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Nathan McAllister
Anthropology 343: Medical Anthropology
December 3, 2012
Medical Cannibalism: dispelling the notion of a man-eating myth
This essay will look at cannibalism, also known as anthropophagy, and its use as a
medical practice. I will argue against the claim that socially accepted cannibalism has never
actually existed, and is merely a myth. This claim was put forth by anthropologist William Arens
in his book The Man Eating Myth (1979: 9). The first section of this essay will define what
should be considered cannibalism and briefly look at academic discourses on anthropophagy.
Then I will present data showing the existence of historical medical anthropophagy in both
Europe and North America. Finally I will show that medical anthropophagy still exists today in
the form of the consumption of semen, the placenta, and aborted fetuses.
For the purposes of this essay it seemed necessary to provide a clear definition of what
should be considered cannibalism. This is however a difficult task with most definitions leaving
room for conjecture, or failing to adequately account for the consumption of substances that
many would deem cannibalistic. Arens, when speaking of cannibalism often describes it as the
eating of human flesh by another human or as man eating man (1979: 8). This is however an
inadequate definition because human beings are composed of more substances than merely flesh.
The definition of cannibalism as merely the consumption of human flesh leaves the
possibility that acts, which many would deem particularly heinous acts of cannibalism could be
viewed as non-cannibalistic acts. This definition allows the consumption of human blood to not
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be considered cannibalistic. This is because you are merely drinking the blood of another person
and not consuming their flesh. This act can be interpreted as anthropophagy, as shown by an
article by Richard Shears in the Daily Mail, published on October Eleventh, 2013. This article
describes an event where a man drank the blood of his daughter. Both Shears and the residents of
the Papua New Guinean community where this event occurred described the act as cannibalistic.
What is deemed human flesh and what even is deemed human is also a matter of
conjecture. Different societies have different epistemologies regarding the composition of human
bodies. Londono Sulkin argues that for the People of the Centre, located in the Colombian
Amazon, bodies are constituted by key substances such as tobacco (2012: 32). This is quite
different from European or North American conceptions of what constitutes a human body,
where human flesh is seen as a distinctive substance. With this difficulty of applying definition
of cannibalism and anthropophagy as the consumption of human flesh I chose to use a different
definition. I argue that cannibalism should be seen as the consumption of distinctive human
bodily elements. This definition allows for acts such as the consumption of human blood to be
seen as cannibalism. As well it allows us to employ the concept of cannibalism to a variety of
world views.
In this essay I will discuss what categories of cannibalism each medical practice
discussed fits into. The different categories of anthropophagy are endocannibalism,
exocannibalism, and autocannibalism. Endocannibalism is the consumption of a member of your
own social group. Exocannibalism is the consumption of a person outside of the social group of
the consumer. Autocannibalism signifies the ingestion of parts of one’s own body. Some of the
medical forms of cannibalism discussed below will not fit into just one of these categories but
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Arens’ argument that it is doubtful that socially accepted cannibalism has never existed
(1979: 9) was a reaction to the tendency for Europeans to exoticize the people they came in
contact with. Conklin describes Arens’ reactions to accounts of cannibalism as reverse
exaggeration in reaction to exaggerated accounts of anthropophagy in the New World (2001: 56). Exaggerated accounts of cannibalism in the New World were the result of many factors, as I
will show.
Explorers such as Hans Staden, exoticized the Tupinamba Indians in order to achieve
fame for himself, and his explorations (Arens 1979: 22). By portraying the people he came in
contact with as man-eaters, Staden was able to make a name for himself. This, however, is not
the only reason explorers have named people they came in contact with in the New World as
cannibals. In 1503 Queen Isabella of Spain issued a decree that only American Indians who were
cannibals could be enslaved (White-head 1984:70, cited in Conklin 2001). Spanish explorers and
colonizers had an economic motive to portray indigenous peoples as cannibals so that they could
enslave these people. European powers also found representing native peoples as cannibals
served to justify their violent conquests of these people by portraying them as man-eating
The next section will discuss that while Europeans were portraying the people that they
violently colonized as savage cannibals, they were engaging in cannibalistic practices
themselves. Arens ignores the fact that Europeans were practicing cannibalism while they were
accusing New World peoples of cannibalistic practices. While he was attempting to deorientalize
anthropology by denying the existence of cannibalism he was reproducing the view of the West
as the pinnacle of civilization.
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Historical Medicinal Cannibalism in Europe
Medicinal cannibalism, as the name suggests is the consumption of human bodily
elements as a medicinal treatment. Medical cannibalism was used to treat a wide variety of
illnesses. For the sake of this paper I will focus on two specific cases of historical medicinal
cannibalism. The first is the use of human bodily elements, particularly blood as a treatment for
epilepsy. Then I will discuss Paracelsian medical practices which were a prominent in Europe
and North America during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Throughout the history of Europe blood has commonly been used as a means of treating
epilepsy, then known as ‘the falling sickness’. The blood of a freshly killed person was an even
more potent cure for the falling sickness. Ancient Roman Historian, Pliny the Elder, provides an
incredibly early account of medical cannibalism in his, Natural History, which was originally
written in the first century A.D. He describes how epileptics would suck warm blood directly
from wounds of gladiators in Roman arenas (1975: 5). This is however not the only recorded
case of blood being used a method of treating epilepsy.
Blood was consumed in North America and Europe during the age of exploration; the
very time Europeans were accusing New World peoples of Cannibalism. Executioners during
this time would often sell the blood of decapitated criminals to epileptics. Peacock describes how
epileptics would wait in crowds at executions with “cup in hand, ready to quaff the red blood as
it flows from the still quivering body” (1896: 270-271). This example provides evidence against
Arens’ claim that socially accepted cannibalism has never existed. In this case not only is
cannibalism seen as a common practice, but blood is used in economic transactions. The
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epileptics lining up with cup in hand described by peacock could very well be likened to people
lining up for a flu shot in twenty-first century medical practices.
One may argue that the behavior of these epileptics could have potential been socially
deviant, and that this was seen an improper way of treating their illness. If this is the case their
consumption of blood would have not been socially acceptable, thus proving Arens correct.
However physicians from this time were the ones who were instructing their epileptic patients to
consume human blood. One such physician was Reverend Edward Taylor, who was a physician
in colonial New England during the seventeenth century. Taylor was also a Harvard graduate,
adding legitimacy to his medical practice (Gordon-Grube 1988: 406). Taylor stated that “human
blood, drunk warm and new is held good in the falling sickness” (Taylor Manuscript: 377, cited
in Gordon-Grube 1988: 407). In 1747 many other physicians were still recommending epileptic
patients to drink human blood “recent and hot” (James 1747: 512, cited in Gordon-Grube 1988:
Clearly the cannibalistic consumption of human blood to treat epilepsy was not only a
common practice but was one recommended by physicians. This makes the consumption of
blood promoted by both the public and professional sector, as discussed by Klienman (1980).
The public/folk sector is the general populace and their influence on medical practice and the
professional sector is the impact of medical professionals on the treatment of medicine. Also, the
consumption of human blood would be exocannibalism, where the person whose blood is
consumed is from outside of the consumer’s immediate social group. This was however not the
only form of medicinal cannibalism common during these times.
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Medicinal cannibalism during the age of exploration was not merely limited to the
treatment of epilepsy. The aforementioned Taylor describes “shops of mummy,” where one
could obtain “the dead body or flesh” of humans for medicinal purposes (Taylor manuscript:
375-378, cited in Gordon-Grube 1988: 406). Mummy was the remains of a person who met a
preferably sudden and violent death. The remains of his person were then prepared by drying and
embalming the corpse. Mummy was the cure-all for a school of medical practitioners known as
the Paracelsians (Murray et al. 1933: Throndick 1934- 58:V:659, cited in Gordon-Grube 1988:
Paracelsian physicians provide detailed accounts of how a corpse should be prepared in
order to be up to standards for a proper mummy. One such physician, Oswell Croll, recommends
that mummies “be made of a cadaver of a redheaded man, age 24, who had been hanged,” he
goes on to provide instructions on how to properly treat with different substances such as myrrh,
aloe, alcoholic spirits, and turpentine (Thorndike 1934-58:VIII: 414, cited in Gordon-Grube
1988: 406). These were, however, not the most ideal means of procuring a mummy. Another
Paracelsian physician Nicasius Le Febre describes that the best mummies were dried up bodies
found in Libya, that had died via suffocation during overwhelming sandstorms (Le Febre 1670,
quoted in Wootton 1972:II:25, cited in Gordon-Grube 1988: 406). The sudden suffocation of the
victim would concentrate the spirits in all parts of the body due to the fear of experiencing
sudden suffocation. Paracelsus attributed the healing properties of mummies not to the body
itself but to spirits or powers residing within the body, powers which he discovered by a variety
of experiments (Gordon-Grobe 1988: 106-107).
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Paracelsian physicians were by no means a marginalized group, treated as pseudomedical practitioners. In fact they held a large amount of influence during their time. Le Febre
was the attending chemist of King Charles II of England (Gordon-Grobe 1988: 406). Taylor was,
as previously mentioned, a Harvard graduate (Gordon-Grobe 1988: 406). Finally the
recommendation of how to prepare a mummy, provided by Croll, was included in the official
London Pharmacopoeias, produced in the seventeenth century (Urdang 1944:40, cited in
Gordon-Grobe: 406).
Paracelsian medical cannibalism was more than just socially acceptable; it was an
integral part of the society that practiced it. It was practiced by a graduate of a prestigious
academic institution, such as Harvard. Furthermore even the King of England had a Paracelsian
doctor under his employ. Paracelsus even gave a cosmological explanation of how his medical
practice worked, due to spirits residing within the body.
Arens however states that these European medical practices should not be viewed as
cannibalism (1998: 47). Scholars like Conklin however disagree with his assessment that these
practices should not be seen as cannibalism (2001: 11-12). She finds it very unlikely that
European citizens could have denied the humanity of the freshly executed prisoner whose blood
they are consuming (Conklin 2001:11). Conklin discuss how one sixteenth century intellectual
Montaigne even pointed out the hypocrisy of condemning cannibalism in the New World when it
was prescribed in Europe (2001: 12).
Gordon-Grube also denies claims that the consumption of blood and mummies should not
be seen as medical cannibalism (1993: 199). She cites two sources from the time when these
practices are prominent; both of which speak out against these practices as cannibalistic. One of
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these sources is Ambroise Paré, who describes the practice of the consumption of mummies as
an abomination (1582, cited in Gordon-Grube 1993: 199). The other source she sites is a
preacher named, Cotton Mather who “abominates” the practice calling those that practice it by
the term “Anthropophagi” (Mather 1972: 145, cited in Gordon-Grube 1993:199).
Contemporary Medical Cannibalism
In this next section I will discuss how practices that could be seen as medical cannibalism
are common today. This will provide further evidence against Arens’ claim, by showing that
socially acceptable cannibalism exists in some form even today. With these practices I will
discuss whether they are promoted by the popular/folk sector or the professional sector discussed
by Klienman (1980). Popular/folk medical practices are those that are prescribed by non-medical
professionals, this is advice one would receive from a parent, friend, or an internet advice
column. The professional sector would be licensed medical professionals and academic medical
I will discuss three different human bodily elements that are consumed for medicinal
purposes. These substances in order are semen, the placenta, and aborted fetuses. I will argue
that if one adopts a certain perspective the consumption of these substances could be seen as
Semen as a medical substance is prescribed by both the folk sector and the professional
sector. An expert blog was posted on September 25, 2012 on website by
Professor Kimberly Resnick Anderson promoting medical benefits of consuming semen. In this
blog post she goes over 10 ‘surprising health benefits’ of consuming semen. These benefits
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include: improved quality of sleep, mood elevation, and relief of anxiety. This is not the only
website posting advice to women to consume their partner’s semen. Another example is a story
that was published on on June fifth, 2013 by Andy Campbell, which
describes semen as a ‘super food’.
A more convincing case of the medical properties of semen is an article published in the
Journal of Reproductive Immunology in March 2000 by Koelman, et al. In this article Koelman,
et al, discuss their discovery that by consuming the semen of her partner a woman can prevent
the development of the condition, preeclampsia during her pregnancy (2000). This is due to the
woman absorbing antigens present in the semen which familiarize a woman’s body with the
foreign elements present in her body during pregnancy (Koelman, et al: 2000).
The consumption of the semen of a partner to prevent the development of the condition
preeclampsia could be seen as a form of autocannibalism. The semen of her partner has
combined with her ovum forming an embryo. This embryo resides in her uterus becoming a part
of her body. The semen of her partner is an integral part of this embryo. By consuming the
semen of the partner that impregnated her, a woman is consuming a part of herself as well.
The Placenta
Another contemporary practice that can be seen as a medicinal form of cannibalism is
the consumption of the placenta by women who have recently given birth. Consuming the
placenta, or ‘Placentophagy,’ is promoted by a large number of folk practitioners and mid-wives.
Websites such as,, advise women on
different methods of preparing their placenta for consumption. Placentas can be dehydrated then
McAllister 10
ground up into a fine powder so it can be placed in easy to swallow capsules. Recipes can also be
found for food items such as placenta cocktails, placenta lasagne, placenta pizza, etc.
Placentophagy is seen to have a variety of medicinal benefits for the mother. It apparently
can help a mother replenish nutrients that she lost during child birth. It can increase breast milk
production for a new mother. Placentophagy also may deter the onset of postpartum depression.
All of these benefits were provided by the websites with and being prominent examples. Both websites also cite a
study performed by researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The study in
question is “Baby blues- postpartum depression attributed to low levels of corticotrophinreleasing hormone after placenta is gone”, led by George Chrousos. Chrousos in this study
merely states that the birthing of the placenta can cause a sharp drop in the chemical CRH, which
greatly affects a new mother’s mood (1995: 1). He does not however state that consuming the
placenta will increase levels of CRH in women (Chousos 1995: 1).
The postpartum consumption of the placenta would, much like the consumption of
semen, be a form of autocannibalism. The placenta was once a part of the body of the mother,
which she then consumes. The study by Chrousos discusses how during pregnancy the placenta
supplies the body of the woman with the chemical CRH (1995: 1). By performing this function
the placenta could be seen as a part of a woman’s endocrine system, which secretes hormones
into the body of a person in order to regulate physiological behaviour. By consuming the
placenta a woman is consuming a part of her endocrine system.
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The Fetus
The last case of twenty-first century medical cannibalism that I will discuss is the
consumption of aborted fetuses in China. An editorial published on May tenth, 2012 on by, Youngbee Dale, discuss how aborted fetuses are consumed in China.
There aborted fetuses are often ground up into a powdered form and placed in pills. More than
17,000 pills such as these have been confiscated by South Korean officials. Dale discusses how
the consumption of these pills is seen to boost one’s stamina and sexual potency.
This case of medicinal cannibalism warrants discussion of an argument by Arens
discussed previously, that accounts of cannibalism are often attempts to exoticize others
(1979:18-19). He furthermore discusses cannibalism as “a feature of the faraway or foregone”
(Arens 1979: 19). When looking at cases of medicinal cannibalism in China it is important to be
skeptical, because the information may be skewed by this bias. China is not only geographically
distinguished from the West but geologically as well, being a socialist nation. However this
skepticism should not led us to completely disregard accusations of medicinal cannibalism in
China, especially considering the numerous forms of medicinal cannibalism previously
discussed. Furthermore the vast quantity of pills containing ground up fetuses found by South
Korean officials provides evidence that this practice may indeed exist.
The consumption of aborted fetuses could be seen as endo, exo or autocannibalism
depending on the circumstances in which it takes place. If a mother consumes the fetus of her
own child it would be autocannibalism because it was once a part of her body. If a father
consumes the fetus of his child it would be endocannibalism because he is consuming a part of
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his partner’s body and there for his social unit. It could also be exocannibalism if the fetus was
consumed by someone with no relation to the parents of the child.
As shown above medicinal cannibalism has existed throughout history in a wide variety
of forms. The earliest recorded and longest lasting form was the consumption of blood in order
to treat epilepsy. This practice dates back as early as the first century A.D, and continues on in
existence until at least the eighteenth century. Another form of historical medicinal cannibalism
was the consumption of mummies prescribed by Paraclesian physicians. Medicinal cannibalism
as I have argued continues in practice in the form of the consumption of semen, placentas, and
aborted fetuses. This vast amount of evidence proves the contrary of William Arens’ claim that
socially acceptable cannibalism has never existed (1979: 9). The findings of this essay not only
show that anthropophagy has existed and persisted not only as a socially acceptable practice but
one that has and is currently used for medicinal purposes.
Furthermore recent research by anthropologists such as Conklin with the Wari (2001) has
shown that cannibalistic practices did exist in non-Western societies. Denying the existence of
medicinal cannibalism in Europe and North America promotes the orientalising of these peoples.
Acknowledging the existence of these practices in Amazonian peoples, Melanesians, Europeans,
and North American settlers unites these different groups by their common history of performing
these practices. By denying the medical practices of Europeans and European settlers in North
American one places these cultures in a dominant position in a moral and cultural hierarchy over
Amazonian and Melanesian peoples. In accepting medical cannibalism as true you acknowledge
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the common humanity of these peoples.
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Works Cited
Arens, William. The Man Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1979.
Arens, William. “Rethinking Anthropophagy.” In Cannibalism and the Colonial World, edited
by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1998. Pp. 39-62.
Chousos, George. “Baby blues- postpartum depression attributed to low levels of corticotrophinreleasing hormone after placenta is gone”. Discover December 1995 edition.
Conklin, Beth. Consuming Grief: Compasionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society. Austin:
University of Texas Press, 2001.
Gordon-Grube, Karen. “Anthropophagy in Post-Renaissance Europe: The Tradition of Medical
Cannibalism. American Anthropologist 90 (2), 1988. Pp 405-409.
Gordon-Grube, Karen. “Evidence of Medicinal Cannibalism in Puritan New England: ‘Mummy’
and Related Remedies in Edward Talor’s ‘Dispensatory’”. American Literature 28 (3),
1993. Pp. 185-221.
Klienman, Arthur. Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1980.
Koelman, et al. “Correlation between oral sex and low incidence of preeclampsia: a role for
soluable HLA in seminal fluid?” Journal of Reproductive Immunology 46 (2), 2000. Pp.
Londoño Sulkin, Carlos David. People of Substance: An Ethnography of Morality in the
Columbian Amazon. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.
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Peacock, Mabel. “Executed Criminals and Folk-Medicine.” Folk-Lore 7, 1896. Pp. 268-283.
Pliny. Natural History. Vol. VIII, Libri XXVII-XXXII. W.H.S. Jones tranl. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1975.