes they’ll rip that baby away from her, kill it, and… they may cannibalize it” — while he points out this is a rare occurrence in primates, in worrying news for our own violent-ape brand, it’s on the roster of natural behaviors for some of our closest cousins.

Basically, the animal kingdom is awash with cannibalism, and from the red-in-tooth-and-claw perspective, our own species’ moral rejection of the habit starts to look a little prudish, something like political correctness gone mad. Especially since, as a species, we’re currently faced with existential pressures such as dwindling land and agricultural resources, global food insecurity and catastrophic climate change — all of which, on the face of it, could be eased by recycling one of the most readily available free-range protein sources on the planet: Our own recently departed.

It’s an outlandish and aberrant notion, but it’s one that’s been puckishly floated for centuries. From Jonathan Swift’s brilliant satirical essay of 1729, A Modest Proposal — in which he advocates that the poor in Ireland escape economic oppression by selling their children to the rich as delicacies (noting that a one-year-old should make “a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled”) — to Swift’s near-contemporary, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who darkly warned, “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they’ll eat the rich” (and cue the French Revolution), cannibalism as social salvation isn’t exactly a new idea.

Its potential has been most famously explored in the 1973 dystopian sci-fi movie Soylent Green, in which a sinister food corporation secretly feeds a futuristic society its elderly disguised as veggie-crackers — but we’ve come across a couple of stories recently that suggest there might actually be an actual (albeit niche) appetite out there. In many countries, including the U.K., Germany and 49 states of the U.S., eating human flesh isn’t even explicitly against the law (Idaho is the notable exception, btw). As a society we already donate our organs and blood, and a large proportion of us are able to stomach that as an altruistic act. So could this be the doomsday survival strategy we’re just too squeamish to consider? 

That black lace-weaver is looking at us through her eight sad eyes, with 100 of her young sucking out her abdomen, going, “Dude. Grow some.”

Would We If We Were Allowed To?

It’s an idea that’s very hard to digest, but its viability boils down to two underlying questions: First, how “natural” is the instinct to cannibalize in us — that is, how readily would we resort to it if we were somehow suddenly freed from the cultural spell that has outlawed it for centuries? And second, exactly how unbreakable is that psycho-social restraint? For how long in our history have strong taboos kept person-pie off the menu, and just how flexible might they be?

His research into the history of cannibalism in humans leads Schutt to conclude that it is “in Western civilization the number one taboo,” which for him instantly rules out the idea that we would ever turn to it out of choice. “If you’re going to deal with meat in a test tube or a Petri dish — if you’re culturing this from cells — then why do it with humans? Why not do it with beef? Why not do it with fish? Why not do it with chicken?”

On the other hand, he can cite a string of examples from the past 200 years alone that demonstrate that when faced with extreme starvation, it’s a line that many of us might be horrified to find we absolutely would cross. There are the infamous isolated examples: Of the doomed Donner Party expedition of 1846-1847, in which pioneers heading west became stranded by snow in the Sierra Nevada, and the Uruguayan plane crash in the Andes in 1972, which was retold in the 1993 movie Alive and 2007 documentary Stranded — in both instances many of the survivors got through it by eating their dead companions.

Then there are larger-scale episodes, such as recurring reports of cannibalism during the Nazis’ brutal siege of Leningrad during World War II, and in the Chinese countryside during the famine that followed Mao’s disastrous agricultural reforms of the late 1950s. 

“You just don’t know what you’re going to do until you get into a situation where there’s a body laying there, and your child is starving to death,” says Schutt, explaining that the physiological process of starvation, with the extreme stresses and changes that come with emaciation, might alter out of all recognition the way you relate to the world. “This is something that happens when there’s no food left and you’re dying. It’s not unique to humans, and it’s not good or bad; it just is what it is. It’s a natural occurrence.”

Being capable of it doesn’t mean we have a propensity for it, of course. Outside of catastrophic food shortages, just how naturally habitual cannibalism would sit with a population of uncultured Homo sapiens is a whole other kettle of earlobes.

James Cole is an archaeologist specializing in human ancestry at the University of Brighton, and he’s in no doubt that humans have always engaged in cannibalistic behavior. While the fossil record for early human species is sparse, he says, “in that fossil record we have a small but persistent signal of cannibalism over the last million years,” which implies it was cropping up wherever there were human populations, right from the start of our species. “I wouldn’t say it’s ubiquitous, as in everybody’s doing it,” he adds, “but it certainly is a persistent behavioral practice.”

Evidence comes from a number of sites which include fossilized bones from different archaic human species — “Homo antecessor, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens,” explains Cole — that display cut marks. “Those cut marks were made by stone tools, and those bones have been butchered, basically. [The marks] tend to be located around ligaments and joints; you’re cutting the flesh off like a modern-day butcher would tackle a cow, a sheep or a pig.” In some other specimens, says Cole, “some of the long bones have been deliberately smashed and broken into so that the marrow can be extracted.”

Cole is unconvinced, though, by the explanation usually given for such people “processing” — especially in relation to non-sapiens hominids like Neanderthals — which is that human flesh formed part of a man-eating minority’s regular hunter-gatherer diet. He points out that this seems at odds with what we know from the more recent past of humans’ cannibalistic urges, where spiritual or funerary rites, intimidation of enemies, medicine or criminal psychosis form a complex of motives that are more typical than simple nutrition.

To get to the bottom of what really compelled early humans to eat each other, he’s taken an interesting approach. “I thought, if we’re going to use the term ‘nutritional,’ and consider that the consumption of those human groups were part of the dietary spectrum, it would be useful to know where we fell within that dietary spectrum. Are we particularly high value in protein or fat? Or not?” So, using data on the chemical composition of an average male human body, Cole worked out the calorific value of each juicy body part to ascertain the overall cost-benefit of hunting humans versus other prehistoric prey. 

The results, published in Nature, show that “we produce the right amount of calories, unsurprisingly, for an animal of that size” — which is significant because we’re not particularly economical as prey. With “a horse, a bison or an auroch [the ancestor of domestic cattle],” illustrates Cole, “you only have to hunt one of those to give you three or four days’ worth of calories for an average group of 25 or so,” where as a human would only yield a day or two’s worth of food. “Given the relatively low calorie return,” summarizes Cole, “maybe we need to start looking at more social or cultural motivations for cannibalism [across all early-human groups] — and that might be linked to things like territory defense.”

That’s not to say the nutritional value of a fellow human counts for nothing. “If Joe dies in the cave, you don’t have to go out that day. There could be an element of opportunism there,” says Cole. But, he argues, “I don’t think there’s any evidence from the archaeological record that human hunter-gatherer groups — whether Neanderthal, Homo sapiens or anything else — ever solely survived on eating members of their own species. My impression is that there are cultural states that define the rules of engagement on cannibalism. Clearly they’re eating other animals and plant material as their daily food sources; it’s not like you’re going to eat a human one day a week as your meal plan.”

Certainly from an evolutionary point-of-view, it would seem to make little sense for any animal to develop an overriding taste for its own, since you’d be looking at a pretty short-lived species. “It’s not optimal as a survival strategy,” agrees Cole, “and that’s largely because population numbers for human groups were very much smaller. At the end of the last Ice Age it’s been estimated there was something like 25,000 people in Europe.”

In fact, in 2017, students from the University of Leicester actually ran the numbers on what a full-species switch to an exclusively person-based diet would mean for today’s global human population. Assuming a (generous) daily requirement of 2,500 calories for each of the Earth’s 7.6 billion people — and no qualms and no escapees — they found that “one person would be left alive after 1,149 days.” 

And presumably suffering serious heartburn.

Is the Taboo a Forever Taboo?

“I’m certain that early humans, when they came across a body, whether it was human or not, likely ate it if they were hungry,” says Schutt, but points out that “across the animal kingdom, cannibalism is a lot more common in the invertebrates — animals without a backbone.” As you move into the mammals, he says, “especially the primates, it becomes rarer and rarer.”

So while consuming humans might have been a natural thing to do, it was always a minority sport — even before you take account of any cultural taboos that would limit its practice even further. What’s a little disconcerting is that from a historical perspective, according to both Schutt and Cole, that powerful prohibition we feel against it seems somewhat less deep-rooted than we might like to think. 

Going as far back as Western written records go, cannibalism has been invoked as a macabre spectacle — the Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BCE, mentions the practice several times in the context of exotic cultures, and on at least one occasion characterizes Greeks as being aghast at the thought; some 400 years later the geographer Strabo similarly accused the inhabitants of Ireland of being “more savage than the Britons since they are man-eaters, and count it as an honorable thing when their fathers die to devour them.”

In other words, cannibalism has always provided “civilized” people with a handy means of demonizing foreigners, but, says Schutt, it was in the Christian era that an intensified horror at the practice got its crusading legs, and served as a righteous excuse for conquest, colonizing and cultural re-education. As any given culture developed, its level of squeamishness surrounding human flesh would be far from pre-ordained, he says: “It all depends if you got the memo or not saying cannibalism is the worst taboo. But as Western civilization really took hold and strengthened across the world as a dominant force, then a lot of [other] cultures had to give way and give up their rituals.”

Once explorers like Columbus and the conquistadors “hit the turf in places like the Caribbean, Mexico and South America, they were able to use that taboo as a bludgeon, as a way to dehumanize the groups that they came into contact with. Because if you were a cannibal, you weren’t human — and it didn’t matter if some of these groups never practiced any type of cannibalism. Or [if they did] whether it was funerary cannibalism or with regard to their warfare: Once you were able to use that then all bets were off; you could do anything you wanted to these people.”

Held up as the symbol of ultimate depravity — in Grimm’s fairy tales, in Shakespeare, in strange traditional Yorkshire folk songs, in cartoons where marooned sailors visualize their shipmates as tasty man-burgers — cannibalistic forms of behavior were nevertheless allowed to stay on in Western culture in forms we somehow found universally acceptable.

Cole points to the irony of a historical campaign against indigenous customs being exported in the name of a religion that had a “metaphoric cannibalistic act” at its ceremonial heart — in which “you drink the blood of Christ and eat the body of Christ every week.” And in Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, Schutt details an alarming array of medical applications for human remains that lasted well into the early-modern era.

“That to me was a real surprise,” he recalls. “When you looked at Europe, for centuries every body part you can think of was turned into a powder or an elixir or a salve, or pulverized and taken to cure just about anything you can think of — from epilepsy to headaches to mental disorders.” While most of these “corpse medicine” remedies became obsolete in the West during the Enlightenment, some persisted, including the Gothic-horror-goes-Goop fad for “mummy powder” — vials of ground-up (and hopefully not too cursed) Egyptian mummies (or at least, that’s what the apothecaries claimed they were), which were hugely popular for treating bleeding, bruises and upset stomachs in the late 1600s and early 1700s, but still being stocked in the Merck pharmacy in Darmstadt, Germany (the proto-Merck pharmaceutical giant) in 1908.

Don’t Clear a Compartment in Your Chest Freezer Just Yet…

If the acceptance of body parts in medicine signals a kind of elasticity in our condemnation of cannibalism, today’s trend for human mothers eating their own placentas following childbirth — what Schutt sees as the “last vestige” of medical cannibalism in the West — might suggest it could be completely sanitized if only enough mommy and daddy bloggers got on the case.

To understand this odd suspension of the taboo, Schutt leapt at the chance to try it for himself when a promoter of the practice, who had recently given birth herself, invited him to her home in Plano, Texas to share hers. “I went down there with all these preconceived notions about how crazy it was going to be,” he says. “The woman was really sincere, and really nice, and her husband was there with the chef’s uniform on.” Schutt supplied the wine, and “they prepared it osso buco style, and I just got really into it.”

In terms of texture, “it was clearly an organ meat — like you were eating liver or kidney,” he says, but what the taste reminded him of most was chicken gizzards. And did he feel like he’d crossed a line? “You’re really not thinking about it as part of someone else. I wasn’t going, ‘Oh, now I’m a cannibal!’ I don’t believe that people who do this believe they’re cannibals. I thought of it more as a form of alternative medicine that I got this neat opportunity to partake in.”

Schutt is careful to point out that he doesn’t condone the practice, because “if she’d have been ill, there are bacteria or diseases that I could have picked up.” And this, over and above all the other practical and moral reasons arrayed against it, deals the killer blow to the idea that Soylent Green — or walking into a McDonald’s to order a Filet-O-Trish — might one day be a reality. 

“There are health impacts of eating a member of your own species,” explains Cole. “One of those things is the transference of neurodegenerative diseases.” In the 1990s, for example, the British beef industry faced a crisis after cases of mad cow disease — a fatal bovine brain condition that can trigger a similar horrific disease in humans who eat infected tissue — began emerging in U.K. cattle. This happened, says Cole, “because we were feeding cows other cows. Well,” he goes on, “the same things can happen to humans: You can get these neurodegenerative diseases by eating infected flesh, and particularly parts of the brain.” 

This was famously observed in the 20th century among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, whose former custom of funerary cannibalism, which included eating the brains of their dead relatives, tragically made hundreds of them vulnerable to kuru, or “laughing sickness” — a fatal neurological disease similar to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

“In a very dark and pessimistic view of the future you might say, well, maybe [cannibalism] is a way to recycle things,” says Cole. “But I think just on health grounds, no — it’s not viable because you’d end up with a very diseased population relatively quickly. Given the size of us, and how much people would consume, those infection rates would be amplified.”

Moreover, in a largely homogenized global culture, the taboos against people-eating are now so widespread that it would take an apocalyptic event of biblical proportions to make us forget that it’s supposed to make us gag. But if that cataclysm were to happen, suggests Cole, “there may well be a reversion to that original hunter-gatherer state. And within that, if the moral rules of our current society are lost, there may well be a reversion then to the engagement with cannibalism in the way that they did, say, 40,000 years ago or 10,000 years ago.” That is, limited in scale and an acquired taste.

Absent Armageddon, thinks Schutt, “it’s really far-fetched to think that somewhere down the road we’ll suddenly normalize cannibalism. I just think it’s ridiculous to think that all of a sudden you’re going to be able to buy a hamburger that has human cells cultured to form meat. I don’t see it happening.”

Magic away the taboo, then, and as a species we’re still going to exhaust every other available option before we let human meat anywhere near our barbecues and restaurants and processing plants. Culinarily unadventurous, guilt-burdened snowflakes that we are, there wouldn’t be an appetite for it. Whether we taste like it or not, we’re just too chicken.