Rooted in antiquity and first defined by Christopher Columbus after his encounter with Native Americans, the notorious "man-eaters", cannibalism can be catalogued throughout history. Conquerors, such as the Spaniards in South America, are responsible for the reported sightings of such behavior. However, the reasons why people choose to eat other people vary; it was practiced to survive famine, to make symbolic meaning, and in rituals of incorporation. For example, the Aztecs believed in making human sacrifices, which meant human bodies were subjected to ritual killing and eating and then distribution among the people for consumption. Michael Harris argues that cannibalism arises out of ecological necessity, such as a steady population growth combined with the elimination of animal stock. Moreover, he contends that human bodies used as food helped maintain and a social and political order. However, others maintain that cannibalism was only practiced in ritual contexts-- that the consumption of human flesh was part of a sacrament that brought people in contact with their Gods. Therefore, cannibalism in this frame of reference has to be understood in a symbolic way. The symbolic ingestion of a human being is not food-related, nor particularly for ones pleasure, but rather performed to honor the sacred character of the ritual. Labeling groups of people as cannibals shapes how we think about and understand their culture and practices, and how we respond to them. Similarly to missionaries and conquerors of the early 13th century, we use these unfamiliar practices as an excuse to obtain what we want, whether it be land or material goods. Cannibalism is seldom understood within the logic of sacrifice; it is more commonly seen as a vicious and inhumane practice that goes hand-in-hand with consumption.
Though we’ve appeared to evolve into a more civilized society, the practice of eating human flesh is not entirely an extinct concept. The infatuation with vampires has expanded beyond spine-chilling Halloween costumes, accessories, and stories; it has become a pop culture trend and a popular phenomena. Vampires exhibit cannibalistic behavior in that they prey on humans, but unlike cannibals, vampires require the blood for their subsistence. Yet these blood-sucking, mythological beings, when depicted in television shows like True Blood and movies like Twilight, do more than just feed off humans: they socialize with them, and even engage in romantic relations with them. In other words, they adopt human-like qualities and perform human-like activities, yet they have strong impulses to bite and kill. An example of a real cannibal, however, is the character Hannibal Lecter, a serial killer with a taste for human flesh, from the movie The Silence of the Lambs (1991). With graphic scenes showing Hannibal noshing on people as if they were chocolate cake, as well as lines such as “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti”, Hannibal is more than the average murderer. He’s a monster.
While Hannibal Lector is a fictional character, created for the sole purpose of entertainment, cannibalism does not seem to be an antiquated practice. Though applied and practiced for several reasons, Peggy McCracken acknowledged that cannibalism can be a criminal pathologic behavior, citing the infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. People like Dahmer eat others for the pleasure of it, a form of cannibalism that is a culinary practice. This reminded me of a story I had just read a few months ago, about a former model Omaima Aree Nelson who killed and chopped up her husband, deep-fried him, and then dipped him into some barbeque sauce for extra flavor. Shocking, appalling, difficult to comprehend. But if there wasn’t such a taboo surrounding this practice in our culture, we might describe it quite differently. The Crusaders are said to have called their Muslim victims as most tasty, “better than any pork or even cured ham.” So perhaps Omaima Aree Nelson isn't crazy after all... Maybe she just took some culinary advice from the Crusaders.
Today, the word man-eater has more than one implication. Best conveyed by Nelly Furtado in her song "Maneater", the word also characterizes women who use men for all they have with absolutely no remorse. Essentially, they use men for money and sex and subsequently abandon them.
All kidding aside, cannibalism is something that is castigated as unnatural only because the majority do not practice it. Just because we don't eat human beings-- alive or dead-- doesn't necessarily mean we ought not to eat them. In no way do I embrace or act in accordance with the idea of people running around eating each other. But I also don't think it's ethical to deny someone or a group of people their right to practice their beliefs.
Coker, Matt. “Omaima Aree Nelson, Who Killed, Chopped Up, Cooked and Ate Husband of 2 Months, Seeks Parole”. OCWeekly.com. 30 Sept 2011. Web. <http://blogs.ocweekly.com/navelgazing/2011/09/omaima_aree_nelson_murder_paro.php>