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Anthropophagy and Cannibalism: The Types, Causes and Effects

Updated on September 2, 2019

Anthropophagy is an act through which an animal or a person eats the flesh and/or internal parts of a human being. In a different circumstance, cannibalism entails the act of an animal eating some or all parts of an animal of the same species.

Cannibalism isn’t a new phenomenon as the act itself has been practiced for many decades. In the early centuries cannibalism was exercised as a custom and fear-induced terror technique. Recently, cannibalism has shifted from a communal practice to individual reasons. For instance, a person may engage in cannibalism to elicit sexual satisfaction.

In the animal kingdom, cannibalism is widespread especially in the insect kingdom. The reasons some species of animals are involved in cannibalism differs from stress, starvation, reproduction to sexual satisfaction.

Formal Cannibalism
Formal Cannibalism | Source

Unlike in animals, sexual cannibalism in humans is rare. This occurs when a human engages in this act to educe sexual fulfillment. People who engage in sexual cannibalism are referred to as sociopaths.

A sociopath is a person whose behavior goes against the social norms of a society. The person's behaviour is thus termed as antisocial. According to psychologists, sociopaths suffer from a disorder known as Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). It is mainly characterized by lack of sympathy for others.

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Human and Animal Cannibalism

Human cannibalism refers to a person consuming the flesh and/or internal organs of a fellow human being. On the other hand, animal cannibalism is whereby an animal eats some or all body parts of an animal of the same species. Therefore, anthropophagy carries the same meaning as human cannibalism.

As noted above, sexual cannibalism in the animal kingdom is very common. This is particularly the case in the insect kingdom. The notorious sexual insect cannibals are female praying mantis and black widow spider. Studies on female praying mantis indicate the females commit this act after mating with a potential male. They will bite off the head of the male after mating. IB Times UK notes that scientists believe the females engage in this act to increase production of eggs. It's noted: “Female praying mantis eats their male partner after sexual intercourse as it may increase their fertility and ensure the potential survival of the species…They (scientists) believe that more eggs were laid by females who engage in acts of ‘sexual cannibalism.’”

Do Cannibals Suffer From Mental Disorder?

Is there a possibility people who practice cannibalism, individual cannibals, are suffering from mental instability? Studies suggest this is not the case. California Mental Heath Helpline states: "Outrageous behavior, unconventional habits and unusual perception of things often brings an individual on the radar of being mentally ill. Linking this ideology with the gruesome act of cannibalism led people to perceive the practice as a mental disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) does not list cannibalism as a mental disorder, although it states that individuals may follow the practice for reasons of survival in the circumstances such as famine or ritual process due to some underlying severe mental disorder."

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Types of Human Cannibalism

There is no consensus how many types of human cannibalism exist. This has diversified circumstances human cannibalism might manifest with some types overlapping.

The two major types of cannibalism that are widely accepted are:

a) Endocannibalism

This act is practiced when an individual consumes the flesh or body parts of another individual from the same group or community.

b) Exocannibalism

In this case, an individual eats the flesh or internal organs of another person from a different group or community.

Exocannibalism was practiced for two major reasons:

  1. A sign of victory. They would eat the body parts of the dead enemy as a form of celebration.
  2. Technique of inducing fear. Communities which didn't participate in cannibalism were afraid of cannibalistic communities. They would try at their utmost to avoid any form of confrontation or fight with cannibalistic communities. It's evident the cannibalistic communities used this technique to their advantage.

Women’s internal organs were never consumed. The cannibalistic communities believed eating women's internal organs would lead to emasculation, that is, eradication of man's penis and testicles.

Both the two major types of cannibalism share a similarity. The cannibalistic communities believed when they consume the flesh of a fellow human being, they would possess the characteristics of that person such as endearing acts or courage and intelligence. This is attested by Psychology Today who state, "Some acts of endocannibalism are actually acts of necro-cannibalism (i.e. the eating of flesh from dead humans also known as necrophagy) where dead people’s parts are eaten as either part of the grieving process, as a way of guiding the souls of the dead into the bodies of the living, and/or as a way of imbibing the dead person’s ‘life force’ or more specific individual characteristics.”

What do you think, is cannibalism acceptable in some circumstances e.g. during drought and/or famine?

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Other Types of Cannibalism

The other types of cannibalism are:

c) Survival (Emergency) Cannibalism

During famine, people can resort to human cannibalism as a means of survival. This would include parents consuming body parts of their children to survive than dying of hunger which was a slow process and terrifying.

d) Sexual Cannibalism

This is an act where an individual eats the body parts of a human to arouse sexual desires or feelings. They engage in this act for sexual purposes only.

e) Aggressive Cannibalism

In this type of cannibalism, a person involves himself in this act to display his superiority or his control over his dead victim. The cannibal feels his victim is under his control. Many cases of modern individual cannibalism results from the cannibals desiring to feel they are in control of people. When they’re threatened they resort to cannibalism to prove their point.

f) Nutritional Cannibalism

A person resorts to this type of cannibalism to derive nutritional values they lack in their body. Additionally, they love the taste of human flesh which they closely associate to the taste of pork or veal.

g) Psychopathic Cannibalism

While some people know what they are doing when they engage in cannibalism, there are others whose mental illness or instability leads them to engage in such an act. The mentally ill suffer from a mental disorder which affects their thinking and perceptions. They suffer from mental disorders known as psychotic disorders. Most of the arrested cannibals fall in the group of psychopaths with a minority of them diagnosed as mentally unhealthy.

Some cannibals are aware of what they are doing when they engage in cannibalism. These individuals are not remorseful of the fact what they had done in the past was evil or not good, have no feelings for others and don't think about future consequences. They don't feel guilty or remorseful of having killed an individual and consuming his body parts. These people suffer from psychopathic disorder. These people are mostly lonely.

h) Gustatory Cannibalism

The taste of a human being has been likened to that of a veal or pork. It tastes better than pork. Thus, individuals who consume the flesh or internal organs of a human because of how it tastes are said to practice gustatory cannibalism. They will go as far as to develop a recipe of cooking human's body parts to further increase its taste.

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i) Auto-Cannibalism

This is a lesser known type of cannibalism.

Also known as self-cannibalism or autosarcophagy, this involves eating of one's skin or body parts which can be voluntary or involuntary - done consciously or unconsciously. For instance, some people have developed the habit of biting fingernails to the extent of chewing and swallowing them. This including biting off a skin that has stuck out of a finger or toe nail. Not only do they bite off the skin but also chew and swallow it.

However, some people have gone overboard by eating their skin for body modification.

Then, there is auto-vampirism whereby a person drinks his own blood. Some may intentionally drink their own blood as the derive pleasure from doing so. However, most cases auto-vampirism is whereby an individual suck his blood to stop bleeding from a wound, for example, when a person accidentally cuts his finger.

For a person to be involved in whatever form of cannibalism, there must be intent. Fingernail biting might result from the habit a person has developed of biting the nails which is a form of pica. Most of auto-cannibalism is done unwillingly, with no intent of satisfaction derived from either eating a part of skin that has stuck out or sucking blood to stop bleeding.

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Eating Human Flesh is Addictive

Not only does a cannibal delight in consuming human’s flesh but also delights in hunting humans for meat because it’s addictive. When a person tastes a human’s flesh, “the centre pleasure of the brain becomes activated and large amounts of dopamine are released – similar to what happens when someone ingests a drug like cocaine,” states Huffingpost. "The person will seek more human’s flesh in order to regain the feeling of satisfaction or pleasure.”

The Taste of Human’s Flesh

How does a human’s flesh taste like? As we have seen that eating human’s flesh is addictive, it goes without reasoning it does taste good, somehow, for those who enjoy eating human's flesh and internal organs. Some cannibals who were arrested especially in the western and European countries stated human's flesh tastes like beef and/or veal. It is odorless and is so sweet, sweeter than pork.

Interview with a Cannibal

Health Implications of Consuming Human's Flesh

Are there any negative effects associated with eating human's flesh? None so far among the single cannibals arrested who have carried out this act for a lengthy period of time. Even in recorded history no effects of consuming human's flesh or body parts has been noted apart in one situation in New Guinea, West Africa.

Over 2,500 people particularly women and children succumbed to death from 1950s to 1970s as a result of contracting the Kuru disease. Melissa in her article, ‘Is Cannibalism Unhealthy Or Just Awful’ says, “Depending on what parts are eaten (the most infected include the brain, spinal cord, bone marrow and small intestine), human cannibals run the risk of contracting a fatal prion malady, similar to Creutzfeld-Jacob disease…known as Kuru.” She says not all prions are bad “but some develop an abnormality in their shapes. As these abnormal prions from the infected deceased worked their way into their new victim’s brains, they caused great destruction due to their ability to make other proteins conform to their same, abnormal shape. These conformed proteins aggregate in sponge-like clumps that prevent brain cells from functioning properly.”

In regards to this disease which is a neurodegenerative disease, IBT Media Inc. remarks, “People who eat people with a type of prion disease, a category of illness that also includes Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans and Mad Cow Disease in animals, tend to have brains that look like sponges and neurological damage that takes away control over the body.” Once infected by this disease a person had trouble walking and “and from there it was a rapid descent into losing control over their limbs and emotions…” This prion disease is “usually rapidly progressive and always fatal.”

Medical News Today states, "Although it seems "wrong", the good news is, consuming cooked human flesh is no more dangerous than eating the cooked flesh of other animals. The same goes for the majority of the human body; the health implications are similar to that of eating any large omnivore.

However, there is one organ that should be avoided at all cost: the brain."

Cannibalism: Secrets Revealed (Documentary)

Causes of Cannibalism

Why do cannibals eat human’s flesh or body parts? In the olden days and some communities in the world that still practice it, the reasons are well-known: survival-tactic, to induce fear among a different group or community, cultural practice (ritual) e.g. by eating the flesh of a dead person the community is freeing the dead person's spirit.

In the modern world, the reasons are myriad making it hard to pinpoint the exact psychological reason why an individual engages in this act. The mostly believed reason is a cannibal wants to feel he is in control of his victim. When he kills and consumes the flesh of the dead victim, he feels he has power over that person, and ultimately over people. Another believed reason is most of these individual cannibals are loners. When they kill an individual, they stay with the dead body for a certain period. They will talk with the dead, dance with it, offer it food, sleep with it while having a small bite of the dead body's flesh and internal organs. Another reason why a person may become a cannibal is out of curiosity. There are other reasons out there but as stated above it is difficult to know why some people decide to become cannibals. In some circumstances in the modern world, a person may resort to cannibalism in to survive. This is particularly the case in times of starvation.

Man-eaters

Man-eaters are animals that have incorporated in their diet the human’s flesh. They hunt them as part of their meal. This does not take into account scavenging. They include the hyenas, lions, leopards, crocodiles and tigers among others.

What Do You Think? Human Placentophagy

This is another type of human cannibalism. It involves ingestion of human placenta. It may be eaten raw or eaten as part of a meal. Some who engage in it believe there are healthy benefits associated with eating human placenta. Nonetheless, there is no scientific evidence that consuming human placenta has any healthy benefits. Is there any effect of eating placenta? No effects are yet known.

What We Really Know About Placenta-Eating

© 2014 Benny Njuguna

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