I Like My Meat Well Done

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Gone are the days where social taboos controlled the nations of the world; today cultural behaviors, ethical beliefs and scientific behaviors all converge to form a society where the bizarre is expected, and nearly everything seems to be larger than life and extreme. This is a world where distances between cultures have dwindled, and exposure to our differences has developed alliances and compassion. Sexual orientation, national origin, physical appearances and religious beliefs, all once causes of discrimination and prejudice, have seen improvements in social acceptance and tolerance. However, to truly be an open-minded group, we must cease to blindly judge lesser known or seemingly uncultured acts simply because of personal ignorance. Cannibalism, the consumption of the same species, in this case humans, is a behavior with strong cultural and historic roots that receives unwarranted discrimination, and is a social stigma thought to be the barbaric work of savages, murderers and the mentally disturbed. Though cannibalism may not appeal to a person’s individual tastes, it deserves the same respect and acknowledgement as any other cultural or social characteristic.

The world is a strange place, a very strange place indeed. With such a large array of cultures and customs, it comes as no surprise that there are countless differentiations between people. While many hot-topic issues still host a myriad of debates and discussions, overall, acceptance or approval for controversial issues concerning homosexuals, animal rights, and scientific procedures has increased. Gallup is an organization that has studied these and other changes in human nature and behavior, for the past 75 years through research and surveys. Comparing and contrasting surveys about public opinion on divisive subjects proves to be a important tool in seeing the trends of a society, and how tolerance levels have changed. In 1977, Gallup conducted a survey asking whether people thought that “homosexuals should or should not have equal rights in terms of job opportunities”. That year 56% of the people believed that they should receive equal rights. The same survey was conducted in 2008, 31 years later, and results showed drastic results. Compared to the 56% before, the 2008 survey revealed that 89% of people believed that the rights should be equal. Though this may not directly relate to cannibalism, the results of this poll, and many other similar ones, show that society has steadily evolved to be more lenient and open-minded to personal lifestyle differences. Many of the topics that have received increased support are ones at the same end of the spectrum as cannibalism. Animal testing and embryonic stem cell research, which relies on the destruction of human embryos, both test the limits of science and morals, yet have gotten some increase in acceptance or agreement.

Cannibalism has been portrayed by the media to be a savage and horrific behavior. However, this blanketed representation could be used just as easily against procedures such as animal testing, stem cell research, and abortions. This leads us to a very key question: What sets cannibalism apart from these other actions? The answer is largely ignorance. Cannibalism has inspired many bands and artists and has developed its own subset of films. Many of these movies date back to the 70s and 80s, however in literature, it stems back even further; even William Shakespeare included it into one of his plays, Titus Andronicus. More modern takes on cannibalism, including Sweeney Todd, and multiple movies revolving around Hannibal Lector, an infamous fictitious murderer and cannibal, make cannibalism and violent acts of murder seem one and the same, when this is not the case. Even The Simpsons, a popular cartoon show that has a world-wide fan base, has poked fun at cannibalism. While these forms of literature, television, and film are intended for entertainment purposes, the fact remains that they negatively depict cannibalism in a fashion that differs greatly from reality. By continually connecting cannibalism with murder, the entertainment industries have helped to cause a very broad behavior to be typecast into a behavior only performed by psychotic killers, or uncivilized savages. However, this is not the case, though most movies forget to mention that not all acts of cannibalism correlate to homicide, many in fact are cultural ways to express grief, honor the dead, and show religious adherence.

The act of cannibalism is nothing new. Human remains have shown signs of cannibalism, dating back to Neanderthals, approximately 43,000 years ago. Discoveries of bones in a Spanish cave are just one example of many that have led scientists to believe that our ancestors once practiced cannibalism.

Bones from at least eight individuals showed clear signs of cannibalism, including defleshing, dismemberment, and skinning, according to the study team….Bones and skulls look to have been smashed open to get at the marrow and brains inside, Rosas said. "Brain is quite nutritious for fat and proteins, but especially fat," he added. (Owens 1-2)

However, some scientists criticize these theories, saying that the case was likely an isolated incident based on survival. Those who point to cannibalism based on survival also relate the evidence to two famous cases in modern history- the Donner Party expedition in 1846 and the Andes flight disaster in 1972. The former involved a group of 89 settlers heading west to California, who became trapped in the Sierra Nevadas during the harsh winter. The group faced devastating weather, and was forced into cannibalism. There were only 45 survivors who were able to reach California a year later. Equally infamous and eerily similar is the more modern version of the Donner Party, often referred to as the “Miracle in the Andes”. A rugby team and their flight crew, totaling 45 altogether, crashed in the Andes while trying to fly to a match. They too faced deleterious winter conditions, and because of severe malnutrition and a lack of available food sources, also were pushed into cannibalism. Only 16 people survived the event. While survival can be a cause for cannibalism, it is believed that our ancestors practiced it on a level too widespread to be associated with isolated events. This is because not only are there physical fossil finds linking our ancestors to cannibalism, but genetics show that humans have developed in order to protect against diseases that can be spread through cannibalism. Eating others who have prion diseases, which cause dementia, paralysis, and death, is thought to be the main way the diseases spread. Mad Cow Disease, is a commonly known form of a prion disease caused by bovine cannibalism. However, we have developed genetic mutations, called polymorphisms that protect and are resistant to the prion diseases. To have needed to develop this means that cannibalism was at one point wide spread.

The researchers then sequenced and analyzed the prion protein gene in more than 2,000 chromosome samples selected to represent worldwide genetic diversity. They found either the M129K or E219K polymorphism in every population. Based on additional comparisons across cultures and with DNA from chimpanzees, Mead and colleagues estimate the polymorphisms arose more than 500,000 years ago, suggesting that prion diseases were widespread in early human history. The cause of these diseases is unknown, but the researchers suggest cannibalism as a likely candidate. (Owen 1-2)

Cannibalism did not end with our ancestors however; it also has strong cultural ties with indigenous people of Papua New Guinea and is believed to have been practiced by certain tribes of Native Americans. In the Amazon rainforest, the Wari' tribe practiced cannibalism after battles and as a form of mourning. "Killing and consuming the enemy outsider was partly equating the victim with animals that are hunted -- the manner of eating was explicitly similar to the eating of animals." (Tenebaum 3) In this way, the act of cannibalism was seen both as a form of sustenance and domination. But more important to the Wari' was cannibalism during funeral rituals.

"The Wari' believe you need to gradually create emotional distance between the living and the dead, because in a small society, the ties of love and affection to your family are your strongest bonds, and they don't automatically dissolve or loosen with death. They are concerned that if you dwell too much on the memory of the dead, you will spiral into uncontrollable, consuming grief. They believe it's necessary to use the funeral, and the rituals of the year of mourning, to help mourners accept the finality of death, and gradually come to see the dead person in a different form." (Tenebaum 3)

Clearly, cannibalism is not used as a daily food source, but rather as a deeply spiritual and cultural characteristic of their people. Though not practiced by many, it is a unique part of their lifestyle that is unjustly vilified, and has been for centuries.

Those who continue to treat cannibalism as a barbaric act without knowledge of its history or cultural values follow in the footsteps of Europeans who sought to conquer the Americas. Giving native people a demonic depiction helped to justify European actions during the colonization, and degraded the indigenous to a level less than the primarily Christian Europeans. Cannibalism also receives harsh criticism due to biologic reasons. There are some risks; cannibalism may be a major cause of the spread of prion diseases. However, many other human activities are equally or more likely to transmit diseases, namely sex. The difference in this case between the two activities is that our society has developed to worship the latter and persecute the former. Most cannibalistic activities don’t revolve around tortuous acts, as the entertainment industry would like us all to believe. Though there are some isolated acts where this may be the case, no action can solely be classified as a unitary act simply due to the vast number of highly differing participants. Another reason for prejudice against cannibalism is an innate value of the body, and the view of humans at a higher level than animals, thus differentiating the hunters from the hunted.

“…’We experience ourselves as wholes, so any experience or image of dismemberment is deeply disturbing’… The revulsion also may grow from a "long tradition of thinking about humans and animals in a hierarchical relationship, with humans being a higher form of life," she says. "For a culture that thinks of animals as a lower form of life, cannibalism [which transforms people into meat] inevitably has to be seen as degrading, barbaric.” (Tenebaum 2)

As attached to our bodies as we may be, cannibalism is often used during funerals to help release the spirits from their bodies, and ensure they move on to a higher life, while simultaneously providing closure to the family and friends left in the living world.

Cannibalism has fallen victim to undeserved prejudice, and needs to be viewed as simply another unique cultural characteristic in our world. If our society can be so tolerant to other controversial topics, then cannibalism should be viewed no differently. Cannibalism has deep roots in human history, and is still an important factor in ethnic groups across the globe. It has been grossly falsely depicted in the entertainment industries, which furthers the savage, blood-thirsty stereotype it conjures in today’s world, and makes the change of mind that much more necessary. People need not personally enact cannibalism, but all should rid themselves of intolerance and ignorance and instead become better educated and more accepting of the act.





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