Medical cannibalism is the practice of treating diseases by consuming human remains. It’s… gross. And weird. But also, it’s fairly common all around the world, has a long and weird history, and you might have done it yourself. A content warning may be necessary if you are squeamish about these kinds of things.
In the 1930s, a team of gold prospectors from Australia made their way into the jungles of Papua New Guinea and found something even more valuable than gold – millions of people in uncontacted tribes.
Turns out there were entire societies, untouched by modernity living just as they had for thousands of years.
This became a hotbed of anthropological research for the next couple of decades, and as more and more people studied these societies, an odd mystery came to the surface.
It involved a specific tribe called the Fore people. It was a disease called Kuru, or “Laughing Disease”.
It only seemed to affect women and children. The person would suffer through major personality changes, often laughing uncontrollably, and eventually they would develop trembling limbs to the point they could no longer walk, or even eat, and eventually died.
In 1961, a medical anthropologist named Shirley Lindenbaum set out to find the answer. She canvassed dozens of villages, trying to track the progress and spread of the disease to no luck. It didn’t seem to have a pattern, other than attacking women and children.
The answer came down to a custom that the Fore engaged in during their funeral rites – they ate the dead person.
In their belief system, consuming the body of the loved one was a way to honor them, by preventing their bodies from being eaten by worms and insects.
And it was only the women who ate the bodies because it was believed that since they carried newborns inside their body, then their bodies were more capable of housing the dead person’s spirit.
The disease would then get into the children because the mothers would share their food with the children.
The specific of Kuru is a type of misfolded protein called a prion, which stands for “proteinaceous infectious particle”
It basically tricks normal proteins in brain cells to also get twisted, eventually eating huge holes in the cerebellum that over time causes the personality changes and motor conditions.
It’s basically the same thing as mad cow disease.
This led to the Fore discontinuing the practice by the late 60s and the last known case of Kuru was reported in 2009. These diseases take a very long time to develop.
So it’s really easy to hear about that and think oh how primitive their thinking, imagine being so backward you’d actually eat other people and hoist yourself up on a cultural pedestal. But the fact of the matter is, we here in the west were doing very similar things to treat diseases. And not that long ago.
King Charles II of England was a cannibal. So was Leonardo da Vinci. And that wasn’t really that unusual back then.
Leonardo da Vinci, though he was a noted vegetarian, seemed to be extolling the virtues of cannibalism when he said,
I would just like to point out that those are the words of one of the greatest geniuses of all time. And it’s not that dissimilar from the Fore beliefs.
Medical cannibalism is the act of treating diseases or ailments by consuming human remains. There are a lot of different ways of doing this and a lot of justifications for it. It’s horrifying. But it’s also way more common than you might think.
And I know what you’re probably thinking, that of course that used to happen, people used to have a lot of wacky ideas around health and medicine. I’ve talked about that in many a video.
What might surprise you is how recent some of these beliefs are. And it’s kind-of still happening today.
Let’s start by taking a brief look at the history of Cannibalism
Jumping back though, the oldest fossil evidence of cannibalism was found in a French cave named Moula-Guercy.
A 1999 Science article reported that Neanderthal bones were found there from 100,000 years ago. And that their bones had been broken in such a way as to extract marrow and brains from them. By other Neanderthals.
They also found tool marks on the femurs and mandibles, which suggested that they had cut off thigh meat and tongues for consumption.
Paleontologists also discovered 12 Neanderthal skeletons in Spain from 50,000 years ago that appeared to have been dismembered, skinned, and then eaten.
Now we don’t know why the Neanderthals performed cannibalism, whether it was ritualistic or just for sustenance. But by the early Tang Dynasty, we were doing it medicinally.
The Chinese in the Tang Dynasty performed what they called gegu, where they would cut off pieces of flesh from their own bodies, usually the thigh, and prepare it as a meal for a sick loved one.
In ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder would write about how spectators at the Colosseum would dip their handkerchiefs in the blood of slain gladiators to drink it.
They believed that by doing so they would take in the strength of the gladiator.
In 11th century England, cooked human flesh was sometimes sold at markets, but those were usually around famines.
By the 16th century, Pulverized Egyptian mummies were one of the most popular medical treatments in Europe for everything from headache to impotence.
I’ve heard somewhere that literally half of all Egyptian mummies ever found were ground up and consumed. Or turned into paint. Insane.
Of course, no one at the time considered these acts cannibalism. That term was saved for non-Christian savages.
Yeah it feels like I should point out the hypocrisy here because the Western, Christian world used rumors of cannibalism to dehumanize people from other lands while consuming human bodies as health remedies.
In fact, there was a long-running belief in Europe that a cannibalistic race of people with dog heads lived in India.
And it was used for purposes of subjugation as well. Christopher Columbus is a good example.
When Queen Isabella of Spain forbade him from taking the natives as slaves, he found a loophole.
She had said if they were peaceful, they could become subject to the Spanish crown. But if they were bloodthirsty man-eaters, they could be captured and sold.
So, on his second voyage to the Caribbean in 1493, he amazingly encountered “blood thirsty maneaters.” That he could capture and sell.
In fact the word, “Cannibal” first referred to the Caribs in the Antilles who supposedly consumed human flesh.
But then it became synonymous with anyone who eats another human.
And that idea got promoted, that the indigenous of the New World were cannibals, and they used that to justify slavery and colonialism not just in the Americas but all around the world.
Like I said before, there were a lot of justifications given for why eating another person would improve your health.
The Wari’ in Brazil practice similar beliefs.
They do it as a way to cope with grief. They burn all the dead person’s possessions, stop speaking the person’s name, and consume the person’s body.
“Far more than we do, the Wari’ see the body as a place where personality and individuality reside, and so, of all the things that remind you of dead people, the corpse is the strongest reminder. So they believed it was important to transform the corpse in order to help transform survivors’ memories of their dead relative.”
Eating dried toes for foot and leg pain, a liver for digestive issues, you get the idea.
And if the person died violently, all the better!
The 16th-century physician Paracelsus wrote that man’s vital spirits would burst forth to the bone after he was hanged.
It was believed that sudden death would cause a person’s spirit to stay trapped within the person’s body long enough for the living to benefit from its power.
During the Renaissance, blood was often harvested from the freshly dead AND the living.
Fifteenth-century Italian scholar and priest Marsilio Ficino suggested that elderly people should suck the blood of an adolescent who was clean and happy if they wanted to regain a spring in their step.
By the 1650s, many people believed that drinking fresh, hot blood from someone who recently died would cure epilepsy and help with consumption.
Acquiring fresh blood from an apothecary was difficult for anyone who was poor.
So, they relied on executioners, who would sell them a cheap cup of the warm blood of someone just executed.
In fact, the executioner would collect the blood of the guy he executed and sell it medicinally to peasants.
The author Richard Sugg told Smithsonian Magazine:
“The executioner was considered a big healer in Germanic countries. He was a social leper with almost magical powers.”
Did these practices work? Yes. No. Maybe.
Just like today, when you rub an ointment on an ache, the pain may subside. So, rubbing human fat on a bruise probably made you think you felt better.
Sprinkling powdered blood on a wound probably stopped it from bleeding. But sprinkling Parmesan on the wound may do the same thing.
And as far as King Charle’s “King Drops” go, a little bit of alcohol may help you forget you’re depressed.
Corpse medicine fell out of favor over 100 years ago as our understanding of physiology and especially the germ theory of medicine became more well known.
There are, however, some remnants of it still around.
Because as good as we’ve gotten at creating drugs, there are some things that you can just get from other humans. So we do.
And some of the old corpse medicine remedies may have actually had something to it.
Remember how people thought rubbing human fat on an ache could cure it? Well, that’s total BS, but there are some uses for human fat.
And then you have things like organ transplants, skin grafts, and even gum grafts, which often use tissue from human cadavers.
Eating the placenta is still a popular idea to help fight postpartum depression but its benefits are scientifically disputed.
And we do blood transfusions all the time and never talk about how that’s… kinda… an act of cannibalism.
Zoë Crossland, director of the Columbia Center for Archaeology, said:
“We don’t necessarily take it orally … but we use blood in all sorts of ways. We get it from the living, not from the dead—but we don’t view that as cannibalistic. We see it as part of the medical world.”
And if the part earlier about how older people were drinking the blood of young people to stay young made you think of the blood boys of Silicon Valley… Yep!
That is a thing amongst older tech bros. They get blood transfusions from younger donors believing it will help them live longer. They couch it in terms of stem cells and hormones instead of spirit and ether, but it’s the same idea.
One group who didn’t agree on its efficacy was the FDA, who said the transfusions were unproven and potentially harmful. Ambrosia shut its doors in 2019.
And… I really don’t want to talk about this but I know someone out there is typing this in the comments already so fine… The QAnon Adrenochrome thing.
Part of the QAnon conspiracy theory is the idea that a cabal of global elites are kidnapping children and torturing them to harvest adrenochrome from their blood.
The reason given is that adrenochrome produces psychedelic experiences and can make you immortal.
Yeah, that’s not true.
It was popularized by Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – he got it from the fact that for a while in the 50s, some researchers thought that adrenochrome was linked to schizophrenia. That was later proven untrue.
Adrenochrome is a thing, it’s basically a byproduct of adrenaline in the body, but it doesn’t really do anything and even if it did… It can be synthesized. There are companies that make it, you can just buy it. There’s no need for a worldwide child trafficking network.
It’s like saying someone is collecting the amygdalae of millions of puppies to make acetaminophen, instead of getting Tylenol at the CVS.
Accusing people you don’t like of cannibalizing children is the same as the Europeans calling indigenous people in foreign lands cannibals. If you dehumanize them you don’t feel bad about committing violence against them.
I actually traveled to Salem Massachusetts a couple years back and went to the witch trials museum and that was an accusation they used against supposed witches back then.
It was also used against Jewish communities back in the middle ages, they called it a “blood libel,” there’s nothing new about this.
The adrenochrome angle does have more of a medical cannibalism bent to it though.
Some people might not consider things like blood transfusions or organ transplants the same as cannibalism because you’re not consuming the body, you’re just… borrowing from it.
But when it comes down to it, with our current medical technology, there are some things we just can’t replace with a device. There’s no way around it, we need to get it from other people.
And until we can, we will continue to be in some small ways… Cannibals.