Modern-Day Human Cannibalism

July 26, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Human skulls
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Is it just a thing of the past?

From time to time, we hear about modern cases of human cannibalism. For example, German cannibal Armin Meiwes killed and consumed Bernd Brandes, a man who had posted an ad online offering the chance to eat him alive in 2001. And in 2012, a Japanese man underwent surgery to have his genitals removed and then cooked them for five paying dinner guests. These are generally one-off cases and are widely thought to be fuelled by psychological disorders.

Cannibalism was common among prehistoric human beings, and the practice continued into the 19th century in a few isolated South Pacific cultures, most notably in Fiji aka “Cannibal Island.” In the 1950s, the tradition of ritual cannibalism among the Fore people living in Papua New Guinea led to an epidemic of a neurological disease called Kuru, which left around 1000 dead.

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There are reportedly still a few places in the world where cannibalism is practiced as a matter of culture. Although in most cases the evidence is sparse, two groups have been studied in greater detail: the Korowai and the Aghori.

In West Papua, close to the border with Papua New Guinea, lives the Korowai tribe — “among the last people on earth to practice cannibalism,” according to a report in Smithsonian Magazine, that stated: “Most Korowai still live with little knowledge of the world beyond their homelands and frequently feud with one another. Some are said to kill and eat male witches they call ‘khakhua’.” However, it has been argued that tribe members claim the practice still occurs to boost tourism, even though they no longer actually engage in cannibalism.

Feared across India, Aghori monks are said to feast on human flesh and drink from human skulls as part of their rituals, which are intended to gain supernatural powers, boost longevity, and prepare themselves for the passage to the deity Shiva after death. They do not kill people specifically for these rituals, but rather they retrieve bodies that were buried in the river and obtain unburned remains of unclaimed bodies from cremation grounds. They conveniently inhabit caves surrounding cremation grounds, outcast from Indian society.

Unlike other animals that practice cannibalism, in humans, the purpose is rarely to satisfy hunger. Though the practice has all but ceased, the few groups still believed to carry out cannibalism do so as part of a cultural ritual.

You might also like: Evidence That Belgian Neanderthals Cannibalized Their Dead and Fashioned Tools out of Their Bones

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