Field of Science

Why is cannibalism taboo?

Cannibalism, or anthropophagy, is frowned upon all over the world. In fact, most people probably think it is morally wrong, even though it is not uncommon to hear the question of why it happens to be regarded as disgusting and taboo.

I would have liked to make this a post about a journal paper on the subject, but there aren't that many on the whole, and those I can find are all about the history, culture, and crimes of cannibalism. Not a single one that I can find deals with our feelings towards the practice.

On TruTV there is an article about cannibalism with emphasis on the criminal aspects of it, including many stories of famous cannibals.

The author of the article states that the exact origin of cannibalism is a mystery and will most likely remain so. I bring this up because the origin of cannibalism would seem to precede the onset of any feeling towards the practice. I obviously don't have any data to support a claim, but would venture a guess that cannibalism is at least as ancient as humanity. There are many other species of animals that practice cannibalism on occasion, and so it would be most parsimonious if cannibalism existed as humans evolved from our non-human ancestor. I mention this in this context only because it forces us to consider that the origin of the taboo is possibly as old as humanity as well, predating laws, religion, and other established moral codes.

Christianity (and other religions) is often invoked to explain the ultimate cause for people thinking that the practice of cannibalism is morally wrong. From the article:
the spread of Christianity is believed to have significantly diminished cannibalism worldwide.
This of course begs the question why the Christians were against it in the first place. Christianity has been exemplary in hijacking moral instincts (and celebrations, traditions, myths, and rites), and it should be apparent that anti-cannibalism did not originate within the last 2000 (or 6000) years. (If you are of the hope faith that God designed our morality, then you can stop reading right here. Congrats to you for "knowing" with certainty what the origin of the taboo is.)

The article tells of the Donner Party survivors:
Half of the travelers perished before the remaining people eventually succumbed to their situation and began to feed on the flesh of the dead in an attempt to survive. The forty-six survivors were eventually rescued, however upon reaching civilization they were regarded as monstrous criminals and tried for their actions. The travelers served around six months before they were re-released back into their communities.
And this reaction is not even the worst that survivors forced to cannibalize the dead have been subject to.
Even in the most extreme cases, the act of cannibalism is treated with scorn and disgust by many cultures and is sometimes punishable by social ostracization, institutionalization in a mental facility, arrest, incarceration or even death. Cannibalism is most commonly believed to be the epitome of savage behavior.
Still, it begs the question. Can we form a solid hypothesis as to the fear of cannibalism? Or, let's say, is there a reason why we should distrust those with cannibalistic tendencies so much that it has become an instinct? The article continues
Most acts of cannibalism are, to a degree, motivated by a desire to express power or control over the victim. Cannibalism is the ultimate expression of dominance over another person. Aggression cannibalism includes acts of cannibalism that are motivated by feelings of hostility and/or fear, creating an overriding need to exert power, revenge or control over the victim by murdering and then consuming him.
It should be clear from the examples above, and from the famous 1972 Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 which crashed in the Andes and whose survivors ate the deceased, that killing is not the issue. No one killed anybody, and yet the instinctive feeling is that it is still reprehensible to eat humans. It would thus appear that we cannot associate fear of cannibalism with fear of murder, and yet I will argue that we still can.

My own preferred guess is that as humans evolved to cooperate with each other, the negative side-effects of cannibalism (i.e. killing humans) was contrary to fostering good social relations. It may be that cannibalism does not necessarily imply murder, but it is enough that cannibalism is preceded by murder some of the time. If you know that a certain person is a cannibal, then it is better to be on the safe side an avoid him, as it could very well be that he won't sit around waiting for his dinner to die from accident or old age.

The fear of cannibalism is thus adaptive; those who tended to avoid known cannibals were also less liable to be killed and served. And they in turn had more offspring, as the natural selection story goes. Cannibalism is taboo because the instinctive fear of cannibalism is adaptive.

One could argue that there would be nothing wrong with eating the proteinaceous mass of flesh that would otherwise just be buried or cremated, if the cause of death was accidental or disease (provided this would not spoil the meat). But just maybe the diner would enjoy the cooking just a little too much, and start thinking about other means of acquiring more. A taboo makes sense in turns of upholding law and order in the early evolution of man.

Cannibalism is taboo because I am afraid that you would want to eat me.

For a taste of the flavor of human flesh, read this account by a guy who tried it.

Disclaimer: I want to emphasize that these reflections are to be considered hypotheses at best, and wishy-washy at the worst. I have proposed no way to test this hypothesis, which really is what would be needed in order for it to be called scientific in any sense of the word. It's really quite like most research in evolutionary psychology, if you think about it.


  1. you need a logic training

    1. Bah! What kind of a comment is that? Could you please point out the logic flaws, display your own reasoning for critique, contribute to the discussion?

  2. And you need a grammar lesson or two.

  3. Hello Bjorn - I appreciate your ruminations about this topic - which has apparently not been studied academically. Perhaps the taboo originated within tribes or family groups - much like the incest taboo - as a way to protect tribe or family members. When these groups become larger over time, the taboo gets extended to others in the nation state and is then adoped or reinforced by religion (though I find it interesting that none of the 10 commandments address either cannibalism or incest).

    And don't you just love the internet - where ignorant jackasses can anonymously bitch slap people? If you are on Facebook or Myspace - look me up. Doug Craft

  4. Doug, come to think of it, it could have been that "don't eat humans" at first meant "don't eat your relatives, but go eat those damned neighbors." And then that was extended, as you say, when the families became tribes, clans, etc.

    Good point.

  5. Fascinating topic, and so little about the reason for the taboo. I was told, and this is why I was searching around the subject, that the reason for the taboo is because disease may easily be transmitted by eating one's own species. If this has lead to the taboo, there must have been much of it taking place in the past for so strong a taboo to develop. I like your theory, and I guess they are not mutually exclusive.

  6. I don't believe in the theory that the taboo against cannibalism originated because it can lead to disease. So many other things eaten can lead to disease, but that doesn't produce taboos all over the place. Besides, it isn't even stopping the people who eat humans now and in the near past. They did it for ritual reasons, they got kuru, but still no taboo.

  7. "So many other things eaten can lead to disease, but that doesn't produce taboos all over the place"

    Actually, it kind of does: jews has kashrut, and muslims has halal, while lot of people, who we know as vegeterians, dont eat meat at all. In fact there are thousands of food (and drink) taboos all over the world - we all have few, right? Frequently, people just think their food preferences are the healthiest one. And sometimes they are quite right.

    Still, i don`t think the health concerns are the only reason we abandoned canibalism. Not to mention that there a lot of cultures who did not (yeah, they suck)or did it partially. Crhistians for example symbolically eat Jesus flesh. I think it`s counts )

    Sorry for my poor english.

  8. Cannibalism was very common in parts of Africa, South America and the Pacific. It was not uncommon in Asia, but rarer in Europe. Often it was associated with territories which lacked other protein sources, such as New Zealand Maori and in Papua New Guinea. But in many areas cannibalism existed despite other sources of meat being available. Cannibalism may be regarded now as taboo, but it was not also so regarded.

    Logically cannibalism, like homosexuality, should be culturally taboo as it goes against the idea of preservation of the species. But deep-seated imperatives can be overridden by local circumstance. In many places cannibalism was spiritually based - you absorb the merits of the enemy or kin that you eat. So long as you do not kill the person the eating of their flesh is consistent with preserving the species. And by absorbing the virtues of the eaten, you are actually strengthening your group. I cannot see any local cultural justification for homosexuality except a desire to limit population growth and spread AIDS - neither of which strengthen the species!

  9. Homosexuality does not go against the "preservation of the species" (which is not a concept that makes any sense in evolutionary theory, btw). A population is perfectly sustainable with some individuals being homosexual (even when they are exclusively so, which need not be the case at all). There are even reasons to believe it could offer a selective advantage to have some homosexual offspring.

    1. Right, and I have reasons to believe that "preservation of the species" is best conducted in a jar of formaldehyde. (Of course, this does not make any sense in evolutionary theory, since it is JUST a "theory," right?)

    2. I'm not sure what your beef is, but I can make little sense of your comment. Are you trying to make a joke or a serious comment?

  10. I think that cannibalism is a taboo on account of the fact that it frightens people. I think that it frightens people because most people have a predatory streak in them. It's sort of like how Ted Haggart spit all that invective against the gays and then got busted doing methamphetamine with a male prostitute. And how Larry Craig got snatched soliciting sex in a men's room. Of course there are also those people who think they'd be some pretty good eating. I'd like to say I'm not one of them, but I could think of worse ways to go. Human morals are goddammed nebulous...


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