Note:  Do not rely on this information. It is very old.


Cannibalism, the use by man of the flesh of his fellows for food. The word is derived from the Spanish canibal, a corruption of caribal = a native of the Caribbean Islands, with which the Spanish canino = dog-like, voracious, has been confused, so that a term of quite different signification has been formed from the native West Indian carib, which really means "brave." The equivalent term anthropophagy is of classic origin.

It is impossible to say how or when the practice originated; but the first act of cannibalism probably took place at some long period after man's appearance on this globe, for it seems pretty clearly established that the diet of the primeval race was frugivorous. In the present day cannibalism is confined to Africa, New Guinea, and some few islands of the South Pacific; but it is safe to assert that it has been practised by nearly every people at some period or other of its history. In classic mythology we find traces of it in the stories of the Cyclops and Laestrygons, and of Lycaon and Thyestes. In Herodotus we get a circumstantial account of the cannibalism of the Massagetae (i. 226), and of the Issedones (iv. 26). In both cases it was of the nature of a funeral feast, and in the latter instance seems to have been prompted by filial piety, as the extract shows: - "As often as any one loses his father, his relations severally provide some cattle; these they kill, and having cut them in pieces, they dismember also the body of the deceased, and, mixing the whole together, feast upon it." Juvenal (xv. 12,13) charges some of the Egyptians with the practice in time of scarcity, though they refrained from slaughtering their sacred animals for food; and St. Jerome credits the "Scots" (i.e. the Irish) with a liking for what they considered the choicer portions, though it must be added that the reading is disputed. Folk-tales also bear testimony to the former prevalence of the custom; and as a case in point one need only refer to Jack the Giant Killer.

Endophagy and Exophagy are, so to speak, refinements of cannibalism; where the former prevails only members of the tribe are eaten; where the latter is practised, only strangers are devoured. Among races of low culture the practice was at first probably due to the pressure of hunger, which in shipwrecks and sieges has forced even civilised man to subsist on the flesh of his fellows; indeed, so lately as 1884 English sailors warded off starvation thus. Darwin ( Voyage of the Beagle, ch. x.) tells how the Fuegians, when pressed by hunger, used to kill and devour their old women before they killed their dogs, and that one of them justified this on the ground that the old women could not catch others, while the dogs could.

From what may be called occasional cannibalism the transition to habitual cannibalism is easy, possibly on account of the facility with which the unnatural food can be procured. Another motive among savage tribes is fury or revenge, and in such cases it is chiefly a captured enemy, or one slain in battle, who is the victim. This motive, however, is almost inseparably mixed up with magic and religion, which among barbarous races insensibly grade into each other. Where magic prompts the practice the cannibal hopes to acquire the characteristic qualities of the victim on whom he feeds, and often chooses the heart with the idea of obtaining increased courage (Tylor, Early History of Mankind, p. 131). Cannibalism from religious motives is so interwoven with the doctrine of sacrifice that the subject will be better discussed under that head. Habitual cannibalism - fortunately confined to Equatorial Africa, where among some tribes shambles exist for the sale of human flesh - is thus accounted for by Winwood Reade (Savage Africa, ch. xiv.): - "A cannibal is not necessarily ferocious. He eats his fellow-creatures, not because he hates them, but because he likes them. A craving for meat to which the natives of these parts are subject, and for which in all their dialects there is a special term, may first have suggested the idea; but I am rather inclined to believe that it is a practical extension of the sacrificial ceremony." One cannibal whom Reade questioned as to the taste of human flesh said that it was "like monkey, all fat;" and this perhaps accounts for Johnston's satirical remark on the fondness of the natives for the flesh of the baboon - "Doubtless the great resemblance to human flesh is not held as a drawback" (Kilimanjaro Expedition, p. 352), and his own feeding on monkeys in order "in this lawful way to form some idea of the practice of cannibalism."