Medical Cannibalism: dispelling the notion of a man-eating myth
This essay will look at cannibalism, also known as anthropophagy, and its use as a medical practice. I will argue against the claim that socially accepted cannibalism has never actually existed, and is merely a myth. This claim was put forth by anthropologist William Arens in his book The Man Eating Myth (1979: 9). The first section of this essay will define what should be considered cannibalism and briefly look at academic discourses on anthropophagy. Then I will present data showing the existence of historical medical anthropophagy in both Europe and North America. Finally I will show that medical anthropophagy still exists today in the form of the consumption of semen, the placenta, and aborted fetuses.
For the purposes of this essay it seemed necessary to provide a clear definition of what should be considered cannibalism. This is however a difficult task with most definitions leaving room for conjecture, or failing to adequately account for the consumption of substances that many would deem cannibalistic. Arens, when speaking of cannibalism often describes it as the eating of human flesh by another human or as man eating man (1979: 8). This is however an inadequate definition because human beings are composed of more substances than merely flesh.
The definition of cannibalism as merely the consumption of human flesh leaves the possibility that acts, which many would deem particularly heinous acts of cannibalism could be viewed as non-cannibalistic acts. This definition allows the consumption of human blood to not be considered cannibalistic. This is because you are merely drinking the blood of another person and not consuming their flesh. This act can be interpreted as anthropophagy, as shown by an article by Richard Shears in the Daily Mail, published on October Eleventh, 2013. This article describes an event where a man drank the blood of his daughter. Both Shears and the residents of the Papua New Guinean community where this event occurred described the act as cannibalistic.
What is deemed human flesh and what even is deemed human is also a matter of conjecture. Different societies have different epistemologies regarding the composition of human bodies. Londono Sulkin argues that for the People of the Centre, located in the Colombian Amazon, bodies are constituted by key substances such as tobacco (2012: 32). This is quite different from European or North American conceptions of what constitutes a human body, where human flesh is seen as a distinctive substance. With this difficulty of applying definition of cannibalism and anthropophagy as the consumption of human flesh I chose to use a different definition. I argue that cannibalism should be seen as the consumption of distinctive human bodily elements. This definition allows for acts such as the consumption of human blood to be seen as cannibalism. As well it allows us to employ the concept of cannibalism to a variety of world views.
In this essay I will discuss what categories of cannibalism each medical practice discussed fits into. The different categories of anthropophagy are endocannibalism, exocannibalism, and autocannibalism. Endocannibalism is the consumption of a member of your own social group. Exocannibalism is the consumption of a person outside of the social group of the consumer. Autocannibalism signifies the ingestion of parts of one’s own body. Some of the medical forms of cannibalism discussed below will not fit into just one of these categories but several.
Arens’ argument that it is doubtful that socially accepted cannibalism has never existed (1979: 9) was a reaction to the tendency for Europeans to exoticize the people they came in contact with. Conklin describes Arens’ reactions to accounts of cannibalism as reverse exaggeration in reaction to exaggerated accounts of anthropophagy in the New World (2001: 5-6). Exaggerated accounts of cannibalism in the New World were the result of many factors, as I will show.
Explorers such as Hans Staden, exoticized the Tupinamba Indians in order to achieve fame for himself, and his explorations (Arens 1979: 22). By portraying the people he came in contact with as man-eaters, Staden was able to make a name for himself. This, however, is not the only reason explorers have named people they came in contact with in the New World as cannibals. In 1503 Queen Isabella of Spain issued a decree that only American Indians who were cannibals could be enslaved (White-head 1984:70, cited in Conklin 2001). Spanish explorers and colonizers had an economic motive to portray indigenous peoples as cannibals so that they could enslave these people. European powers also found representing native peoples as cannibals served to justify their violent conquests of these people by portraying them as man-eating savages.
The next section will discuss that while Europeans were portraying the people that they violently colonized as savage cannibals, they were engaging in cannibalistic practices themselves. Arens ignores the fact that Europeans were practicing cannibalism while they were accusing New World peoples of cannibalistic practices. While he was attempting to deorientalize anthropology by denying the existence of cannibalism he was reproducing the view of the West as the pinnacle of civilization.
Historical Medicinal Cannibalism in Europe
Medicinal cannibalism, as the name suggests is the consumption of human bodily elements as a medicinal treatment. Medical cannibalism was used to treat a wide variety of illnesses. For the sake of this paper I will focus on two specific cases of historical medicinal cannibalism. The first is the use of human bodily elements, particularly blood as a treatment for epilepsy. Then I will discuss Paracelsian medical practices which were a prominent in Europe and North America during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Throughout the history of Europe blood has commonly been used as a means of treating epilepsy, then known as ‘the falling sickness’. The blood of a freshly killed person was an even more potent cure for the falling sickness. Ancient Roman Historian, Pliny the Elder, provides an incredibly early account of medical cannibalism in his, Natural History, which was originally written in the first century A.D. He describes how epileptics would suck warm blood directly from wounds of gladiators in Roman arenas (1975: 5). This is however not the only recorded case of blood being used a method of treating epilepsy.
Blood was consumed in North America and Europe during the age of exploration; the very time Europeans were accusing New World peoples of Cannibalism. Executioners during this time would often sell the blood of decapitated criminals to epileptics. Peacock describes how epileptics would wait in crowds at executions with “cup in hand, ready to quaff the red blood as it flows from the still quivering body” (1896: 270-271). This example provides evidence against Arens’ claim that socially accepted cannibalism has never existed. In this case not only is cannibalism seen as a common practice, but blood is used in economic transactions. The epileptics lining up with cup in hand described by peacock could very well be likened to people lining up for a flu shot in twenty-first century medical practices.
One may argue that the behavior of these epileptics could have potential been socially deviant, and that this was seen an improper way of treating their illness. If this is the case their consumption of blood would have not been socially acceptable, thus proving Arens correct. However physicians from this time were the ones who were instructing their epileptic patients to consume human blood. One such physician was Reverend Edward Taylor, who was a physician in colonial New England during the seventeenth century. Taylor was also a Harvard graduate, adding legitimacy to his medical practice (Gordon-Grube 1988: 406). Taylor stated that “human blood, drunk warm and new is held good in the falling sickness” (Taylor Manuscript: 377, cited in Gordon-Grube 1988: 407). In 1747 many other physicians were still recommending epileptic patients to drink human blood “recent and hot” (James 1747: 512, cited in Gordon-Grube 1988: 407).
Clearly the cannibalistic consumption of human blood to treat epilepsy was not only a common practice but was one recommended by physicians. This makes the consumption of blood promoted by both the public and professional sector, as discussed by Klienman (1980). The public/folk sector is the general populace and their influence on medical practice and the professional sector is the impact of medical professionals on the treatment of medicine. Also, the consumption of human blood would be exocannibalism, where the person whose blood is consumed is from outside of the consumer’s immediate social group. This was however not the only form of medicinal cannibalism common during these times.
Medicinal cannibalism during the age of exploration was not merely limited to the treatment of epilepsy. The aforementioned Taylor describes “shops of mummy,” where one could obtain “the dead body or flesh” of humans for medicinal purposes (Taylor manuscript: 375-378, cited in Gordon-Grube 1988: 406). Mummy was the remains of a person who met a preferably sudden and violent death. The remains of his person were then prepared by drying and embalming the corpse. Mummy was the cure-all for a school of medical practitioners known as the Paracelsians (Murray et al. 1933: Throndick 1934- 58:V:659, cited in Gordon-Grube 1988: 406).
Paracelsian physicians provide detailed accounts of how a corpse should be prepared in order to be up to standards for a proper mummy. One such physician, Oswell Croll, recommends that mummies “be made of a cadaver of a redheaded man, age 24, who had been hanged,” he goes on to provide instructions on how to properly treat with different substances such as myrrh, aloe, alcoholic spirits, and turpentine (Thorndike 1934-58:VIII: 414, cited in Gordon-Grube 1988: 406). These were, however, not the most ideal means of procuring a mummy. Another Paracelsian physician Nicasius Le Febre describes that the best mummies were dried up bodies found in Libya, that had died via suffocation during overwhelming sandstorms (Le Febre 1670, quoted in Wootton 1972:II:25, cited in Gordon-Grube 1988: 406). The sudden suffocation of the victim would concentrate the spirits in all parts of the body due to the fear of experiencing sudden suffocation. Paracelsus attributed the healing properties of mummies not to the body itself but to spirits or powers residing within the body, powers which he discovered by a variety of experiments (Gordon-Grobe 1988: 106-107).
Paracelsian physicians were by no means a marginalized group, treated as pseudo-medical practitioners. In fact they held a large amount of influence during their time. Le Febre was the attending chemist of King Charles II of England (Gordon-Grobe 1988: 406). Taylor was, as previously mentioned, a Harvard graduate (Gordon-Grobe 1988: 406). Finally the recommendation of how to prepare a mummy, provided by Croll, was included in the official London Pharmacopoeias, produced in the seventeenth century (Urdang 1944:40, cited in Gordon-Grobe: 406).
Paracelsian medical cannibalism was more than just socially acceptable; it was an integral part of the society that practiced it. It was practiced by a graduate of a prestigious academic institution, such as Harvard. Furthermore even the King of England had a Paracelsian doctor under his employ. Paracelsus even gave a cosmological explanation of how his medical practice worked, due to spirits residing within the body.
Arens however states that these European medical practices should not be viewed as cannibalism (1998: 47). Scholars like Conklin however disagree with his assessment that these practices should not be seen as cannibalism (2001: 11-12). She finds it very unlikely that European citizens could have denied the humanity of the freshly executed prisoner whose blood they are consuming (Conklin 2001:11). Conklin discuss how one sixteenth century intellectual Montaigne even pointed out the hypocrisy of condemning cannibalism in the New World when it was prescribed in Europe (2001: 12).
Gordon-Grube also denies claims that the consumption of blood and mummies should not be seen as medical cannibalism (1993: 199). She cites two sources from the time when these practices are prominent; both of which speak out against these practices as cannibalistic. One of these sources is Ambroise Paré, who describes the practice of the consumption of mummies as an abomination (1582, cited in Gordon-Grube 1993: 199). The other source she sites is a preacher named, Cotton Mather who “abominates” the practice calling those that practice it by the term “Anthropophagi” (Mather 1972: 145, cited in Gordon-Grube 1993:199).
Contemporary Medical Cannibalism
In this next section I will discuss how practices that could be seen as medical cannibalism are common today. This will provide further evidence against Arens’ claim, by showing that socially acceptable cannibalism exists in some form even today. With these practices I will discuss whether they are promoted by the popular/folk sector or the professional sector discussed by Klienman (1980). Popular/folk medical practices are those that are prescribed by non-medical professionals, this is advice one would receive from a parent, friend, or an internet advice column. The professional sector would be licensed medical professionals and academic medical journals.
I will discuss three different human bodily elements that are consumed for medicinal purposes. These substances in order are semen, the placenta, and aborted fetuses. I will argue that if one adopts a certain perspective the consumption of these substances could be seen as cannibalistic.
Semen as a medical substance is prescribed by both the folk sector and the professional sector. An expert blog was posted on September 25, 2012 on website yourtango.com by Professor Kimberly Resnick Anderson promoting medical benefits of consuming semen. In this blog post she goes over 10 ‘surprising health benefits’ of consuming semen. These benefits include: improved quality of sleep, mood elevation, and relief of anxiety. This is not the only website posting advice to women to consume their partner’s semen. Another example is a story that was published on huffingtonpost.com on June fifth, 2013 by Andy Campbell, which describes semen as a ‘super food’.
A more convincing case of the medical properties of semen is an article published in the Journal of Reproductive Immunology in March 2000 by Koelman, et al. In this article Koelman, et al, discuss their discovery that by consuming the semen of her partner a woman can prevent the development of the condition, preeclampsia during her pregnancy (2000). This is due to the woman absorbing antigens present in the semen which familiarize a woman’s body with the foreign elements present in her body during pregnancy (Koelman, et al: 2000).
The consumption of the semen of a partner to prevent the development of the condition preeclampsia could be seen as a form of autocannibalism. The semen of her partner has combined with her ovum forming an embryo. This embryo resides in her uterus becoming a part of her body. The semen of her partner is an integral part of this embryo. By consuming the semen of the partner that impregnated her, a woman is consuming a part of herself as well.
Another contemporary practice that can be seen as a medicinal form of cannibalism is the consumption of the placenta by women who have recently given birth. Consuming the placenta, or ‘Placentophagy,’ is promoted by a large number of folk practitioners and mid-wives. Websites such as, www.geneabirth.com/placentasandplacentophagy.htm, advise women on different methods of preparing their placenta for consumption. Placentas can be dehydrated then ground up into a fine powder so it can be placed in easy to swallow capsules. Recipes can also be found for food items such as placenta cocktails, placenta lasagne, placenta pizza, etc.
Placentophagy is seen to have a variety of medicinal benefits for the mother. It apparently can help a mother replenish nutrients that she lost during child birth. It can increase breast milk production for a new mother. Placentophagy also may deter the onset of postpartum depression. All of these benefits were provided by the websites with www.geneabirth.com/placentasandplacentophagy.htm and http://placentabenefits.info/medicinal.asp being prominent examples. Both websites also cite a study performed by researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The study in question is “Baby blues- postpartum depression attributed to low levels of corticotrophin-releasing hormone after placenta is gone”, led by George Chrousos. Chrousos in this study merely states that the birthing of the placenta can cause a sharp drop in the chemical CRH, which greatly affects a new mother’s mood (1995: 1). He does not however state that consuming the placenta will increase levels of CRH in women (Chousos 1995: 1).
The postpartum consumption of the placenta would, much like the consumption of semen, be a form of autocannibalism. The placenta was once a part of the body of the mother, which she then consumes. The study by Chrousos discusses how during pregnancy the placenta supplies the body of the woman with the chemical CRH (1995: 1). By performing this function the placenta could be seen as a part of a woman’s endocrine system, which secretes hormones into the body of a person in order to regulate physiological behaviour. By consuming the placenta a woman is consuming a part of her endocrine system.
The last case of twenty-first century medical cannibalism that I will discuss is the consumption of aborted fetuses in China. An editorial published on May tenth, 2012 on washingtontimes.com by, Youngbee Dale, discuss how aborted fetuses are consumed in China. There aborted fetuses are often ground up into a powdered form and placed in pills. More than 17,000 pills such as these have been confiscated by South Korean officials. Dale discusses how the consumption of these pills is seen to boost one’s stamina and sexual potency.
This case of medicinal cannibalism warrants discussion of an argument by Arens discussed previously, that accounts of cannibalism are often attempts to exoticize others (1979:18-19). He furthermore discusses cannibalism as “a feature of the faraway or foregone” (Arens 1979: 19). When looking at cases of medicinal cannibalism in China it is important to be skeptical, because the information may be skewed by this bias. China is not only geographically distinguished from the West but geologically as well, being a socialist nation. However this skepticism should not led us to completely disregard accusations of medicinal cannibalism in China, especially considering the numerous forms of medicinal cannibalism previously discussed. Furthermore the vast quantity of pills containing ground up fetuses found by South Korean officials provides evidence that this practice may indeed exist.
The consumption of aborted fetuses could be seen as endo, exo or autocannibalism depending on the circumstances in which it takes place. If a mother consumes the fetus of her own child it would be autocannibalism because it was once a part of her body. If a father consumes the fetus of his child it would be endocannibalism because he is consuming a part of his partner’s body and there for his social unit. It could also be exocannibalism if the fetus was consumed by someone with no relation to the parents of the child.
As shown above medicinal cannibalism has existed throughout history in a wide variety of forms. The earliest recorded and longest lasting form was the consumption of blood in order to treat epilepsy. This practice dates back as early as the first century A.D, and continues on in existence until at least the eighteenth century. Another form of historical medicinal cannibalism was the consumption of mummies prescribed by Paraclesian physicians. Medicinal cannibalism as I have argued continues in practice in the form of the consumption of semen, placentas, and aborted fetuses. This vast amount of evidence proves the contrary of William Arens’ claim that socially acceptable cannibalism has never existed (1979: 9). The findings of this essay not only show that anthropophagy has existed and persisted not only as a socially acceptable practice but one that has and is currently used for medicinal purposes.
Furthermore recent research by anthropologists such as Conklin with the Wari (2001) has shown that cannibalistic practices did exist in non-Western societies. Denying the existence of medicinal cannibalism in Europe and North America promotes the orientalising of these peoples. Acknowledging the existence of these practices in Amazonian peoples, Melanesians, Europeans, and North American settlers unites these different groups by their common history of performing these practices. By denying the medical practices of Europeans and European settlers in North American one places these cultures in a dominant position in a moral and cultural hierarchy over Amazonian and Melanesian peoples. In accepting medical cannibalism as true you acknowledge the common humanity of these peoples.
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Arens, William. “Rethinking Anthropophagy.” In Cannibalism and the Colonial World, edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. 39-62.
Chousos, George. “Baby blues- postpartum depression attributed to low levels of corticotrophin-releasing hormone after placenta is gone”. Discover December 1995 edition.
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Koelman, et al. “Correlation between oral sex and low incidence of preeclampsia: a role for soluable HLA in seminal fluid?” Journal of Reproductive Immunology 46 (2), 2000. Pp. 155-166.
Londoño Sulkin, Carlos David. People of Substance: An Ethnography of Morality in the Columbian Amazon. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.
Peacock, Mabel. “Executed Criminals and Folk-Medicine.” Folk-Lore 7, 1896. Pp. 268-283.
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