Getty Images
Getty Images

Mmmm, Brains: Everything You Wanted to Know About Cannibalism But Were Afraid to Ask

Getty Images
Getty Images

It's the time of year when seeing flesh-eating zombies on the streets is actually kind of normal. So let's talk about cannibalism. You know you're wondering.

When did all this craziness start?

Neanderthal Model from the Chicago Field Museum, 1920. Photo Courtesy of

Paleoanthropologic evidence suggests that Neanderthals were butchering each other as far back as 100,000 years ago. Bones from sites in France, Croatia, and Italy all bear marks from stone tools indicative of defleshing. Analysis of some of the bones in France revealed that the marks are concentrated in places consistent with butchery, and not ritual defleshing.

Evidence also suggests* that humans in Europe, North and South America, India, New Zealand, Australia, the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and Sumatra practiced cannibalism at various times beginning just prior to the Upper Paleolithic period. American anthropologist Marvin Harris has argued that it was common practice for humans living in small groups, but disappeared as societal groups got bigger and states were formed. Eventually, cannibalism became taboo in many cultures, and by the 19th century it persisted only among a few isolated groups in the South Pacific. Today, very few cultures are still believed to engage in the practice, though isolated instances involving individuals or small groups have been confirmed in the last twenty years (several of them involving soldiers engaged in wars in Africa).

Why would you want to eat another person?

In the days of pre-modern medicine, cannibalism was explained by a proposed black humour (the body fluids that Hippocrates believed caused moods, emotions and behaviors) that filled the ventricle and caused hunger for human flesh. Our understanding of cannibalism is a little better today, and we even have a technical term for it: anthropophagy (anthropos, or "human being," plus phagein, meaning "to eat").

Anthropologists divide anthropophagy into two categories, both rather broad: survival cannibalism and learned, or customary, cannibalism.** Survival cannibalism is what's about to happen whenever you see two cartoon characters stuck in a life raft and one of them has a thought balloon above their head depicting the other one with a roast chicken for a body. Outside of cartoons, survival cannibalism may be—given extreme and desperate enough situations—the easiest form of cannibalism to accept, and Western society has historically been relatively forgiving of it. In 18th and 19th century seagoing communities, it was pretty much accepted as something that happened from time to time as a hazard of the occupation and lifestyle. By the 19th century, sailors and fishermen had even worked out some general guidelines should the "custom of the sea" need to be performed. Straws were drawn to decide who would be killed and eaten and who would have to do the killing (usually the second shortest straw made you the killer, and the shortest made you dinner).

Perhaps the most famous example of survival cannibalism is the Donner party, a group of eighty-seven settlers heading to California in 1846. When the party reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the weather turned, and they were blocked by snow at a point now called Donner Pass. The party splintered into three groups. One set up camp at a nearby lake, one camped in the nearby Alder Creek Valley, and one group of 15 travelers, later dubbed the Forlorn Hope, made snowshoes and began the 100-mile journey to Sutter's Fort. While individuals in all three groups eventually resorted to cannibalism, it wasn't the feeding frenzy that most people imagine. The people who turned to eating human flesh did so as a last resort (after eating everything from boiled rawhide to leather scraps) for a very brief period of time before their rescue.

Another example, that many people know from the movie Alive, is the 1972 plane crash that left the players and staff of a Uruguayan rugby team and some of their friends and family members stranded in the Andes Mountains. As people died from their crash-related injuries, the survivors resorted to cannibalizing the dead. Some refused to eat human flesh and starved to death. Of the 45 people onboard the plane, only 16 survived the 72 day ordeal.

Cannibals carrying their master, World's Columbia Exhibition, Chicago, 1893.

Learned or customary cannibalism is pretty much what it sounds like: the consumption of human flesh in a socially prescribed, ritualized manner, often passed down through the generations. Learned cannibalism can be divided into two categories: endo- and exocannibalism. Endocannibalism is the consumption of the flesh of a person who is a member of the same group (whether family, tribe, society, culture, etc.—any defined group fits the bill), often practiced as a funeral rite. The Wari' people of the Amazon consumed the flesh of their deceased in order to transform their tribesmen into spirits that could take animal form and provide food for the tribe. Anthropologists also found that the tribe's endocannibalism also helped survivors cope with grief. Endocannibalism among Wari' ended, as it did for most other groups, in the 1960s, when missionaries and governments began to encroach on their societies.

Exocannibalism is the consumption of the flesh of a person outside of one's own social group, often as a way to intimidate an individual or group, steal another's life force, or express domination of an enemy in warfare. Certain tribes in the Fiji islands maintained ritualized acts of cannibalistic "battle rage," where captured enemy warriors were publicly tortured, killed, and consumed.

The accusation of exocannibalism may be even more damaging to enemies than eating them. When Christopher Columbus encountered the Carib Indians, he described them as "sub-human eaters of men," labeling them inferior to Europeans and not much better than animals. They were seen as a dangerous "other," and the murder of their people and theft of their land was easily justifiable because of that. The slur of cannibalism goes both ways, however. When the Spaniards arrived in Mesoamerica, and when explorer David Livingstone encountered certain African cultures, both the Aztecs and the African tribes assumed their white visitors were cannibals.

Do Other Animals Do It?

Getty Images

Cannibalism is a common occurrence in thousands of species, even herbivorous and detritivorous ones, to the point where zoologists refer to it as "ubiquitous" in the natural world. Female black widow spiders and praying mantises famously practice sexual cannibalism, killing and consuming males of their species during, or after, reproduction.

Filial cannibalism, where adults eat the young of their own species, is also common among non-human animals. Groups of adult male chimpanzees have been observed to attack and eat infant chimps. Adult male elephants, dogs, bears, lions, and even some types of fish have all been observed to kill and consume infants when replacing a previous dominant males and taking over a group.

Sharks in the order Lamniformes, which includes great whites and sand tigers among others, have been known to exhibit intrauterine cannibalism, where multiple embryos are created during impregnation and the larger or stronger individuals consume their weaker siblings during development in utero.

Is That It?

Well, no. "Deep down," science writer Carl Zimmer says, "we are all cannibals. Our cells are perpetually devouring themselves, shredding their own complex molecules to pieces and recycling them for new parts." Zimmer's exploration of cellular cannibalism (and the sexual cannibalism I mentioned above) can be found in the New York Times.

* "Suggest" is the key word here, as it is with the Neanderthals. While most anthropologists agree that ritual cannibalism has occurred in certain societies around the world over the course of history, researchers are sometimes reluctant to associate it with a particular group of people without concrete evidence. The conservative view is that there is no definitive proof that cannibalism exists in a group until an anthropologist sees, with their own two eyes, a member of that group take a piece of flesh off a body and eat it. For archaeologists, the best proof that cannibalism took place in a group that no longer exists is the presence of human muscle protein in fossilized human feces.

** Cannibalism in the vein of Jeffrey Dahmer or Hannibal Lecter is known as pathological anthropophagy, the consumption of human flesh because of insanity. It's generally outside the scope of anthropology.

Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Buckingham Palace Was Built With Jurassic Fossils, Scientists Find

The UK's Buckingham Palace is a vestige from another era, and not just because it was built in the early 18th century. According to a new study, the limestone used to construct it is filled with the fossilized remains of microbes from the Jurassic period of 200 million years ago, as The Telegraph reports.

The palace is made of oolitic limestone, which consists of individual balls of carbonate sediment called ooids. The material is strong but lightweight, and is found worldwide. Jurassic oolite has been used to construct numerous famous buildings, from those in the British city of Bath to the Empire State Building and the Pentagon.

A new study from Australian National University published in Scientific Reports found that the spherical ooids in Buckingham Palace's walls are made up of layers and layers of mineralized microbes. Inspired by a mathematical model from the 1970s for predicting the growth of brain tumors, the researchers created a model that explains how ooids are created and predicts the factors that limit their ultimate size.

A hand holding a chunk of oolite limestone
Australian National University

They found that the mineralization of the microbes forms the central core of the ooid, and the layers of sediment that gather around that core feed those microbes until the nutrients can no longer reach the core from the outermost layer.

This contrasts with previous research on how ooids form, which hypothesized that they are the result of sediment gathered from rolling on the ocean floor. It also reshapes how we think about the buildings made out of oolitic limestone from this period. Next time you look up at the Empire State Building or Buckingham Palace, thank the ancient microbes.

[h/t The Telegraph]

Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
10 Astonishing Things You Should Know About the Milky Way
Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Our little star and the tiny planets that circle it are part of a galaxy called the Milky Way. Its name comes from the Greek galaxias kyklos ("milky circle") and Latin via lactea ("milky road"). Find a remote area in a national park, miles from the nearest street light, and you'll see exactly why the name makes sense and what all the fuss is about. Above is not a sky of black, but a luminous sea of whites, blues, greens, and tans. Here are a few things you might not know about our spiraling home in the universe.


The Milky Way galaxy is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers (about 621,371,000,000,000,000 miles) across. Even traveling at the speed of light, it would still take you well over 100,000 years to go from one end of the galaxy to the other. So it's big. Not quite as big as space itself, which is "vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big," as Douglas Adams wrote, but respectably large. And that's just one galaxy. Consider how many galaxies there are in the universe: One recent estimate says 2 trillion.


artist's illustration of the milky way galaxy and its center
An artist's concept of the Milky Way and the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* at its core.
ESA–C. Carreau

The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy composed of an estimated 300 billion stars, along with dust, gas, and celestial phenomena such as nebulae, all of which orbits around a hub of sorts called the Galactic Center, with a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A-star") at its core. The bar refers to the characteristic arrangement of stars at the interior of the galaxy, with interstellar gas essentially being channeled inward to feed an interstellar nursery. There are four spiral arms of the galaxy, with the Sun residing on the inner part of a minor arm called Orion. We're located in the boondocks of the Milky Way, but that is OK. There is definitely life here, but everywhere else is a question mark. For all we know, this might be the galactic Paris.


If you looked at all the spiral galaxies in the local volume of the universe, the Milky Way wouldn't stand out as being much different than any other. "As galaxies go, the Milky Way is pretty ordinary for its type," Steve Majewski, a professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia and the principal investigator on the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE), tells Mental Floss. "It's got a pretty regular form. It's got its usual complement of star clusters around it. It's got a supermassive black hole in the center, which most galaxies seem to indicate they have. From that point of view, the Milky Way is a pretty run-of-the-mill spiral galaxy."


On the other hand, he tells Mental Floss, spiral galaxies in general tend to be larger than most other types of galaxies. "If you did a census of all the galaxies in the universe, the Milky Way would seem rather unusual because it is very big, our type being one of the biggest kinds of galaxies that there are in the universe." From a human perspective, the most important thing about the Milky Way is that it definitely managed to produce life. If they exist, the creatures in Andromeda, the galaxy next door (see #9), probably feel the same way about their own.


John McSporran, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

We have a very close-up view of the phenomena and forces at work in the Milky Way because we live inside of it, but that internal perspective places astronomers at a disadvantage when it comes to determining a galactic pattern. "We have a nice view of the Andromeda galaxy because we can see the whole thing laid out in front of us," Majewski says. "We don't have that opportunity in the Milky Way."

To figure out its structure, astronomers have to think like band members during a football halftime show. Though spectators in the stands can easily see the letters and shapes being made on the field by the marchers, the band can't see the shapes they are making. Rather, they can only work together in some coordinated way, moving to make these patterns and motions on the field. So it is with telescopes and stars.


Interstellar dust further stymies astronomers. "That dust blocks our light, our view of the more distant parts of the Milky Way," Majewski says. "There are areas of the galaxy that are relatively obscured from view because they are behind huge columns of dust that we can't see through in the optical wavelengths that our eyes work in." To ameliorate this problem, astronomers sometimes work in longer wavelengths such as radio or infrared, which lessen the effects of the dust.


Astronomers can make pretty reasonable estimates of the mass of the galaxy by the amount of light they can see. They can count the galaxy's stars and calculate how much those stars should weigh. They can account for all the dust in the galaxy and all of the gas. And when they tally the mass of everything they can see, they find that it is far short of what is needed to account for the gravity that causes the Milky Way to spin.

In short, our Sun is about two-thirds of the way from the center of the galaxy, and astronomers know that it goes around the galaxy at about 144 miles per second. "If you calculate it based on the amount of matter interior to the orbit of the Sun, how fast we should be going around, the number you should get is around 150 or 160 kilometers [93–99 miles] per second," Majewski says. "Further out, the stars are rotating even faster than they should if you just account for what we call luminous matter. Clearly there is some other substance in the Milky Way exerting a gravitational effect. We call it dark matter."


Dark matter is a big problem in galactic studies. "In the Milky Way, we study it by looking at the orbits of stars and star clusters and satellite galaxies, and then trying to figure out how much mass do we need interior to the orbit of that thing to get it moving at the speed that we can measure," Majewski says. "And so by doing this kind of analysis for objects at different radii across the galaxy, we actually have a fairly good idea of the distribution of the dark matter in the Milky Way—and yet we still have no idea what the dark matter is."


andromeda galaxy
The Andromeda galaxy
ESA/Hubble & NASA

Sometime in the next 4 or 5 billion years, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will smash into each other. The two galaxies are about the same size and have about the same number of stars, but there is no cause for alarm. "Even though there are 300 billion stars in our galaxy and a comparable number, or maybe more, in Andromeda, when they collide together, not a single star is expected to hit another star. The space between stars is that vast," Majewski says.


There are countless spacecraft and telescopes studying the Milky Way. Most famous is the Hubble Space Telescope, while other space telescopes such as Chandra, Spitzer, and Kepler are also returning data to help astronomers unlock the mysteries of our swirling patch of stars. The next landmark telescope in development is NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. It should finally launch in 2019. Meanwhile, such ambitious projects as APOGEE are working out the structure and evolution of our spiral home by doing "galactic archaeology." APOGEE is a survey of the Milky Way using spectroscopy, measuring the chemical compositions of hundreds of thousands of stars across the galaxy in great detail. The properties of stars around us are fossil evidence of their formation, which, when combined with their ages, helps astronomers understand the timeline and evolution of the galaxy we call home. 


More from mental floss studios