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Bizzare & Odd

Everything You Wanted to Know About Cannibalism

It’s the time of year when seeing flesh-eating zombies on the streets is actually kind of normal. So let’s talk about cannibalism. You know you’re wondering.

When did all this craziness start?

Neanderthal Model from the Chicago Field Museum, 1920. Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

Paleoanthropologic evidence suggests that Neanderthals were butchering each other as far back as 100,000 years ago. Bones from sites in France, Croatia, and Italy all bear marks from stone tools indicative of defleshing. Analysis of some of the bones in France revealed that the marks are concentrated in places consistent with butchery, and not ritual defleshing.

Evidence also suggests* that humans in Europe, North and South America, India, New Zealand, Australia, the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and Sumatra practiced cannibalism at various times beginning just prior to the Upper Paleolithic period. American anthropologist Marvin Harris has argued that it was common practice for humans living in small groups, but disappeared as societal groups got bigger and states were formed. Eventually, cannibalism became taboo in many cultures, and by the 19th century it persisted only among a few isolated groups in the South Pacific. Today, very few cultures are still believed to engage in the practice, though isolated instances involving individuals or small groups have been confirmed in the last twenty years (several of them involving soldiers engaged in wars in Africa).

Why would you want to eat another person?

In the days of pre-modern medicine, cannibalism was explained by a proposed black humour (the body fluids that Hippocrates believed caused moods, emotions and behaviors) that filled the ventricle and caused hunger for human flesh. Our understanding of cannibalism is a little better today, and we even have a technical term for it: anthropophagy (anthropos, or “human being,” plus phagein, meaning “to eat”).

Anthropologists divide anthropophagy into two categories, both rather broad: survival cannibalism and learned, or customary, cannibalism.**  Survival cannibalism is what’s about to happen whenever you see two cartoon characters stuck in a life raft and one of them has a thought balloon above their head depicting the other one with a roast chicken for a body. Outside of cartoons, survival cannibalism may be—given extreme and desperate enough situations—the easiest form of cannibalism to accept, and Western society has historically been relatively forgiving of it.  In 18th and 19th century seagoing communities, it was pretty much accepted as something that happened from time to time as a hazard of the occupation and lifestyle. By the 19th century, sailors and fishermen had even worked out some general guidelines should the “custom of the sea” need to be performed. Straws were drawn to decide who would be killed and eaten and who would have to do the killing (usually the second shortest straw made you the killer, and the shortest made you dinner).

Perhaps the most famous example of survival cannibalism is the Donner party, a group of eighty-seven settlers heading to California in 1846. When the party reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the weather turned, and they were blocked by snow at a point now called Donner Pass. The party splintered into three groups. One set up camp at a nearby lake, one camped in the nearby Alder Creek Valley, and one group of 15 travelers, later dubbed the Forlorn Hope, made snowshoes and began the 100-mile journey to Sutter’s Fort. While individuals in all three groups eventually resorted to cannibalism, it wasn’t the feeding frenzy that most people imagine. The people who turned to eating human flesh did so as a last resort (after eating everything from boiled rawhide to leather scraps) for a very brief period of time before their rescue.

Another example, that many people know from the movie Alive, is the 1972 plane crash that left the players and staff of a Uruguayan rugby team and some of their friends and family members stranded in the Andes Mountains. As people died from their crash-related injuries, the survivors resorted to cannibalizing the dead. Some refused to eat human flesh and starved to death. Of the 45 people onboard the plane, only 16 survived the 72 day ordeal.

Cannibals carrying their master, World’s Columbia Exhibition, Chicago, 1893.

Learned or customary cannibalism is pretty much what it sounds like: the consumption of human flesh in a socially prescribed, ritualized manner, often passed down through the generations. Learned cannibalism can be divided into two categories: endo- and exocannibalism. Endocannibalism is the consumption of the flesh of a person who is a member of the same group (whether family, tribe, society, culture, etc.—any defined group fits the bill), often practiced as a funeral rite. The Wari’ people of the Amazon consumed the flesh of their deceased in order to transform their tribesmen into spirits that could take animal form and provide food for the tribe. Anthropologists also found that the tribe’s endocannibalism also helped survivors cope with grief. Endocannibalism among Wari’ ended, as it did for most other groups, in the 1960s, when missionaries and governments began to encroach on their societies.

Exocannibalism is the consumption of the flesh of a person outside of one’s own social group, often as a way to intimidate an individual or group, steal another’s life force, or express domination of an enemy in warfare. Certain tribes in the Fiji islands maintained ritualized acts of cannibalistic “battle rage,” where captured enemy warriors were publicly tortured, killed, and consumed.

The accusation of exocannibalism may be even more damaging to enemies than eating them. When Christopher Columbus encountered the Carib Indians, he described them as “sub-human eaters of men,” labeling them inferior to Europeans and not much better than animals. They were seen as a dangerous “other,” and the murder of their people and theft of their land was easily justifiable because of that. The slur of cannibalism goes both ways, however. When the Spaniards arrived in Mesoamerica, and when explorer David Livingstone encountered certain African cultures, both the Aztecs and the African tribes assumed their white visitors were cannibals.

Do Other Animals Do It?

Getty Images

Cannibalism is a common occurrence in thousands of species, even herbivorous and detritivorous ones, to the point where zoologists refer to it as “ubiquitous” in the natural world. Female black widow spiders and praying mantises famously practice sexual cannibalism, killing and consuming males of their species during, or after, reproduction.

Filial cannibalism, where adults eat the young of their own species, is also common among non-human animals. Groups of adult male chimpanzees have been observed to attack and eat infant chimps. Adult male elephants, dogs, bears, lions, and even some types of fish have all been observed to kill and consume infants when replacing a previous dominant males and taking over a group.

Sharks in the order Lamniformes, which includes great whites and sand tigers among others, have been known to exhibit intrauterine cannibalism, where multiple embryos are created during impregnation and the larger or stronger individuals consume their weaker siblings during development in utero.

Is That It?

Well, no. “Deep down,” science writer Carl Zimmer says, “we are all cannibals. Our cells are perpetually devouring themselves, shredding their own complex molecules to pieces and recycling them for new parts.” Zimmer’s exploration of cellular cannibalism (and the sexual cannibalism I mentioned above) can be found in the New York Times.

* “Suggest” is the key word here, as it is with the Neanderthals. While most anthropologists agree that ritual cannibalism has occurred in certain societies around the world over the course of history, researchers are sometimes reluctant to associate it with a particular group of people without concrete evidence. The conservative view is that there is no definitive proof that cannibalism exists in a group until an anthropologist sees, with their own two eyes, a member of that group take a piece of flesh off a body and eat it. For archaeologists, the best proof that cannibalism took place in a group that no longer exists is the presence of human muscle protein in fossilized human feces.

** Cannibalism in the vein of Jeffrey Dahmer or Hannibal Lecter is known as pathological anthropophagy, the consumption of human flesh because of insanity. It’s generally outside the scope of anthropology.

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Bizzare & Odd

More than 5,000 strange holes have been found at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean

On a relatively small part of the Pacific Ocean, off the western coast of the United States, there are several thousand indentations of various sizes, the origin of which is not completely clear.

This was reported by scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).

The larger pits have an average width of 175 meters and a depth of about five meters. Their shape is almost perfectly round.

Over the last few years, experts at MBARI and other organizations have found more than 5,200 such holes, such as smallpox, on an area of ​​approximately 1 300 square kilometers. So far, this is the largest concentration of such sites in North America.

More recently, scientists have been exploring the bottom of California in more detail. The fact is that they want to build a power plant there, but first they need to study the local conditions in detail.

Thousands of small pits or micro-depressions have been discovered using sonars mounted on autonomous submarines. Their width is about 11 meters and the depth is about a meter. Moreover, their shape is not round but oval.

Previously, similar seabed depressions have been found elsewhere in the world, and their origin is mainly due to methane emissions.

However, MBARI researchers find no evidence of this gas in the bottom sediments or in the water in this region.

Large and small holes

Sonar data showing sludge bed layers, indicate that these points have been inactive for the last 50,000 years.

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Bizzare & Odd

Scientists discover that the Y chromosome is disappearing from the blood of men

A study has found that Y chromosomes of men are disappearing as they get older and could put them at greater risk of cancer.

Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. The Y chromosome is considered the male chromosome and women don’t have it: they have the XX chromosomes while men have XY.

But researchers have discovered that many men also lack Y chromosomes in some of their white blood cells.

The investigation

To reach this conclusion, scientists led by the University of Cambridge conducted a study on samples of 205,011 men, obtained from the Biobank gene bank in the United Kingdom, which contains the DNA of 500,000 volunteers.

They identified 156 autosomal genetic variants related to the loss of the Y chromosome, which were preferably close to genes involved in the regulation of the cell cycle, susceptibility to cancer or somatic drivers of tumor growth.

They found that more than four in 10 men (43.6%) had lost a notable proportion of their Y chromosomes at the age of 70.

The researchers found that one in five men in a sample of more than 200,000 had begun to lose Y chromosomes of DNA in some of their blood cells.

20% of men of all ages had lost some of the Y chromosomes in their blood and this proportion had doubled when men were 70 years old.

Subsequent analysis showed that people with high genetic predisposition to lose the Y chromosome were at greater risk of suffering from some type of cancer. The autosomal genetic variants found also influenced other aspects such as reproductive aging or type 2 diabetes.

Possible causes

The study authors believe that the loss of Y occurs through predisposition to processes that promote errors in cell division, or processes that help create an environment where aneuploid cells (cells with an abnormal number of chromosomes) are more likely to proliferate.

The team that made the discovery said that this strange change may be a sign that men’s DNA was unstable and that the body was allowing random genetic mutations to accumulate.

The research has been published in the magazine Nature.

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Bizzare & Odd

The Dani cannibal tribe and their smoky dead ancestors

In the Baliem Valley, West Papua Province in Indonesia, lives a weirdly primitive tribe called the Dani People.

A few decades ago, Dani actively practiced ritual cannibalism. It is now reported that this tradition has been discontinued.

In their recent macabre history, there is no less a frightening tradition of smoked dried carcasses of their dead relatives over a fire. And also cutting off the phalanges of women’s fingers.

The phalanges were cut with a stone axe. This procedure is performed for those women who have lost a male relative: husband, son, brother or nephew, to emphasise the pain of loss and to appease the dead’s spirit.

The surgery was primitive and rough, but the wounds on the hands of the women healed well and fairly quickly.

Photo: Mediadrum images / Gianluca Chiodini

Recently, Italian photographer Gianluca Chiodini visited the village of Dani People and made unique color photographs.

Gianluca Chiodini

Chiodini wandered in the jungle for days trying to find the tribe and finally he was lucky.

The photographer shares:

“The natives greeted me warmly and did not even try to eat me.”

Gianluca was shocked to see the 250-year-old corpses of the dead, Dani’s “eternal” ancestors, completely black from smoking for a long time.

Photo: Mediadrum images / Gianluca Chiodini

The guide told the Italian that seven smoked mummies are stored in the village, but only two of them are allowed to be shown to strangers. The rest are taboos, and if the photographer tries to find them himself and photographs them, the natives could kill him.

Photo: Mediadrum images / Gianluca Chiodini

To prevent mummies from decomposing, they are removed daily and carefully smeared with ointment of herbs and lard. Then they are hung over the fire so that the smoke can penetrate well into the body. All this has been happening daily for 250 years.

Photo: Mediadrum images / Gianluca Chiodini

Dani people stopped eating their relatives only after 1990, at least officially. Now the meat they eat is mostly pork.

Photo: Mediadrum images / Gianluca Chiodini

The natives hunt wild pigs with bows and arrows. After being captured and killed, the pigs are wrapped in palm leaves and allowed to be smoked by fire, like the mummies of their ancestors.

When the meat is hot, it is considered ready. Men are the first to eat, and women and children eat what is left behind.

Photo: Mediadrum images / Gianluca Chiodini

Many women in the tribe have their fingers cut off, meaning they have lost many male relatives.

Photo: Mediadrum images / Gianluca Chiodini

Whether these deaths were in battle with neighboring tribes or through illness, history is silent …

Photo: Mediadrumimages / Gianluca Chiodini

Now, finger-cutting is also considered a forbidden procedure and in young women the fingers are already intact but you can still see the amputated hands of the older women.

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