Review: Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt


Published by: Algonquin Books

Publication Date: 14th February 2017

Format: Hardback

ISBN: 9781616204624

Price: £20

Usual disclaimer: Review copy from in return for an honest review.


Eating one’s own kind is completely natural behavior in thousands of species, including humans. Throughout history we have engaged in cannibalism for reasons related to famine, burial rites, and medicine. Cannibalism has also been used as a form of terrorism and as the ultimate expression of filial piety. With unexpected wit and a wealth of knowledge, Bill Schutt, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, takes us on a tour of the field, exploring exciting new avenues of research and investigating questions like why so many fish eat their offspring and some amphibians consume their mother’s skin; why sexual cannibalism is an evolutionary advantage for certain spiders; why, until the end of the eighteenth century, British royalty regularly ate human body parts; and how cannibalism might be linked to the extinction of Neanderthals.

Today, the subject of humans consuming one another has been relegated to the realm of horror movies, fiction, and the occasional psychopath. But as climate change progresses and humans see more famine, disease, and overcrowding, biological and cultural constraints may well disappear. These are the very factors that lead to outbreaks of cannibalism–in other species and our own.


My Review

Humans are fascinated by real and fictional cannibals (think: the popularity of the Hannibal Lecter films, books and TV series) but does cannibalism actually occur?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: More commonly in fish than primates but there is evidence that all animals cannibalise members of their own species, including their own young. Cannibalism occurs in non-human animals for a variety of reasons including:
environmental stress when food is scarce;
as a food source during parenting (some fish species keep their young in their mouths);
in-utero between developing foetuses – some species of shark;
scavenged food – they don’t recognise conspecifics as such, insects particularly;
placental mammals clearing up neonates and eating placental material;
by new males to bring females back in to oestrus quickly, as seen in lions;
territorial rivalry – female chimpanzees have been observed to gang up on neighbouring groups and attack females with young;

Humans are different, we attach meaning to eating each other. In European cultures, those influences by the Ancient Greeks, cannibalism is almost the worst crime a person can commit, although starvation cannibalism in times of war and stranding is acceptable as an emergency option. The accusation of cannibalism was levelled against anyone occupying land that European colonial powers wanted as a way to dehumanise them and legitimise genocide and enslavement. Despite the abhorrence officially directed at cannibalism, human body parts were used in to the 19th century for medical purposes, including dried and ground up mummies, blood, fat and internal organs.

In the rest of the world cannibalism wasn’t seen with such horror, and was a preferred way to honour the dead in some cultures, for example the Fore of New Guinea, and as a sign of filial piety in China, where children would lop off a bit of thigh to feed to sick and elderly relatives. Under increasing European influence these practices gradually faded away or went underground.

The author devotes the last few chapters to discussing the human consequences of cannibalism – disease. A group of diseases of the brain have been linked to cannibalism – Kuru and CJD in humans, Scrapie in sheep and vCJD (mad cow disease) in cows. They are collectively known as Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies, because they make the brain look like a bath sponge and can be transmitted by some means, as yet disputed although ingestion and through cuts and lesions seem to be the most likely method. Some researchers argue the disease is virus borne and the prion plaques found in the brains of victims are the result of the infection; others believe the prions are the infective element.

This was a very entertaining read and definitely one for the popular science shelves. There is no sensationalism and the author does his best to avoid discussing cannibalism cases (out of respect for living victims and the relatives of the dead), and scientific jargon is kept to a minimum. Where specific scientific words are necessary they are explained. The tome is conversational and the line illustrations are very good but the book might have benefited from maps of some of the regions discussed and some colour photographs for clearer illustration of some points, however. I also think Schutt gives too much credence to some hypothesise that do not necessarily support themselves, especially regarding the virus/prion origin of TSEs.


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