You’ll be hard pressed to find a practice more taboo in the world than cannibalism. This is despite the fact the earliest evidence of cannibalism dates back 100,000 years. It’s been an ugly secret we try to avoid every time it pops up because, as a people, we almost universally agree that it’s absolutely horrifying. But if history has taught us nothing else, it’s that horrifying things have a way of popping up again and again, even in very unexpected ways.
10. Pliny the Elder
We tend to think of cannibalism in a very limited number of ways. It’s generally the act of either the mad, the uncivilized or the desperate. A serial killer, people cut off from the world, or plane crash survivors. But in every case, we ascribe some otherness to the cannibal, some reason beyond what we consider normal to explain their actions. But that hasn’t always been the case.
Pliny the Elder is one of the most famous writers and philosophers from ancient Rome. He was a naturalist, a military leader, and, in general, what most people would consider cultured and educated. And that man had things to say about cannibalism.
Pliny wrote of how cannibalism was a part of medical treatment back in the day. He told of how epileptics might drink the blood of gladiators and imbibe their life essence. He listed a number of cures for illnesses that he discovered in his readings, all derived from human sources. Got sore gums? Scrape them with the tooth of a man killed by violence. Use the gall of a human to cure cataracts. And if a mad dog bites you, why not try pills made from the skull of a man who died by hanging?
Pliny wasn’t claiming these as his own cures, just relating the information he had read from other learned scholars. He doesn’t necessarily question their efficacy, of course, and lends his own authority to them just in the telling.
9. Bob’s Burgers
Comedy is tragedy plus time, it’s been said, even if it’s very hard to determine who first said that. The basic idea is that anything can be a source of humor with a bit of distance. Heck, maybe it can even help you process something tragic. And maybe that was the original plan behind the TV show Bob’s Burgers, which was originally intended to be about a family of cannibals.
The show as it exists now features a single episode about cannibalism, which is a nod to what almost was. There’s a reason the restaurant is next to a mortuary, after all. The original pitch appealed to the studio executives, except they didn’t like the cannibal part. Go figure.
Showrunner Loren Bouchard had come from Adult Swim and thought the dark idea would be more appealing and make the pitch go over better. When Fox turned against it, a simple tweak made the Belcher family just regular folks with a burger joint and probably freed up the writer’s room to explore a lot more comedy.
8. The Raft of the Medusa
The Raft of the Medusa is a famous painting by Theodore Gericault. It depicts the real life events of the French frigate called the Meduse. The ship was off the coast of Africa in 1816 headed towards Senegal, which had just been ceded to France by England. There were 400 officials and sailors on board, but the vessel was not outfitted with enough lifeboats to accommodate them all.
Word is the captain had not been at sea in 20 years and was arguably incompetent. He somehow managed to run the ship aground. The crew built a raft, and the plan was to tow it behind the lifeboats. However, the lifeboat crews quickly 86’d that idea and cut the lines to let the 147 occupants of the raft, which has been reported at 66 feet by 23.5 feet, fend for themselves.
The raft was adrift for 13 days, with almost no supplies at all. The crew started by eating leather belts and hats. Eventually, they turned on each other and ate the dead and then, ultimately, killed one another for food. Only 15 survivors were found.
7. Boone Helm the Cowboy Cannibal
Boone Helm was born in 1828 and settled into the villainous cowboy lifestyle pretty quickly. Even as a child, he was known for being tough and fighting, as well as being a remarkable drunk. After being kicked out of town, he stabbed the friend who was supposed to be traveling with him when he learned they weren’t going to head all the way to California with him. Thus began his legendary time as a killer and worse.
After the killing, he was committed to an asylum from which he escaped. He then went on an extended period of murder, theft and even cannibalism, which sustained him during the cold winter months with limited supplies. When asked what happened to another criminal he was on the run with during one of his incarceration periods, he remarked “Why, do you suppose that I’m fool enough to starve to death when I can help it? I ate him up, of course.” People started calling him the Kentucky Cannibal.
He killed more people in Salt Lake City, in Quesnel Forks, and Fort Yale. It wasn’t until 1864 when his reign of terror finally came to an end after he was hanged for his crimes.
6. WWII POW Cannibalism
There’s never really been a kind or civilized war. How could there be? But the depths to which some people will sink during wartime are the sorts of things that can be stunning when you get into the terrible details. Such was the case with details unearthed in 1992 regarding events that took place at Japanese POW camps during the Second World War.
Australian forces took possession of documents when they moved into Japan and the documents were finally reviewed years later. They detailed atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese army, including eating human flesh. At times, they even took it from the bodies of the living, which was even approved of by the upper ranks.
Indian soldiers faced the same fate when they were captured, with many soldiers and officers used as human targets. Many of the strongest and healthiest prisoners were taken away immediately and eaten.
For some time, Allied Forces told these tales in the context that the Japanese had done it out of desperation as supplies dwindled, but Japanese historian Toshiyuki Tanaka found evidence that it was done as a power play.
5. Lab Grown Human Meat
It’s been estimated that the lab-grown meat industry could be worth as much as $94.5 billion by the year 2030. That’s a lot of science burgers. With that much money at stake, you can easily imagine that many businesses have a lot invested in this idea and are hoping for a big return despite how leery many people seem to be about the idea of lab grown meat still.
One of the big selling points for lab grown meat is that it’s better for the environment. Less damage from having massive herds of livestock and also, no livestock to die. So the appearance of it being a better idea looms large. But not everyone agrees, and that includes those behind Ouroboros Steaks.
What is essentially an art project sought to show that the lab grown meat industry is not as animal friendly as it seems.They say the cells used to cultivate the meat come from cows which are still slaughtered. So, to draw attention to this, they grew their own steaks out of cells from humans. They grew human meat.
Technically, it’s not cannibalism, but any time you have to say something isn’t technically cannibalism, you’re already on the losing side of the argument. The kits to grow your own meat were just part of an art project, however, and aren’t available for mass consumption. That said, they really did grow their own human meat.
4. The University of Colorado Has a Restaurant Named After a Cannibal
If you were going to draw a Venn diagram of the places where universities, restaurants and cannibals cross paths, you might expect that to be three unrelated circles and you’d be right everywhere in the world except Colorado. More specifically, the Alfred Packer Restaurant and Grill at the University of Colorado.
Known as the Colorado Cannibal, Alfred Packer was a prospector who had gone in search of gold with five companions that he killed and ate along the trail during the brutal winter.
The University of Colorado student union named their restaurant after him in 1968. This, in part, is what inspired then-U of C student Trey Parker to make his movie Cannibal! The Musical.
For some reason, Colorado really loves Packer. They had Packer-themed games at the university, a 5k/10k run and walk in his honor, and there’s even a bust of him at the state capitol. All of this with full knowledge that the man went to prison for eating five people.
3. Medical Cannibalism
Medical cannibalism is exactly what it sounds like and it enjoyed an odd period of popularity for some years in Europe. It’s become somewhat common knowledge these days that grinding mummies into medicine was actually fairly common practice in 16th century Europe.
Mummies were just one of several ingredients that people, ranging from royalty to clergy, consumed in order to maintain good health. Blood and fat were also on the menu, and each had a purpose. Ground up skull would cure headaches. Human fat could make a bruise go away.
Drinking fresh, hot blood was supposed to treat epilepsy. Dried and powdered blood could cure a nosebleed. A Franciscan apothecary even recorded a recipe for blood jam that could be stored in a jar. Physician John French, on the other hand, wrote two different recipes for distilling spirits from human skulls.
2. The Siege of Leningrad
Possibly one of the most shocking and horrifying cases of cannibalism in history dates back to the Second World War and the Siege of Leningrad. Estimates vary wildly, but even on the low end, it’s assumed that over one million civilians died. This was the result of a blockade set up by Nazi forces against the Soviet city of Leningrad, which lasted for 872 days and cut off supplies to a city of over three million.With subzero temperatures reaching -40 degrees Celsius and a lack of supplies, people resorted to doing the unthinkable. Over 1,500 people were accused of cannibalism after the fact. It’s estimated that many more committed the act, however.
The siege began on September 8, 1941. By 1942, gas and coal were all but gone and water pipes burst from the cold, meaning the citizens had no heat, no water, and no food. People burned their furniture, their clothes, and their books.
In November, there were 11,000 fatalities and 53,000 in December. Bodies piled up because they couldn’t be buried. With no other source of food and new corpses piling up every single day, it’s very easy to understand what happened.
So many people committed the act they had to categorize them as either corpse eaters, those who ate the dead, or person eaters, those who killed the living to eat them.
1. The Man Who Cooked and Served Himself
Japanese artist Mao Sugiyama identified as asexual in a way that is somewhat off the beaten path from the traditional definition of that word. Sugiyama does not identify with any gender and felt that one way to express this belief was to remove their sexual organs. That sounds extreme on its own, but Sugiyama’s plan was to take things up a notch. Sugiyama cooked their genitals and served them to willing diners.
A surgeon had already removed the organ and associated parts. Sugiyama had them stored in their freezer until the meal was ready. A handful of diners had paid for the experience, the equivalent of about $250 a plate, and police were not sure if what occurred qualified as a crime.