The History of Cannibalism: From Medicinal Practices to Cultural Rites

The history of cannibalism stretches across centuries and continents, encompassing a wide range of practices from medicinal remedies to deeply ingrained cultural rites.

Once considered a universal cure in 15th-century Europe, a powder called Mumia, made from mummified human remains, was believed to heal various illnesses.

Meanwhile, the term “cannibal” originated with Christopher Columbus’s encounters in the Americas, evolving from a misunderstanding and misuse into a label for those who consumed human flesh. This complex history reveals the multifaceted roles cannibalism has played in human societies, challenging modern perceptions with its varied motivations and cultural significance.

Medicinal Cannibalism in Europe

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In the 15th century, Europeans were convinced they had discovered a panacea in Mumia. This remedy, made from the powdered remains of mummies, was believed to cure many ailments.

Initially sourced from stolen Egyptian mummies, the demand soon outpaced supply, leading to grave robbing across Europe to meet the craze.1

Mumia was not an isolated phenomenon; human blood, liver, gallstones, brain oil, and pulverized hearts also found their way into the European pharmacopeia. These ingredients were used in various concoctions to treat diseases, underscoring a widespread acceptance of medicinal cannibalism that persisted into the modern era.

The Origin of “Cannibal”

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The term “cannibal” has a controversial origin linked closely to Christopher Columbus’s encounters in the Americas. Upon arriving, Columbus reported peaceful interactions with indigenous peoples but also perpetuated rumors about the Caribs, whom he claimed raided and consumed their prisoners.

These reports, more speculative than evidenced, led to the term “Carib” being misused to label any indigenous resistors as cannibals—a dehumanizing tactic that justified the enslavement and colonization by European powers.

This misuse of “cannibal” highlights a pattern of misunderstanding and misrepresentation by Columbus, who, driven by greed and the allure of gold, contributed to a narrative that stripped away the humanity of indigenous peoples.

Without concrete evidence, the label of cannibalism served as a tool for dehumanization rather than an accurate depiction of Carib practices, showcasing the complexities and consequences of cultural encounters during the age of exploration.2

Survival Cannibalism

Cannibalism for survival is documented across various cultures and historical periods. From sieges and famines to doomed expeditions, there are numerous accounts of people faced with the dire choice of consuming the dead or succumbing to starvation.

These instances highlight the desperate lengths to which humans will go to survive, challenging the taboo surrounding cannibalism by framing it as a last resort in extreme circumstances.

Cultural Cannibalism

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Beyond survival, many cultures have embraced cannibalism under more ordinary conditions. Whether as part of funerary rites, filial piety, or medicinal practices, the consumption of human flesh has been normalized in various societies.

For instance, in China, filial cannibalism saw children offering their flesh to ailing parents as a cure. Similarly, the Fore people of New Guinea practiced funerary cannibalism, a tradition that tragically facilitated the spread of kuru, a fatal prion disease.

These examples underscore the diverse motivations and contexts for cannibalistic practices, challenging simplistic narratives.

Misconceptions & Reality

The history of cannibalism is fraught with misconceptions, mainly due to fictionalized accounts like those of Columbus. While it’s challenging to ascertain the prevalence of cultural cannibalism due to these distortions, evidence points to a variety of socially accepted practices.

This history reveals a complex interplay between necessity, tradition, and misunderstanding, suggesting cannibalism cannot be easily categorized or dismissed.

From the medicinal mumia craze in Europe to the varied forms of culturally sanctioned cannibalism across the globe, this practice challenges our understanding of human nature and societal norms.

Martha A. Lavallie
Martha A. Lavallie
Author & Editor | + posts

Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.