The practice of cannibalism, the eating of human flesh by humans.
Cannibalism has been widespread in prehistoric and primitive societies on all continents. It is still believed to be practiced in remote areas of the island of New Guinea. It existed until recently in parts of West and Central Africa, Sumatra, Melanesia, and Polynesia; among various Indian tribes of North and South America; and among the aborigines of Australia and the Maoris of New Zealand.
The reasons for cannibalism have varied. Sometimes there was simply limited food. Some groups liked the taste of human flesh. But mostly the reasons had to do with revenge or punishment for crimes, ceremony and ritual, or magic. Some victorious tribes ate their dead enemies. In some rituals the deceased body was eaten by relatives, as a manner of reverence for their ancestors, or in a pious desire for the soul of the dead to be reborn in the body of the consumer. This is called endocannibalism. In primitive rites that involved human sacrifice, parts of the body were often eaten. Headhunters, for example, often consumed certain parts of a body to gain powers of the dead person. Also, in Mexico, men representing the gods were periodically sacrificed and eaten to identify the participant with the deity.
Civilized people have to resort to cannibalism from time to time, as a mean of survival, under desperate circumstances. The story of the Donner party is one of the more tragic incidents in American frontier history. A group of about 90 immigrants led by George Donner was caught in a blinding snowstorm high in the Sierra Nevada range of California in October 1846. Survivors, who made their way out early in 1847, had been forced to resort to eating the flesh of their dead comrades to survive. Also, in the 1970's, passengers of an airliner crash at a remote area of the Andes had to resort to cannibalism to survive.
Other notorious cases include the retreat of Napoleon's troops from Moscow in 1812, the survivors of the sinking of the frigate Medusse (they drifted in a raft for many days) in 1816, the boiling and eating of a Chinese officer sent to "pacify" the inhabitants of a region of Kwangsi (China) in 1901, the Sumatran punishment of convicts in the 19th century (cannibalism was part of the judicial process of punishing malefactors), the sacrifice and consumption of a 12 year-old girl as part of a Voodoo ceremony in Haiti (1912), and the one of Fritz Haarmann, the "Hanover Vampire," who in 1924 Germany was convicted of killing at least 27 boys, making sausage out of their flesh, eating them and also selling it to unsuspecting people for human consumption.
One of the most horrible cases of cannibalism, if it really happened (controversy abounds about the veracity of this story, and probably it is just an urban legend), was undoubtedly the one of Alexander 'Sawney' Bean, whom allegedly in the time of Scotland's King James VI (later King James I of England) led his incestuous descendants in a secretive robbers' band apparently consisted of himself, his wife, 8 sons, 6 daughters, 18 grand-sons, and 14 grand-daughters. They supposedly lived in a cave in the woods at Bennane Head near Ballantrae, which was then part of Galloway (today it is part of Ayrshire), and resorted to robbing passers-by to support themselves. Not to get caught, they made certain that all of their victims were in no position to tell the tale, by killing each and everyone of them. To feed his ever growing family, Alexander provided them with the only plentiful source of food available, human flesh. They would dismember the bodies, eating some and pickling the rest. Over the years they allegedly killed and eaten close to 1000 people, until getting caught and executed. As the story goes, Sawney and all of the adult males of his family were dismembered and allowed to bleed to death, while the women and children were burned at the stake.
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Sources: (1) Spence, Lewis, An Encyclopedia of Occultism, Carol Publishing Group; (2) Curran, Bob, Encyclopedia of the Undead, Career Press; (3) Wilson, Colin and Damon, The Mammoth Encyclopedia of the Unsolved, Carroll & Graf.
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