We’ve all been there at least once in our lives, in that most desperate of situations where you have to do the unthinkable. Remember last summer: you and your friend Jeff are out backpacking through the vast volcanic heart of Iceland, adventuring your way through distant mountain ranges and remote valleys, when you happen upon a rope bridge – spindly, insecure and fraying from the elements. Never one to back down from a challenge, you start across the bridge, slowly inching your way across the rotted planks of wood, when suddenly, your foot snaps through and you find yourself hanging on for dear life as you stare into the abyss below. Your thoughts racing, you review the worst-case scenario – you and Jeff could fall into the chasm, only to miraculously survive without any means of escape from your rocky tomb. All of a sudden, you find yourself thinking … “Oh shit. I’m going to have to eat Jeff!”
So maybe we haven’t all been there. Maybe we haven’t all been faced with the possibility of having to eat our friend Jeff – maybe you don’t even HAVE a friend named Jeff. But there are people in the world that have been in a hopeless situation, those who have had to resort to the consumption of human flesh in order to survive unthinkable scenarios. This phenomenon is known as Survival Cannibalism, only one of the types of cannibalism out there. But oftentimes, when we think of cannibalism, we picture some exotic tribal ritual, when in fact, it is more common than most people know, even in Western civilizations. That’s not to say that the world is full people eating other people just because they can.
There are 3 major classes of cannibalism: Survival cannibalism (where you eat Jeff to survive), Endocannibalism, in which an individual consumes the flesh of a member of their own community, and Exocannibalism, or ‘eating your enemy.’ Now at this point, some of you may be thinking, ‘oh my GOD this is disgusting, cannibalism is the WORST,’ or ‘you heathen monsters, return to the hellfire from which you emerged,’ or even ‘hmm… should I roast Jeff, or stew him?” Although most people today frown upon the idea of eating another human, the morality of cannibalism is entirely circumstantial.
Think of the Uruguayan Rugby players whose plane crashed in the Andes in 1972, retold in the 1993 movie Alive. Of the 45 passengers aboard the plane, only 16 survived, and they survived by eating the flesh of their deceased friends for over two months. One of the survivors, Roberto Canessa, said in an interview with Metro UK, “I found it sad, very humiliating … I thought I was taking advantage of them.” But trapped in an icy wasteland high in the mountains, what other choice did the survivors have? Survival Cannibalism is very different though than Exocannibalism. Exocannibalism is often the result of incredible violence, when one murders a human outside of their social group or community, and consumes them. A large part of the disgust with this form of cannibalism arises from the idea of purposely killing someone with the intention of eating them out of spite, vengeance, or an effort to gain their qualities. A well-known case is that of Jeffrey Dahmer, an American Serial murderer who, between 1978 and 1991, killed at least seventeen people and confessed to consuming several of their corpses. This is the sort of cannibalism which should be reviled, but is not to be confused with Endocannibalism, which no, does not mean getting high on bath salts and eating your best friend’s face. Endocannibalism often has ritualistic ties, where members of a community will consume the flesh of the recently deceased in order to gain pieces of the spirit, and in some cultures, to allow that being to live on. A sweet sentiment, but definitely not grounds to eat grandma.
In the end, the cannibalism, unsavoury we might see it, is not always intrinsically ‘evil’ – let’s just hope that we’re never forced into a situation where it may be necessary. So to all the Jeffs out there, you’re safe – I’m a vegan anyways.