People ... People Who Eat People

In her book Dinner With a Cannibal, writer Carole Travis-Henikoff documents the long — and often hidden — history of cannibalism in humans. Travis-Henikoff notes that cannibalism wasn't always taboo, whether it be eating loved ones out of respect or eating enemies out of disdain.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

This hour, Halloween science - some suggestions on how to geek up your holiday, an analysis of the zombie mind. You don't want to miss that one. But first, what would Halloween be without a cannibal costume or a movie, like this year's �Zombieland�? Surely, when you hear the word cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer-type criminals who killed and ate their victims come to mind. And in that context and in Hollywood, cannibalism is grotesque and it is horrifying. But in other contexts, in other places in history, cannibalism was a culturally acceptable ritual.

It was a way to honor the dead or to spite your enemies. And at its very base, it's a way to make the worst - to make the most of a scarce resource: protein. In her book, Carole Travis-Henikoff documents the long, fascinating and very interesting history of this taboo subject. She's joining me here to talk about it. She's the author of �Dinner With a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind's Oldest Taboo.� She's joining us from WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks for being with us today, Carole.

Ms. CAROLE TRAVIS-HENIKOFF (Author, �Dinner With a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind's Oldest Taboo.�): You know, it's pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. You have 18 chapters, and each one has a different point about cannibalism.

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: Well, it's seven years of research.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You know, many of us have never thought much about it, but you've obviously done a lot of thinking about it. What got you started? You wrote cookbooks, didn't you?

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: At one time, yes, my father cooked for the king of Denmark and cooked for everybody in Hollywood for 48 years, but - so I'm well-versed in the food department. But my main field of study is paleoanthropology, and I was working on a hypothesis concerning the demise of the Neanderthals, who we know practiced cannibalism. And I went to bed one night and said, I really don't know enough about cannibalism. And seven years later, I had a book.

FLATOW: Wow. And you go through - let's go through some of those reasons that people do with cannibalism. One is, it's survival, eating someone else�

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: Right.

FLATOW: �to stay alive. And that's the plane crash survivor, right?

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: Right. But that's probably also how most organisms in most societies first took it up. They were dying of starvation and someone died, or there was a body - or they may have killed someone.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: But starvation is pretty much the obvious stimulant to start into other things. For instance, there's endocannibalism, where - which is tied in with funerary cannibalism, because you're eating of your dead. And that's usually your family members, and sometimes that turns into religious cannibalism because some people believe that if the body isn't consumed, the person can't travel on.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: And then there's exocannibalism, where you annihilate your enemy. And that can relate to token cannibalism, in that you may only eat the heart or something. Other tribes, who probably have less protein around in their surrounding area than others, will consume the entire body, and they will tell you, though, because you always put a belief system around something you do that something inside of you says, maybe we shouldn't be doing this. And so the belief is that if you consume the body, you annihilate the soul. Then you - therefore, you have completely ridden yourself of that enemy, and his ghost can't come back to haunt you.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: There's a lot of religious, which goes into ritual token.

FLATOW: For example?

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: Well, a religious act would be connected with a funerary, in that if you don't eat of the body, they don't go to heaven, all right?

FLATOW: Hmm.

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: Communion, in the book, I repeat Christ's words. And what a lot of people don't read about what he originally said to a group, many of them left when he told them about his body and that they had to consume it. I don't think many people know that hundreds of years ago, the Eucharist was laid out - it wasn't a bowl of wafers. It was a big piece of bread that was in the shape of a man, and you were consuming Christ's body. But one of the most fascinating is medicinal. It's referred to as iatric cannibalism, and it is never, ever in any medical writings or anything referred to as being an act of cannibalism. It's medicine. And also the Inquisition years, of almost 600 years, Europeans went to their physicians and he prescribed mummy, which was a small cube of human ham. And they never referred to this as being cannibalism.

And it started with a - hundreds of years before that, mummies coming from Egypt, ad it was - came along with a myth that if you ate mummy, it would improve your health. And my husband's a physician, and I had a lot of wonderful help on this book from a lot of physicians and psychiatrists and everything else. But we all know the placebo effect does work. And since the majority of illnesses improve with time and your body fights them and they go away all by themselves, if you took the mummy and you got better, you'd say, well, it was the mummy.

It's like people who go and they have a virus, and they demand penicillin from their doctor. Well, the penicillin won't touch the virus, but they take their penicillin, they feel better. So, there's many kind.

FLATOW: I guess - I'll bet you must get asked all the time: If you're an expert on cannibalism, what does human flesh taste like?

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: I don't know other than that - oh, this is so gruesome, but when I was a little girl, I loved to roller skate. And I have to admit that I used to pick off my scabs and devour them. They kind of tasted like a good wafer. I'm very embarrassed about that, but I stopped by the age of 10.

FLATOW: I never thought I'd say on the air that this is more information�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: Right, I know. But, you know, it�

FLATOW: But people always talked about it tastes like chicken or something else like that.

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: No, no, no. They say chicken because that's what they always say if they don't if they don't know what it tastes like.

FLATOW: Or pork, right? Pork was always big.

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: Long pig, that term - by the way, what I just told you, that gross-out statement is called autophagy. And there are many - I don't - in fact, it's so ugly, I didn't go into it in the book. But the cannibals usually say it's the best meat they've ever tasted, but you have to look at where they live. Many of these people who have made statements like that live where the only protein on four legs running around are wild boar and wild pig.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: And being a chef, I can tell you, that is a dry and stringy meat without that much flavor, OK? And the human body has far more fat on it, naturally. Even in a thin person, the breast are mostly fat and the buttocks are mostly fat. And we need fat. And so, a lot of cannibals, when they make those statements, I can't tell you what it would taste like, but I know what it looks like. And there is no reason on Earth that it wouldn't be good. We're only 1-3 percent different in genetics from chimpanzees. And in Africa today, a person will give up a whole year's wages for a carcass of a chimpanzee.

FLATOW: Hmm. Very interesting.

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: So what does it taste like? I don't know, but�

FLATOW: But it tastes good.

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: �as a culinary expert, yes, it would be good.

FLATOW: It would be good. Well, we're running out of time, but I wanted to know, then, are you saying basically that the taboo we have about cannibalism is a cultural one now, that of everybody?

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: Oh, totally, totally. If you were born in a group, a small group of people, and they ate of their dead and you saw that from the time you were in your mother's arms, you would grow up to do the same, and you would never think a thing was wrong with it. It's because certain cultures tell other cultures you can't do that, it's become a taboo as people have gone around the world. It was never taboo years - or hundreds of years ago.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And are there still cannibals around?

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: Yes. There are three in jail in Texas, and there have been several trials recently where people have said in court that they were ordered to cannibalize victims in certain wars in order to frighten other people so that they would do as the dictator said.

There are - is a tribe in New Guinea who still kill and eat witches to annihilate them. It's still going on, and they just executed a cannibal in Japan not too long ago. And yes, it's still with us, and it happens in wars. It happens whenever people are forced into starvation.

FLATOW: Do you find that it's a topic that people have a hard time talking about?

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: No. And the way I've written the book - well, one friend said: Since reading that, I have become the greatest dinner conversationalist on the planet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: It's a much broader subject than you might think, and the book is really a story of our entire evolution, not just cannibalism.

FLATOW: But no one today would ever admit to being one, even if they were.

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: No because our society shuns it, bans it. It's the worst. And yet, you know, we have �Sweeney Todd� and so forth. In fact, that's another kind of cannibalism. It's called benign cannibalism, and that's when the person has no idea what he just ate.

FLATOW: There's got to be a difference between the criminal cannibal and sort of the benign cannibal that you're talking about.

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: Oh, there's - you know, the Jeffrey Dahmers are incredibly sick - mentally, emotionally, sociologically, certainly. But they make up a minute fraction of 1 percent of the cannibals that have ever lived.

One thing you learn in the book is that if a tribe chooses to practice cannibalism, they will always create a belief system around it. It's not - it sounds like an excuse, and maybe it is. Maybe even the laws we write are excuses, or they dictate our behavior. And so you'll find this: No matter what kind of cannibalism there is, the people who are practicing it have a belief system.

The Aztecs truly believed that if you didn't offer blood to the sun every day, it would die, and then everything would die. They felt that the sun was in its fifth life, and they had to keep feeding it or it would die on them. That's religious. That's several different types of cannibalism all rolled into one.

FLATOW: I have to interrupt and say thank you for taking time to be with us, Carole. Carole�

Ms. TRAVIS-HENIKOFF: It was a pleasure.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Carole Travis-Henikoff, author of �Dinner With a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind's Oldest Taboo.� Very, very interesting reading - good for Halloween, I think.

Stay with us. We're going to be right back and switch gears and talk about how to geek out your Halloween, a little something to do. Stay with us. I'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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