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

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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?


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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.

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9 Facts about Physicist Michael Faraday, the 'Father of Electricity'
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A self-taught scientist, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) excelled in chemistry and physics to become one of the most influential thinkers in history. He’s been called the "father of electricity," (Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison also wear that crown) and his appetite for experimenting knew no bounds. "Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature; and in such things as these, experiment is the best test of such consistency," he wrote. Faraday discovered laws of electromagnetism, invented the first electric motor, and built the first electric generator—paving the way for our mechanized age. Read on for more Faraday facts.

1. HE NEVER HAD A FORMAL SCIENTIFIC EDUCATION.

Born in south London in a working-class family, Faraday earned a rudimentary education in reading, writing, and math. When he turned 14 he was apprenticed to a London bookbinder for the following seven years. In his free time, Faraday read Jane Marcet's Conversations in Chemistry, an 1806 bestseller that explained scientific topics for a general audience.

2. HE WAS A SELF-STARTER.

Like Marcet, Faraday was fascinated by the work of Sir Humphry Davy, a charismatic chemist who had found fame by testing the effects of nitrous oxide on himself. (He let others, including poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, inhale the gas on the condition that they keep diaries of their thoughts and sensations while high.) In spring 1812, a customer at the bookbindery gave Faraday tickets to see Davy’s upcoming lectures. Faraday compiled his notes from the lectures in a bound volume (the one benefit of his toil at the bookbinder's) and sent the book to Davy, requesting to become his assistant—an unheard-of notion for a tradesman with no university degree. Sensing his intelligence and drive, Davy secured him a job at the Royal Institution, where Davy ran the chemistry lab.

3. HE INVENTED A MOTOR WITH MAGNETS AND MERCURY.

By 1820, other scientists had shown that an electric current produces a magnetic field, and that two electrified wires produce a force on each other. Faraday thought there could be a way to harness these forces in a mechanical apparatus. In 1822, he built a device using a magnet, liquid mercury (which conducts electricity) and a current-carrying wire that turned electrical energy into mechanical energy—in other words, the first electric motor. Faraday noted the success in his journal [PDF]: "Very satisfactory, but make more sensible apparatus."

4. HE ALSO CREATED THE FIRST ELECTRIC GENERATOR.

A decade after his breakthrough with the motor, Faraday discovered that the movement of a wire through a stationary magnetic field can induce an electrical current in the wire—the principle of electromagnetic induction. To demonstrate it, Faraday built a machine in which a copper disc rotated between the two poles of a horseshoe magnet, producing its own power. The machine, later called the Faraday disc, became the first electric generator.

5. HE SHOWED THE PULL OF MAGNETIC FORCE.

In a brilliantly simple experiment (recreated by countless schoolchildren today), Faraday laid a bar magnet on a table and covered it with a piece of stiff paper. Then he sprinkled magnetized iron shavings across the paper, which immediately arranged themselves into semicircular arcs emanating from the ends—the north and south poles—of the magnet. In addition to revealing that magnets still exert pull through barriers, he visualized the pattern of magnetic force in space.

6. YOU CAN VISIT HIS MAGNETIC LABORATORY IN LONDON.

Faraday served in a number of scientific roles at the Royal Institution, an organization dedicated to promoting applied science. Eventually Faraday was appointed as its Fullerian Professor of Chemistry, a permanent position that allowed him to research and experiment to his heart's content. His magnetic laboratory from the 1850s is now faithfully replicated in the Royal Institution's Faraday Museum. It displays many of his world-changing gadgets, including an original Faraday disc, one of his early electrostatic generators, his chemical samples, and a giant magnet.

7. HE POPULARIZED NEW SCIENTIFIC TERMINOLOGY.

Faraday's work was so groundbreaking that no descriptors existed for many of his discoveries. With his fellow scientist William Whewell, Faraday coined a number of futuristic-sounding names for the forces and concepts he identified, such as electrode, anode, cathode, and ion. (Whewell himself coined the word "scientist" in 1834, after "natural philosopher" had become too vague to describe people working in increasingly specialized fields.)

8. PRINCE ALBERT GAVE HIM SOME SWEET REAL ESTATE.

In 1848, the Prince Consort, also known as Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert, gave Faraday and his family a comfortable home at Hampton Court—not the royal palace, but near it—free of charge, to recognize his contributions to science. The house at 37 Hampton Court Road was renamed Faraday House until he died there on August 25, 1867. Now it's known simply by its street address.

9. HE WAS FEATURED ON THE UNITED KINGDOM'S £20 NOTE.

To honor Faraday's role in the advancement of British science, the Bank of England unveiled a £20 bill with his portrait on June 5, 1991. He joined an illustrious group of Britons with their own notes, including William Shakespeare, Florence Nightingale, and Isaac Newton. By the time it was withdrawn in February 2001, the bank estimated that about 120 million Faraday bills were in circulation (that's more than 2 billion quid).

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4 Expert Tips on How to Get the Most Out of August's Total Solar Eclipse
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As you might have heard, there’s a total solar eclipse crossing the U.S. on August 21. It’s the first total solar eclipse in the country since 1979, and the first coast-to-coast event since June 8, 1918, when eclipse coverage pushed World War I off the front page of national newspapers. Americans are just as excited today: Thousands are hitting the road to stake out prime spots for watching the last cross-country total solar eclipse until 2045. We’ve asked experts for tips on getting the most out of this celestial spectacle.

1. DON’T FRY YOUR EYES—OR BREAK THE BANK

To see the partial phases of the eclipse, you will need eclipse glasses because—surprise!—staring directly at the sun for even a minute or two will permanently damage your retinas. Make sure the glasses you buy meet the ISO 12312-2 safety standards. As eclipse frenzy nears its peak, shady retailers are selling knock-off glasses that will not adequately protect your eyes. The American Astronomical Society keeps a list of reputable vendors, but as a rule, if you can see anything other than the sun through your glasses, they might be bogus. There’s no need to splurge, however: You can order safe paper specs in bulk for as little as 90 cents each. In a pinch, you and your friends can take turns watching the partial phases through a shared pair of glasses. As eclipse chaser and author Kate Russo points out, “you only need to view occasionally—no need to sit and stare with them on the whole time.”

2. DON’T DIY YOUR EYE PROTECTION

There are plenty of urban legends about “alternative” ways to protect your eyes while watching a solar eclipse: smoked glass, CDs, several pairs of sunglasses stacked on top of each other. None works. If you’re feeling crafty, or don’t have a pair of safe eclipse glasses, you can use a pinhole projector to indirectly watch the eclipse. NASA produced a how-to video to walk you through it.

3. GET TO THE PATH OF TOTALITY

Bryan Brewer, who published a guidebook for solar eclipses, tells Mental Floss the difference between seeing a partial solar eclipse and a total solar eclipse is “like the difference between standing right outside the arena and being inside watching the game.”

During totality, observers can take off their glasses and look up at the blocked-out sun—and around at their eerily twilit surroundings. Kate Russo’s advice: Don’t just stare at the sun. “You need to make sure you look above you, and around you as well so you can notice the changes that are happening,” she says. For a brief moment, stars will appear next to the sun and animals will begin their nighttime routines. Once you’ve taken in the scenery, you can use a telescope or a pair of binoculars to get a close look at the tendrils of flame that make up the sun’s corona.

Only a 70-mile-wide band of the country stretching from Oregon to South Carolina will experience the total eclipse. Rooms in the path of totality are reportedly going for as much as $1000 a night, and news outlets across the country have raised the specter of traffic armageddon. But if you can find a ride and a room, you'll be in good shape for witnessing the spectacle.

4. PRESERVE YOUR NIGHT VISION

Your eyes need half an hour to fully adjust to darkness, but the total eclipse will last less than three minutes. If you’ve just been staring at the sun through the partial phases of the eclipse, your view of the corona during totality will be obscured by lousy night vision and annoying green afterimages. Eclipse chaser James McClean—who has trekked from Svalbard to Java to watch the moon blot out the sun—made this rookie mistake during one of his early eclipse sightings in Egypt in 2006. After watching the partial phases, with stray beams of sunlight reflecting into his eyes from the glittering sand and sea, McClean was snowblind throughout the totality.

Now he swears by a new method: blindfolding himself throughout the first phases of the eclipse to maximize his experience of the totality. He says he doesn’t mind “skipping the previews if it means getting a better view of the film.” Afterward, he pops on some eye protection to see the partial phases of the eclipse as the moon pulls away from the sun. If you do blindfold yourself, just remember to set an alarm for the time when the total eclipse begins so you don’t miss its cross-country journey. You'll have to wait 28 years for your next chance.

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