Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, by Bill Schutt. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2017

People tend to think of cannibalism as something rare and weird and horrible. In fact, it’s pretty common. Pretty much every part of the animal world has cannibal species in it. We all know about the praying mantis female eating her mate, but lots of insects, spiders, fish, amphibians, and even mammals dine on either their spouse or their children. Sometimes the children eat the parents. Those mouth breeding fish? The ones where the male holds the brood of babies in their mouth while they mature? Yeah. Sometimes they get hungry and have a little snack. Mice eat their young in overcrowded conditions. Higher on the family tree, chimps and polar bears do it. Some sharks eat their siblings while they are still in the womb. Some creatures eat each other when there is food scarcity. Some creatures only eat parts of each other- there is one species that eats the lining of the mother’s uterus while still inside.

But it’s not just critters. Humans perform cannibalism, too, and it’s not just the Donner party and Hannibal Lector. Sometimes it is a matter of survival, like the Donner party and the survivors of the airplane crash in the Andes. The people are already dead; they aren’t killing them for food; they are just taking advantage of what is there so they can survive. That’s not the only time humans eat each other, though. Sometimes it’s done to honor the beloved dead- sort of grokking their loved ones. Most often, though, people eat only parts of each other. In the past in Europe, there were many ‘cures’ that involved things like powdered skulls and the blood from a hanged man being ingested. These days, some women eat their own placenta after giving birth. Most don’t tend to think of these cast off bits of humanity as being parts of people, but they are.

Then there is the issue of false accusations of cannibalism. It seems like an awful lot of indigenous people have been accused of this habit when they are inconvenient for conquerors. Want the tribe’s land? Just call them cannibals and it’s okay to kill them off; you’re just saving yourself from danger! It happened all over in the tropical American areas when the Spanish first came into the area.

Biologist Schutt takes a fairly light hearted look at cannibalism. He deals in both data and anecdote; the prose is a fast and easy read. His style of dealing with taboo subject matter reminded me of Mary Roach (“Stiff” and others); a very readable overview of something with big squick value. 

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I received this book free in return for an unbiased review from the Library Thing Early Reviewers program. 

Neither of these things influenced my review.  

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