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Cannibalism, the act of consuming the flesh or organs of members of the same species, has been observed in various cultural contexts throughout history. This article aims to provide a clear definition of cannibalism and distinguish between its different forms to its roots in the past and present societies. The discussion will be approached from an anthropological and scientific standpoint, exploring the cultural and social dimensions of these forms of cannibalism.

Cannibalism in Anthropology

Definition of Cannibalism

Cannibalism is defined as the practice of one organism consuming all or part of another organism belonging to the same species. In the context of human societies, cannibalism encompasses a range of behaviors influenced by cultural, social, religious, or survival factors.

Forms of Cannibalism


Endocannibalism refers to the consumption of individuals within one’s own group or community. This form of cannibalism is driven by specific cultural practices, religious beliefs, or survival circumstances.

Endocannibalism has been observed in diverse cultural contexts:

  • Ancestral Worship: Some cultures engage in endocannibalism as a way to honor deceased relatives or ancestors. For example, among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, endocannibalism was practiced as part of mortuary rituals, where the consumption of the deceased’s remains was believed to release their spirits and maintain a spiritual connection between the living and the dead [1].
  • Communal Bonding: Endocannibalism can serve as a mechanism for social cohesion and identity formation within a group. The Wari’ people of Brazil practiced endocannibalism, consuming the remains of deceased community members, particularly close kin, to incorporate their essence into the living and reinforce the interconnectedness of the community [2].


Exocannibalism involves the consumption of individuals belonging to other groups or communities. This form of cannibalism is often associated with warfare, conflict, or survival in extreme circumstances.

Exocannibalism has been documented in different contexts:

  • Ritual Warfare: Certain societies practice exocannibalism as part of ritualistic practices associated with warfare. For instance, historical accounts suggest that the Aztecs of ancient Mesoamerica consumed the flesh of sacrificial victims, believing it would bestow spiritual power and appease the gods [1].
  • Survival Cannibalism: In dire situations, such as during famines or in isolated environments, individuals may resort to exocannibalism as a means of survival when no alternative food sources are available. Notable examples include the ill-fated Donner Party incident in the 19th century, where stranded pioneers resorted to cannibalism to endure harsh winter conditions in the Sierra Nevada mountains [3].

Anthropologists and scientists approach the study of cannibalism with cultural sensitivity and aim to understand the underlying motivations, beliefs, and social dynamics. By examining archaeological evidence, historical accounts, ethnographic research, and cultural interpretations, they seek to unravel the complexities and significance of cannibalistic practices in different cultural contexts.

The study of cannibalism provides insights into human behavior, cultural practices, and the impact of environmental factors on survival strategies. It allows for a deeper understanding of cultural beliefs surrounding death, rituals, social organization, and the symbolic meanings associated with the consumption of human flesh.

Historical Perspectives on Cannibalistic Practices

By examining archaeological evidence, historical documents, and anthropological research, we can learn a lot about the cultural, social, and historical facets of cannibalism. This topic aims to provide a full understanding of historical perspectives on cannibalism. It is possible to gain a better understanding of the conditions and factors that shaped and inspired cannibalistic practices throughout history.

Prehistoric and Ancient Times:

Cannibalistic practices can be traced back to prehistoric and ancient periods, with evidence found in archaeological discoveries.

  • Paleolithic Era: In the Paleolithic era, evidence of cannibalism has been found in multiple regions. For example, the hominin remains discovered at Gough’s Cave in England show signs of cannibalistic behavior around 14,700 years ago. The motivations behind this practice are still debated, with suggestions ranging from survival cannibalism during periods of resource scarcity to ritualistic or symbolic purposes [4].
  • Aztec Civilization: In ancient Mesoamerica, the Aztec civilization practiced cannibalism as part of religious rituals. Captured prisoners of war and sacrificial victims were ritually sacrificed and consumed, symbolizing the belief in the transfer of spiritual power. This practice was associated with the worship of deities, such as Huitzilopochtli [1].

Medieval and Early Modern Periods:

Cannibalistic practices continued to occur in various cultural contexts during the Medieval and Early Modern periods.

  • European Incidents: In Europe, there are accounts of cannibalistic incidents during periods of famine or extreme hardship. The infamous case of the Donner Party in 1846-1847, where a group of pioneers resorted to cannibalism while stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains, exemplifies the extreme measures individuals may take to survive in desperate circumstances [3].
  • Fore People of Papua New Guinea: In the mid-20th century, the Fore people of Papua New Guinea experienced an epidemic known as kuru, a neurodegenerative disease transmitted through cannibalistic endocannibalism practices. The Fore people engaged in the consumption of deceased family members as part of their cultural beliefs and mortuary rituals. However, this cultural practice inadvertently led to the spread of the disease, highlighting the unintended health consequences of cannibalistic practices [5].

Colonial Encounters and Exploration:

Cannibalism became a subject of fascination and sensationalism during the period of colonial encounters and exploration.

  • Carib and Tupinambá: European explorers reported stories of cannibalistic practices among indigenous groups, such as the Carib and Tupinambá peoples of the Americas. These reports were often exaggerated or misinterpreted, serving as a justification for colonization and the subjugation of indigenous populations. It is important to approach historical accounts of cannibalism critically, considering cultural relativism and avoiding ethnocentric interpretations [6].
  • Cultural Misinterpretations: Colonial encounters often led to misunderstandings and misinterpretations of indigenous practices. The depiction of cannibalism in indigenous cultures by European observers should be approached with caution, recognizing the influence of cultural biases, preconceived notions, and the colonial context itself. Anthropologists today emphasize the importance of cultural understanding and contextual analysis when examining historical records [7].

Cannibalism, a complex and intriguing practice, has left its mark throughout human history. From prehistoric times to ancient civilizations, medieval periods, and encounters during the age of exploration, cannibalistic practices have been observed across diverse cultural contexts and historical periods. The prevalence of cannibalism is evident in the archaeological record, historical accounts, and anthropological research.

These historical perspectives on cannibalism offer valuable insights into the cultural, social, and historical dimensions surrounding this practice. They reveal the diverse motivations and contexts in which cannibalism has occurred, ranging from survival cannibalism in times of extreme hardship to ritualistic practices tied to religious beliefs and cultural traditions. However, it is essential to approach historical accounts of cannibalism critically, considering cultural relativism, biases of observers, and the colonial context that often influenced interpretations.

Cultural and Social Factors: Influences and Symbolism of Cannibalistic Practices

It is possible to comprehend the numerous reasons and implications associated with cannibalism. This analysis will employ cultural interpretations and ethnographic research in addition to the anthropological and scientific methodologies.

Cultural and Social Factors:

Survival and Scarcity:

In certain historical contexts, cannibalism emerged as a response to extreme survival situations and resource scarcity. For example, during periods of famine or isolation, some groups resorted to cannibalism as a means to sustain themselves when alternative food sources were depleted [8]. The cultural acceptance of such practices might be influenced by the belief that the survival of the group takes precedence over traditional social norms.

Cultural Traditions and Beliefs:

Cultural traditions and beliefs play a significant role in shaping cannibalistic practices. In some societies, cannibalism is tied to religious beliefs, rituals, and cultural heritage. For instance, among the Korowai people of Papua, Indonesia, endocannibalism is practiced as part of their mortuary rituals and is believed to establish a spiritual connection between the living and the deceased [9]. These cultural traditions often emphasize notions of ancestral veneration, spiritual communion, or the transfer of power.

Religious and Symbolic Meanings:

Ritual Sacrifice and Communion:

In certain cultural contexts, cannibalism has been associated with ritual sacrifice and communal bonding. The Aztecs of ancient Mesoamerica practiced exocannibalism as part of their religious rituals, considering it a form of sacrifice to honor deities and ensure the renewal of life [10]. The consumption of sacrificial victims was believed to enable a spiritual communion between humans and gods.

Symbolic Transformation and Incorporation:

Cannibalism can symbolize transformation and incorporation of essential qualities or attributes. Among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, endocannibalism was practiced as a way to incorporate the spiritual essence of deceased relatives into the living, reinforcing the interconnectedness of the community [9]. This symbolic act was believed to ensure the continuity of familial and community ties.

Power and Domination:

In some cultural contexts, cannibalism has been associated with expressions of power, dominance, and conquest. Instances of exocannibalism tied to warfare and rituals surrounding enemy combatants have been reported, where the consumption of enemies’ flesh is seen as a means to absorb their strength and powers [11]. This symbolism reinforces notions of power dynamics and conquest within societies.

Cultural, social, and religious factors play a significant role in influencing cannibalistic practices and imbuing them with specific symbolic meanings. Survival circumstances, cultural traditions, and religious beliefs shape the acceptance and understanding of cannibalism within different societies. Cannibalism can be seen as a cultural response to extreme situations, a means of honoring the deceased, a way to establish spiritual connections, or a symbol of power and domination. By exploring these cultural and symbolic dimensions, we gain a deeper appreciation for the complexities of cannibalistic practices across various cultural groups.

Psychological and Symbolic Interpretations of Cannibalism

The article goes into more detail about the symbolic and psychological aspects of cannibalism, including opinions from renowned psychologists like Freud and Jung as well as how it is portrayed in myths, literature, and folklore. We can better comprehend the psychological underpinnings and deeper significance of cannibalism by examining these viewpoints. This analysis will combine literary analysis, cultural interpretations, and psychological theories in an anthropological and scientific manner.

Psychological Perspectives:

Freudian Interpretation:

Sigmund Freud, a pioneering psychologist, proposed various psychoanalytic interpretations of cannibalism. He suggested that cannibalistic desires and fantasies may stem from unconscious desires related to aggression, oral fixations, and the Oedipus complex. According to Freud, cannibalism symbolizes a desire to incorporate the qualities of the consumed person, often representing unresolved conflicts or repressed instincts [12].

Jungian Interpretation:

Carl Jung, another influential psychologist, offered his perspective on the symbolic nature of cannibalism. He believed that cannibalistic themes and symbols often represented the process of psychological transformation and individuation. In this interpretation, cannibalism may symbolize the assimilation of aspects of the self or the integration of repressed or neglected parts of the psyche [13].

Symbolism in Myths, Folklore, and Literature:

Myths and Folklore:

Cannibalism appears in numerous myths and folklore across cultures, often carrying symbolic meanings. For example, the myth of Cronus in Greek mythology involves the consumption of his own children, symbolizing the fear of paternal power and the cycles of destruction and rebirth. In Native American folklore, the cannibalistic Wendigo symbolizes greed, excess, and the consequences of succumbing to one’s darkest impulses [14].

Literary Representations:

Cannibalism has been a recurring theme in literature, explored for its psychological and symbolic implications. In Jonathan Swift’s satirical novel “Gulliver’s Travels,” the protagonist encounters societies with cannibalistic practices, which critique human nature and society’s moral decay. In Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road,” cannibalism represents the desperation and degradation of humanity in a post-apocalyptic world [15].

These literary representations and cultural narratives provide a platform for exploring the complexities of human psychology, societal fears, and moral dilemmas surrounding cannibalistic themes.

Psychological and symbolic interpretations of cannibalism offer fascinating insights into the deeper meanings associated with this practice. From Freudian perspectives that delve into unconscious desires and unresolved conflicts to Jungian perspectives that emphasize psychological transformation and integration, these theories shed light on the psychological underpinnings of cannibalistic themes. Moreover, the presence of cannibalism in myths, folklore, and literature serves as a platform for exploring cultural fears, moral dilemmas, and societal critique.

By examining the psychological and symbolic dimensions of cannibalism, we gain a deeper understanding of the human psyche, collective symbolism, and the ways in which cultural narratives reflect and shape our understanding of cannibalistic practices.

Taboos, Morality, and Legal Implications of Cannibalism

This article explores the moral and ethical implications of cannibalism while delving into the cultural taboos surrounding the practise. The legal ramifications of cannibalism historically and in modern culture are also covered. We can learn more about the cultural, social, and legal contexts that influence society’s reaction to cannibalism by looking at these elements.

Cultural Taboos and Moral/Ethical Judgments:

Cultural Taboos:

Cannibalism is widely regarded as a cultural taboo, evoking strong reactions and moral repulsion in many societies. Cultural taboos surrounding cannibalism are deeply rooted in notions of the sanctity of life, the preservation of human dignity, and the sacredness of the human body. Cannibalism is often seen as a violation of these fundamental cultural and moral principles, leading to its widespread condemnation [16].

Moral and Ethical Judgments:

The moral and ethical judgments associated with cannibalism stem from a range of ethical frameworks, including religious beliefs, human rights principles, and social norms. The taking of a human life, desecration of human remains, and the violation of bodily integrity are commonly cited as reasons for the moral condemnation of cannibalism. Ethical theories such as deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics provide frameworks for analyzing the moral implications of cannibalism, highlighting concerns about autonomy, consent, and the potential harm caused to individuals and communities involved [17].

Legal Implications:

Historical Legal Perspectives:

Historically, legal responses to cannibalism have varied across cultures and time periods. In some societies, cannibalism was explicitly outlawed and considered a capital offense, reflecting the moral condemnation and the perceived threat to social order. For instance, during the era of European colonization, cannibalism was criminalized by colonial powers in an effort to impose Western cultural norms and suppress indigenous practices [18].

Contemporary Legal Perspectives:

In contemporary societies, the legal implications of cannibalism vary. Many jurisdictions have laws against murder, desecration of human remains, and the illegal trade of human body parts, which indirectly address cannibalism. However, the specific act of cannibalism may not always be explicitly criminalized unless it involves additional illegal activities, such as murder or mutilation [19]. Cases involving consensual or voluntary cannibalism present legal challenges, as the boundaries of personal autonomy and the regulation of one’s own body come into question.

The legal implications of cannibalism raise complex ethical and legal dilemmas, balancing individual freedoms with societal interests and the protection of human rights. The legal response to cannibalism necessitates careful consideration of cultural relativism, consent, mental health factors, and the potential harm inflicted upon individuals involved.

Cannibalism is surrounded by cultural taboos and elicits strong moral and ethical judgments. The violation of cultural norms, religious beliefs, and the principles of human dignity and bodily integrity contribute to the moral condemnation of cannibalistic practices. Legal responses to cannibalism have evolved over time, reflecting societal values, cultural imperialism, and the need to balance individual autonomy with societal interests. The legal implications of cannibalism raise complex ethical and legal dilemmas that require careful consideration of cultural diversity, individual rights, and the preservation of social order.

Modern Cases and Anthropological Perspectives on Cannibalism

This topic examines cannibalism in the modern era from an anthropological perspective, including incidences in far-off tribes and cases involving criminal activity. It also looks into how cannibalistic practises in indigenous societies have been impacted by colonisation, globalisation, and cultural change. We can learn more about the intricate interactions between society dynamics, cultural traditions, and the results of outside influences by looking at these contemporary situations.

Contemporary Examples and Anthropological Perspectives:

Remote Tribes:

In certain remote tribal communities, cannibalism has persisted as a cultural practice, albeit in diminishing frequencies. For example, the Korowai tribe in Papua, Indonesia, has been reported to engage in endocannibalism as part of their mortuary rituals and beliefs [9]. Anthropologists approach such cases with cultural sensitivity, recognizing the significance of these practices within the cultural context. They seek to understand the underlying cultural, social, and symbolic meanings associated with cannibalism within these communities.

Criminal Cases:

Occasionally, cases of cannibalism emerge in the context of criminal behavior, often involving individuals with severe psychological disorders or extreme circumstances. These cases are considered outliers and do not represent broader cultural practices. Anthropologists and psychologists analyze such cases to understand the complex interplay between individual psychology, societal factors, and the role of deviance in shaping behavior [20]. It is crucial to approach these cases with caution, recognizing the unique circumstances and psychological complexities involved.

Impact of Globalization, Colonization, and Cultural Change:


The process of globalization has had profound impacts on indigenous communities, including their cultural practices and beliefs. Western influences, increased connectivity, and exposure to different cultural norms have led to significant changes in indigenous communities’ practices, including cannibalism. As communities become more integrated into the globalized world, traditional practices may undergo transformations or disappear entirely [21]. The impact of globalization on cannibalistic practices highlights the complex relationship between cultural change and external influences.


The history of colonization has significantly disrupted indigenous cultures and practices, including cannibalism. The imposition of Western values, religious conversion efforts, and the suppression of indigenous traditions have led to the decline or eradication of cannibalistic practices in many indigenous communities. The impacts of colonization on cannibalism exemplify the power dynamics, cultural clashes, and erosion of traditional practices experienced by indigenous peoples [18].

Anthropological Perspectives and Cultural Change:

Anthropologists study the impact of cultural change on cannibalistic practices with a focus on understanding the historical, social, and cultural factors that contribute to their decline or transformation. They emphasize the importance of preserving cultural diversity, respecting indigenous practices, and understanding the complex processes of cultural change within the broader context of globalization and colonization.

Contemporary examples of cannibalism in remote tribes and criminal cases offer unique insights into the complexities of human behavior and the impact of cultural change. Anthropological perspectives help to contextualize these practices within their cultural, social, and historical dimensions. The influences of globalization, colonization, and cultural change shape the prevalence and transformation of cannibalistic practices, highlighting the dynamic nature of cultural traditions and the challenges faced by indigenous communities in maintaining their cultural heritage.


The discussion began by providing a clear definition of cannibalism, distinguishing between endocannibalism (consuming members of one’s own group) and exocannibalism (consuming members of other groups). It explored the prevalence of cannibalistic practices throughout history, ranging from Paleolithic times to the Aztec civilization, European incidents, and cultural practices in Papua New Guinea.

The cultural and social factors influencing cannibalistic practices were analyzed, highlighting the significance of survival, cultural traditions, and religious beliefs. The rituals and symbolic meanings associated with cannibalism within specific cultural groups were examined, considering the concepts of sacrifice, communion, transformation, and power dynamics. Psychological interpretations from Freudian and Jungian perspectives were explored, along with the role of cannibalism in myths, folklore, and literature, illustrating the deeper psychological and symbolic meanings attributed to this practice.

The article delved into the cultural taboos surrounding cannibalism, the moral and ethical judgments associated with it, and the legal implications both historically and in contemporary society. It emphasized the violation of cultural norms, the sanctity of life, and the preservation of human dignity as reasons for the moral condemnation of cannibalism. The legal response to cannibalism was discussed, considering historical legal perspectives and the complex legal dilemmas presented by modern cases.

Lastly, the impact of globalization, colonization, and cultural change on cannibalistic practices in indigenous communities was investigated. The influence of external factors on traditional practices, such as Westernization and religious conversion, was examined, highlighting the challenges faced by indigenous communities in preserving their cultural heritage.

Overall, this comprehensive analysis provides a multidimensional understanding of cannibalism, incorporating anthropological, historical, psychological, symbolic, cultural, and legal perspectives. By examining these various dimensions, we gain insights into the complex interplay between human behavior, cultural practices, societal norms, and the effects of external influences on cannibalistic practices throughout history and in contemporary society.


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[2] Turner, B. L. (1994). Encyclopedia of Indian Religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism. Springer.

[3] White, T. D., Black, M. T., & Folkens, P. A. (2012). Human Osteology (3rd ed.). Academic Press.

[4] Bello, S. M., Parfitt, S. A., Stringer, C. B., & Mellars, P. A. (2011). An Upper Palaeolithic engraved human bone associated with ritualistic cannibalism. PLoS One, 6(7), e15739.

[5] Lindenbaum, S. (1979). Kuru Sorcery: Disease and Danger in the New Guinea Highlands. Harwood Academic Publishers.

[6] Rathbone, R. (2018). Cannibalism and the Colonial World. Cambridge University Press.

[7] Strathern, A. (2006). The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. University of California Press.

[8] Turner, B. L. (2011). Human Ecology: A Theoretical Essay. University of Arizona Press.

[9] Lindenbaum, S. (2004). Kuru, Prions, and Human Affairs: Thinking about Epidemics. Annual Review of Anthropology, 33, 85-109.

[10] Sugg, R. (2019). Mesoamerican Cannibalism: The Historical and Archaeological Evidence. In The Oxford Handbook of the Aztecs. Oxford University Press.

[11] Blier, S. P. (1999). The Anatomy of Architecture: Ontology and Metaphor in Batammaliba Architectural Expression. Cambridge University Press.

[12] Freud, S. (1913). Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Moffat, Yard, and Company.

[13] Jung, C. G. (1967). Alchemical Studies. Princeton University Press.

[14] Brightman, R. (1993). Grateful Prey: Rock Cree Human-Animal Relationships. University of California Press.

[15] McCarthy, C. (2006). The Road. Vintage Books.

[16] Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge.

[17] Beauchamp, T. L., & Childress, J. F. (2019). Principles of Biomedical Ethics. Oxford University Press.

[18] Rathbone, R. (2018). Cannibalism and the Colonial World. Cambridge University Press.

[19] Hewitt, C. (2019). Cannibalism: A Perfect Crime? Routledge.

[20] Nabais, D. (2016). Cannibalism and Serial Killers: A Socioanthropological Perspective. International Journal of Criminology and Sociology, 5, 211-224.

[21] Barker, J. (2008). Cannibalism and Globalization: Colonialism, Christianity, and Contemporary Society. In D. L. Lentz & G. L. Feldman (Eds.), Ethnozoology: Animals in Our Lives (pp. 53-69). University of Illinois Press.

Anthropologist Vasundhra - Author and Anthroholic

Vasundhra, an anthropologist, embarks on a captivating journey to decode the enigmatic tapestry of human society. Fueled by an insatiable curiosity, she unravels the intricacies of social phenomena, immersing herself in the lived experiences of diverse cultures. Armed with an unwavering passion for understanding the very essence of our existence, Vasundhra fearlessly navigates the labyrinth of genetic and social complexities that shape our collective identity. Her recent publication unveils the story of the Ancient DNA field, illuminating the pervasive global North-South divide. With an irresistible blend of eloquence and scientific rigor, Vasundhra effortlessly captivates audiences, transporting them to the frontiers of anthropological exploration.

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