Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Cannibalism: Just what the doctor ordered

Carole A. Travis Henikoff

It may come as a surprise to many that their ancestors practiced cannibalism, especially when some scholars deny cannibalism ever happened. Yet the truth is, we all have cannibals in our closet. Throughout history human beings have consumed human flesh for various reasons.

As humans migrated around the globe, they ate their dead relatives at funerals and their enemies after killing them in the field. They consumed human flesh as part of religious rites or to celebrate a victory by ingesting a specified part of an adversary. In some cases human flesh was ingested for health reasons, to cure an illness or fortify the diner with strength or sexual prowess . . . an early form of Viagra?

Cannibalism Image

Other variants of cannibalism include gastronomic cannibalism, when human flesh is eaten without any ceremony other than the culinary; benign cannibalism, when the diner has no knowledge of what kind of meat he is eating . . . or ate; and autophagic cannibalism that ranges from the little boy who picks his nose—to torture-induced self-consumption—to individuals who cook and eat pieces of their own flesh.

This article will center on iatric (medicinal) cannibalism.

Every person is a summation of his individual genetics, everything he has experienced, and what he has been taught to believe. If a person is born into a society that practices cannibalism, infanticide, genocide, terrorism, or burns people at stakes, he will likely follow suit. Basic human instincts beg to be a part of a group.

Long ago, and even today, human flesh was sold or prescribed as “medicine” by medicine men, shamans, witch doctors, or physicians. The taking of such “medicines” was never viewed as cannibalism.

The Inquisition ran in various forms from the 11th century into the 18th century. During those times the vast majority of people were illiterate, cleanliness was not a common word, plagues raged, weather and wars produced famines which led to starvation and events of cannibalism. When heretics were burned at the stake, or criminals lost their heads to the axe, people streamed into town as if going to a fair. Everybody came, the young and the old; small children were held high or placed upon their parents’ shoulders so that they could have a better view. What they saw were people with spastic or seizure-producing disorders making their way to the execution block and paying the axe-man for a bowl of “red”—as human blood was believed to calm seizures and alleviate spastic conditions.

Medical knowledge at the time was scant. Illness was believed to be a weakness of the flesh that could be remedied by a good dose of strong flesh—human flesh, called mummy. The practice began when mummies were sent across the Mediterranean from Egypt to Europe, because rumors had sprung that mummified flesh was magical and cured illnesses. In Egypt, Muslims had found countless mummies while looking around the great pyramids for marble to build their mosques. With more mummies than they knew what to do with, they shipped them to Europe where the wealthy paid well for the life-preserving medicine. And so it was that mummified or cured human remains were a staple of apothecary shops in Europe from the 12th to the 17th centuries.

The mummy trade with Egypt dried up around the 14th century, but people still wanted their mummy; so the Europeans started curing the dead bodies of strong young men, preferably virgins, just as one would cure a ham, by smoking or drying them with salt and herbs. For the gourmet, they did as was done in Arab countries: they cured the body in vats of honey and herbs (the Arabs called the resultant medicine “mellified man”; mell is Latin for honey). And since patients who did not die of their disease eventually got better, the mummy seemed to work; and thus patients continued to pressure their doctors for a prescription of mummy well into the 19th century.

Corpses needed for the making of mummies were collected from battlefields; bodies of strong young lads were preferred. But the most expensive mummy was made from young men who had been hanged. A proper hanging produces an erection as the nerves causing vasoconstriction are severed with the snapping of the neck; thus allowing the phallus to become engorged with blood. Since erections have long been seen as evidence of strength and prowess in societies that range from the baboons of Africa to the ancient Greeks, a young hanged male who died with an erection brought more money for the mummy makers. On the other hand, while the flesh and blood of young men was highly prized throughout Europe, in England between the 11th and 14th centuries, corpses of female virgins were highly valued for consumption. Also their blood, including menstrual blood, was collected for the production of medicines.

In Africa, during the recent war in the Congo and surrounding areas, cannibalistic behavior arose when Congolese rebel troops ran out of food. On Wednesday May 21, 2003, The Chicago Tribune featured the following story: “The Congo Aid workers said they had found 231 bodies of people killed since May 4 on the streets of Bunia, including women and children, some decapitated, others with hearts, livers and lungs missing.” The journalist reported that a pygmy hunter came back empty handed to the soldiers who had sent him out for game. “I’m sorry” he said, “There is nothing left to eat in the forest.”

“Yes there is,” said the Congolese soldier and swiftly dispatched the man for dinner.

All too soon, cannibalism began to sweep the area surrounding Bunia. Even infants and small children were killed, not merely for food but also for iatric purposes, as consuming certain organs was believed to imbue a man with strength, extreme virility, stamina, and even protection from bullets. Similar beliefs go back thousands of years. One soldier showed a man a bag full of male sex organs, then boasted that he was taking them to his chief.

In the Blombos Cave, located in South Africa, dated at a hundred thousand years, archaeologists have found evidence of fire, stone tools, beads, and stark evidence of cannibalism. Today, in small remote towns in South Africa, there are witch doctors who make a strong magic medicine called “muti.” Though muti is often made with animals remains, muti made from human flesh fetches the highest price and is believed to be the most powerful. Human flesh is removed from corpses before or after burial. On the darker side, human muti commands such a high price that men in the backstreets of Johannesburg will kill to obtain eyes, penises, and testicles for the making of powerful muti.

Infanticide is found throughout the animal kingdom, from one-celled animals to chimpanzees and humans. Infanticide was and is still practiced for many reasons: infant deformity, an over-burdened mother, sex selection, to save a marriage, or to keep the population in check. Though difficult to believe, many peoples of the world have consumed their firstborns, naturally aborted fetuses, and placentas. Today, placentas are still eaten by mothers to help heal and re-strengthen the body. In a recent Discovery channel program on cannibalism, a British mother did the same for television cameras: serving portions to guests who knew the menu before accepting the invitation. In the past, many Australian Aborigines consumed their firstborns, this being one of their last cultural practices lost to the advent and enforcement of European laws.

China, with its 8,000 year old history of cannibalism also believed in the ingestion of firstborns, aborted fetuses, and placentas. The flesh of a fetus or newborn was considered to be part of the mother’s flesh rather than a separate entity; and since the fetus or newborn was not yet a person but an actual part of the mother, it was hers to reabsorb in order to create a new and healthier baby. Some form of this belief is found in all societies that practiced cannibalistic infanticide.

In 1995, a female reporter from Hong Kong went to the Shenzhen province in China to verify rumors of the sale and use of aborted fetuses for medical purposes. She found that doctors, nurses, and patients all claimed its power to cure old ills, cease aging, and cause other wondrous results. One man said he had never eaten fetuses, but that his mother served him placenta throughout his childhood. However, he had removed the dish from his diet after receiving a college degree. A doctor admitted his disgust of the process, stating that nothing smells as horrible as an aborted fetus. Consumers explained they dealt with the odor by adding great quantities of garlic and ginger.

In 2003, Chinese researchers working for Mary Roach, author of STIFF, The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, further explored reports of fetal cannibalism in China. The investigators were told that the sale and consumption of aborted fetuses had stopped some years earlier when the government began collecting all aborted fetuses and placentas for the manufacture of “Tai Bao Capsules.” The entire process had come under the control of the Board of Health as the capsules were found to be excellent in curing skin diseases and asthma. Indeed, many clinicians said they believed that fetal tissue offered multiple health benefits.

Of all the peoples on earth, the Chinese have practiced the greatest variety of cannibalistic acts, including a unique type of cannibalism referred to as learned cannibalism. In the practice of learned cannibalism, a person cuts off a piece of his or her own flesh, usually from the thigh, to be simmered in a broth and fed to a dying parent; the result always being a miraculous recovery. The rationale for this type of cannibalism comes from Confucian filial piety, coupled with the compassion of Buddhism. Confucian filial piety is characterized by the respect and loyalty of a child shown to a parent, while the compassion of Buddhism offers both sympathy and concern towards the parent.

In China, foods are chosen for their medicinal and health giving properties. Herbal medicines are only used for serious illnesses. On a daily basis, the Chinese regulate their diet for the sake of controlling health, sleep, and fortitude. For instance, liver is said to be good for your liver, kidneys for the kidneys, and snake bile for male sexual prowess.

During the reign of Mao and the Gang of Four, “enemies of the state” were put on public trial, found guilty, then given over to awaiting crowds who executed them on the spot. In a southern province of China the government-condoned executions led to impromptu killings that soon became acts of cannibalism. It is said that it all began one night when a man attacked and killed an older woman, cut out her liver and ran home to cook it only to find that he had cut out the lung, so he went back and extracted the liver. Soon, other mutilated bodies were found with hearts or livers missing. Through interviews, it was later found that the people who had practiced cannibalism during those dreadful times felt no remorse; in their minds they were helping their society by eradicating “unwanteds” by order of their government. The people who cannibalized their neighbors and those brought up for prosecution had a past history of cannibalism within their culture. “I feel like eating his liver!” is a saying still in use today, showing in the final analysis that we really are what we are taught to believe.


  1. The chapters from Dinner with a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind’s Oldest Taboo (Santa Monica Press/2008) used as reference for this article include: “Murder and Medicine”, “Infanticide”, “Politics and the Color Red” and “Africa: Then and Now.” Visit http://www.dinnerwithacannibal.com

CAROLE A. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF is an author, businesswoman, rancher, and independent scholar specializing in Paleoanthropology, the study of human origins. She is the author of Dinner with a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind’s Oldest Taboo. Her book received “editor’s pick” for October, 2008 from CHOICE Magazine, a publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries, and was chosen as one of CHOICE Magazine’s Outstanding Academic Titles for the Year 2008.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Spring 2009 – Volume 1, Issue 3

Spring 2009



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