That cannibalism is a taboo subject might be a bit of an overstatement. Certainly the thought of eating another human’s flesh is troubling to most, but just why it is so creepy is hard to pinpoint.
That’s no endorsement of cannibalistic behavior. It is merely an acknowledgement that the existence and discussion of cannibalism tests the bounds of cultural relativism, as some anthropologists have pointed out.
Even if one were to grant that another’s culture should not be judged by standards outside that culture, one would be hard pressed to argue that cannibalism should be considered okay.
But if that is so, then on what grounds should it be denounced? Apart from a few arguments about the health of our own species, there is not really an objective answer.
Yet serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, or other people who engage in cannibalism, enrage and disgust us.
And when a Uruguayan airliner crashed in the Andes mountains in 1972, that the passengers were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive is cited as proof of how desperate their situation became before they were rescued. A movie — Alive — was made about their bravery and struggle.
Clearly cannibalism is a trump card. It can be used to demonize a person, or even a whole culture. Its existence can also be used to elicit sympathy for the plight of the suffering.
In just this past century, people were shocked to read reports that victims of famines in both Russia and North Korea were forced to eat the flesh of their dead loved ones because it was the only source of food. And even this year’s news features reports of cannibalism.
Two brothers in Pakistan were arrested and sentenced to 11 years in prison in January for eating the corpse of a baby. And a man named Gregory Scott Hale was arrested for killing and eating a woman in Tennessee.
That’s proof positive that cannibalism is still around. But we often lull ourselves into believing that the cultural practice of cannibalism is long wiped from the earth. We would be wrong in believing that. A simple Google search can yield some disturbing results.
Cases like Jeffrey Dahmer's can be written off as anomalies. But ritualistic killing and cultural beliefs that consuming the flesh of another human can give one certain powers also persist. To dismiss those things as the stuff of story books would be a mistake.
Cannibalism, in the story book form, is still alive and well in certain pockets of the world, and even a cursory study of its history suggests it could come back with a vengeance in other areas.
What follows is a list of five places where cannibalism either still exists, or has existed within the last 50 years. Some of them are rather shocking.
Australian journalist Neil Davis reported on the prevalence of ritual cannibalism among Cambodian soldiers in the 1970s. At the time, Davis was covering the Khmer Rouge rebellion against the government of Prime Minister Lon Nol, who was eventually defeated and run out of the country in 1975.
Davis reported that Cambodian troops would cut the livers and hearts from the abdominal cavities of slain Khmer Rouge soldiers. The organs would either be eaten cold on the battlefield or taken home and cooked for the evening meal.
In a 1976 radio documentary, Davis recounted some of the things he witnessed:
“If it had been a torrid battle, and they fought at close quarters to kill the enemy, quite often they would eat the liver immediately, raw in their hands. Put it up as we might … a hamburger.”
Davis, to his credit, did not sensationalize this practice. He was so troubled by what he saw that he did very little reporting on it. For that reason, it takes a good deal of digging to find mention of cannibalism in Cambodia during the troubling period of the 1970s. But that Davis witnessed it and did report it is irrefutable.
The First Liberian Civil War began in 1989, but fighting in that country had been ongoing for almost an entire decade prior. It was in that fighting that members of Doctors Without Borders grew concerned about reports of ritual killings and cannibal feasts. The rumors were confirmed and the charity medical organization sent evidence, including photographs, to the Amnesty International, asking them to investigate.
Seemingly unwilling to wade into a cultural relativism debate, Amnesty declined to publish any of the evidence. The organization’s then-Secretary General Pierre Sane issued an internal memorandum to keep others mum stating that "what they do with the bodies after human rights violations are committed is not part of our mandate or concern.”
Journeyman Pictures of London subsequently produced a video documentary that proved widespread cannibalism existed in the country during that time.
3 Democratic Republic of the Congo
The Second Congo War officially ended in 2003 with the signing of a peace treaty, however hostilities continued within the Democratic Republic of the Congo for at least another four years.
In 2003, the year peace was supposed to have come to the country, Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of the Mbuti Pygmies — a cultural group within the country, stood before a UN committee and told members that his people were being eaten by Congolese rebels in Ituri province.
"In living memory, we have seen cruelty, massacres, genocide, but we have never seen human beings hunted and eaten literally as though they were game animals, as has recently happened,” Makelo said.
An unnamed UN official who was stationed in the country, overseeing the recent ceasefire, confirmed Makelo’s reports.
"Ituri is completely out of control and cannibalism is just the latest atrocity taking place," the official said. ”Perhaps this will finally alert the world to what's going on.”
2 New Guinea
The Korowai are a tribe of about 4,000 people living in Indonesian New Guinea. They live along the Ndeiram Kabur River, and until recently they refused to allow outsiders to visit their villages and study their customs.
In 2006, though, Smithsonian magazine sent a writer and photographer to report on the Korowai. Among his findings was an old tradition of ritual killing and cannibalism.
The tradition, as reported by World-Science, consists of killing and eating what villagers call a khakhua.
Should a tribesman of the Korowai be found to be dying of a mysterious illness his family members gather around his death bed. His dying breath is often saved to whisper one last thing: the name of a fellow tribesman. That name is the name of a khakhua or the person the dying man believed to be responsible for his death. The Korowai believe that khakhua are actually sorcerers, masquerading as male humans, who kill their victims by eating their internal organs and replacing them with ash.
Once the khakhua is identified, he is hunted down, “tied up, slaughtered, hacked apart and cooked like a pig, every morsel to be devoured with pleasure, especially the scrumptious brain,” according to the article.
Among all modern accounts of cannibalism few will illicit more argument than the mention of the Aghoris of India. Discussion of this controversial sect of Hinduism will truly put cultural relativism to the test.
Aghoris live along the Ganges River and engage in numerous controversial rituals including drinking from bowls fashioned from human skulls and smearing their own bodies with cremated human remains.
They also eat the flesh of other partially cremated bodies they pull from the Ganges; bodies that were released into the river as part of another Hindu ritual.
Because cannibalism is such a taboo subject, people fear that referring to the Aghoris as cannibals impugns other aspects of Hinduism.
Aghoris do not engage in murder or ritualistic killing, as other groups mentioned in this list do. But that they eat human flesh is hard to dispute.
That they belong to a currently operating sect of one of the world’s largest religions, though, underscores the murky waters of cultural relativism and what it means in our understanding of an admittedly nausea-inducing topic like cannibalism.
Is it right or wrong? That is not for this article to decide or argue. But it is does exist, still.