Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs is one of the most well-known cannibalism in popular culture
Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs is one of the most well-known cannibalism in popular culture

Humankind's weird relationship with cannibalism: From eating placentas to body parts in medicine

We have an uncomfortably close relationship with cannibalism, according to a new book charting its history 

Kashmira Gander
Tuesday 24 January 2017 12:24
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Bill Schutt was in a kitchen in Plano, Texas, watching a chef prepare his wife’s placenta Ossobuco-style, when the book he was working on about cannibalism seemed to gain new significance.

The Professor of Biology at LIU-Post Long Island University and Research Associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York hadn’t planned any more trips that semester, but when Claire Rembis - who prepares placentas in tinctures, powders and capsules with her husband – graciously invited him to try her placenta as part of his research, he couldn’t refuse.

“I thought I’d ask her questions on Skype but she said if you could down here you can have my placenta and I was like 'huh?! Did she really say I can consume her placenta?' She sai ‘yeah we can make it into taco or Ossobuco style. So being half Italian I went with that," he remembers warmly, laughing.

Professor Schutt has carved a niche in taking a misunderstood topics seen as disgusting, and looking at them from a naturalist perspective. He hopes his approach in Eat Me: A Natural and Unnatural History of Cannibalism will separate the sensationalism of Hannibal Lecter and his ilk in pop culture with the truth found in less publicised academic papers. Professor Schutt previously shed light on the phenomena of vampirism in his book Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures in 2008.

“These topics are humorous, interesting and tragic, but they warrant study beyond being sensationalised,” he tells The Independent.

His book investigates how new ways of considering evidence on the practice over the past few decades has shift how cannibalism is viewed, from abhorrent to commonplace and necessary among some species.

In the animal kingdom, cannibalism can help species to thrive. In what Schutt half-jokingly dubs “kids’ meals”, snail mothers lay two sets of eggs, with the second becoming the meal of the first hatched. Black lace-weaver spiders, meanwhile, offer themselves up for their children, who devour them alive.

As for our own species, Schutt lays bare how cannibalism was used as a tool for oppression by Western colonisers, but also its acceptable modern face in mothers eating placentas.

This horror towards cannibalism originates from Ancient Greece and Homer’s Odyssey, and the Polyphemus – a giant Cyclops in Greek mythology - “who wasn’t human but human enough, and ate a whole lot of people.” This same fear is woven through the works of Shakespaer, the Brothers Grimm and Daniel de Foe, he adds.

“It snowballed that cannibalism was this ultimate taboo that’s in the Western culture where we have this idea that it’s revolting.”

But what surprised Schutt most during his exploration of cannibalism was its use in Europe for hundreds of years from the Renaissance era until the late 18th century.

The upper-classes and members the British Royalty applied, drank or wore concoctions prepared from human body parts including bones, flesh, fat, liver, oil distilled from the human brain, smashed-up heart, bladder stones, warm blood, breast milk, and extracts of gall. Among its more high-profile advocates were Charles I, King Francis I of France, the poet John Donne, scientist and Francis Bacon.

“That to me shocking given the Western taboo of cannibalism when it’s arguably the worst thing you can do. It was so widespread. Because of a mistranslation for a long time it was believed that you could make various medicinal treatments from Egyptian mummies for binding wounds, and so this lead to a run on mummies and a shortage to the point people were taking corpses and mummifying them for a few hundred years."

Jarring with is the very real idea that eating the body of Christ and drink his blood during the Eucharist, he says.

Eating the flesh of other humans was also used as justification for discrimination, enslavement and killing in European colonies.

“There is a racial aspect of cannibalism and that’s the concept of the 'other'. It’s what 'they' are doing that is wrong, and so colonisers used cannibalism and the well-developed taboo the West had during the age of conquest as a tool of subjugation,” Professor Schutt explains.

“In the book I talk about Christopher Columbus when he came to the New World and met indigenous groups. His early reports indicate they were really nice but he was looking for gold and when he didn’t find it he looked for other things to exploit. And it came down to humans. Queen Isabella of Spain had told Columbus to treat people - well unless you find they’re cannibals. Then you can do what you want.

"So these people were treated like animals, and hunted like dogs. Cultures were driven to the ground and enslaved. There is hypocrisy in cannibalism."

In more recent history, cannibalism has been a necessity for the most desperate, including the Russian famine of 1921.

Fast forward a few decades, and there was Professor Schutt, eating Rembis' placenta. This experience, he says, was particularly affecting and fascinating after his research.

“On one side of the kitchen she was prepping a customer’s placenta, taking this big thing with an umbilical cord, then there’s her husband dressed up in a chef uniform cooking away. He was chopping vegetables and saying 'it's all organic' and I said 'thank god!’,” he recalls, laughing. “He plated it up like a chef with some steamed vegetables and a wine sauce, and his kids filmed it. It was really wonderful. I cleaned my plate.”

Professor Schutt declines to describe what placenta tastes like, but says that human meat has been described as similar to pork or veal.

In the future, while the cultural stance towards cannibalism in Western-influenced regions of the world is unlikely to differ any time soon, Professor Schutt suggests we may once again be forced to resort to eating other in the face of an agricultural disaster.

“In those instance where there is a lack of something else to eat and lots of overcrowding and agricultural system has crashed I can see it. It would be horrible but completely explainable."

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