Cannibalism: From Calories to Kuru TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Cannibalism: From Calories to Kuru, first released on October 24, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.


TWILLEY: So if you know this famous clip from “The Silence of the Lambs,” you will know that this episode, we could be discussing one of three things. Chianti. Fava beans. Or…

GRABER: Oh how I wish we were discussing chianti or fava beans. But no, this episode, we’re all about cannibalism. Happy Halloween!

TWILLEY: But, honestly, although we began with Hannibal Lecter, this episode is really not a gore-fest. This is, after all, Gastropod, where we look at the science and history of food. And the science and history of cannibalism turns out to be fascinating. I’m Nicola Twilley, by the way, the one who is not in danger of fainting this episode.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, the one who has never seen “The Silence of the Lambs” because I am far too squeamish. But there’s interesting stuff here. We’ve all seen those nature documentaries where the spider consumes its mate after sex, but really, how common is cannibalism in the animal world? And why does it happen?

TWILLEY: And how common is it among humans, in the past and still today? All that, plus a caloric breakdown of the human body, for those of you who want to turn cannibal but are watching your weight.



GRABER: There’s one thing I wondered when we first decided to do this episode, and it’s the question I just asked. Really, how common is cannibalism in other species? It’s such a taboo among humans. Is there a biological reason eating each other would be disgusting for other animals, too?

TWILLEY: To find out, we called up Bill Schutt, who is the author of a new book called Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History.

BILL SCHUTT: Well, it’s really common. And that was a surprise to me. I’m a zoologist but I was not a cannibalism expert.

TWILLEY: Bill told us that up till quite recently, most zoologists, including him, thought that cannibalism was pretty rare, in all species.

SCHUTT: Except for a couple of strange creatures like praying mantises and black widow spiders, the party line was basically that if you saw cannibalism in nature it was because of a lack of nutrition or cramped captive conditions. If you took a bunch of animals and stuck them in a small tank or a cage then all bets were off, they would cannibalize each other. But over the last thirty years or so, scientists began to find out individually and then they—somebody finally put this together—that cannibalism takes place for tons of reasons that are quite natural and have nothing to do with with running out of food.

GRABER: So it’s common, or at least more common than scientists thought, but there are some really good biological reasons why you might not want to eat members of your own family.

SCHUTT: And one of them has to do with with something called inclusive fitness, which is pretty much a measure of how many genes you have in a population, and if you’re killing and consuming your own kin you are really decreasing your inclusive fitness. And the other is because there are species-specific parasites and diseases that can be transmitted.

TWILLEY: And yet, like Bill Schutt said, there’s a whole lot of cannibalism going on. Particularly at the squishier end of the spectrum.

SCHUTT: If you look across the entire animal kingdom, in the invertebrates, in insects and in spiders and in snails and things, cannibalism is quite common.


GRABER: Spider sex. You know it. The male approaches the female cautiously—after all, he doesn’t want to get eaten BEFORE he manages to get the act done.

TWILLEY: And she’s usually twice his size, total dominatrix.

GRABER: In the Australian redback…

TWILLEY: Where the guy is only a fifth of the size…

GRABER: The female rewards the male for having done his duty by vomiting her stomach juices onto the tiny creature hanging onto her to start pre-digesting him. Yum.

TWILLEY: Amazingly, he still comes back for round two at this point, even as he is being liquified. Praying mantis males keep going even after the lady mantis has eaten their head. But why? I mean, sex is great, but not that great, surely?

GRABER: It might seem like there there’s nothing in it for these poor guys other than those few moments of bliss. But scientists have found a number of reasons why sex cannibalism makes sense. The redback spider ladies will resist come-ons from other males if they’ve cannibalized their first suitor. So that cannibalized male’s sperm is the one that wins.

TWILLEY: Plus, counterintuitively, cannibalized males seem to go at it for longer and thus deposit more sperm and thus father more baby spiders. I suppose there’s a kind of desperation born out of being coated in stomach juices.

GRABER: Sexual cannibalism has been reported in 16 out of 109 spider families. So not all spider sex is deadly, but it’s definitely going on. Okay, that’s enough sex cannibalism for the moment. Now onto why parents would eat their babies.

TWILLEY: In this particular niche form of cannibalism, fish are the undisputed leaders. According to Bill, ichthyologists consider the absence of cannibalism in a fish species to be the anomaly.

GRABER: Picture the open ocean. In order to make babies, the female releases a cloud of eggs, maybe millions, and the males release clouds of sperm. Only some make it to become baby fish, but there’s all those calories available in the water. Bill says the eggs look to fish just like a handful of raisins might to us. Why not eat them? So they do.

TWILLEY: And finally—keeping it in the family here—oftentimes the kids eat other, too. This is a strategy Bill’s seen a lot in birds.

SCHUTT: Cannibalism as a lifeboat strategy where you’ve got say, a couple of nestlings and they’re born asynchronously. So one is going to be larger than the other. And if there’s enough food to go around then fine but if not then the smaller nestling will sometimes get cannibalized.

GRABER: Survival of the fittest. It’s bird-eat-bird out there. Sometimes this juvenile cannibalism is just training for the real world.

SCHUTT: Then there are these sand tiger sharks, where the eggs hatch internally. And there are eggs of different ages. So the oldest on each side of the reproductive tract, once they use up their yolk, will start to eat the eggs and once the eggs are gone they’ll eat their brethren. Smaller and and quite nutritious. So when they’re born, there are only two of them. And in a sense they’ve been trained to be predators while still inside their mothers.

TWILLEY: Natural-born killers indeed.

GRABER: By the time you get to mammals, scientists have only found cannibalism in 75 out of 5700 species. It’s much more rare.

TWILLEY: But it happens, and for much the same reasons: survival, basically. When animals are hungry, sometimes they’ll scavenge off their dead relatives. So they’re not killing them for food, but you know, if they’re dead already, why not?

GRABER: Sometimes if animals are living in a crowded and stressful environment, they start to see their neighbors as food. And then there’s protecting your own genetic line. You want your babies to be the ones that live.

SCHUTT: So, for example, if you are a lion and you take over a pride and there are females who have cubs from other males, you kill and sometimes eat those young. And so you are really terminating the maternal investment in those young so that the females come into estrus quicker and then you can mate with them if you’re the male who took over.

TWILLEY: So bugs are eating bugs, fish are eating fish, some mammals are eating other mammals. But surely among our close relatives, this sort of behavior isn’t going on?

GRABER: It’s rare, but it does exist. Bill says that in primates, cannibalism has been seen only in 11 out of 418 species. Not a lot. It’s usually stress related, or it’s about aggression, like when males patrolling their community come across neighboring male patrols. Like other soldiers.

TWILLEY: OK, that’s primates. Who’s next? That’s right, brace yourself, Cynthia. It’s time to talk about human cannibalism.

GRABER: I’m working on it. Okay, turns out, there’s quite a bit of archaeological evidence of cannibalism among early humans.

JAMES COLE: So the oldest is Gran Dolina, which is a site in Spain. And it’s dated to about 936,000 years ago, to a species called Homo antecessor. And what we see there is a small group of people, so two adults, three adolescents, and six children, that seem to have been butchered and eaten by another group of Homo antecessor who were living in that region.

TWILLEY: Meet James Cole, he’s principal lecturer in archaeology at the University of Brighton in England. And he’s studied cannibalism in prehistoric times, when there were a bunch of different human species, not just Homo sapiens.

COLE: And certainly if you look at human evolution, well, difficult to say really if all human species conducted cannibalism but certainly a lot of them did. So it seems to have been a regular part of our behavioral development for many millions of years.

GRABER: It might seem to be common, but how do we know for sure? What kind of evidence can you find from almost a million years ago?

SCHUTT: If you really want to prove that cannibalism took place you’d need to find a coprolite, a fossilized fecal pellet, and then be able to show that there was for example human DNA or human hemoglobin or myoglobin inside that—those feces.

TWILLEY: And we haven’t found that. But without the smoking gun of a fossilized turd, how exactly is James so sure that our prehistoric fellow men were eating each other?

GRABER: Well, archaeologists have found human bones that clearly had been cut.

COLE: So there’s two potential explanations for why you might have a cut mark on a human body. The first is that yes, you are—you’re cutting it, you’re butchering that carcass to extract the flesh. Or the second explanation is that you are cleaning the carcass of flesh for some kind of ritual purpose.

TWILLEY: James says both kinds of cutting went on, if you look at the fossil record. Some cuts are the kind of cuts you’d make if you were stripping flesh from bone for burial—not for eating. And some cuts are the kind of cut you make if you’re butchering a body for food.

COLE: The key thing here is that the actual signatures, so the types of mark on the bone, are very distinctive. So if you’re butchering, you’re generally getting cut marks at points where you get things like cartilage. Whereas if you are cleaning the body for secondary burial, you get lots of scrape marks along the length of the bone. And what it looks like from the archaeological record is that most of the cut marks tend to fall around the locations where you would expect butchery marks to be.

GRABER: Bill agrees.

SCHUTT: So if you treat human bones the same way that you treat the game animals that lived in that area then that’s a strong indication that cannibalism took place.

GRABER: This was happening among all Homo species. Homo antecessor, Homo Neandertal, Homo erectus, for example.

COLE: And then our own species also seem to have engaged in this. So we have a sparse fossil record and within that sparse fossil record we are still picking up signatures of cut marks on hominin bones. So what that potentially means is that it probably was a frequent behavior because we’re picking up the signature of this act in a very small record to begin with.

GRABER: So we know it was happening. And we know it wasn’t super rare. But then why was it happening?

COLE: Okay, so when I was looking at the nutritional value of the human body, what I wanted to try and understand or establish was whether the act of cannibalism was actually nutritional in in nature.

TWILLEY: Obviously, James and his archaeologist colleagues mostly look at bones. And bones can tell stories, for sure. They can tell us that humans likely ate other humans. But they can’t necessarily tell us why those humans did what they did.

COLE: So what that means is that when these acts are looked at from the archaeological record, they’re generally boiled down to two very broad interpretations. On one hand it’s nutritional, or it’s ritual.

GRABER: Until recently, most archaeologists believed that cannibalism among our prehistoric ancestors was for nutritional reasons—they were hungry, there wasn’t much food, so other humans ended up seeming pretty tasty. And archaeologists thought that ritualized cannibalism—like for religious purposes or burial or war—that only started about 15,000 years ago among Homo sapiens.

COLE: And I wanted to know, okay, if we’re calling these acts nutritional, how nutritional are they compared to other animals that we knew were eaten by these hominins in the same time? So that’s why I wanted to look at the calorie values of a human being and then compare them to that of something like a mammoth or an auroch or other Ice Age fauna.

TWILLEY: This is really a very reasonable sort of thing to want to know. Are humans good food compared to a mammoth? But then when you start to think about it, how exactly do you go about figuring that out?

COLE: Yeah, so thankfully I didn’t actually do any sort of uh—I didn’t have to do any practical elements for the study.

GRABER: What James did manage to do was find four studies from the 1950s. The researchers had dissected four males. And the point of that research was to understand the chemical composition of the human body.

COLE: So what those studies did is that they broke down the values of the human body into protein and fat values amongst others. But what’s interesting for calories is that if you know your protein value and you know your fat value and you know the weights then you can actually convert those into calories. And fortunately in those 1950s studies, they had also recorded the weights of all the body parts that they were examining and they gave the protein and fat values of them.

GRABER: James just had to do some basic math.

TWILLEY: So break it down for me. If I ate one raw male, how long would I have to spend on the treadmill?

COLE: Okay, so kind of the average weight that came through from those four studies was 65.9 kgs and that returned a full body value—so that includes all of the organs and the guts and you know things that you would never even think about eating—but that returned kind of a value of about 143,770 calories.

GRABER: James has an amazing table that lists the calorie count organ-by-organ.

TWILLEY: Skin is surprisingly high in calories, folks. OK, so now James knows the caloric value of a human. A human male that is. No one has established the precise chemical composition of woman, so we don’t know how many calories we’d bring to the table. James suspects a little more thanks to our higher body fat percentage.

GRABER: Just another way women are underrepresented in science.

TWILLEY: James’s next step was to compare humans to the animals we know our prehistoric forebears ate.

COLE: A mammoth for example comes out almost, you know, three million, six hundred calories and a woolly rhino at one million, two hundred and sixty.

GRABER: James says that a horse would be about 200,000 calories, and a boar is about 324,000 calories. A lot more than a dude.

TWILLEY: Like really a lot.

COLE: And for me, you know, you get a much higher calorie return by going after a single horse or a single deer than you do by going after a single person or a group of people. And so that makes me think that maybe there’s something else going on here that’s not just about calories.

GRABER: Hunting is in fact hard work, but killing another human for food isn’t necessarily so easy either. We fight back. We have family members who might avenge our death. A human male is not a free lunch.

COLE: So I kind of concluded that it’s likely that there are social motivations behind these acts all the way back into antiquity, you know almost a million years ago. And it’s not just about survival cannibalism or the fact that you know you don’t have any other food to eat, although they’re almost certainly also happened.

TWILLEY: In other words, James says, you shouldn’t think of early humans as just these brutal desperate creatures. Even though the cut marks on some bones show that humans were eating each other as food, James is saying that at least some of the time, that wasn’t out of hunger. Instead, ancient humans were likely eating each other for much more sophisticated reasons, to do with spiritual beliefs about life and death.

COLE: So these are a culturally complex and culturally diverse species. Just in the same way that modern humans are culturally diverse and complex where we have different practices around death and burial throughout the world.

GRABER: That said, like James pointed out, our early ancestors and their hominid cousins were also probably eating each other when there was no other option around. And we know that still happens today.

SCHUTT: Well when you are in that type of a condition, where there’s no food and you are starving. You’ve eaten your pets, you’ve eaten the shoe leather, you’re eating hides. This is the Donner Party.

TWILLEY: The Donner Party is one of the most famous cases of survival cannibalism in recent history. It took place in the 1840s and it’s a gruesome, gruesome story, but the short version is a group of westward bound settlers left it too late to cross the mountains into California before the winter hit. So they got snowed in. Lots of them died. And the survivors ate them. One guy, Louis Keseberg—when he got rescued he had eaten nothing but humans for two months.

SCHUTT: When you get to that point then all bets are off. If you’re presented with the fact that there are dead around then you are either going to consume them and probably try to feed them to your children or your relatives or you’re going to die. And that is a choice that is made in those incredibly difficult circumstances, whether your city is besieged or whether there’s a horrible famine or you’re stuck in the Andes like the Uruguayan rugby players.

TWILLEY: Bill’s referring to the famous plane crash in 1972, where the survivors also ended up eating their fellow dead passengers, in order to survive.

GRABER: There are other famous examples of this happening on a much more massive scale. In Russia, during World War II, Leningrad was under siege for almost a full three years. Thousands of people ended up eating other people to outlast the siege. Lots of those survivors were later prosecuted for cannibalism.

TWILLEY: Or take the largest famine in recorded history, in China. It began in 1958, after Chairman Mao launched his disastrous Great Leap Forward—an agricultural modernization plan based on complete BS. The harvest failed repeatedly, 30 million people died of starvation, and cannibalism became widespread.

GRABER: This wasn’t the first time starvation cannibalism was documented in China. One researcher found 177 incidents of it, dating back more than 2,500 years. In the oldest example, families apparently started exchanging children so they wouldn’t have to consume their own relatives. Amazingly, the emperor actually made that practice legal in 205 BCE.

SCHUTT: The thing with China is, you know, it makes it sound like China is—that this always happens in China. Well, the thing is, that’s not necessarily the case but they took such amazing records. Their historical records are really unsurpassed. So they documented everything. So we now get to read about these examples of famines and the practices that they undertook in order to survive.

TWILLEY: But it wasn’t all survival cannibalism in China. After the break, we get into the peculiar practice of medical cannibalism. Which turns out of have been popular in the West, as well. In fact, it still goes on today.


TWILLEY: So here’s my question. If—as the archaeological evidence seems to show—cannibalism happened on a relatively regular basis among our prehistoric ancestors, when did it become such a horrifying taboo?

GRABER: Bill traces it back to the ancient Greeks. In the Odyssey, the evil giants eat people. The Greek gods became cannibalistic when they were upset. And then Bill says in Judaism and Christianity and in Islam, burial practices became super important and eating people was absolutely vilified. And, think about it: the body is basically the spirit made flesh in these religions. Jews can’t even be cremated because the body has to be intact for when the messiah comes.

TWILLEY: Christians eat the body of Christ and drink his blood as part of communion. If you’re Catholic, you are supposed to literally believe that the wafer is his body and the wine is his blood.

GRABER: This sounds like a pretty major contradiction, right? Eating a human body is absolutely taboo in Christianity. And yet for Catholics, transubstantiation is meant to be literal. But it just shows how powerful the idea is, that consuming his flesh and blood creates a kind of union with Jesus.

TWILLEY: In fact, it’s precisely because it’s so powerful that eating people just casually for a weeknight dinner—or even as part of a very solemn ritual that was outside the Christian church—that became one of the ultimate taboos.  And this anti-cannibal message gets spread not only through organized religion but also through popular literature.

GRABER: But if you’re not part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, you won’t necessarily share these world views.

SCHUTT: Culture is king. If you don’t get spoonfed through, you know, the ancient Greeks through the Romans and then the Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm and Daniel Defoe that cannibalism is the worst thing that you can do to another person—if you don’t get that story, then you don’t have this knee jerk reaction that we all have now in the West about cannibalism and how horrible it is. In other cultures that did not get that as the party line, they developed their own rituals and medicines and practices and warfare and burial rites that sometimes involved cannibalism. And it wasn’t wrong to them, it was, you know, this was a ritual that they developed and and sometimes this is what they did to their loved ones or this is what they did in warfare. Or this is what they did when when they ran out of food or as a way to pay homage to their sick relatives.

GRABER: And this is exactly what happened in China. As we’ve said, the Chinese kept amazing records, so we have a better idea of what was going on there. It’s important to remember that these practices certainly weren’t limited to the Chinese.

TWILLEY: But there’s this Confucian concept in China to do with filial piety. Basically respect and care for your elders is really really important.

SCHUTT: In its extreme form, what would happen is that, if you had an elder or a relative who was very sick, that you would cut off a part of your own body, usually a part of your arm or a part of your thigh, and feed it to them as a sort of last resort medicinal treatment. And you know this was a fairly well accepted custom to the point where they had to make special laws so that people wouldn’t pluck out an eyeball or do something that extreme and feed it to grandma or grandpa.

GRABER: This is a form of what’s called medical cannibalism. And it’s not the only one in ancient China.

TWILLEY: Chinese scholars have documented the consumption of human organs and human flesh to cure diseases as far back as the Han dynasty, nearly 2000 years ago. Doctors would prescribe human bones and hair, but also toes and liver to their sick patients.

GRABER: But don’t let our Western taboo against cannibalism blind you here—Westerners also thought that consuming their fellow humans would help them get better.

TWILLEY: We called Shirley Lindenbaum about this, she’s a medical anthropologist. She’s Australian although she’s now based in New York.

SHIRLEY LINDENBAUM: That was also very old, as long ago as Pliny who thought drinking human blood was good for epilepsy. And then medicinal cannibalism was widely practiced, including not just blood but other body parts in Europe, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

SCHUTT: This surprised me, given the taboo that we have in the West—that medicinal cannibalism was very, very common in Europe. Starting in the middle ages throughout the Renaissance right up until the beginning of the twentieth century, just about every body part you can think of was used for you know to treat any type of disease that you can think of. Kings were doing it, people who were rich were doing it, the poor were doing it. Everyone. For example, they would grind up bones. People would line up at at executions to collect blood.

GRABER: Like Pliny, they thought it’d help them cure epilepsy. Epileptics would literally carry a cup along to executions. And parts of the prisoners’ bodies were cut off for medical use, sometimes when they still alive. And this next one might be my favorite weird example of all.

SCHUTT: Mummies were ground up. So there was a real run on Egyptian mummies and it was all because of a mis-translation. There was an Arabian word called mumia, and that was this kind of tarry bitumen substance that they would use to bind wounds and they were also used in mummy preparation. But the Europeans mistranslated it. They thought mumia meant mummy. So they’d bring mummies back from Egypt and grind them up into a powder. It was actually sold on the Merck index into the 20th century, which to me was amazing.

TWILLEY: Western medical cannibalism fizzled out mostly after the Enlightenment and the dawn of modern medical science. But like Bill says, ground up mummies were sold into the twentieth century.

GRABER: And then there’s an example I had heard of but had never thought of as cannibalism that went on until only a few decades ago.

LINDENBAUM: There’s a kind of medicinal cannibalism in cadaver-derived drugs. Taking out pituitary glands, for example, for body building and for hormone growth in stunted children. That came to an end—that went on from about the 1960s to the 1980s.

TWILLEY: But there’s one last form of medical cannibalism that still goes on today. The final frontier.

SCHUTT: Yeah, I think placentophagy is probably the last remnant in the West of medicinal cannibalism. The belief is that by consuming your placenta after you give birth that you are in some way obtaining a medicinal benefit. Generally speaking the person believes that they are replenishing hormones that are lost, estrogen and progesterone that are no longer being produced by the placenta, which goes from a miracle organ to after birth quite quickly. And so there’s this belief that it levels out the ups and downs of postpartum depression.

GRABER: I frankly had never heard of anyone doing this—I think maybe I heard of some celebrities but I probably tuned it out.

TWILLEY: Oh my god, Cynthia, only Kim Kardashian West just ate her placenta for crying out gently. Where were you?

GRABER: I missed that. Nicky, though, you had a more personal connection.

SARAH RICH: Yes. I got a note from Nicky asking if I knew anybody who had consumed their own placenta. And I said I know someone very well. In fact, I have done that twice.

TWILLEY: This is my friend Sarah Rich. You might remember her as the proud owner of gold-plated flatware from our very first episode. She’s also a talented writer and editor, we have a link to her awesome new book Leave Me Alone with the Recipes on our website. It is gorgeous.

GRABER: When Sarah was giving birth to both of her children, like a bunch of her friends in the East Bay, she used a doula not only to help her with the delivery, but also to help her with her placenta.

RICH: She brings a cooler to the hospital, and when you give birth in Berkeley, which is where I did, I think maybe the hospital staff isn’t totally stunned when the request comes along to take the placenta in a cooler home. So that’s what she did. She took it like I think you would transport any organ in a cooler. And yes, she has a set up at her home where she dehydrates it and then grinds it up and encapsulates it. And she brought it to me in a little glass jar a few days later when she came to check on me. And so yeah, I took a capsule once or twice a day.

TWILLEY: As Bill said, one of the things that motivates new mothers to eat their placenta is a belief that it will help ward off any postpartum depression. And that’s what motivated Sarah too.

RICH: I think for me the primary one was a curiosity to see whether it would have a positive effect and a fairly certain notion that it would probably not have a negative effect and that if anything it might have a placebo effect, which was fine with me.

GRABER: In fact, Bill thinks the placebo effect is probably what’s going on. But he says very, very little good research has been done on this practice.

SCHUTT: As a matter of fact some of the research that’s been done indicates that if anything at all it may have an analgesic effect. It may act as something that enhances the body’s own opioids. But if you’re not eating it till two weeks after your baby is born then there’s really no effect there. But if you’re looking at this thing as a way to replenish hormones, as soon as you cook it, you’re denaturing those hormones.

TWILLEY: Now cooking may not be rendering them completely inactive—some research shows that it’s possible to be exposed to hormones in meat after cooking.  It’s also possible that drying and grinding would have a less destructive effect.

GRABER: There really hasn’t been any good research on this, and, as of yet, none showing that eating your placenta affects hormone levels after birth.

TWILLEY: But you know what, the placebo effect is one of the strongest drugs out there. And, either way, eating her placenta seems to have worked for Sarah.

RICH: Well, I don’t think I experienced postpartum depression, and so, in as far as I could say it helped me avoid postpartum depression….maybe it did? I don’t know.

GRABER: A lot of doulas say that eating your placenta is a quote natural thing to do. And yes, some non-human animals do eat their placentas after giving birth.

SCHUTT: There are various hypotheses for why that might be so. For example, if you give birth and then you get rid of the after birth, it’s not going to attract predators. And it’s also a nutritional boost. You’ve just gone through this stressful period. The last thing you want to do is go out hunting and there’s this big slab of meat. And so it sort of makes sense in the animal kingdom. But it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in humans. And so it’s not surprising that you don’t really see a lot of it.

TWILLEY: Although Shirley has seen evidence of it in her anthropological work with remote tribes. But it’s not common.

GRABER: Bill says this practice really became slightly more popular among humans only in recent decades.

SCHUTT: And so what started out as sort of a rarely performed sort of hippie thing back in the 60s, relatively recently has turned into something a bit more as a facet of alternative medicine

TWILLEY: A lot of placenta eaters take the pill route, like Sarah did. And pills are relatively tame, honestly although Sarah said hers didn’t smell great. But some women choose to eat the placenta as a meat. Bill was curious, so he called a doula named Claire to find out more

SCHUTT: I gave her a call. And we got along really well, I figured OK, well, maybe we’ll Skype or Facetime or phone interview. And she said, well that’s too bad because I just gave birth to another child and if you came down here you could eat my placenta. My husband’s a chef. We could prepare it any way you want it. We could make, you know, we could make a taco out of it or you can have it osso bucco. And I’m going, what? I’m thinking to myself, you just invited me down to Texas to eat your placenta!

GRABER: I have to admit that at this point in the interview I was having a bit of a tough time listening. I honestly did not want to hear about Bill eating this woman’s placenta for dinner with her family. But he did, and he told us about it.

SCHUTT: He prepared it osso buco-style and I cleaned my plate. I would never do it again but it was certainly something that I’m glad I did.

TWILLEY: So of course I wanted to know, what did it taste like?

SCHUTT: It had the consistency of veal and it tasted—this is not the most popular food but what I thought of immediately was back when I was a college student, we used to get together on Sundays and everybody would  watch football and we’d throw a bunch of real garbage-y food together. And people would cook up chicken gizzards. And it reminded me of a chicken gizzard, the taste. Sort of an irony, organ meat-taste. It was kind of tender. It reminded me of veal that tasted like a chicken gizzard. That’s about as close as I can get to a description.

TWILLEY: So now you know. But you might be thinking, how is this cannibalism? Sarah certainly didn’t think of it that way.

RICH: It felt to me like eating a part of my own body. And I didn’t really frame that in my head as cannibalism.

GRABER: But in Bill’s definition of cannibalism, eating parts of your own body counts.

TWILLEY: What’s more, the placenta is part fetus. So that’s more like the parents-eating-the-kids version of cannibalism. Part of the kids anyway. Sorry Sarah.

GRABER: So placenta eating, and Chinese filial piety, the Europeans and mummies—these are all forms of medical cannibalism. Another common form of cannibalism, common at least where cannibalism is practiced, is ritual. Like James said, rituals around warfare and religion and burial.

TWILLEY: And that brings us back to Shirley Lindenbaum, the Australian medical anthropologist.

LINDENBAUM: So in 1957, a colonial government physician called Vincent Vegas noticed this new disease.

TWILLEY: And the disease is killing lots of indigenous Papua New Guineans called the Fore people.

SCHUTT: Once the press got a hold of it they started to call it the laughing death or the laughing sickness. And no one knew what it was from. Some people thought that it was from stress-related contact with Westerners. Other people thought it was toxins that they were getting into their system somehow.

GRABER: Another theory was that this laughing sickness—”laughing” because people basically just lost their minds—that it was a genetic disease. This is where Shirley comes into the story.

LINDENBAUM: So in 1961, the Department of Genetics asked me and my husband then, John— uh, Bob—to go to Papua New Guinea and collect data about Fore social life. And in particular they wanted kinship studies because they were interested in the genetics of the disease. I was in my 20s.

TWILLEY: So Shirley and Bob—yes, they have since divorced—they traveled around Papua New Guinea. And they quickly realized that the genetic theory just didn’t hold up. Because the people who were getting sick were not related in the biological sense. The Department of Genetics had got confused because the Fore had these elaborate non-biological kin structures.

GRABER: The people Shirley spoke to remembered some of the earliest cases of this disease, which by now was called kuru. They even remembered the names of the people in their communities who first died from kuru.

LINDENBAUM: So we said, what happened to them? And they said, well, we ate them. So we said, you ate them? We knew they were cannibals but we didn’t know that they’d eaten the kuru victims. So we thought, well, we had better change our study a little bit here.

TWILLEY: Shirley eventually learned that when a Fore woman died, the tradition was that her husband’s family had to hold a massive feast for her funeral. And as part of that feast, they would eat the dead person. The entire dead person. Including the brain, which was mixed with ferns and then cooked.

GRABER: There are a couple of reasons the Fore performed these funeral rites for their dead. One was to get rid of the dead person’s spirit.

LINDENBAUM: So the Fore thought that there was the spirit of the dead person still hovering over the body and if that person had been maltreated or had a grudge against any of the people it would bring problems to the husband’s lineage.

TWILLEY: Eating the person meant the spirit couldn’t do any harm. The women even thought it might make them more fertile. And the other reason was—well, the belief was that the dead woman had given children from her body to her husband’s family. She had enriched her husband’s lineage with new bodies. So her original family—the idea was that they should be paid back for that gift by at least having the chance to eat her body now that her husband’s family wasn’t using it anymore.

GRABER: Shirley figured out that the disease was caused by cannibalism because only women and children were getting the disease. And only women and children ate the dead bodies.

LINDENBAUM: We went to the Kuru conference in Adelaide, told everybody what we thought. Nobody believed us.

TWILLEY: But eventually medical science proved Shirley right. For one thing…

LINDENBAUM: We now see that nobody born since 1960 has ever come down with the disease. And 1960 was the time when the missionaries and the government officers went through on patrols and said, “You’ve all got to stop fighting, men and women should live in houses together, and you’ve got to give up cannibalism.”

GRABER: The reason this whole story is important is that this is how we learned about prion diseases, which are caused by eating brains of your own same species. There was a Nobel prize for this discovery. Turns out, kuru is basically the same disease as mad cow disease, which you might have heard of, which cows got from eating other cows’ brains in their feed.

TWILLEY: And which is the reason I can’t give blood in America, because I grew up in England eating these potentially contaminated hamburgers. What’s a little scary is no one knows how long mad cow disease takes to develop. So watch this space.

GRABER: Like Bill said at the beginning of the show, cannibalism definitely has some pretty serious risks associated with it.

TWILLEY: But for the Fore it was important. It was the right way to treat the dead.

SCHUTT: You know, there were examples of this happening back in the 1960s and 70s, anthropologists would go into South America, for example, and they would come across a group that had little contact with Westerners. And these people were just as freaked out to learn that that Europeans were burying their dead as the anthropologists were to learn that these people were eating theirs.

GRABER: Cannibalism is, as we said, a serious taboo in the west. And so when Westerners come across people who do practice cannibalism, those people are often labeled primitives or savages.

TWILLEY: In fact, this is the likely origin of the term cannibal exactly this sort of prejudice. The word cannibal only came into use in 1553. Before that, humans who ate humans were called anthropophagi.

SCHUTT: There are a couple of different possible origins for cannibal. And that it is a corruption of one of the indigenous groups of the Caribbean who were called the Caribs. There are certain researchers who believe that Canib is a sort of a distorted way of pronouncing Carib.

GRABER: There are other theories, but this one seems to be the most likely—that it’s what the Spaniards called the inhabitants of islands in the Caribbean.

SCHUTT: This was one of the most horrifying aspects of the book. When Columbus came over—he made four trips to the New World, and on his first trip, the people that he ran into in the Caribbean were described as kind, many of them, and they were fit to become good Christians. And he reported this back to Queen Isabella. And you’ve got to realize that what he was looking for was gold and when he didn’t find gold then in a sense the next best resource became humans—slaves. And so the third and fourth trips back to the New World were, in a sense, they were armed invasions. And all of these groups that had previously been described as you know kind and nice people, we got along with them, they were beautiful—all of a sudden, they were cannibals. And Queen Isabella had said to him, listen, you’ve got to treat these people well but if they’re cannibals then all bets are off. And lo and behold on the third and fourth trip: What a coincidence! No gold but plenty of cannibals.

TWILLEY: And if they were cannibals—well, Columbus had been told exactly how to treat them.

SCHUTT: And so that justified stealing your land, stealing your property, raping, killing, hunting you like you were a dog. And it’s because they were able to to justify this by saying well, these weren’t humans, they were cannibals.

GRABER: There’s debate about whether the native Caribbeans were even eating other people. Some say no. Others say it was a funerary practice, just like with the Fore.

TWILLEY: Either way, that didn’t stop colonial powers from using it to exploit and subjugate thousands of native people.

GRABER: But even if the locals were practicing funeral cannibalism, they certainly aren’t today. Almost no one is. Anywhere.

SCHUTT: I think because of the influence of Western culture that if it does take place that it’s done in private and it’s probably done a lot less often then than it ever was before. And I believe that this is because of the major influence that the West has had on many cultures. So if you found a culture someplace that was untouched by Western civilization—and how many of those are there?—then you probably, you may find people who haven’t heard from the guys who hand the T-shirts out that cannibalism is the worst thing you can do, that you need to stop doing that.

GRABER: Which—and I’m the squeamish one here—is not necessarily a sign of world improvement. Remember, some communities thought we were barbarians for putting our dead in the ground and burying them. It’s just a different mindset.

TWILLEY: But perhaps because actual cannibalism is rare today, the few cases we do see are the crazy gory sensational ones. You get the serial killers, you get Ed Gein—he’s the one Hannibal Lecter was based on. You get Jeffrey Dahmer, you get that German guy who advertised for a person to eat online. And then ate him.

SCHUTT: There’s a spectrum of criminality and mental illness that that winds up on occasion manifesting itself in murder and cannibalism.

TWILLEY: We are horrified by these people and yet, judging from the movies and the news coverage and the books, we are also kind of fascinated.

GRABER: Another thing we love? Zombies. Who also eat people. There’s the Walking Dead and the Santa Clarita Diet, and my personal favorite, the murder-solving brain eater in iZombie.

(iZombie theme music)

TWILLEY: See, Cynthia. You act all squeamish but you love cannibalism really.

GRABER: I close my eyes every time she eats brains. But she is really funny.

TWILLEY: We asked Bill why he thinks cannibalism has such a hold on our imaginations these days. He wasn’t sure, but he had a theory.

SCHUTT: When I think about that, I think of, take the number one Western taboo arguably and now add food. Right? And so you’ve got something that is fascinating.

TWILLEY: This episode was suggested by one of my favorite listeners, my husband Geoff. And to Geoff, the fascination with cannibalism is not just that you’re mixing a taboo with one of the most fundamental substances to our survival: food.

GEOFF MANAUGH: It’s that you are food.

TWILLEY: Geoff has been giving me cannibal books as a not-so-subtle hint for at least a year now. Seriously, I have quite the cannibal library. So I asked him why he wanted Gastropod to make a cannibalism episode.

MANAUGH: I think what’s interesting to me about cannibalism and its relationship to food is that we become the thing being hunted or we become the prey. And it’s such a powerful motif in horror, from movies like “Jaws” where human beings become food for animals or even “Jurassic Park” where we’re being hunted by these resurrected dinosaurs. When you have the figure of the cannibal, it’s this other human life form that wants to eat us, we become food and lose all of our power and I think that’s the origin of the horror of cannibalism.

GRABER: Happy Halloween!


TWILLEY: Thank you, Geoff!

GRABER: Yeah, thanks Geoff. Thanks to Bill Schutt, author of Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History.

TWILLEY: Thanks also to James Cole and Shirley Lindenbaum, we have links to their papers, books, and research online. And a particular thanks to my friend Sarah, we have a link to her new book on our website at It’s gorgeous and you should check it out!

GRABER: And thanks as always to our amazing volunteer, Ari Lebowitz. We promise that in two weeks we’ll be back with something much more appetizing.

TWILLEY: Meanwhile, we’ll let James have the last word this week.

GRABER: And is your calorie count for this average man raw or cooked.

COLE: Raw. The calorie values would change when cooked, but I really didn’t have any way—or much desire I have to admit to try and explore that option.