The Disturbing Reality of Cannibalism
Cannibalism is perhaps the last taboo for humanity, but can it ever be explained? Is there ever a situation when cannibalism is justified?
Many might say murder can be forgiven if it was a case of ‘kill or be killed’, so maybe the same logic can be applied to cannibalism. If the choice is between starvation or consuming human flesh, does even that extreme set of circumstances make the act any easier to stomach? Billionaires investigates this disturbing act that is still very much in existence today.
Some of the most famous instances of mass cannibalism often centre around war. It is perhaps no surprise that the most desperate and violent of times go hand in hand with this most shocking of taboos. But the extreme nature of the act makes it difficult to determine which atrocities really took place and which have been exaggerated in history.
One of the most famous cases, for example, is that of Nazi soldiers eating Soviet prisoners of war during World War II. But with more modern cases, the space for rumour and fact to be muddled is a lot smaller: just recently one of the leaders of the Syrian rebels was captured on camera consuming a human organ, with the resulting video posted on to YouTube for the world to see. This example was the ultimate show of hatred for what a person stands for and an extreme show of force from the perpetrators.
But it was also propaganda. An element not uncommon in those who push the extremes of their humanity as we shall see…
Cannibalism as an Act of War
Some scientific papers have argued that cannibalism is as old as the human race. Whether or not this is the case is all but impossible to prove. However, we do know that early Maori settlers in New Zealand were cannibals.
Fast forward a bit, and instances of cannibalism in the 20th century are often still up for debate, with the crime so evil it is typically difficult to find people willing to speak on the record about what horrors they have seen.
One man about whom the rumours do seem to be true is Jean-Bédel Bokassa (pictured above), who led the Central African Republic through an often bloody reign between 1966 and 1979. Bokassa’s former security chief of the palace testified that he had seen the self-proclaimed emperor consume human flesh, while former president David Dacko said he had seen photographs of bodies hanging in the palace. In the end, Bokassa was acquitted of cannibalism, although he was found guilty of charges including treason, murder, assault, battery and embezzlement.
Accusations of cannibalism always have to be treated with a degree of scepticism even from more recent times. As it is just about the worst thing an enemy can be accused of, there have been occasions when false allegations of cannibalism have been twisted into a form of propaganda.
However, there are many instances where cannibalism has been used as propaganda from the opposite angle, as a show of force if you will. As recently as the 1990s, the Revolutionary United Front was formed to overthrow Sierra Leone’s government and cannibalism was just one of the horrific methods they used to spread fear. It is thought United Nations peacekeepers were among those eaten by the Revolutionary United Front.
While many notorious cannibals through history have killed and eaten their victims, their crimes have often been committed under some form of mental illness, making the crimes understandable (to an extent), although never justifiable. But the evil evidenced when cannibalism is used as an act of war is on another level of horrific. Such indescribable evil is a terrible insight into what human beings can be capable of.
Unfortunately, the Revolutionary United Front is far from an isolated case of cannibalism in recent history. In 1999 hundreds of people were murdered and eaten in Borneo as the country descended into utter carnage. Women, children and babies were among those cannibalised as the Indonesian security forces lost control as war between different ethnic groups broke out and spread rapidly.
But perhaps the most notorious of cannibals (that are still living at least) is Joshua Milton Blahyi, more commonly known as General Butt Naked. General Butt Naked was one of the most fearsome warlords in Liberia and heralded as a spiritual and military leader by his followers, he was to take his first taste of human meat at the age of 11. His sins were to become greater as he grew up and he continued to kill and eat people while encouraging his soldiers to follow suit, in a bizarre sense of leadership that suggested doing so would make them invincible to their enemy.
Much has been written about Blahyi and the focus, understandably, is on his remarkable transformation into a missionary for God and the provider of a safe house for child soldiers whose lives were destroyed by the war that ripped across the country in the 1990s. Can someone who spent years committing some of the most horrific acts imaginable really be entirely reformed as a force for good? Are our frail human souls even capable of sinking to such depths and returning without bringing at least a trace of that darkness with them?
We will probably never know whether or not Blahyi is genuinely reformed or if he is maintaining the semblance of reformation to avoid jail time for his horrific war crimes. But it’s a fascinating case that explores the true extremes of human nature. This Vice News documentary explores the Cannibal Warlords of Liberia in detail and gives a disturbing insight into the war culture that spawned General Butt Naked and those like him:
World War II is often cited as another war in which cannibalism reared its hideous head as a reality. Nazi troops are thought to have eaten Soviet POWs and there have also been reports of Japanese soldiers consuming the flesh of Allies. Historian Yuki Tanaka says: “Cannibalism was often a systematic activity conducted by whole squads and under the command of officers.”
However, it was usually a case of necessity as the war marched on, supplies diminished and soldiers were faced with the desperately real choice between eating human flesh or starving to death.
In very rare cases, the flesh was even cut from living people. Perhaps the best documented case of this occurred in Chichi-jima in February 1945, towards the end of the war. Five American airmen were captured and eaten, with their limbs amputated one by one to keep the meat fresh. War can drive people to extreme measures, undeniably. Later, five out of 30 Japanese soldiers were found guilty and hanged as a result.
It seems odd that in wartime, when all usual rules are abandoned, cannibalism would remain such a shocking taboo and a crime punishable by death. Perhaps that indicates just how disgusting the human race finds the idea of consuming the flesh of another person.
However, it could be argued that cannibalism is simply the most efficient way to dispose of the body of an enemy and there are cases even today in which this does indeed appear to be the primary motivation for some war-driven groups to commit the act, beyond propaganda or survival. These people can be found in tribes around the world that are rumoured to engage in widespread cannibalism. The Korowai tribe of south-eastern Papua is thought to be among them. Until the 1950s the tribe was unknown to the outside world and it is rumoured that the tribe was responsible for Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance in 1961, but this has never been proven.
t’s not just the violence of war that pushes people to extremes, reports of cannibalism also tend to emerge during times of extreme famine. Russia in 1921 is one of the best known and documented cases of this, when individuals were routinely given a choice between eating human meat and eating nothing at all. It is difficult for us – in our relevant comfort and luxury – to comprehend how impossible that decision must be.
More recently, North Korea is also rumoured to have been plagued by cannibalism in the 1990s as a result of a lack of food. Chinese travellers reported seeing cannibalism, while Korean leader Kim Jong-Il is thought to have ordered a clampdown on the gruesome practice.
Arguably history’s best known extreme case of resorting to cannibalism to survive was the victims of the 1972 Andes air crash, which only 16 people survived from. The plane was chartered by the Stella Ruby Team from Montevideo in Uruguay and a film, Alive, made out of the case. The survivors (pictured above) were rescued more than two months after the accident and had resorted to eating the flesh of dead fellow passengers in order to survive.
Survivor Nando Parrado wrote in his book: “At high altitude, the body’s caloric needs are astronomical… we were starving in earnest, with no hope of finding food, but our hunger soon grew so voracious that we searched anyway… again and again we scoured the fuselage in search of crumbs and morsels.”
There was nothing to eat and the survivors would have starved if they had not eaten the human flesh of their fellow passengers, who had died either in the crash itself or in a later avalanche.
However, eating human meat is a decision each of those survivors will have to live with forever.
Finally we look at the terrifying minority of people driven to cannibalism out of criminal intent. There are a worrying number of people who have sought out the opportunity to kill and eat another human being, of whom Jeffrey Dahmer is perhaps history’s most famous.
Dahmer murdered 17 men and boys and he was also found guilty of awful crimes such as necrophilia and cannibalism. Dahmer was killed by a fellow inmate two years into his life sentence.
Decades later, Dahmer’s neighbour Pamela Bass is still haunted by the fact a sandwich she was given by Dahmer and subsequently ate may have contained human meat. The Dahmer case has always fascinated the media and it has spawned countless films and books.
This shocking interview gives an insight into Dahmer’s depraved mind:
Perhaps it is impossible to judge cannibalism as a whole. There are clearly distinctly different motivations for the horrific act of eating another person and not all are born out of hate. Indeed, sometimes it really is a tragic necessity when survival is on the cards. But for those who have used cannibalism as a violent tool for fear and propaganda in war, or the unusual individuals who have sought to disrupt good healthy lives with their quest to kill and eat another, we can only guess at the level of hatred that must dwell within their souls. Billionaires