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5 tasty facts about human cannibalism

It’s a frog-eat-frog world out there. (credit: Wikipedia user Uspn)
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What kind of wine pairs best with human?

Bill Schutt actually asked that question at a wine store, while en route to a dinner party where the main course was the hostess’s placenta. The wine clerk had no answer for him.

“She turned and ran away, so I picked up a nice Italian red, an amarone, and it worked out quite well,” he says.

The placenta, Schutt says, was delicious too. “It was clearly organ meat. It had the consistency of veal but it didn’t quite taste like beef,” he says.

Schutt, a biologist at the American Museum of Natural History, went to that unusual dinner party as research for his new book, “Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History,” which he’ll discuss Tuesday at Kramerbooks.

While researching, Schutt found that the practice of eating the placenta — the organ that attaches a fetus to the uterine wall and is expelled during birth — is common in the animal kingdom, but not among human cultures.

“People think it’s this ancient Chinese medicinal practice, but it’s really an American invention from the 1960s that’s gaining popularity again in places like Brooklyn,” he says.

Still, history and anthropology abound with examples of human cannibalism, says Schutt, who defines the practice broadly as the eating of all or part of another person. In one example that’s 180 degrees removed from the cultural values of modern Brooklynites, Chinese children in the Middle Ages occasionally offered up body parts (usually a thigh or upper arm) for their parents to consume as an extreme demonstration of filial piety. “It was cooked in a porridge,” Schutt says.

If you have the appetite for it, here are some more tasty tidbits from Schutt’s book.

  • As recently as the early 1900s, you could pick up mummia — ground-up mummy bones — from local pharmacies in America and Europe. (Originally, mummia was made from ancient Egyptians’ remains, but once demand picked up, any random dead body would do.) “They powdered it and made elixirs out of it,” he says. “You could buy it and use it for a number of different types of sicknesses.”
  • In the 17th century, Europeans would line up with cups at public executions to collect the blood of the deceased. They believed that “the more violent the death, the more medicinal value there was in the blood, which was used to treat epilepsy,” Schutt says.
  • Until they were forced by missionaries and government officials to give up their traditional funeral rites in the 1960s, the Wari’ people of the Brazilian rainforest ate deceased loved ones in order to process their grief. “They were mortified at the concept of burying their dead,” Schutt says. “Why would you put your loved ones in the ground to rot and be eaten by worms?”
  • The Fore people of Papua New Guinea also ate their dead, which resulted in the breakout of a mad cow disease-like illness called kuru, which peaked in the 1950s.
  • China has a long, well-documented history of culinary cannibalism. One 12th-century text made regular reference to dumplings filled with minced human (often political prisoners), and another book, written in 1423, detailed regional recipes for boiling and steaming human flesh.

Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Ave. NW; Tue., 6:30 p.m., free.