When Was Cannibalism First Discovered?

By Antonia Čirjak on May 28 2020 in Did You Know

As it is the case with many other taboos that exist today, and have been around for a while, it is hard to tell what are the exact facts behind the history of cannibalism.
As it is the case with many other taboos that exist today, and have been around for a while, it is hard to tell what are the exact facts behind the history of cannibalism.
  • The term cannibalism even made it into zoology, because there are numerous examples of same-species eating in the animal world. Spiders, Great Apes, Hippopotamuses are just some of the species that eat their own kind.
  • The Aztecs practiced large scale cannibalism through the ritual sacrifice of people they defeated in war and battle.
  • No matter how you feel about cannibalism, a culturally relativistic approach intends to view cannibalism as just another cultural practice.

If proficiency in Greek is not your strong suit, then a word like anthropophagy should not concern you if it comes up as a topic during dinner. However, if we do a literal translation, this means ‘’man-eating’’ (anthropo + phagos), or as the rest of the world knows it - cannibalism. When did people start eating other people?

Cannibalism Is A Taboo

As it is the case with many other taboos that exist today, and have been around for a while, it is hard to tell what are the exact facts behind the history of cannibalism. Taboo, as a discursive structure, is something that is forbidden to even talk about, as people are overly shocked by the act of eating another human being’s flesh. Still, proof of cannibalistic activity has been found on every Earth’s continent

The story behind the discovery of cannibalism is a far more complicated one, as it necessarily involves a specific tilt in the way you approach it. As the West started to explore the New World, it was almost an immediate response to focus on the differences. The difference between cultures is not a problem in itself, but the stereotypes, racism, and xenophobia are definitely something that came out of this. 

A Shocking Discovery In The New World

Now, the term cannibalism was created following this process of labeling the behavior of others. Caníbales was a Spanish name for a tribe we know as Carib. They were a West Indies tribe that became famous for their practice of cannibalism. Columbus is the one that history holds as the first one to become aware of the existence of this tribe, and their diet behavior was first described in the 17th century. However, the 15th century was not the time when cannibalism started after Columbus came in contact with a tribe so different from the men on his ship. It is just the time when ‘’the rest of the world’’ became aware of it.

Cannibalism was surely practiced before the discovery of the New World: in New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Melanesia. Also, in ancient Egypt, people started using other people as food, especially during periods of great famine. Even neanderthals, and now we are way back in history with our genetic ancestors, used to eat parts of other people. 

Modern Day Examples Of Cannibalism

In recent history, and there are even movies made about some of these events, people had to use human flesh to survive extremely hard conditions. The Donner Party is the most infamous example of how people can actually eat another person’s flesh if the situation is bad enough. Not so long ago, in 1972, an Uruguayan Air Force Flight crashed, and some of the people that survived managed to do so because they ate parts of the passengers that died from the crash or injuries. 

Unfortunately, there are even more contemporary examples of cannibalism, but those are reserved for people suffering from severe mental issues. Jeffrey Dahmer and Albert Fish are the most notable recent human-eaters that practiced it because of sexual pleasure. 

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