Cannibalism: From Calories to Kuru

For most of us, it's unthinkable: human is never what's for dinner. Sorry to burst any bubbles, but this episode, we discover that not only is cannibalism widespread throughout the natural world, but it's also much more common among our own kind than we like to think. Spiders and sharks do it; so have both ancient and modern humans. So why does it sometimes make sense to snack on your own species—and what are the downsides? From Hannibal Lecter to the Donner party, cannibals are now the subject of morbid fascination and disgust—but how did eating each other become such a taboo? Join us this episode for our Halloween special: the science and history of cannibalism!

According to zoologist Bill Schutt, the author of Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, until recently, "the party line was basically that if you saw cannibalism in nature it was because of a lack of nutrition or cramped captive conditions." In the past three decades, however, scientists have come to realize that cannibalism is surprisingly common, and that it occurs for a variety of different reasons: male spiders who become their consort's dinner gain a reproductive advantage, Schutt explained, while sand tiger sharks take advantage of their spare siblings in utero to hone their hunting skills before they're even born.

Fewer species eat members of their own kind as you move through the animal kingdom toward primates—but, according to archaeologist James Cole, cannibalism seems to have been a reasonably regular part of early human behavior, too. His question was: why? Were ancient humans eating each other out of hunger, or for more complicated reasons to do with spiritual beliefs about the soul and the body? To find out, Cole determined how many calories a raw male would provide and then compared that to early humans' other dinner options, such as mammoth, boar, or deer. He reveals his findings on Gastropod, which include a macabre organ-by-organ guide to the human body—useful for anyone who'd like to try cannibalism but is worried about their weight.

Cannibalism became increasingly taboo in modern history, as mainstream religions have typically frowned on the practice, labeling it as barbarous and driving it almost to extinction—while using the accusation of man-eating as justification for colonial exploitation. Questionable morality aside, there are good reasons to avoid eating members of one's own species. One of the bizarre medical mysteries of modern times is kuru, a fatal neurodegenerative "laughing" disease that began killing large numbers of the Fore people in the 1960s. This episode, we talk to Shirley Lindenbaum, the anthropologist whose fieldwork, carried out in remote Papua New Guinea in her twenties, uncovered the cause of the disease in the cannibalistic Fore funerary rituals. Today, however, despite the risks and the taboo, one kind of cannibalism is having a resurgence among celebrities and natural birth advocates alike: placentophagy. It may be endorsed by Kim Kardashian West, but is there any scientific evidence behind the trend? Join us this episode for all this and much more!

Episode Notes

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Bill Schutt and Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History

Zoologist Bill Schutt is the author of several books; his most recent, Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, is a fascinating exploration of cannibalism across species and throughout history.

James Cole and the Caloric Value of a Man

Dr. James Cole is senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Brighton, in the U.K. His research into the calorific significance of human cannibalism in the Palaeolithic was published in the journal Nature earlier this year. (The illustration for this week's episode shows human bones discovered at Gough's Cave in the United Kingdom, which researcher Silvia M. Bello and her colleagues believe to have been engraved as part of a complex cannibalistic ritual.)

Shirley Lindenbaum

Medical anthropologist Shirley Lindenbaum is professor emerita at CUNY's Graduate Center, having conducted several decades of ground-breaking fieldwork on cholera in Bangladesh and AIDS in the United States. In the 1960s, she and her then-husband Robert Glasse spent two years in Papua New Guinea among the Fore people. Their research established that kuru, a deadly disease afflicting the Fore, was transmitted through eating infected brains as part of traditional mortuary cannibalism. Ultimately, it led to the Nobel prize-winning discovery of prion communicable diseases, including "mad cow disease," or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Among her numerous publications are several books and papers on kuru, the Fore people, and the human significance of cannibalism.

Sarah Rich

Sarah Rich is a writer and editor, and a longtime friend of Gastropod: she discussed the merits of gold-plated cutlery with Nicky in our very first episode. She is the author of a fabulous new book, Leave Me Alone with the Recipes, a project inspired by her chance discovery of a long-lost manuscript for a recipe book, hand-illustrated by one of the twentieth-century's most important yet forgotten designers, Cipe Pineles.


For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.