Paleo, raw foodism, clean eating – most crank diets have at least one crank in their corner. Very few people, though, have a good word to say about cannibalism. In fact, its image in popular culture is pretty bloody negative: the German computer technician now serving a life sentence after advertising online for a “well-built male” for “slaughter and consumption”, the hapless victims of Cultural Revolutionary fervour in southern China fed to party faithful, or the grand daddy of cannibal cookery, Hannibal Lecter. And if cannibalism isn’t linked to evil, then it’s tragedy: a plane crash, extreme weather, famine.
Keen readers of National Geographic magazine might observe that there may also be a ritualistic motive. Indeed, the taboo against cannibalism, though widespread, is not universal. Bill Schutt, the author of Eat Me, a “natural and unnatural history” of the subject, describes it as a largely Western prohibition.
Schutt cites evidence of Chinese children offering up body parts to sustain ailing elders, in obedience to the Confucian philosophy of filial piety. “The most commonly consumed body part was the thigh, followed by the upper arm, both of which were prepared in a rice porridge called congee.”
There is also the sad case of the South Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea, whose tradition of “ritualistic mortuary cannibalism” was born of the belief that if someone who loved a dead person ate their corpse, that would set the soul free (and it was better than being consumed by maggots or worms). Unfortunately, in the 1950s and 1960s more than 1,000 tribespeople died of kuru, a human form of BSE, after eating infected brain tissue.
However, most cannibalism throughout history has been justified on health grounds. The ancient Romans would drink the blood of gladiators killed in combat, in the hope of inheriting their youthful vitality, a custom that continued at public executions in Germany until the mid-19th century. By then, such déclassé practices were for the poor: wealthy people got their fix in the form of medicines made from human bones, blood and fat. As late as the 17th century there was a thriving trade in Egyptian mummies (or, when supplies of these ran short, ordinary corpses that were sold under the same name) – for grinding down into medicine. Even Charles II swore by a tincture of powdered human skull, which was believed to be efficacious for everything from epilepsy to headaches.
Medicinal cannibalism has undergone a surprising revival in recent years, fuelled by the 1970s countercultural trend for placentophagy, which is credited with everything from increasing milk production to reducing post-partum bleeding. There is now a whole industry devoted to helping women do “what is best for you and your placenta”, which seems to mean turning it into easily ingestible capsules, tinctures (nothing changes), or even “an enjoyable post-birth revitalising fruit drink packed with your body’s own uniquely designed healing nutrients”. Celebrities including Coleen Rooney and Kim Kardashian are fans, though there is no scientific evidence to support the alleged health benefits.
Others eat the afterbirth out of sheer curiosity – which is why, when a new father offered me my own pâté recipe, made with placenta from his “local free-range wife”, I felt a certain professional obligation to accept. Richly brown and capped with clarified butter, it certainly looked the part – and tasted it, too. It was delicious: less emphatically flavoured than liver, perhaps, but with a familiar, earthy sweetness common to all offal, and the very faintest of ferrous aftertastes. Frankly, if it hadn’t come topped with a generous seasoning of psychological unease, it could have been almost anything.
This article appears in the 01 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again