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Q&A with zo­ol­o­gist Bill Schutt

It’s one of the last great taboos and a main­stay of hor­ror films. But, as zo­ol­o­gist Bill Schutt re­veals in his new book, can­ni­bal­ism is an of­ten mis­un­der­stood topic…

Why did you de­cide to write a book about can­ni­bal­ism?

Most of the books writ­ten about can­ni­bal­ism in the past have ei­ther been re­ally sen­sa­tion­al­ist, or aimed at aca­demics. I wanted to write a book that’s some­where in the mid­dle, a book that’s en­ter­tain­ing and in­for­ma­tive but also shows that can­ni­bal­ism doesn’t al­ways have to be grotesque. There are fas­ci­nat­ing and even beau­ti­ful as­pects to this phe­nom­e­non.

Where do we see can­ni­bal­ism in the nat­u­ral world?

Can­ni­bal­ism is nat­u­ral be­hav­iour across the en­tire an­i­mal king­dom. It’s ex­tremely com­mon in in­sects and other in­ver­te­brates, and in ver­te­brates like fish and am­phib­ians. It also hap­pens, though far less com­monly, in birds and mam­mals.

The most well known ex­am­ple is prob­a­bly sex­ual can­ni­bal­ism in spi­ders, where the fe­males of some species con­sume the males af­ter mat­ing. From an evo­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive this makes sense – the male is giv­ing the im­preg­nated fe­male a good meal, in­creas­ing the like­li­hood that she will sur­vive and prop­a­gate his genes.

What other an­i­mal species are known to prac­tice can­ni­bal­ism?

Male li­ons have been known to eat their ri­vals’ young, be­cause this brings the li­on­ess back into heat much quicker, so that the male can fa­ther his own cubs. It can also be a form of parental care – in­fant cae­cil­ians, a group of limb­less am­phib­ians, feed on their mother’s skin – and many bird chicks will eat their weaker si­b­lings.

Then there’s indis­crim­i­nate can­ni­bal­ism amongst fish. Some fish lay mil­lions of eggs, and they won’t nec­es­sar­ily recog­nise them all as in­di­vid­u­als of their own species. Can­ni­bal­ism is just a way to take ad­van­tage of this abun­dant source of nutri­tion.

Why do hu­mans some­times eat each other?

We hear mostly about crim­i­nal can­ni­bal­ism, but I didn’t want to fo­cus on this aspect or glo­rify it in any way. In­stead, I looked at the in­stances where can­ni­bal­ism makes more sense. Be­fore it be­came a Western ta­boo, it fea­tured in fu­ner­ary prac­tices in com­mu­ni­ties around the world – the Fore peo­ple in Pa­pua New Guinea would of­ten eat their de­ceased as an ex­pres­sion of love and grief. Can­ni­bal­ism has also served as a food source dur­ing sieges and times of famine, and amongst sur­vivors of dis­as­ters and strand­ings. It also used to be wide­spread in medicine – as­sorted body parts and blood were con­sumed for hun­dreds of years as cures.

Is it still per­formed any­where to­day?

If it is, then it’s done in se­cret among iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties.

There are, how­ever, peo­ple who still eat their own pla­cen­tas. This has re­cently be­come more pop­u­lar in the United States: some moth­ers claim that it helps them feel bet­ter by re­bal­anc­ing their hor­mone lev­els post-birth. There’s no sci­en­tific ev­i­dence for this, so it’s prob­a­bly a placebo ef­fect, but there prob­a­bly isn’t any harm in it ei­ther.

I even tried it for my­self! I was in­vited to Texas to sam­ple the fresh pla­centa of a woman who’d just had her 10th child. Her hus­band cooked it up and it was de­li­cious. I’m not go­ing to re­veal what it tasted like, but I will say that it went well with red wine!

“An­other ma­jor draw­back to can­ni­bal­ism is that it in­volves in­gest­ing par­a­sites and dis­eases”

Why do you think we’re so dis­gusted at the thought of can­ni­bal­ism?

A lot of it is cul­tural – there are neg­a­tive as­so­ci­a­tions in film and lit­er­a­ture go­ing all the way from An­cient Greek mythol­ogy, through to Shake­speare, the Brothers Grimm and Han­ni­bal Lecter.

But there are also bi­o­log­i­cal rea­sons. You wouldn’t want to eat your fam­ily be­cause you’d be tak­ing your own genes out of the pop­u­la­tion too, re­duc­ing your fu­ture chance of evo­lu­tion­ary suc­cess (a con­cept known as ‘in­clu­sive fit­ness’).

An­other ma­jor draw­back to can­ni­bal­ism is that it in­volves in­gest­ing par­a­sites and dis­eases that have al­ready evolved to de­feat our im­mune sys­tems, so it’s not gen­er­ally a healthy thing to do.

Could can­ni­bal­ism ever make a come­back?

I think it could. In na­ture, over­pop­u­la­tion is a pri­mary cause of can­ni­bal­ism. In hu­mans, com­bine this with a lack of al­ter­na­tive nutri­tion – say dur­ing an agri­cul­tural cri­sis – and I can see it hap­pen­ing. I’d be mor­ti­fied, but I wouldn’t be sur­prised – if you put enough en­vi­ron­men­tal stresses on a group of peo­ple, they will turn to can­ni­bal­ism in or­der to sur­vive.

Male li­ons some­times eat the young of their ri­vals, in or­der to bring the mother back into heat


BY BILL SCHUTT is out now

($18, Pro­file Books/Well­come Col­lec­tion)

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