A taste for the flesh of humans

Despite lasting images of missionaries being cooked and eaten alive in Africa, the practice of eating the flesh of other humans as a staple diet no longer exists even among tribal societies.

Forms of ritual cannibalism still survive in the Amazon, where Mundurucu headhunters are known to eat the flesh of outsiders, and in the Irian delta in Indonesian New Guinea (Irian Jaya) where the Asmat eat dead members of their own tribe as a rite of passage.

Reports of head-hunting and cannibalism of one tribe by another are extremely rare and difficult to substantiate.

Last year, Liberians caught up in fighting in the West African nation's civil war reported that teenage members of the rebel United Liberation Movement had cut out and eaten the hearts of their enemies after cooking them.

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution in 1968 people were reported to have been eaten in the town of Wuxuan, south-west China, during clashes between rival factions of the Red Guard.

Other outbreaks of cannibalism have been prompted by circumstance, such as prolonged famine. The former Soviet Union has a shameful record in this regard, with the first cases being recorded in the Volga region during the famine of 1921.

When millions died of starvation in Ukraine during the 1930s some resorted to ambushing strangers and children for food.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the problem has resurfaced with more than 10 Russians being charged with killing and eating their victims. They included prisoners who ate fellow convicts and a Siberian man who used the flesh of a friend to make ravioli.

Other instances of cannibalism have been linked to acts of depravity, usually due to insanity.

The term "cannibal" is derived from the Carib people who were native to the islands of the Caribbean, and were said by European explorers to have a preference for Frenchmen and a detestation for Spaniards.

William Arens, an American professor of anthropology, dismisses the suggestion that whole societies were ever cannibalistic as racist myth.