Not that I’m thinking about trying it, but is cannibalism unhealthy?

- Asks Amanda from Philadelphia

Cannibalism in Brazil in 1557, as described by Hans Staden and painted by Os Filhos de Pindorama.
By | Posted January 21, 2008
Posted in: Ever Wondered?, Health
Tags: , , ,

“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chi-an-ti.” My skin crawls as I hear these infamous words escape the slithering tongue of Dr. Hannibal Lecter the fictional cannibalistic serial killer from the movie “Silence of the Lambs” as he details his gruesome man-eating impulses. The vision of Lecter satiating himself on others of his kind makes me wonder how healthy that would be.

Cannibalism, the act of a species eating a member of its own kind, is believed to go as far back as prehistoric times in humans, and to have occurred all over the globe at one point or another. The Korowai tribe, which resides on the isolated island of Fiji southeastern Papua, is among the few tribes believed to still consume human flesh. So why is cannibalism not a more common practice, only occurring amid ancient or remote cultures, in times of desperation and starvation, or in our grisly fantasies? Other than the social stigma of cannibalism and, you know, the murder part, there is another important reason why consuming human flesh is not a universal practice: it can be deadly.

Prion diseases, a group of uncommon and deadly brain diseases, can be spread by eating the contaminated flesh of humans or other animals. The human brain is more contaminated with prions than other body parts, though bone marrow, the spinal cord and the small intestine also contain these fatal brain-eating malformations. Prion diseases occur when the prion protein misfolds, causing a cascade of misfolding prion proteins that clump in the brain and damage or destroy nerve cells, creating sponge-like holes. Current examples include kuru and Creutzfeld-Jacob disease in humans, and mad cow disease in animals, both of which cause brain deterioration, loss of motor control and ultimately death.

In the early 20th century, a kuru epidemic devastated the Fore, a tribe of cannibals in the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea. The kuru epidemic was linked to a Fore ritual of feasting on the brains of the dead. In the mid-1950s, Australian authorities banned these feasts. After this, the incidence of kuru declined, and no new cases have cropped up in people born since the ban.

For a while, researchers even believed that cannibalism was a driving force in human evolution. In a widely publicized 2003 study in the journal Science, genetic researchers at University College London came upon a surprising finding while studying surviving members of the Fore who had not been afflicted by the kuru epidemic. These geneticists found that cannibalism may be more common than we initially thought: They proposed that we may, in fact, all be descendants of cannibals.

While these findings were quite provocative, prompting new ideas about our relationship with our fellow humans, scientists soon rejected the results of the Science study. In a 2006 study published by the journal Genome Research, researchers at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain, reported that the Science study was riddled with data collection bias and that cannibalism did not have a strong influence throughout human history. With new genetic data, researchers found that there was no selective force driving the presence of a particular prion protein (PRNP) gene. In other words, the data indicated no evidence that prion diseases or cannibalism significantly influenced human evolution.

Outside of isolated instances of cannibalism, there are also dire circumstances in which eating the flesh of our dead kin may seem necessary. In times of famine, like in China in the late 1960s and North Korea in recent years, people were so desperate from extreme food shortages that they engaged in cannibalistic practices. In times of tragedy, cannibalism has also been known to occur, but the health effects are rarely touched upon. The book Alive by Piers Paul Read, and the movie based on that book, popularized the real-life story of Nando Parrado and fellow Uruguayan rugby players who after a plane crash in 1972 were stranded in the Andes mountains and forced to eat their friends to survive. The book and movie dealt with the taboos of cannibalism in the face of starvation and death in this instance, the survival of the remaining crash victims was dependent upon eating the flesh of their dead comrades. Neither the book nor the movie, however, mentions any of the survivors getting sick after ingesting their friends.

While cannibalism has been practiced for various reasons, humans seem to generally avoid eating each other. Not only is the idea of eating the brains of another human being unappetizing, it can also make you very sick.

At least now I can be comforted that the likes of Hannibal Lecter are probably poisoning themselves while feasting on their dinner.

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  1. oh dear….please call the research police:
    “The Korowai tribe, which resides on the isolated island of Fiji, is among the few tribes believed to still consume human flesh. ”
    Fiji?!

    Mo Lemire, January 22, 2008 at 4:51 pm
  2. The problem being that you have to eat someone who has a prion disease in order to get it, so there’s no guarantee that if you eat someone, your brain will go all swiss cheesey. For example, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease occurs worldwide at a rate of about 1 case per million population per year and most often among the elderly. So one would have to eat ~1 million old people to get it.

    Andrew, January 23, 2008 at 1:18 pm
  3. this is how mad cow disease comes about. In places some still feed their cattle the remains of other dead cattle..including the brains, they just dont tell us this stuff. That is just gross!

    Shannon, March 18, 2008 at 4:58 pm
  4. in reply to andrew…so we can eat like one or 2 old people and still be okay?? lol Not I :-)

    science freak, March 24, 2008 at 7:30 pm
  5. There is not one scientific study that has successfuly argued that cannabilism directly leads to poor health, malformities, or disease. The act of cannabilism, in and of itself, doesn’t make one go crazy, biologically speaking. Phsychologically it can fuck you up. If one can argue scientifically, please provide the deficiencies caused through consumation of human cells. The fact of the matter is that we are all, in some way, autocannabilistic. Therefore how could consuming more human cells possibly have a negative affect on other cells in the digestive processes. You eat foods, gather their proteins, vitamins, and acids, just as you would if you were to eat a cow. I’m not defending cannabilism, Im just anxious to disprove that such acts can truly be a direct cause of illness.

    Truth, April 10, 2008 at 7:12 pm
  6. The reason why it must be unhealthy or undesirable in some way, is becasue we evolved to have an aversion to it and only practise it in desperate circumstances, like all other animals. WHy don’t tigers eat other tigers? It goes for most species, they have evolved to not do it, for some reason, a reason that must have a negative impact on the survival/fitness probabilty.
    And islanders devouring thier prisoners after war like what the chimps do after a ‘chimp battle’ is not the same as eating your owb species as an every-day food like any other food. One good negative reason would be that any species who did eat their own as a matter of course would soon become extinct, instead banding together as a species helps the individuals within survive.

    jane, June 13, 2008 at 8:27 am
  7. Do i have to conduct my own research into the medical benefits of cannibalism? It would appear that i do as there are no articles on its health benefits. She is looking very tasty.

    jon morris, May 12, 2009 at 4:00 pm
  8. Yes, you can get sick from eating a sick human. Just like you can get sick from eating a sick animal. Deer wasting disease makes for unhealthy eating, but that doesn’t make all venison bad. The risks of things like kuru and Creutzfeld-Jakob disease are known; but that said, taboos and squick reactions aside, there is no sound reason why eating a *healthy* human should be any more medically unhealthy for you than eating a healthy animal. (One might even go so far as to say “any other healthy animal”.) And of course, the adverse effect upon the person eaten is rather more severe.)

    Cannibalism is not a taboo because it’s inherently unhealthy. It’s a taboo basically because we don’t want people regarding us as food. We don’t want ourselves or our children to be “the person eaten”.

    Phil, July 9, 2009 at 5:39 pm
  9. i find t hard to belive any of this,we have not severly studied this; i have eaten people before fo the kicks and i have been nomal since then i belive it inth cooking because hmans area discusting breed all around so it makes sense that some get sick but if you eat the rigt parts and cook it good it is no worse than any other type of meat you would get from Mcdonalds if you have any thougts or quetions for me my email is mity_mouse34@yahoo.com (chilish i know) and you can write me on it

    trevan brewer, November 23, 2009 at 1:48 am
  10. It was already stated, how did we create mad cow disease? Feeding cows to other cows. So feeding humans to other humans can’t have any nasty side effects at all can it? Inbred know it alls.

    You're all idiots, April 9, 2010 at 12:36 pm
  11. “The human brain is more contaminated with prions than other body parts, though bone marrow, the spinal cord and the small intestine also contain these fatal brain-eating malformations.”
    So to avoid Prion diseases, don’t eat the brain or small intestine and you’ll
    be fine. (I don’t see why anyone would want to eat those parts anyway.)

    JaeDean, April 22, 2010 at 10:06 pm
  12. “i find t hard to belive any of this,we have not severly studied this; i have eaten people before fo the kicks and i have been nomal since then i belive it inth cooking because hmans area discusting breed all around so it makes sense that some get sick but if you eat the rigt parts and cook it good it is no worse than any other type of meat you would get from Mcdonalds if you have any thougts or quetions for me my email is mity_mouse34@yahoo.com (chilish i know) and you can write me on it”

    Cannibalism may have affected his spelling and grammar.

    Just for fun, November 2, 2010 at 2:48 am
  13. It’s more dangerous than eating other animals because /any/ disease that person has/had/was carrying (and not exhibiting symptoms of) is a disease /you/ can get. This is not the same when people eat other animals, because specific diseases have evolved to prey upon specific animals, and you can’t get most of them, though many diseases eventually evolve to cross the species barrier. Also, the argument that it’s not any different than how your body consumes itself constantly is also wrong — everybody’s immune system is uniquely fitted to identify what cells are a part of it’s own body and what cells are not. This is why you have to have a matching bloodtype in order to recieve blood from someone, and your own body voraciously attacks them if they do not slip past undetected. Human cells from other people are the most well-equipped saboteurs of your system because they know their way around, so it makes sense that there are easily ways for that to make you sick — if only from a drastic immune response. However, this is a bit unlikely to happen because you will hopefully dissolve most of the harmful properties in the acid of your stomach (save the diseases) which is why eating animal meat doesn’t make people sick, usually. So, while not perfectly deadly, cannibalism is drastically more risky than eating another kind of meat.

    Prosper, December 21, 2010 at 1:53 am
  14. Why would your skin crawl if a fictional character describes what he likes to do? I have not tried cannibalism myself, though it has come to mind, but I don’t think that it’ll screw you up at all. It depends if whoever you’ve eaten has diseases or not. It’s just the same as if you at an animal with a disease. Humans are basically animals, so I don’t see how eating them is such a big deal. And that’s my favorite Silence of the Lambs quote!

    Xana, March 1, 2011 at 7:00 pm
  15. meant to say ate an animal…dyslexia sucks

    Xana, March 1, 2011 at 7:01 pm
  16. to Jane: Aversion to eating ones own kind is not necessarily an evolutionary trait it seems much more a cultural taboo than a genetic one. A tigers aversion to eating one of its own kind seems more likely to be that a tiger would make much more difficult prey than a panda bear or monkey (or whatever tigers eat). Plus your argument does not speak to the physical effects directly related to cannibalism which seem negligible.

    It seems to me that the taboo of eating a human comes from the perception that the body equals the person ie. To eat a human body is to eat a person. I would argue that this not the case as the person is not the flesh they occupy. Of course killing a human to eat them would be a different discussion altogether.

    Daruth, November 1, 2011 at 12:18 pm
  17. Jeffery Dahmer seemed physically healthy?

    Darlene, November 27, 2011 at 9:31 pm
  18. To eat, or not to eat, that is the question.

    Jay, December 8, 2011 at 2:12 pm
  19. PEOPLE ARE NOT TO EAT PEOPLE, PERIOD.
    QUIT IT, AND EITHER GET HELP OR PLEASE STOP LIVING.

    -A public service announcement from your creator (who still is your creator regardless of whether or not you believe it)

    Reality Check!, February 21, 2012 at 1:45 am
  20. Cannibalism does make you crazy. I mean, look at Albert Fish. He Ate Children (Sorry, but he did) and he was as insane as a doormat….

    Jennifer, March 27, 2012 at 8:46 pm
  21. As far as real-life serial killer cannibalistic go, I believe the question is did they go crazy by eating people, or did they eat people because they were crazy?

    dahlia, April 6, 2012 at 7:54 pm
  22. Grrr I meant “cannibals.” Autocorrect hates me!

    dahlia, April 6, 2012 at 7:55 pm
  23. LOL@ “reality” check. Why is a good, god fearing moron even on a cannibalism discussion?

    pants, July 5, 2012 at 2:44 am
  24. im only reading this because a coworker was apparently told in high school, thats its not good to eat human flesh because of high mercury levels. ive looked every where and there really isnt much on this topic. i mean to eat another human is pretty out there in the first place, but to survive im sure any one in there right mind would do it. so my question is, are there high levels of mercury found in human flesh once that individual is dead. for all intents and purposes, the dead person is completely healthy. anyone?

    jacob irving, December 24, 2012 at 7:14 pm
  25. Cannibalism is a iffy subject. I don’t believe eating another human being causes insanity or a decrease in mental capacity. In some regions of the world cannibalism is still practiced as religious traditions. But to answer the question “is cannibalism unhealthy?” I believe it all depends on the individual person. Some people can and some people can’t. our bodies are all different, Humans are complex, multi-cellular organisms. You cannot say it is healthy or unhealthy until you actually try it. anthropologists, sociologists.. have plenty of books on the subject if you are really interested in that area. And serial killers who choose to eat other human beings need to be profiled better. take Richard Trenton Chase, he was a serial killer who consumed his victims’ blood because he believed space aliens were turning his blood to powder. He was a paranoid schizophrenic. grant it some know what they are doing. but I think there is a background in all cases of cannibalism that we have yet to understand.

    Blissa, March 1, 2013 at 9:52 pm
  26. And by the way.. Hannibal Lecter is based on fact not fiction. Thomas Harris who wrote the books is known for getting his ideas from FBI profilers, unsolved cases.He is a master of creation due to his unlimited resources.

    Blissa, March 1, 2013 at 10:01 pm
  27. mad cow is caused by feeding cows other cows but they are not meant to eat meat. It’s like feeding a dog gun powder. Comparing humans eating human meat to cows makes no sense.

    marge, April 3, 2013 at 12:19 am
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