27 March 2012
Cannibalism: Act of Survival or Unspeakable Crime?
Cannibalism has gone through stages of acceptance to morally corrupt and unspeakable. When faced in a dire situation, such as isolation and deterioration of the mind and body, cannibalism becomes an option of survival. When people confess of their actions, is it fair for us to judge? What would a person do in that situation, and can one honestly punish another for survival of the fittest?
Cannibalism dates back as far as the earliest signs of human life. By definition, cannibalism is “the eating of any species by another member of the same species,” (“Cannibalism”). Wolves, for example, will eat another wolf if there is no other form of nutrition to be found. This is an example of survival of the fittest, an instinct born unto all living creatures. Cannibalism is primitive in human nature, dating back to the Carib Indians of the West Indies. In the Arwakan language, “carib” literally translates to “cannibal.” The practice of eating human meat, whether in ritual or punishment, has been practiced in nearly every part of the world.
The reason for cannibalistic behavior has varied among the people. Headhunters, for example, believed eating parts of a victim’s body would grant them magical powers. Some tribes ate criminals to punish them or gain revenge for the crime. Primitive rites commonly involved human sacrifice, and it was not uncommon for the sacrifice’s family to eat certain parts of the body. This practice is labeled “endocannibalism.”
As time progressed, cannibalism went from common practice in the east to an unspeakable sin in the west. Cannibalism is most commonly practiced due to the result of extreme physical necessity in isolated surroundings. It has been justified as “a model of behavior in food processing as a response to nutritional stress,” (Ellis et al. 4) Essentially, cannibalism in such desperation comes down to practical logic. If one is starving, one eats what is offered. Examples of this include survivors of a plane wreck stranded without food; boat wrecks on isolated islands; or, more commonly, families trapped in a snowstorm in any large mountain range.
One of the most recent cases of cannibalism known is that of Andes flight disaster. In 1972, an Uruguayan rugby team, along with their family and friends, were on their way to Chile to compete when the plane crashed in the Andes mountain range. Several died in the initial crash, and more died due to the harsh conditions and injuries from the wreck. Ten days passed before the little bit of food that was rationed ran out. The group lived for two months before rescue came, and in that time they had committed the unspeakable act. As a group, the survivors agreed to turn to cannibalism and endocannibalism in order to survive. Out of the original forty-five, only sixteen came from the mountains alive because of their survival technique. This group had indulged in what is called survival cannibalism. Survival cannibalism is an innate form of survival that anthropologists believe exists in all humans. When the rugby team was faced with their dire situation, they indulged on their native instinct to satisfy nutritional need before abiding to the morals of society. When rescued, the team told reporters that it was a sort of communion; they ate as little as possible so as not to desecrate the dead. “Jesus gave the disciples His blood and His flesh at the Last Supper, so we were kept alive through Him,” explained one of the survivors when the press demanded an answer as to what they ate to stay alive (Stranded Gonzalo Arijon). The Uruguayan and Chilean publics accepted these survivors, even though the media slandered them and called them inhumane and cannibalistic.
Another, perhaps more famous case of survival cannibalism is the story of the Donner Party. The Donner Party was a group of families being led west by brothers George and Jacob Donner...
Cited: Burton, Gabrielle. Impatient with Desire: The Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner. New York: Hyperion, 2010.
“Cannibalism.” Compton’s by Encyclopedia Britannica. 2005 ed.
Capraro, Ingo. “Cannibalism ‘not a crime.’” News24. 14 Dec 2002. <http://www.news24.com/World/Cannibalism-not-a-crime-20021213>
Ellis, Meredith A.B. et al. “The Signature of Starvation: A Comparison of Bone Processing at a Chinese Encampment in Montana and the Donner Party Camp in California.” July 2010. U of Montana College of Arts and Sciences. <http://www.cas.umt.edu/anthropology/courses/anth551/documents/Ellis%20et%20al%20HA%202011.pdf>
Stranded: I’ve Come From A Plane That Crashed on the Mountains. Dir. Gonzalo Arijon. Pro. Gonzalo Arijon. 2007. Zeitgeist video, 2008. DVD.
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