In Focus

A brief history of human cannibalism

Madrid arrest brings focus on historic practice

A Spanish man has been jailed and ordered to pay his brother compensation after admitting killing and eating their mother in the latest of a string of recent cases of human cannibalism. 

 Alberto Sanchez Gomez was arrested in 2019 after a concerned friend contacted the police about the disappearance of Maria Soledad Gomez. When officers arrived at the Madrid flat that the mother and son shared, Gomez “still had blood stains around his mouth and flesh under his nails”, The Telegraph reports. 

The 28-year-old - dubbed the “cannibal of Las Ventas” after the neighbourhood where they lived - was sentenced this week to 15 years in prison and told to pay his brother €60,000 (£52,000). The court had heard that Gomez strangled, dismembered and then ate his mother’s body parts, which he stored in plastic containers, and also “fed some of her to his dog”, the newspaper adds. 

Has cannibalism ever been ‘normal’? 

Cannibalism is known to have taken place throughout human history in most corners of the globe, from the Amazon to Australia. The cultural significance and meaning of cannibalistic acts, however, have varied. 

Although the consumption of human flesh by other humans - also known as anthropophagy - has sometimes been a response to famine, the practice has often been symbolic or ritualistic. For the Aztecs, for example, “cannibalism was not motivated by starvation but by a belief that this was a way to commune with the gods”, anthropologist Bernard Ortiz de Montellano explained in a 1978 academic paper

The Maori, meanwhile, are said to have eaten the flesh of opponents defeated in battle to warn off other enemies, while in Africa cannibalism has been linked to sorcery and beliefs that certain powers could be gained through the consumption of human flesh. 

As recently as 2003, Fijians apologised to relatives of an English missionary killed and eaten in 1867.  Historians believe the butchering of Reverend Thomas Baker “was likely ordered as part of a power play” between local chiefs in Nabutautau, on Fiji's main island of Vitu Levu, CNN reported following the apology. 

According to the news site, “folklore has it that Baker was killed after mistakenly touching a chief's head - a cultural taboo punishable by death. All that was left of Baker were the soles of his leather boots.”

And when it’s not... 

Although countries including the UK and US do not have specific legislation against cannibalism, it is effectively outlawed under laws such as the 2004 Human Tissue Act, which covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland and legislates against the possession of human tissue without consent.  

A series of cannibals have been convicted under various laws in recent years. Among the most notorious are Stephen Griffiths, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 after being convicted of the murders of three prostitutes in Bradford. “The twisted killer skinned his victims and chopped up their bodies before cooking and eating their flesh,” says The Sun. “Depraved Griffiths told cops eating his victims was ‘part of the magic’.” 

In 2014, NHS nurse Dale Bolinger was jailed for nine years after admitting “plotting” to behead and eat a 14-year-old girl whom he had groomed online, as The Guardian reported at the time.  Bolinger - a US citizen who worked in the Kent city of Canterbury - had told police that “he started having fantasies about cannibalism at about the age of six”, according to the paper. 

Two brothers in Pakistan were also jailed in 2014, after digging up the grave of a two-year-old boy and “cooking him in a curry”, Time magazine reported. The brothers, then aged 30 and 35, had previously served two years in prison after being convicted of eating more than 150 bodies dug up from the local cemetery in their village, in the northern state of Punjab.

In another case that has made headlines worldwide, US actor Armie Hammer was dubbed “a wannabe Hannibal Lecter” by the New York Post's Page Six site earlier this year, following reports that the Call Me by Your Name star had sent graphic messages to various women in which he described cannibalistic fantasies. He was subsequently accused of rape and sexually inappropriate behaviour.

Vanity Fair reported earlier this month that Hammer - who denies all the allegations against him - had checked into a rehab facility in Florida “for drug, alcohol, and sex issues”. Commenting on the cannibalism fantasies claims, sexologist Dr Victoria Hartmann, author of I Love Dead People: Inside the Minds of Death Fetishists, told GQ that “most people with a cannibalism kink are not at all interested in harming anyone”.

But as The Sun notes, the very idea fills most people with “revulsion and disgust”, and cannibalism is now one of the most taboo crimes in modern society.

Needs must?

Despite the modern-day abhorrence of human cannibalism, some people have resorted to the practice in order to survive in life and death situations. 

Famous cases include that of a rugby team from Uruguay whose plane crashed in the Andes en route to a match in Chile in 1972. Crash survivor Roberto Canessa, then a 19-year-old medical student, has written about he and three fellow survivors had to decide whether to eat their friends’ bodies in order to stay alive as they awaited rescue. 

In his 2016 book I Had to Survive, Canessa wrote: “I will never forget that first incision nine days after the crash. We laid the thin strips of frozen flesh aside on a piece of sheet metal. Each of us finally consumed our piece when we could bear to.” 

Canessa, whose ordeal inspired 1993 film Alive, continued: “Each of us came to our own decision in our own time. And once we had done so, it was irreversible.

“It was our final goodbye to innocence.”

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