Cannibalism: Cultures, Cures, Cuisine, and Calories

Human Cannibalism; Johannes Lerii's account of the description of the method the Indians use for "barbecuing" human flesh. Nude Indians barbecuing and eating parts of human bodies; Theodor de Bry.
Theodor de Bry, America, Part 3, 1593/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZ62-45105)

Perhaps nothing inspires as much fascination and repulsion as human cannibalism. Although it is now regarded as one of society’s greatest taboos and is often associated with evil—think Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)—history reveals a practice that is more complex and, surprisingly, sometimes even reverential.

Funereal rituals involving cannibalism have been well documented. The Fore of Papua New Guinea, for example, were known to have eaten the bodies of their deceased. The practice was seen as a sign of love and respect, preventing corpses from rotting or being devoured by insects. In addition, the ritual was thought to protect the body from any dangerous spirits. The Wari of the Brazilian Amazon included cannibalism in their funereal rites into the 1960s, when missionaries precipitated the end of the practice. Also common were religious rituals that featured cannibalism. After making human sacrifices to the gods, the Aztecs reportedly ate the corpses, which they considered sacred.

Eating the body of an enemy was perhaps the ultimate act of revenge. In addition to showing domination and inspiring fear, consuming one’s foe was thought to enable the victor to possess the strength and bravery of the vanquished. Japanese soldiers during World War II consumed POWs, while the Korowai of New Guinea were within their rights to eat men thought to be witches. Ugandan leader Idi Amin, whose regime (1971–79) was noted for brutality, was accused of cannibalizing his opponents, and he responded with a nondenial: “I don’t like human flesh. It’s too salty for me.” The Carib of the Caribbean islands were also thought to have eaten their enemies, and Europeans used claims of cannibalism to justify the murder and enslavement of numerous indigenous people. Though the veracity of the allegations against the Carib is still debated, the term cannibalism derives from a corruption of their name.

Medicinal cannibalism seems to have existed around the world, with nearly every body part ending up in some concoction. Chinese compounds included human organs as well as nails and hair, while, in early Greece, human blood was thought to treat epilepsy. And even as they were decrying cannibals in the New World as savages, Europeans were routinely consuming human parts as medicinal treatment. Followers of 16th-century Swiss physician Paracelsus, for example, sought to cure dysentery with medicines that contained powdered human skulls, and in 17th-century England pulverized mummies were used in treatments for epilepsy and stomachaches. In some cases, not just any mummy would do: one concoction called for the body of a redheaded man who had died from hanging.

And then there is cannibal cuisine. (For the record, human flesh allegedly is similar in taste to veal or pork.) The Batak of Sumatra reportedly sold human flesh in markets, and in China human-based dishes were once considered a luxury. During the Yuan dynasty (13th–14th century), it was noted that “children’s meat was the best food of all in taste.” The country also reported cases of children cutting off various body parts—usually a section of the thigh or upper arm—to use in dishes for their elders as a show of respect.

Despite being relatively widespread—though some scholars believe that many reports of cannibalism are untrue—the practice eventually became taboo. However, there are some instances when it was accepted—or at least tolerated—and these cases typically involved survival. According to a recent study, the average human body contains more than 125,000 calories—a feast to anyone starving. One of the most famous examples of survival cannibalism involved the Donner party. In 1846, 87 pioneers led by George Donner left Independence, Missouri, bound for California. In December they became trapped by heavy snow in the Sierra Nevada. Facing starvation, the people eventually resorted to cannibalism. The story became well known—thanks in part to an eager press. (Somewhat ironically, in 2010 the media misinterpreted a study and suggested that cannibalism had not occurred within the Donner party.)

Another example of survival cannibalism followed a plane crash in the Andes Mountains in 1972. Of the 45 passengers—a number of whom belonged to a Uruguayan rugby team—only 16 survived the 72-day ordeal, which included cannibalism, an act some of those rescued later compared to taking Holy Communion. And at Jamestown Colony in 1609–10—a period known as the Starving Time—desperate American settlers cannibalized their neighbors after first eating rats and shoe leather.

WRITTEN BY:  Amy Tikkanen 

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Is it really healthier to live in the countryside?

But evidence-based research that can help us identify the healthiest environments to live is surprisingly scant. As scientists begin to tease apart the links between well-being and the environment, they are finding that many nuances contribute to and detract from the benefits offered by a certain environment – whether it be a metropolis of millions or a deserted beach.

“What we’re trying to do as a group of researchers around the world is not to promote these things willy-nilly, but to find pro and con evidence on how natural environments – and our increasing detachment from them – might be affecting health and well-being,” says Mathew White, an environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter Medical School.

White and other researchers are revealing that a seemingly countless number of factors determine how our surroundings influence us. These can include a person’s background and life circumstances, the quality and duration of exposure and the activities performed in it.

Generally speaking, evidence suggests that green spaces are good for those of us who live in urban areas. Those who reside near parks or trees tend to enjoy lower levels of ambient air pollution, reduced manmade noise pollution and more cooling effects (something that will become increasingly useful as the planet warms).

Wellington, New Zealand

The research shows that green spaces are good for urban dwellers, which should be welcome news to residents of Wellington, New Zealand (Credit: Getty Images)

Natural spaces are conducive to physical and social activities – both of which are associated with myriad benefits of their own.

Time in nature has been linked to reduced physical markers of stress. When we are out for a stroll or just sitting beneath the trees, our heart rate and blood pressure both tend to go down. We also release more natural ‘killer cells’: lymphocytes that roam throughout the body, hunting down cancerous and virus-infected cells.

Researchers are still trying to determine why this is so, although they do have a number of hypotheses. “One predominate theory is that natural spaces act as a calming backdrop to the busy stimuli of the city,” says Amber Pearson, a health geographer at Michigan State University. “From an evolutionary perspective, we also associate natural things as key resources for survival, so we favour them.”

This does not necessarily mean that urban denizens should all move to the countryside, however.

City residents tend to suffer from more asthma, allergies and depression – but they also tend to be less obese, at a lower suicide risk and are less likely to get killed in an accident

City residents tend to suffer from higher levels of asthmaallergies and depression. But they also tend to be less obese, at a lower risk of suicide and are less likely to get killed in an accident. They lead happier lives as seniors and live longerin general. (Read more aboutfive of the world’s healthiest cities).

City-dwellers live longer than their countryside counterparts and are happier as seniors

City-dwellers live longer than their countryside counterparts and are happier as seniors (Credit: Getty Images)

Although we tend to associate cities with pollution, crime and stress, living in rural locales may entail certain costs as well. Disease-carrying insects and arachnids can detract from the health factor of that otherwise idyllic cabin in Maine, for example.

In other cases, rural pollution poses a major threat. In India, air pollution contributed to the deaths of 1.1 million citizens in 2015 – with rural residents rather than urban ones accounting for 75% of the victims. This is primarily because countryside dwellers are at greater risk of breathing air that is polluted by burning of agricultural fields, wood or cow dung (used for cooking fuel and heat).

Indonesia’s slash and burn-style land clearing likewise causes a blanket of toxic haze that lasts for months and sometimes affects neighbouring countries, including Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Meanwhile, smoke pollution from fires lit in South America and southern Africa has been known to make its way around the entire southern hemisphere. (That said, the air in the southern hemisphere is generally cleaner than in the northern hemisphere – simply because there are fewer people living there).

Pollution can kill more people in the countryside than the cities

Because of practices like agricultural clearing, pollution can kill more people in the countryside than even in cities (Credit: Getty Images)

It’s not just developing countries, either: wildfires in the western US are wreaking havoc on air quality, while pollution from fertilizers used on farms are detracting from air quality in Europe, Russia, China and the US.

What about the idea of that pure mountain air? It’s true that black carbon aerosols and particulate matter pollution tends to be lower at higher altitudes. But trying to move above air pollution may cause other issues.

While people who live in in places 2,500m or higher seem to have lower mortality from cardiovascular disease, stroke and some types of cancers, data indicate that they also seem to be at an elevated risk of death from chronic pulmonary disease and from lower respiratory tract infections. This is likely at least in part because cars and other vehicles operate less efficiently at higher altitudes, emitting greater amounts of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide – which is made even more harmful by the increased solar radiation in such places. Living at a moderate altitude of 1,500 to 2,500 meters, therefore, may be the healthiest choice.

It’s not always true that the higher the altitude, the healthier the place

It’s not always true that the higher the altitude, the healthier the place (Credit: Getty Images)

There is a strong argument to be made for living near the sea – or at least near some body of water

On the other hand, there is a strong argument to be made for living near the sea – or at least near some body of water. Those in the UK who live closer to the ocean, for example, tend to have a better bill of health than those who live inland, taking into account their age and socioeconomic status. This is likely due to a variety of reasons, White says, including the fact that our evolution means we are attracted to the high levels of biodiversity found there (in the past, this would have been a helpful indicator of food sources) and that beaches offer opportunities for daily exercise and vitamin D.

Then there are the psychological benefits. A 2016 study Pearson and her colleagues conducted in Wellington, New Zealand found that residents with ocean views had lower levels of psychological distress. For every 10% increase in how much blue space people could see, the researchers found a one-third point reduction in the population’s average Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (used to predict anxiety and mood disorders), independent of socioeconomic status. Given that finding, Pearson says, “One might expect that a 20 to 30% increase in blue space visibility could shift someone from moderate distress into a lower category.” Pearson found similar results in a follow-up study conducted near the Great Lakes in the US (currently in review), as did White in an upcoming study of Hong Kong residents.

The more ‘blue space’ people saw in their everyday life, the less distress and anxiety

Researchers found that the more ‘blue space’ people saw in their everyday life, the less distress and anxiety they experienced (Credit: Getty Images)

Not everyone can live on the coast, however. So Simon Bell, chair of landscape architecture at the Estonian University of Life Sciences and associate director of the OPENspace Centre at the University of Edinburgh, and his colleagues are testing whether restoring neglected bodies of water throughout Europe can help. They are interviewing residents before and after restoration, including at a rundown beach outside of Tallinn, Estonia and an industrial canal near a Soviet bloc-style apartment complex in Tartu, also Estonia, among other places in Spain, Portugal, Sweden and the UK.

The team’s second analysis of nearly 200 recently redeveloped water sites will allow them to tease out how factors such as climate, weather, pollution levels, smells, seasonality, safety and security, accessibility and more, influence a given water body’s appeal. The ultimate goal, Bell says, is to find “what makes a great blue space.” Once the results are in, he and his colleagues will develop a quality assessment tool for those looking to most effectively restore urban canals, overgrown lakes, former docklands, rivers and other neglected blue spaces to make residents’ lives better.

How much we benefit from even a single visit to the coast depends on a variety of factors

How much we benefit from even a single visit to the coast depends on a variety of factors (Credit: Getty Images)

Still, when it comes to wellbeing, researchers do not know how lakes compare to oceans or how rivers compare to seas. Nor have they compared how beaches in, say, Iceland measure up to those in Florida. What they do know is that complex factors including air and water quality, crowding, temperature and even high and low tides affect how something as seemingly simple as a visit to the beach can influence us.

“There might be a million other important things besides weather and daylight that influence someone in Hawaii versus Finland,” White says.

People who live in less regularly sunny places, like Vermont or Denmark, tend to have higher rates of skin cancer

In terms of health, data also suggest that, counterintuitively, people who live in more intermittently rather than regularly sunny places – Vermont and Minnesota in the US, for example, and Denmark and France – tend to have higher rates of skin cancer, likely because sunscreen is not part of daily routines. (Read more aboutfive countries where people live the longest).

Just as some green and blue spaces may be more beneficial than others, researchers are also coming to realize that the environment’s influence on well-being is not evenly distributed.

People living in lower socioeconomic conditions tend to derive more benefits from natural spaces than wealthy residents, White says. That’s likely because richer people enjoy other health-improving privileges, such as taking holidays and leading generally less stressful lives – a finding with important real-world implications. “Here in the UK, local authorities have a legal obligation to reduce health inequalities. So one way to do that is to improve the park system,” White says. “The poorest will benefit the most.”

A clean, oceanside city like Sydney may be one of the best options

A clean, oceanside city like Sydney may be one of the best options (Credit: Getty Images)

It’s also important to point out that simply moving to a relatively pristine coast or forest will not solve all of our problems. Other life circumstances – losing or gaining a job, marrying or divorcing – have a much greater impact on our health. As White puts it, no matter what environment you’re in, “It’s more important to have a house than to be homeless in a park.”

Bell adds that proximity to nature actually tends to rank low on people’s lists of the most important factors for selecting a place to live, after things like safety, quietness and closeness to key locations like schools and work. But while the benefits of green and blue spaces should not be overplayed on an individual level, they are important for the scale at which they work.

And even so, one takeaway seems obvious: those living in a clean, oceanside city with ready access to nature – think Sydney or Wellington – may have struck the jackpot in terms of the healthiest places to live.

By Rachel Nuwer 1 June 2018

An Australian railway man saved more than 2 million babies—including his own grandchild—with a simple donation of blood

Featured image
James Harrison. Photo by: Australian Red Cross

An Australian man who required blood transfusions to survive surgery as a teenager decided to repay the kindness of strangers by becoming a blood donor himself. Little did he know at the time that his blood contained a rare antibody required for a life-saving medication. By the time he retired from donating this month, James Harrison had saved an amazing estimate of 2.4 million babies!

James Harrison came to blood donation from personal experience. When he was 14 years old, he underwent major lung surgery that took hours and required a vast quantity of transfusions—13 units of blood, in fact. He remained hospitalized for three months. So he decided to pay it forward as soon as he could. In Australia, blood donors must be a minimum of 18 years old; so in 1954, when he turned 18, Harrison gave his first units of blood. Despite a fear of needles, he returned to donate every few weeks for a remarkable 60 years.

But the Good Samaritan’s good deed turned out to be more beneficial than he ever could have imagined. In the 1960s, researchers discovered that Harrison’s blood contained a rare antibody used in a medication called Anti-D that helps save babies from a potentially fatal disease. The Australian Red Cross reports that Harrison’s blood has been used in more than 3 million doses of Anti-D since 1967, and that he has helped save the lives of 2.4 million babies, including that of his grandchildren. His daughter, Tracey Mellowship, received the injection and had two healthy babies. The Red Cross called him “the man with the golden arm.”

The Anti-D injections are given to pregnant Rh(D) negative women carrying Rh(D) positive babies, whose blood-type incompatibility can result in miscarriage, brain damage, or even stillbirth, according to the Australian Red Cross. Around 17 percent of Australian women need the injections, which come only from blood plasma from a “tiny pool” of around 160 donors who have the rare antibody that Harrison has. Attempts to make a synthetic version of the medication have so far failed.

Harrison had been donating for a decade when researchers discovered his blood was perfect for their new Anti-D program.

A Man Saved A Condor Years Ago And The Bird Still Flies Back To Say Thanks

On May 11, Harrison, now 81 and retired from his job as a railway administrator, lay back and had his arm strapped and swabbed as he got ready to give his last donation. As always, he looked away from the needle, and gripped a stress ball in his other hand. Medical officials with the Red Cross said it was time for Harrison to retire and save his blood for his own health. He received the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1999 for his service to the Anti-D program. He also made it into the Guinness Book of World Records in 2003.

Harrison’s last donation at the Town Hall Blood Donor Center in Sydney was videotaped and shown on the local TV news. (Harrison, ever the proper railway man, wore a tie to the occasion.) Helium balloons above his head had the numbers 1, 1, 7, and 3 to represent the 1,173 times he had donated blood. A half-dozen moms who had benefited from the Anti-D injection program showed up, their babies in their arms, to commemorate the unassuming hero.

“The end of an era,” Harrison, who lives in New South Wales, told the New York Times. “It was sad because I felt like I could keep going.”

Harrison was proud of having helped though not unduly vain about his accomplishment. He hopes the publicity surrounding his retirement will inspire other blood donors to come forward; perhaps one will also carry the rare antibody.  “Saving one baby is good,” Harrison told the New York Times. “Saving two million is hard to get your head around, but if they claim that’s what it is, I’m glad to have done it.”

 E.L. Hamilton

Australia’s sea of crimson claws

Australia’s Christmas Island crab migration (Credit: Max Orchard)

(Max Orchard)

The migration starts with the first heavy rains in October, November or December. At that point, there’s enough moisture in the air for the large crustaceans, which can reach up to 11cm across, to make the arduous, five-day journey from their homes in wet inland forests to the Indian Ocean, covering up to 9km along the way.

Crab migration (Credit: Parks Australia)

(Parks Australia)

With so many of the creatures on the move, Parks Australia works before and during the migration to protect the crustaceans by closing roads, building fences and constructing underground tunnels. Drivers are encouraged to stop for the crabs.

Australia’s Christmas Island crab migration (Credit: Tracy Wilson)

(Tracy Wilson)

Upon reaching the sand, the male crabs dig burrows and fight each other for ownership of the shelters. When the female crabs arrive (usually five to seven days after the first males), they begin to mate, and the females stay in their beachside burrows until the last quarter of the lunar cycle. The females always wait for the first day of the last quarter – regardless of when they started the migration – to spawn and release their eggs into the sea. Researchers speculate that since this phase of the moon has the least sea level change between high and low tides, the eggs have higher chances of survival.

Australia’s Christmas Island crab migration (Credit: Justin Gilligan)

(Justin Gilligan)

This year, the possible spawning dates (and dates of the quarter moon) are 28 November or 28 December, so the initial migration will happen seven to 18 days before, depending on the weather. The crabs tend to be on the move in the morning and early evening when the air is cooler, but any dry spells will halt the migration until wetter weather prevails.

Follow the Parks Australia blog or the Christmas Island Tourism Facebook page to get an alert at the first signs of the cruising crustaceans.

Australia’s Christmas Island crab migration (Credit: Parks Australia)

(Parks Australia)

There are bodies under the giant heads of Easter Island – one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world

iStock.com/Onfokus

The Giant stone heads on eater Island are images that we’ve all grown up seeing and hearing about, many of us dream of visiting them and looking for ourselves, it now seems that if we get to make the journey we’ll see more than our ancestors ever did.

The reason people think they are [only] heads is there are about 150 statues buried up to the shoulders on the slope of a volcano, and these are the most famous, most beautiful and most photographed of all the Easter Island statues.

The hundreds of finely carved statues found across Easter Island bore mute witness to the collapse of Polynesia’s most advanced megalithic culture.

The nearest inhabited land (around 50 residents in 2013) is Pitcairn Island 1,289 miles away; the nearest town with a population over 500 is Rikitea, on the island of Mangareva, 1,619 miles away; the nearest continental point lies just in central Chile, 2,182 miles away.

Easter Island moai stone statues under starry sky of the Southern Hemisphere. Clearly visible are galaxies called Small and Large Magellanic Clouds. iStock.com/andyKRAKOVSKI

The large stone statues, or moai, for which Easter Island is famous, were carved during the period A.D. 1100–1680 (rectified radio-carbon dates). A total of 887 monolithic stone statues have been inventoried on the island and in museum collections.

Although often identified as “Easter Island heads,” the statues have torsos, most of them ending at the top of the thighs, although a small number are complete figures that kneel on bent knees with their hands over their stomachs.Some upright moai have become buried up to their necks by shifting soils.

The statues, whose traditional name is “moai,” were carved from volcanic rock between A.D. 1100 and 1500 by ancient Polynesians. They range in size, with the tallest reaching 33 feet (10 meters). Although their significance is still somewhat of a mystery, the moai are thought to have been representations of the indigenous peoples’ ancestors. Tribespeople would probably have carved a new statue each time an important tribal figure passed away.

Almost all (95%) moai were carved from compressed, easily worked solidified volcanic ash or tuff found at a single site on the side of the extinct volcano Rano Raraku. The native islanders who carved them used only stone hand chisels, mainly basalt toki, which lie in place all over the quarry.

Complex carvings found on the buried statues’ bodies, have been protected from weathering by their burial. Photo Credit – Easter Island Statue Project.

The stone chisels were sharpened by chipping off a new edge when dulled. While sculpting was going on, the volcanic stone was splashed with water to soften it. While many teams worked on different statues at the same time, a single moai took a team of five or six men approximately a year to complete. Each statue represented the deceased head of a lineage.

Only a quarter of the statues were installed. Nearly half remained in the quarry at Rano Raraku, and the rest sat elsewhere, presumably on their way to intended locations. The largest moai raised on a platform is known as “Paro.” It weighs 82 tons and is 32.15 ft long. Several other statues of similar weight were transported to ahu on the north and south coasts.

Possible means by which the statues were moved include employment of a miro manga erua, a Y-shaped sled with cross pieces, pulled with ropes made from the tough bark of the hau tree and tied around the statue’s neck.

Anywhere from 180 to 250 men were required for pulling, depending on the size of the moai. Some 50 of the statues were re-erected in modern times. One of the first was on Ahu Ature Huke in Anakena beach in 1956. It was raised using traditional methods during a Heyerdahl expedition.

Another method that might have been used would be to attach ropes to the statue and rock it, tugging it forward as it rocked. This would fit the legend of the Mo’ai ‘walking’ to their final locations. This might have been managed by as few as 15 people, supported by the following evidence:

The heads of the moai in the quarry are sloped forward whereas the ones moved to final locations are not. This would serve to provide a better center of gravity for transport. The statues found along the transport roads have wider bases than statues installed on ahu; this would facilitate more stable transport.

Studies have shown fractures along the bases of the statues in transport; these could have arisen from rocking the statue back and forth and placing great pressures on the edges. The statues found mounted on ahu do not have wide bases and stone chips found at the sites suggest they were further modified on placement.

The abandoned and fallen statues near the old roads are found (more often than would be expected from chance) face down on ascending grades and on their backs when headed uphill. Some were documented standing upright along the old roads, e.g., by a party from Captain Cook’s voyage that rested in the shade of a standing statue. This would be consistent with upright transport.

There is debate around the moai regarding the effects of the monument creation process on the environment. Some believe that the process of creating the moai caused widespread deforestation and ultimately a civil war over scarce resources.

In 2011, a large moai statue was excavated from the ground. The statues reveal their creators to be master craftsmen and engineers and are distinctive among other stone sculptures found in Polynesian cultures.

There has been much speculation about the exact purpose of the statues, the role they played in the ancient civilization of Easter Island and the way they may have been constructed and transported.

 Brad Smithfield