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April 11, 2003 11:10 AM   Subscribe

I yearn for your tasty flesh

[ Gene Study Finds Cannibal Pattern ] - "Deep in the recesses of the human heart, lurking guiltily beneath the threshold of consciousness, there may lie a depraved craving — for the forbidden taste of human flesh. The basis for this morbid accusation, made by a team of researchers in London, is a genetic signature, found almost worldwide, that points to a long history of cannibalism" (NYT)
posted by troutfishing (45 comments total)
I read this today also, I find it pretty interesting that journalists climb all over the more sensational aspects of the "cannibalism" angle and seem to blur over the more intellectual aspects like genetics. This study might be saying that just-barely-human ancestors in Africa may have been cannibals, that jibes pretty poorly with this stupid intro paragraph.

Dr. David Goldstein, a population geneticist and co-author of the report, said the genetic evidence alone could not determine whether the balancing selection in the prion gene occurred just once, in the ancestral human population before it left Africa


An alternative explanation for the protective signature could be that early human populations were exposed to prion disease by eating infectious animals. Dr. Mead said he could not rule out that explanation but added that cannibalism seemed more likely.

more likely to get your article in the paper, as well.
posted by jessamyn at 11:19 AM on April 11, 2003

I'm more concerned with my aberrant Krispy Kreme gene.
posted by gwint at 11:25 AM on April 11, 2003

put the lotion in the basket!!~#!@#~!
posted by shadow45 at 11:27 AM on April 11, 2003

Deep in the recesses of the human heart, lurking guiltily beneath the threshold of consciousness, there may lie a depraved craving — for the forbidden taste of human flesh.

How can you take this seriously? Jesus, the opening paragraph sounds like the voice-over for a B grade horror film....
posted by bradth27 at 11:27 AM on April 11, 2003

Maybe people ate each other because there wasn't much else around?
posted by Pretty_Generic at 11:28 AM on April 11, 2003

Deep in the recesses of the human heart, lurking guiltily beneath the threshold of consciousness, there may lie a depraved craving — for the forbidden taste of human flesh.

Oh, eat me!
posted by jonmc at 11:28 AM on April 11, 2003

jessamyn - Yesterday's BBC version said: "Although some anthropologists believe that the argument for human cannibalism is not yet proven, evidence that it did happen includes human bones with human teeth marks on them, and fossilised human faeces which include human proteins."

I don't know who found such artifacts, but if they exist, it seems unlikely to have been from a singe incident.
posted by soyjoy at 11:29 AM on April 11, 2003

a single incident

(singe is French for monkey - Freudian slip?)
posted by soyjoy at 11:32 AM on April 11, 2003

Human bones with human teeth marks on them, huh? Ask anyone with a two year old child about biting. They can explain that "mystery of science" real quick.
posted by bradth27 at 11:34 AM on April 11, 2003

Mmmm.....long pork! [drool]
posted by MrBaliHai at 11:39 AM on April 11, 2003

Long pork tastes like chicken!
posted by nofundy at 11:40 AM on April 11, 2003

bradth27 - If you know of a two-year old child that bites into the bone, I'd run, don't walk, in the opposite direction before said child gets any bigger.
posted by soyjoy at 11:44 AM on April 11, 2003

soyjoy- Ever had a 2 year old?
posted by bradth27 at 11:46 AM on April 11, 2003

Yeah, a couple, thanks.

Unless you mean "had" in the cannibalistic sense. Then, no.
posted by soyjoy at 11:50 AM on April 11, 2003

Meat's Meat and a man's gotta eat!
posted by stifford at 11:53 AM on April 11, 2003

I was once actually informed by a learned professor (the context, and the source for his information now escapes me), that the human sartorius muscle, properly prepared, would come closest to the gustatory experience of prime beef.

Just so you know.

Not sure if he said anything about fava beans, or made recommendations for an accompanying chianti....
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 11:54 AM on April 11, 2003

If he didn't say anything, f&m, I wouldn't worry about it. Liver and let liver!
posted by allaboutgeorge at 11:59 AM on April 11, 2003

Of course, if this claim is true - and I'm not enough of a scientist to judge all the data - it would mean that trope about how "we were meant to eat animals - fossilized early humans prove it" is now severely compromised, as this would show we were meant to eat each other too. Oddly, modern humans have been able to thrive without doing things the same as their prehistoric ancestors. Go figure.
posted by soyjoy at 12:03 PM on April 11, 2003


Consider yourself lucky. My three year old almost bit the Lab's leg off last year. Seriously.
posted by bradth27 at 12:28 PM on April 11, 2003

I don't know who found such artifacts

There's clear (though scant) evidence of human cannibalism on some bones from Atapuerca, Spain, currently on exhibit at the AMNH.

On the Kuru/vCJD/prions/Mad Cow front, there's an excellent book on the subject, Kuru Sorcery (Amazon link), by a medical anthropologist who first identified the Kuru. She came to the pretty strong conclusion that, at least in the Fore people, the disease was caused by the consumption of pigs (based in part on the correlation between the disease's prevalence in men and the consumption of pigs by, you guessed it, almost only men). Sorry I don't remember more details.

What jessamyn said is very true, along with the fact that the cannibalism is a new theory, while the animal consumption is not.
posted by The Michael The at 12:30 PM on April 11, 2003

My three year old almost bit the Lab's leg off last year.

oh, Three-year-olds. Well, that's different. Yeah, they're hellacious.
posted by soyjoy at 12:36 PM on April 11, 2003

I think they'd be able to tell a two-year-old's bite radius from an adult's. Which means it was no teething accident. Now, if they find some fossilized fava beans and chiante on the side --- thip thip thip thip...
posted by condour75 at 12:57 PM on April 11, 2003

"Ask anyone with a two year old child about biting."

bradth27 - How do I say this nicely....... If your two year old is gnawing the gristle off the bones of your guests, please be so kind as to lock the little devil midget up if I ever come over.

Guest: "Aaaahhhh!!!! The little bastard just bit a chunk of flesh off my leg!!!!"
bradth27: "Oh, don't worry. He's just teething. Give him a bonier portion to chew on next time."
posted by y6y6y6 at 12:59 PM on April 11, 2003

The reference to artifacts of human teeth marks on bones and human proteins found in remains of feces relates to the finding of cannibalism among the pre-historic Arizona Anasazi as their civilization collapsed in the 10th century.

Invaders apparently would kill families, cook their remains in the family's home and then defacate the waste from that meal on the floor the "final insult" to the household they had just killed and eaten.
posted by deanc at 1:06 PM on April 11, 2003

deanc - you probably would know more about this than I do, but I seem to recall an overall pattern of the emergence of cannibalism in response to declines in food supply, from the Anasazi [I think...] to the Maori [after they had eaten all those tasty 6-foot 'Moa' - 'Moa' was polynesian for chicken (I recall), then they found 6 foot tall 'chickens' in New Zealand! ], to....[searching for examples. I bet you know more]. Point? - cannibalistic instincts usually only surface under duress [predictably], under starvation conditions.

Normally, they merely lurk in our instinctual depths, a terrifying monster of depraved craving lying beneath the threshold of conscious, biding it's time, lurking, waiting.....

bwahahahaha! bwahahahahaaaaaa!

[ slow, ominous drum beat... ]
posted by troutfishing at 1:23 PM on April 11, 2003

We're omnivores. Sometimes the will to survive is the strongest instinct there is. So it wouldn't surprise me that we would find forensic evidence of cannibalism in times of ecological stress.
posted by geekhorde at 1:34 PM on April 11, 2003

Yep. Sometimes the will to survive is the strongest instinct there is. So it wouldn't surprise me that we would find forensic evidence of animal consumption in times of ecological stress.
posted by soyjoy at 2:04 PM on April 11, 2003

uh, was that word-for-word quote on purpose, Soyjoy< or are you and geekhorde telepathically linked?
posted by notsnot at 2:41 PM on April 11, 2003

A few comments on the discussion.

1. Researchers on cannibalism like to distinguish between survival cannibalism (which is presumed to occur anywhere under extreme circumstances, but is also assumed to be exceedingly rare), ritual cannibalism (where participants consume or pretend to consume small amounts of flesh during ritual events … has been observed in burial rituals around the world, and some researchers might also include Catholicism’s consumption of Christ’s flesh in this category), and regularized cannibalism. It is the last one everyone is so fascinated by, and the one the researchers in the article are claiming evidence for.

2. One of the problems archaeologists face in proving cannibalism took place in a certain time and place is the ambiguity of the evidence. Almost every piece of direct evidence can be explained away by other possibilities. “Butcher marks” on bones can also be evidence of certain de-fleshing burial treatments. Tooth marks most often turn out to be scavengers.

A new line of evidence is the detection of human proteins in archaeologically preserved human feces. This has been used to bolster a claim of cannibalism among the Anasazi. Personally, I think this evidence is still fairly new and has not received much scrutiny. No one has demonstrated to my satisfaction that there are no other plausible explanations for the presence of the proteins (i.e. certain illnesses).

This genetics argument is the latest line of indirect evidence for cannibalism. I expect there will be a lot more on this issue in the next few years as the genetics evidence and the protein evidence are given greater scrutiny.

3. Personally, I am more fascinated by the obsession with cannibalism than with the actual cases. For at least the last 500 years, Western writers have spilled a lot of ink “exposing” cannibals around the world. It is probably safe to say more time has been spent in hand-wringing over cannibalism in the last 500 years than in the actual practice. Cannibalism remains one of the last Great Taboos. I think it is important to reflect on why so much thought is given to such a rare event, and what does that say about us.
posted by Tallguy at 2:45 PM on April 11, 2003

posted by kirkaracha at 3:27 PM on April 11, 2003

I just noticed I spent the entire time reading this thread and most of the other daily MeFi goodness while chewing my own fingernails to the quick.

I am the other white meat!

other snarky comment-ettes:
Toddler bites dog. In this weeks Natural Enquirer.
Omnivore? I've never even thought of trying to eat my Dodge Omni...
Soyjoy did a Sean Paul!
Enough with the fava bean and chianti jokes! Just remember, white wine goes with white guys...
The Great Taboo? Didn't Harvey Korman do that voice on the Flintstones?
Mmmmm... MeatFilter!

One more note: Toto Coelo!!! (Incredibly delicious, too!)
posted by wendell at 4:17 PM on April 11, 2003

troutfishing - yep, you're right. Cannibalism seems to emerge among the Anasazi towards the end of their presence in the American southwest. The implication, of course, is that towards the end, food supplies dried up, and marauders in search of food would kill people in their homes to eat. Some computational models attempted to understand how climate change in the area may have thinned out their population as a result of famine.

Tallguy correctly points out that cannibalism is awfully difficult to prove. Even when scientists had confirmed with the Anasazi findings that the bones were defleshed and had markings of having been stewed in a pot, it was only when they had analyzed the human feces samples and found human proteins in them that we could definitively say that cannibalism had been practiced, since there have been so many other "false positives" when it comes to evidence of cannibalism.

While the author of the original story goes off on a sensationalistic tangent right away in the first paragraph, I think the point that the researcher is trying to get across is that human societies in the past faced famine often enough and severe enough that they almost universally resorted to cannibalism-- it was a desperate human survival trait, not a cultural invention of some "exotic" far-flung societies.
posted by deanc at 6:12 PM on April 11, 2003

sean-paul indeed... folks, reread the two posts. They are very similar, aren't they? But not identical - and therein lies the fun.
posted by soyjoy at 6:53 PM on April 11, 2003

Cannibalism remains one of the last Great Taboos. I think it is important to reflect on why so much thought is given to such a rare event, and what does that say about us.

It's been around much longer than that--usually as part of a ritual of human sacrifice--consider Pausanias's account of the sacrifical rites of Zeus Lykaios also Zeus Lycaeus in ancient Arcadia in Greece> Both the myth of Lycaon and the sacrifice involved cannibalism and he who ate the meat of man became a wolf.

Here, via Perseus, is Pausanias on the story:

Lycaon the son of Pelasgus devised the following plans, which were more clever than those of his father. He founded the city Lycosura on Mount Lycaeus, gave to Zeus the surname Lycaeus and founded the Lycaean games. I hold that the Panathenian festival was not founded before the Lycaean. The early name for the former festival was the Athenian, which was changed to the Panathenian in the time of Theseus, because it was then established by the whole Athenian people gathered together in a single city.

The Olympic games I leave out of the present account, because they are traced back to a time earlier than the human race, the story being that Cronus and Zeus wrestled there, and that the Curetes were the first to race at Olympia. My view is that Lycaon was contemporary with Cecrops, the king of Athens, but that they were not equally wise in matters of religion.

For Cecrops was the first to name Zeus the Supreme god, and refused to sacrifice anything that had life in it, but burnt instead on the altar the national cakes which the Athenians still call pelanoi. But Lycaon brought a human baby to the altar of Lycaean Zeus, and sacrificed it, pouring out its blood upon the altar, and according to the legend immediately after the sacrifice he was changed from a man to a wolf (Lycos ).

I for my part believe this story; it has been a legend among the Arcadians from of old, and it has the additional merit of probability. For the men of those days, because of their righteousness and piety, were guests of the gods, eating at the same board ;the good were openly honored by the gods, and sinners were openly visited with their wrath. Nay, in those days men were changed to gods, who down to the present day have honors paid to them--Aristaeus, Britomartis of Crete, Heracles the son of Alcmena, Amphiaraus the son of Oicles, and besides these Polydeuces and Castor.

So one might believe that Lycaon was turned into a beast, and Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus, into a stone. But at the present time, when sin has grown to such a height and has been spreading over every land and every city, no longer do men turn into gods, except in the flattering words addressed to despots, and the wrath of the gods is reserved until the sinners have departed to the next world.

All through the ages, many events that have occurred in the past, and even some that occur to-day, have been generally discredited because of the lies built up on a foundation of fact. It is said, for instance, that ever since the time of Lycaon a man has changed into a wolf at the sacrifice to Lycaean Zeus, but that the change is not for life; if, when he is a wolf, he abstains from human flesh, after nine years he becomes a man again, but if he tastes human flesh he remains a beast for ever.

Alternate versions of Lycaon are examples in this rhetoric lesson. In any form, it's one of the first werewolf stories in history.

The anthropologists Michael Harner and Marvin Harris surmised that Aztec human sacrifice on the grand scale was, like animal sacrifcie everywhere, the redistribution of meat, but in the valley of Mexico, under the pressure of population and a lack of large meat animals, the meat was human. This is controversial, to say the least, but the fact of cannibalism in the New World is not.

So we eat human victims in religious rituals and become werewolves, either actually or symbolically. What's to argue about that?
posted by y2karl at 7:41 PM on April 11, 2003

Also consider the case of the Wendigo. Many Native Americans had stories about "Wendigos" or wild men/monsters who would terrorize people. How do you make a Wendigo? Eat human flesh. In other words, eat human flesh, and you turn into a monster.

Taboos don't exist without a reason (at least, that's what I think; I'd have a hard time backing up that assertion, really...). If there is a strong social pressure against eating your neighbors, it's probably because it might have happened before in the past.

And soyjoy, if you're going to quote me, put quotation marks in, thank you very much. ;)

As I see it, the real danger isn't that in times of ecological stress that people might eat people. The real danger is that they might do it and find that they like it, and in effect turn into Wendigos or Morlocks or whatnot.

Mmmm.... Longpig.
posted by geekhorde at 8:09 PM on April 11, 2003

Actually, long pig tastes like pork, not chicken.

I once burned my right index finger (to the bone) on a firework, and instinctively put it in my mouth.

To my surprise, the taste was very close to bacon or pork ribs.

It might have been the gunpowder adding some taste, but I know that taste well enough to say "not likely".
posted by spazzm at 8:55 PM on April 11, 2003

I can smell your brains.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 8:58 PM on April 11, 2003

I was once actually informed by a learned professor (the context, and the source for his information now escapes me), that the human sartorius muscle, properly prepared, would come closest to the gustatory experience of prime beef.

I was once informed by a documentary film-maker (who'd done research on ritual cannibalism and claimed to have personal experience) that long pig is closest in taste and texture to pork (as spazzm says). It's the other other white meat.
posted by biscotti at 9:25 PM on April 11, 2003

Well, consider this: pigs are being promoted as organ donors for humans because of tissue compatibility and both species share common diseases--swine flu anyone? Creationists always cite the similarities of pig and human skeletons as evidence disproving evolution but considering the habits in common to both species, one well might safely question only the concept of simian descent.
posted by y2karl at 10:47 PM on April 11, 2003


I've read a humorous SF story in which the plot revolved around the shocking discovery that humans are descended from pigs. Google Usenet archive comes up with:
'Family Resemblance' by Alan Nourse (Astounding, April 1953; reprinted in 'Great Science Fiction About Doctors' edt. Groff Conklin & Noah Fabricant).
posted by Slithy_Tove at 10:58 PM on April 11, 2003

I'm surprised that no one has brought up the German cannibalism story. I thought of it, but reconsidered: "no, too sensationalistic..."

deanc - tough times are common, eh?

Y2Karl - Michael Harner? The noted authority on Shamanism ?

Spazzm - ouch. tasty ouch.

Slithy_Tove - that's one suspicious kitty.
posted by troutfishing at 11:12 PM on April 11, 2003

Y2Karl - Michael Harner? The noted authority on Shamanism ?

It appears his thinking evolved, as it were, after spending time inhaling mass quantities of hallucinogenic snuff with the Jivaro. The Enigma of Aztec Sacrifice comes during the more formal and less lucrative period of his anthropological career.

The link, from the Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture entry on New World cannibalism above, summarizes Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano's Counting Skulls: Comment on the Aztec Cannibalism Theory of Harner and Harris thusly,

The theory that the Aztecs depended on the consumption of sacrificial victims for food lacks convincing data on the extent of this consumption. Some Aztecs consumed parts of some victims; however, most estimates of the number of victims eaten represent figures lower than what would have provided critical protein. Evidence points to Latin American exocannibalism as a symbolic expression of the domination of an enemy in warfare rather than as a significant source of protein.

A symbolic expression of the domination of an enemy in warfare--this seems to be the same as claimed for the Anazazi, who, at least in the New Yorker article, have been described as from the same cultural complex as the Aztecs.

Learning To Love Cannibalism makes note of the 18th and 19th century practice of selling ground up Egyptian mummies as folk medicine.

Scholarly arguments have been made against both anthropophagy in the New World and human sacrifice among the Greeks. Some people have a hard time believing human beings can do such things, or at least some human beings sometimes.

I don't know about cannibalism per se, but certainly ritual killings of aat least a quasi-religious nature--war, terrorism, suicide bombers--are still with us.
posted by y2karl at 7:53 AM on April 12, 2003

Family Resemblance--ah yes, Slithy_Tove, that was at the back of my mind when I wrote that comment.
posted by y2karl at 7:55 AM on April 12, 2003

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