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The term cannibalism means the eating of human flesh by human beings, and/or eating of animals by members of their own species. Cannibalism was derived from the Carib Indians, discovered by Christopher Columbus, of the West Indies. The Caribs were man-eaters, and the Spanish name for the tribe was Canibales, meaning bloodthirsty and cruel.
The practice of cannibalism reaches back into antiquity and has been found in many areas of the world. Evidence indicates that it may have been practiced as early as the Neolithic Period. The Greek historian Herodotus and other ancient writers gave accounts of various ancient people as being cannibals. Marco Polo reported tribes ranging from Tibet to Sumatra who practiced cannibalism. North American Indian tribes of the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico practiced cannibalism. Until recently the practice prevailed throughout much of central and western Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Melanesia, Sumatra, New Guinea, Polynesia, and remote portions of South America.
Cannibalism at times has had religious significance. This stems from the belief that the person who eats of the deceased person acquires the desired qualities or characteristics of that person, which resemble the theory of sympathetic magic; examples of this are seen in Attraction of Blood. Rituals were performed for many reasons including purification, pacification of gods, and ancestor worship. In a few instances cannibalism has been practiced for just revenge. In other cases it was believed that the ghost of the enemy would be utterly destroyed when his body was eaten, thus leaving nothing in which his spirit could exist.
Some examples of religious cannibalism are these: The Binderwurs of central India ate their sick and aged in the belief that the act was pleasing to their goddess Kali. In Mexico the Aztecs to their deities sacrificed thousands of human victims annually. Following the sacrifices, the Aztec priest and people ate the bodies of the victims believing the acts brought them closer to their gods.
Cannibalism is nearly considered a taboo among Western cultures and the instances of it occurring are extremely rare. In the case of starvation it has occurred. Two notable cases are the first in America, the Donner Party caught crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California during the winter of 1846-1847; and the second in Chile in 1972, sixteen members of a Uruguayan soccer team survived for 70 days after their airliner crashed in the Andres Mountains.
Some animals have been known to participate in cannibalism. Wolves are known to eat injured members of their packs. Rats and pigs have been observed eating the young of their species. Among insect it is well know that the female spider eats the male after mating. Larger mantes often eat smaller ones, and the female mantis devours the male. A.G.H.
Source: 1, 5: 102-103; 2, 42.