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Leader and Humans

Is it time for a more subtle view on the ultimate taboo: cannibalism?

New archaeological evidence shows that ancient humans ate each other surprisingly often - sometimes for compassionate reasons. The finds give us an opportunity to reassess our views on the practice

14 February 2024

C1R8W3 Maipure Indians, inhabitants of the Upper Orinoco river, grilling the legs of a dead enemy. Italian Engraving 1781. Colored.


IT IS the ultimate taboo: in most societies, the idea of one human eating another is morally repugnant. Even in circumstances where it could arguably be justified, such as when a plane crashed in the Andes in 1972 and starving passengers ate the dead to survive, we still have a deep aversion to cannibalism. One of the survivors, Roberto Canessa, has since described the passengers’ actions as a “descent towards our ultimate indignity”.

Ethically, cannibalism poses fewer issues than you might imagine. If a body can be bequeathed with consent to medical science, why can’t it be left to feed the hungry? Our aversion has been explained in various ways. Perhaps it is down to the fact that, in Western religious traditions, bodies are seen as the seat of the soul and have a whiff of the sacred. Or maybe it is culturally ingrained, with roots in early modern colonialism, when racist stereotypes of the cannibal were concocted to justify subjugation. These came to represent the “other” to Western societies – and revulsion towards cannibalism became a tenet of their moral conscience.

A slew of recent archaeological discoveries is now further complicating how we think about human cannibalism. Researchers have unearthed evidence suggesting that our hominin ancestors ate each other surprisingly often. What’s more, it seems that they weren’t always doing so for the reasons you might expect – for sustenance or to compete against and intimidate rivals – but often as funerary rituals to honour their dead.

Like it or not, then, cannibalism is an important part of our story. This isn’t to say that we should change our attitudes towards it. But understanding its deep roots might shift our perspective on the few cultures that still practise cannibalism today, albeit only occasionally, such as the Aghori, a Hindu ascetic sect in India that does it in pursuit of transcendence. Above all, these discoveries invite us to reconsider our revulsion to cannibalism in the context of our evolutionary past.


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