Recent news reports of cannibalism, from a man caught with a human-liver stew to a guy allegedly plotting to cannibalize a Swiss man, might lead one to believe that the practice of chowing down on human meat is in vogue.
The recent reports include a man identified as Nikolai Shadrin who was arrested in Russia in mid-May after police found a stew made of human liver in the man's fridge. According to reports, the human soup was part of Shadrin's strategy to cover up the murder of the liver's owner.
The second account, reported just days before the Shadrin case, involved a man from eastern Slovakia who was arrested in connection with attempted cannibalism. It is believed, according to news reports, that the Slovakian planned to kill and then eat a Swiss man as part of a pact made through the Internet between the two. It was later found that this was not the Slovakian's first encounter with cannibalism.
Now, despite the abundance of reports of cannibalism, the practice is not on the rise, experts say.
"I'd say because of its taboo nature it's hard to judge how prevalent [cannibalism] is because people will make the claim that they've done it when they may not have done it and vice versa — that they may do it in order to terrify other people and we may not get to hear about it," said Timothy Taylor, a professor of archaeological sciences at the University of Bradford in England.
What we do know is that cannibalism is no longer an "acceptable" behavior.
"The last time that it was really 'acceptable' in the United States was during the early 19th century when it was recognized that survival cannibalism might need to happen if there was nothing else to eat," Taylor told Life's Little Mysteries.
The most famous example of this is the 81-person "Donner party." Many of these pioneers resorted to cannibalism when, while crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains, their wagons were snowed in during the brutal 1846-47 winter. (A point of clarification about the Donner party: The Donner family was just one family in the party, and archaeological analysis of the Donner family site does not yield any signs of cannibalism.)
While not acceptable, there are many accounts of cannibalism in today's society.
"Cannibalism doesn't exist today as an approved social custom in any human groups that we know of but it occurs in two contexts," Taylor said. These include eating human body parts as part of a murder and in war zones.
"One logic of cannibalism is that ingestion actually removes the trace of your crime," Taylor said. And on the war-cannibalism phenomenon, there are recent reports from West Africa that during the Liberian conflict parts of the body were eaten as a means of celebrating victory — a trophy of sorts, Taylor said.
A group of people native to the Amazon rain forest called Wari' also practiced cannibalism as a part of warfare, eating their dead enemies as an expression of disdain toward them, according to research by Beth Conklin, an associate professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University.
They also practiced a "positive" form of cannibalism. "But at funerals, when they consumed members of their own group who died naturally, it was done out of affection and respect for the dead person and as a way to help survivors cope with their grief," Conklin said in a statement. The Wari' practiced cannibalism until the 1960s, when government workers and missionaries forced them to abandon the practice.
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