Tag Archives: anthropophagy

Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum: Let’s Eat Grandpa


[Editor’s Note: Ann and Andy are swapping roles today.  Andy is taking the lead on today’s blog while Ann is doing Andy’s Corner.]

As you may recall, Ann recently posted a blog entitled “Let’s Eat Grandma.” I must admit that I was disappointed that it wasn’t really about eating grandma, or anyone else for that matter.  Don’t get me wrong, learning about a young British singing duo called Let’s Eat Grandma while discovering the importance of commas was both entertaining and informative. It’s just that I thought the title had promise that it didn’t live up to, especially when considering that BigLittleMeals is a food blog (I should add that in today’s Andy’s Corner – written by Ann – she uses a title which definitely lives up to its promise – plus some!).

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So, as the head honcho for today’s edition of BigLittleMeals, I’m taking the liberty to revisit the “Let’s Eat Grandma” title by ignoring the recommended addition of a comma and, to be gender sensitive, by changing “grandma” to “grandpa.” 

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To start, “Let’s Eat Grandpa” would have been an appropriate title for one of the Brother’s Grimm Fairy tales.  In a previous Andy’s Corner I wrote that these fairy tales included a pretty sordid list of topics:

  • Premarital sex
  • Graphic violence
  • Child abuse
  • Anti-semitism
  • Incest
  • Wicked mothers

However, I recently figured out that I had failed to include one of the more obvious subjects appearing in fairy tales – cannibalism.  I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me to think of this while I was reading these stories to my kids (and then later in life to my grandkids).  For example, how could I not think of the cannibalistic theme underlying “Jack and the Bean Stalk” while bellowing in my best giant-ogre-imitation voice:

Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum. 
I smell the blood of an Englishman, 
Be he living, or be he dead, 
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.

And what about “Hansel and Gretel?”  If you recall, that awful witch with the candy house in the middle of the dark forest planned to fatten Hansel up before roasting and eating him.  In the original version of Snow White we find an attempted cannibalistic episode when the evil stepmother orders a huntsman to take Snow into the woods, slay her, and bring back her liver and lungs (which the stepmother cooks and eats, not realizing that the huntsman, who could not bring himself to do in Snow White, instead brought back the organs of a boar).

Such fictionalized accounts of cannibalism were designed to be cautionary tales to shape the minds and moral character of kids by scaring the bejesus out of them.  Although the telling of such stories is an age-old custom found in many cultures, these tales tell us little about cannibalism itself. We must look elsewhere for enlightenment.

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Not unexpectedly, a wealth of information about this topic is out there on the web. While poking around amongst the 28,700,000 or so results from my Google search on human cannibalism, I noticed that there were many references to Bill Schutt’s 2017 book Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History. I bought a copy and quickly discovered why it had so many positive reviews and was mentioned so often.

Schutt, who is a zoologist, devotes the first part of his book to explaining in entertaining detail how the role of cannibalism in the world of animals is, as his title suggests, “perfectly natural.” As the renowned naturalist Sy Montgomery writes in her New York Times review of the book:

“In the natural world strangers eat strangers, parents eat their children, children eat their parents and siblings eat each other — and they do it a lot. Baby black lace-weaver spiderlings cannibalize their mothers. The larvae of the elephant mosquito eat their fellow larvae and pupae. Among invertebrates — and 95 percent of animal life on earth, from insects to octopuses, belong to this group of spineless creatures — cannibalism is often the rule, not the exception.”

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Illustration by Patricia J. Wynne. From Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History

While the antics of cannibalistically-inclined creatures make for fascinating reading, for me the meat of the story (so to speak) has to do with anthropophagy (the eating of human flesh). Although most written accounts about human cannibalism tend to sensationalize the practice and to rely on its shock value to get readers’ interest, Schutt walks us through the theories and practices of cannibalism with a calm scientific objectivity (and dry wit). As Sy Montgomery puts it

“You might think a book on cannibalism would be upsetting, but this one’s not. It’s refreshing. “Cannibalism,” in fact, restores my faith in humanity: It’s good to know that, as regards this particular behavior, at least, people are no more horrifying than, or as splendidly surprising as, any other species out there.”

Schutt explores human cannibalism from the earliest times of human evolution to the current day, trying to sort out possible causes and consequences of the practice. Cannibalism can be driven by extreme hunger, cultural ceremonial requirements, or individual psychotic malfunctions among other things. One of those “other things” that Schutt reveals had to do with the assumed medicinal benefits of consuming various bodily parts and fluids as a cure for everything from fever and headaches to epilepsy and dysentery.

“As it turns out, many Renaissance-enlightened Christians from Spain, England, France, Germany, and elsewhere turned to medicinal cannibalism to treat a long list of problems. From kings to commoners, Europeans routinely consumed human blood, bones, skin, guts, and body parts. They did it without guilt, though it often entailed a healthy dose of gore. They did it for hundreds of years. Then they made believe that it never happened.”

In addition to Schutt’s book, the increasing number of recent archeological discoveries has increased scientific interest in cannibalism. Evidence of cannibalism among humans (and pre-humans) dating back as far as 800,000 years has been unearthed at archaeological sites around the globe. These findings are raising the thorny question as to whether these early humans turned to cannibalism out of necessity due to a scarcity of food or if human flesh was just another entrée on their dining room table (or dining room rock as the case may have been). As reported in National Geographic, evidence from bone fragments found in an Upper Palaeolithic cave site in England

“…suggests that people there practiced cannibalism and perhaps used human skulls for ritual purposes. …The remains were also mixed with those of other animals and had been prepared the same way, leading some anthropologists to suggest that cannibalism at the site might not have been done in a food-stress emergency or as ritual behavior” (that is, just another entrée!)

If I had to select one of the scientific studies I came across regarding cannibalism that would be most relevant for a food blog (such as ours) it would have to be James Cole’s Assessing the calorific significance of episodes of human cannibalism in the Palaeolithic. Essentially he calculated the nutritional value of the human body as compared to the nutritional value other Paleolithic prey animals and concluded that humans weren’t especially packed with calories for their size. As one reviewer stated:

“One dead mammoth can feed 25 hungry Neanderthals for a month, but cannibalizing a human would provide the crowd with only a third of a day’s calories… Essentially, you’re a walking lunch.”

[Editor’s note: These finding make me wonder about the nutritional value of the currently trendy paleo diet which, according to the Mayo Clinic web site, aims to “return to a way of eating that’s more like what early humans ate.” ]

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Paleo Dieters in action? Source: The U. of Minnesota Duluth web page

But what really blew me away was the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Anthropology of Food web page devoted to cannibalism (entitled “Anthropophagy). Not only can you find a massive bibliography of research studies about cannibalism you are invited to take a stab at such trivia questions as “If you had to eat a human to survive, which body part should you pick first?” or “Which body parts would taste the best?” Although not to my taste, the site even offers recipes for human parts (that I assume are tongue in cheek – so to speak).

Let me make one last observation from Schutt’s book. He tells us about the Caribs, a tribal group that migrated to the Caribbean Islands around 800 BC. Historical accounts of these folk suggest that they

“consumed their enemies—those killed in battle, taken prisoner, or captured during raids. The belief was that this form of ritual cannibalism was a way to transfer desired traits, like strength or courage, from the deceased enemy to themselves”.

I guess you might say that rather than the dictum “You are what you eat,” the Caribs preferred “You are who you eat.”

Typical Carib family? Source: Florida Museum Web Site web site. Detail from a painting by John Gabriel Stedman. Public Domain Image.

So that’s about it for today’s blog. For obvious reasons I am not offering any recipes here but Ann has a couple of great recipes over in Ann/Andy’s Corner.

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