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14 August 2017updated 30 Jun 2021 11:52am

As a vegetarian, I’m relaxed about Britain’s cannibals

British cave dwellers apparently ate their dead relatives. They were consistent, at least. 

By Julia Rampen

“Prehistoric Britons ate their dead,” exclaimed the Telegraph in a recent article, which went on to describe the “deeply sinister” and “grisly” discovery that British cave dwellers ate their deceased relatives.

Scientists from the Natural History Museum and University College London had drawn this conclusion after noticing human bones that had been filleted, chewed and ultimately broken to extract the bone marrow.

Find that icky? Well, yes, I do too. That’s why I don’t eat meat, and haven’t since I was four. But what I find stranger than ancient cannibalism is the attitude of carnivores today. 

In the 21st century, the humble plant-eater can note two contradictory trends – braggadocious carnivores, and a complete ignorance about where the nation gets its meat.

Take the self-proclaimed carnivores first. Our culture casually assumes there’s something macho about meat. According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, most languages relate meat-eating to the male gender.

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“To the strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, all-American male, red meat is a strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, all-American food,” the authors wrote. “Soy is not.” This attitude has been taken to extremes by Tokyo’s Macho restaurant where all the meat-grilling chefs are bare-chested beefcakes. 

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Given that meat eaters are supposedly macho hunter-gatherers, then, it’s strange that the second trend is that meat eaters are increasingly distant from the animals they eat. Victorian novels are packed with red-cheeked women wringing chickens’ necks, but in fact the rise of chicken as a popular meat in the UK went hand-in-hand with the rise of factory farming. Consumption of meat overall accelerated in the second half of the 20th century, as it became mass-produced – and the process of killing animals was hidden away in the supply chain. 

I noticed this first-hand when I worked in a sandwich shop. “I’ll have all the meat,” a customer would say proudly. Despite my vegetarianism, I could then quite happily use the tongs to pick up a dozen, odourless pink shapes on the counter, with their non-animalistic names. There was nothing to suggest this was a dead animal at all. The customer could walk away feeling more macho with every bite, without ever having looked directly at an animal and decided to kill it. 

Of course, when it comes to cannibalism, it’s impossible to stay that detached. We can’t read a description of human bones being nibbled without feeling it in our bones too. This attitude sometimes extends to animals considered intelligent – I’ve seen an enthusiastic carnivore look askance at a menu serving dolphin – or cute (see the continued outrage about dog meat). And this unease lends itself to a question most would rather avoid: where do you draw the line? At what level of intelligence or consciousness does an animal become sacred? When does killing an animal for meat become murder?

Our ancestors, apparently, thought about it and came to the conclusion: everything’s on the table. So while I don’t like factory farming, or hypocritical carnivores, I’m fairly relaxed about the concept of being descended from cannibals. At least they were consistent in their carnivorous tastes.