Cannibalism in humans is defined as a ritualistic act, and the tendency of human beings to eat human flesh. Cannibalism is a complex human behavior that warrants extra attention if one is to understand the motivation and factors behind it. Extreme complexities regarding the nature of cannibalism and the motivation behind the urge to eat fellow human's flesh are simply intriguing. Cannibalism remains a taboo across most cultures of modern societies. It is linked to psychological problems and rites of some cults. There is a need to outline in detail the history of cannibalism if we are to appreciate why it occurs.
Cannibalism remains part of human history, whether acknowledged or not because the evidence points to its existence. Cannibalism refers to eating of one's species by others within it. This indicates that the vice does not only exist among humans but also other animals. The term came from the Caribs of the West Indies; from a tribe known as Canibales that meant blood thirst and cruelty (Parkridge, 2011). Greek historians, such as Herodotus, offered accounts of many ancient people in the Greek Kingdom who practiced cannibalism. Among African tribes in Central and West Africa, the vice is still rife. The vice remains a taboo among the European and American cultures. The few cases that still arise are either psychotic or survival driven.
Cannibalism has existed since time immemorial across various cultures. In the animal kingdom, the chimpanzees, still exhibit cannibalism. Chimpanzee cannibalism fuels the argument that cannibalism in humans might have a genetic bearing since they are related. The argument seeks to imply that human beings might be predisposed, using the natural selection and survival advantage process, to feed on fellow human beings when no other means of survival is available. People have the option of eating human flesh as a last resort or die from starvation if they fail to do so. This indicates that the urge might be a genetic survival instinct existing in human beings. Another school of thought argues that cannibalism remains a conscious decision of a person involved in it. The school believes that regardless of the situation, nothing warrants the need to eat a fellow human being because the decision is strictly a personal choice. Studies indicate that cannibalism provides the survival advantage in certain times and ecologies.
Cannibalism in chimpanzees provides evidence of cannibalism in the evolutionary stages of human beings because science indicates that human beings evolved from the chimpanzees. Jane Goodall (2002) documented many instances where chimpanzees ate their fellow chimpanzees, during the course of her research in Gombe National Park, DRC. She made many observations where the female chimpanzees cannibalized the young ones of other chimpanzees from different family groups. The reasons for cannibalism in chimpanzees vary widely depending on the goal of a cannibal chimpanzee. A male chimpanzee would easily cannibalize other male chimpanzees that wander into its territory or a young infant from another male, to ensure that only its genes dominate on its territory (Goodall, 2002). Intra-community aggression among chimpanzees is a frequent occurrence, and this might be the origin cannibalism among the primates.
Evidence points out cannibalism among many homo species across the world. Several sites, inhabited by Homo erectus, Homo antecessor, and Homo habilis indicate that they practiced cannibalism. Studies showed that there were cut marks on most skulls found in the Bodo area in Africa. Bodo site is believed to have been a mortuary, and it has traces of ancient hominid cannibalism. The Zhoukoudian archaeological site also suggests that hominid cannibalism was common during evolution. The manner of which the long bones were split suggests that consuming flesh was a common practice among the Peking Man. The TD6 of Gran Dolina in Spain indicates the earliest instances suggesting cannibalism among the Homo Antecessors. Cut marks found on the zygomatic bones, temporal bones, and skulls show that victims of cannibalism were skinned then de-fleshed. The manner in which the bones found on the site were broken seems to be similar to those found in a Native American Community that practiced cannibalism. There exists no conclusive evidence to suggest the motivation of cannibalism during this period, and the suggestions remain speculative (Hulme & Iversen, 1998).
In the more recent times, the Aztecs of South America, Fijians, Iroquoian community, and Natives of the American Southwest region practiced human cannibalism as a culturally accepted norm. In these communities, there were moments that human cannibalism was culturally allowed and even morally accepted. Evidence found from these communities remains historical in nature, but it is backed by archaeological evidence. Cannibalism remains deeply rooted in the Fijian communities and their cultures because to the nature of their lifestyle. Studies indicate that the reasons why Fijians ate human flesh were revenge, masculine bravado, fear of the chief, political ambition, gourmet appreciation of human meat, or due to custom. The reason provided by Fijians indicates that cannibalism was a socially acceptable part of their culture. They cannibalized enemy warriors captured during the war. The captured warriors were later sacrificed to the gods to give manna, which was considered a luck charm for the Warriors. Initial missionaries who made contact with the Fijians failed to understand the cannibalistic behavior but attributed it to Fijian dietary needs (Hulme & Iversen, 1998). To the missionaries, the cultural reason provided by the natives lacked logical bearing to warrant the behavior. Among the Fijians, their culture furthered cannibalism rather than meeting their dietary needs as the food was abundant.
The Aztecs mainly practiced cannibalism as a religious aspect of their culture. Human sacrifice played a major role in appeasing their gods. They believed that their gods relied on the transfigured energy from the human hearts separated from the body during the sacrifice to enable them to survive. After the sacrifice, people would take the bodies to their relatives as food. Hernan Cortez and Bernal Diaz, the two Spanish explorers, offered a witness account of the ritual. They narrated how Aztec people ate the remaining human flesh among the Aztecs (Travis-Henikoff, 2008). History indicates that the reasons behind cannibalism among the Aztec are cultural underpinnings of the belief that human sacrifice to the gods, can help to solve ecological problems, and that human cannibalism was as a result of dietary needs. In some cultures, the reason for cannibalism was to appease the war gods, who they believed wanted them to sacrifice and eat all the captured warriors (Travis-Henikoff, 2008).
Survival cannibalism remains one of the main reasons for cannibalism in the recent times, as a survival need. The urge to survive from hunger automatically drives a person to eating human flesh. In the case of the Dolan party in the United States and the Gulag cannibals in the Soviet Union indicate the most recent cases of human cannibalism, as mainly driven by lack of food to sustain them during the periods in the camps. Most people opted to eat the remains of the people who had already died to fight their own starvation.
There are certain cases of human cannibalism that are not motivated by either starvation or culture but from psychological issues. Most societies consider this type of cannibalism as heinous and unforgivable (Parkridge, 2011). Edward Gein, an American farmer murdered and ate the bodies of his victims. At the same time, he dug up and ate the bodies of fifteen people buried in the cemeteries. This type of cannibalism is morally unacceptable and is punishable in the courts of law.
In most cases, societies that practiced the culture of cannibalism were considered barbaric and cruel in nature. However, people fail to understand the motivation behind such a culture (Constantine, 2006). People tend to dismiss it as a cult-like system of worship while others dismiss the existence of the vice altogether. Misconception and failure to understand the cultures of these communities, allow people to offer blanket judgment on their practices and beliefs that they are heinous human beings. A keen look at the practice indicates that cannibalism was a part of their cultures for various reasons, and they simply followed their set of beliefs. The world views cannibalism as an ultimate sign of savagery and degradation of the moral standards of human kind without analyzing the motivating factor behind their actions. The pictures portrayed by the first Europeans who encountered cannibals paint a picture of uncouth people without any shred of civility (Hulme & Iversen, 1998). This mentality remained in the perceptions of most people and failed to change, and this motivates the need for research on the topic.
Cannibalism remains a moral issue rather than a criminal issue in the world because people pay the utmost respect to the dead. Respect to the departed souls dictates that we cannot relegate humans to the same level as animals, guided by instincts rather than the sense. If condoned, cannibalism will lead to a lawless society. The various reasons, given to explain the motivation for cannibalism all over communities across the world, fail to present a justifiable reason for the act. The moral obligations of humanity need not only to appreciate each culture but also to question certain beliefs before following them blindly. Cannibalism remains the utmost level of human heinousness and barbarism. Cannibalism remains the world oldest taboo across many cultures.