Ted Ed has a new video out offering a brief history of cannibalism—the practice of eating human flesh. We have the conception that cannibalism was only practised by barbaric indigenous people who would raid neighbouring villages so that they could steal away people and use them as a food source.
Cannibalism was actually much more widespread than that, and was used all the way through the mid-20th century.
The term “cannibalism” is attributed to Christopher Columbus, who, upon his arrival in the Americas, reported back to the queen of Spain about the indigenous people there. One of the tales he told was of the practice of one tribe of taking prisoners only to eat them. There may not have been any actual basis for this story, but the tale sparked the queen to grant permission to capture and enslave anyone who ate human flesh.
The word “cannibal” comes from the word “Caribe,” which Columbus used to identify anyone who practised—or was accused of practising—the eating of human flesh. Caribe became Canibe and then Cannibal.
Cannibalism has been used for many different purposes, including survival. Beyond that, people used cannibalism as a means of funeral rites, or as a medicine. The practice of mummia—grinding up Egyptian mummies into a brown powder and then ingested—was used to treat many different illnesses like epilepsy, hemorrhage, bruising, and nausea.
The practice was used for hundreds of years. Blood was used to treat epilepsy. Human liver, gall stones, and even oil derived from the brain were accepted medicines. Filial cannibalism, where children offered a part of their flesh to parents in the hopes of curing a disease, was practiced in ancient China.
It wasn’t just tribes of backward people tucked away in remote regions that practised cannibalism. It’s use, as explained by Bill Schutt in a Ted Ed video, was much more widespread than you may have thought.