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Thread: Why don't humans eat humans?

  1. #1 Why don't humans eat humans? 
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    I've been doing a project on human cannibalism and how it relates to zoological cannibalism. What i've discovered is that cannibalism is hugely widespread in the animal kingdom, more than most people seem to realise. In fact i tried asking why people don't perform cannibalism on Yahoo Answers: Why don't we eat dead people? - Yahoo! Answers

    I didn't get a great reception, though i never implied i wanted to do it - i was simply asking. Why this irrational hatred? i have a few potential answers:

    1: Cannibalism leads to diseases spreading. Prions, etc. (however i'm unconvinced by this as prions mainly seem to be transmitted in uncooked brain tissue, not in normal meat from what i can tell)
    2: Eating dead people would lead to problems with the image you have of living people, leading to an unstable society. (this mainly relies on the idea that some "primitive" societies have been documented to perform cannibalism, whereas modern "civilised" ones do not, evidently. In fact, they abhorr it.
    3: People equate the act of eating a human with predators, and they needed to be scared of predators in order to stay alive.

    I'm more a biologist than a psychologist, so these are pretty rough ideas.. Anyone got any thoughts? I've done a bit of reading and all three ideas seem to have some backing.. would love to hear what people have to say, so long as it's not "You have a sick mind"..


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    Human beings are a very social species. I would wager that the species that engage in cannibalism are less social. Do wolves participate in cannibalism?


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    As social omnivores (and highly adaptable, experimental ones at that), we seek approval of what to eat and what not to. Apparently rats do this too, in their own way.

    Wolves have far fewer dietary choices so they don't obsess about what other wolves are eating.

    I think that our instinct to test and catalogue and rate all possible dinners, spurs strange tastes and food taboos. Part of the instinct package requires that we hate to eat some things... but what those are is not always rational. It's just necessary we're disgusted by something. There's an easy explanation for human flesh becoming an easy "hated food". Might also explain why many people involuntarily talk about things they'd never eat, while eating.
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    I would attribute it mainly to sociological factors. The way we view each other - us humans seem to perceive ourselves as "superior" species, I daresay. I agree with all three of your proposed reasons; especially number 2.

    Also, there's our attitude towards food.
    I tend to think that humans are very fussy eaters - I care about how rare my steak is, I won't eat cooked carrots and I will only eat potatoes that are cooked to perfection. Whereas, say, my cat, for example. She happily eats any brand of cat food, but also has no problem munching on my dog's food, animal fat, freshly hunted pigeons, grass, her own poo and onion.
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    people do eat people.
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    Dunbar's Limit suggests we have a maximum number of people we can have stable social relations with, which might have it's origins in the size of our social groups in pre-history. Our minds are evolved to have a certain group of people we deem to be part of our "tribe", while the "others" have a different set of moral considerations that is largely independent from that of our inner circle. In our inner circle we are more inclined to exhibit positive social behaviour, evolved this way due to the benefits such a setup entails (a group with less altruistic individuals will fare worse than one with higher levels). On the other hand, how we treat the "others" can be highly variable, dependent on threat status, usefulness, etc. So, in one individual one can potentially see the kindest, most endearing behaviour towards his inner circle, while being a merciless killer of those "others" that are seen as a threat; both extremes existing without contradiction.

    Secondly, think about what "other" humans can represent. Superstition in some form has probably been a part of our evolutionary past for millions of years. Potentially a tribe might have beliefs that include various sources or stores of power; certain plant bits, animal parts or even human parts. So, in this capacity, a human might kill and eat parts or all of their foe in order to gain his power/cement his victory/prove his manhood/etc. This his been recorded as far as I know. Or, perhaps in an environment where medium to large game is relatively rare, different tribes might see rivals as good sources of food, which they are. This has also been recorded AFAIK. A combination is also possible.

    As for why cannibalism is not a wide-spread phenomenon in nature, consider what the implications might be. Situations where routine cannibalism occurs can in the long run have serious negative implications for a given species. If you think of a group of related animals living in close proximity as a single organism (which in many ways, it is), it would be like eating yourself. If you eat too much, you might not be able to heal properly before taking another bite, until there is not enough of you left to survive.
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    Quote Originally Posted by spuriousmonkey View Post
    people do eat people.
    Eating with Cannibals in Papua New Guinea

    There's ritual cannibalism: in Papua they did that to neutralize the person's evil...

    In historical societies that collapse, there usually seems to be evidence of cannibalism...Easter Island being the best-known example:

    Civilisations: why they fail | COSMOS magazine
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    I think we have to differentiate 3 main types of cannibalism and finding the common link will help us to find why it is not widespread in modern society.
    There is first the ritual cannibalism, for example eating the heart, the tongue etc... of a human being. Usually, the corpse eaten is a close member of the community or opposite, a total stranger. I am living in Nigeria and as a foreigner, I am always shocked when I learn about story of ritual cannibalism in Africa. It is very often a child or a woman. The idea is to take the power of the part/person by eating a designated organ. For example, when some yoruba kings are taking the crown, they have to eat the heart of their dead predecessor. To which extent we can relate the world of Jesus's last supper to that, it is quite interesting to think about it.

    The second type is the criminal cannibalism. The people like this japanese man or the crazy russian guy are often ritualizing the eating of the corpse. I think it can be attached to the first type. They are also often refering about "breaking a taboo", "to see how it tastes" etc... Still, there is a strong social component.
    The last type is the cannibalism by necessity, like on the Medusa raft, with the rugby uruguayan team crashed in the Andes or in Russia during the great starvation after the Revolution.

    In all cases, there is a taboo breaking which is attached to the image of human being. Humans are conscious animals. Eating another human being is seen as eating yourself, thus self destruction. Suicide and cannibalism are both linked on a way. The Kalster note on the Dunbar limit is totally relevant: see ritual cannibalism where all taboos need to be broken. In criminal cannibalism, you will rarely see the murderer eating his families but rather strangers. He is ready to break a taboo up to a point.
    In modern society, there is 2 reasons why cannibalism is not present: first the christian message has diffused all the society and we attempt to see the stranger as a brother. It was not the case in tribal societies: the "others" are often deshumanized or rather, they are humans but from a lower standards. The second reason is more negative. In the modern society, the social links have been dissolved, the Dunbar limit is more fuzzy. The notion of tribe has been broken. Cannibalism has no reason to exist anymore.
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    Humans do comonly eat other humans.
    (1) In airplane crashes in deserted areas were there is no other food, humans will eat the humans who died in the crash. (I have heard this several times.)
    (2) I also believe that when (3-6) men are in a rescue boat at sea, with no food, they will eat a man who dies.
    (3) I also heard a soldier who was starving in the desert say, "he was thinking about eating his dead comrads."

    This says to me that, if humans are in a situation starving with no other food, and a member of their group dies, they will eat the human who died. So I would think that humans are geneticly programed to never eat humans from their own tribal group, unless that human dies first and there is no other food around.

    But I believe there are also some humans that are genicily programed to eat other humans. I have heard on TV of several serial killers eating humans they killed. So I would suspect that some serial killers are geneticly programed to eat humans even when there is other food around.

    Also, I heard recently that chimps eat other chimps. I saw a TV show were a "war party" pack of chimps went to attack another group of chimps. That "war party" killed a juvinile chimp from the other group, and then several of the chimps from the war party ate the killed chimp, and shared the carcus.
    But these chimps killed and ate a chimp from a rival group, not there own tribal group.

    Also human canibals eat other humans. But human canabals do not eat other humans for protien. They are actaully canabal warriors who eat their dead enemys as a final insult. They may also do this to spread fear, but they do it. (several diferent cultures do this.)
    So humans and chimps will eat their same species, in a combat situation.

    I would say that humans are geniticly programed to not eat members of their own tribal group, unless that human dies first and there is no other food around. But some serial killers are genicly programed to eat other humans even when there is other food around.
    And then there is war time behavior, humans and chimps both eat enemys they killed in combat. But this may be done out of anger.








    Quote Originally Posted by Twentie View Post
    I've been doing a project on human cannibalism and how it relates to zoological cannibalism. What i've discovered is that cannibalism is hugely widespread in the animal kingdom, more than most people seem to realise. In fact i tried asking why people don't perform cannibalism on Yahoo Answers: Why don't we eat dead people? - Yahoo! Answers

    I didn't get a great reception, though i never implied i wanted to do it - i was simply asking. Why this irrational hatred? i have a few potential answers:

    1: Cannibalism leads to diseases spreading. Prions, etc. (however i'm unconvinced by this as prions mainly seem to be transmitted in uncooked brain tissue, not in normal meat from what i can tell)
    2: Eating dead people would lead to problems with the image you have of living people, leading to an unstable society. (this mainly relies on the idea that some "primitive" societies have been documented to perform cannibalism, whereas modern "civilised" ones do not, evidently. In fact, they abhorr it.
    3: People equate the act of eating a human with predators, and they needed to be scared of predators in order to stay alive.

    I'm more a biologist than a psychologist, so these are pretty rough ideas.. Anyone got any thoughts? I've done a bit of reading and all three ideas seem to have some backing.. would love to hear what people have to say, so long as it's not "You have a sick mind"..
    Last edited by chad; September 5th, 2011 at 07:16 PM.
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    Here's my attempt at this question: if the food chain on this planet became so advanced such as food became so rich that it made us feel sick regardless of the food but more tha brain thought that went on to create it made it so rich that we could not eat it what would we eat. For example, if there such thing as a sociel class that devided us in the forms of what we could afford to eat and how it made us feel would that close down society in such a way that the social class lived in food rich la la land and the poor ate what? There is a movie called alive set in the himalaya's that represents that if we were trapped in an enviroment that meant no food would we eat each other. For me without example I would rather die than eat my best friend
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jona View Post
    Here's my attempt at this question: the social class lived in food rich la la land and the poor ate what? There is a movie called alive set in the himalaya's that represents that if we were trapped in an enviroment that meant no food would we eat each other. For me without example I would rather die than eat my best friend
    I suspect he/she would rather die than be forced to read any more of your posts.
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    I would rather die than be attracted to her selfish tastes
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jona View Post
    Here's my attempt at this question: the social class lived in food rich la la land and the poor ate what? There is a movie called alive set in the himalaya's that represents that if we were trapped in an enviroment that meant no food would we eat each other. For me without example I would rather die than eat my best friend
    Actually the movie was based on an actual event where the occupants did indeed tuck into the pilots who had died in the crash...it is a true story, and the plane crash happened over the Andes (not Himalaya's)
    The hand of time rested on the half-hour mark, and all along that old front line of the English there came a whistling and a crying. The men of the first wave climbed up the parapets, in tumult, darkness, and the presence of death, and having done with all pleasant things, advanced across No Man's Land to begin the Battle of the Somme. - Poet John Masefield.

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    And when they were i wonder what they ate before they ran out of food ... Good movie though.
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    Emergency situations are a bit different. Most of us are lucky enough not to have our thoughts taken over by starvation after not eaten for three or four days--those that have say its an irresistible drive like nothing else they've experienced. Modern examples of starvation-based cannibalism are uncommon--the soccer team featured in "Alive," is one prominent example. Before modern transport it was a far more common event and somewhat accepted as necessary. Most of us know about the Donner party. A hundred years ago, most Americans were also familiar with the story of the Essex, the sailing ship sank by a sperm whale mid-Pacific which was the inspiration for Herman Melville's "Moby Dick." The actual events following the sinking of the Essex were worse than Melville's imagination. The crew tried to cross against the trade-winds to make South America in three small open boats. After sailing and rowing for weeks out of sight of land, out of food and unable to catch fish, they got so desperate for food that they ended up drawing lots to see who'd they kill for food--the thinking that a live crew would have more "meat" than a "dead" crew. They ended up killing and eating several of their own before making landfall and rescue. Despite the horror, they were forgiven by society and most went on with their lives without a serious stigma; the captain even got another ship to command.
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    I'm aware that it happens in certain survival circumstances. Similarly, some serial killers have broken the taboo. Also, there are a select few societies that have practised it (The Fore people for example). However W. Arens, in his book "The Man-eating Myth" disproves many of the reported examples of ritual cannibalism in primitive societies.

    What i was more interested in is why no "advanced" societies nowadays practise it - as it's a perfectly reasonable recycling of resources that could otherwise be wasted in burying them. The hate for cannibalism could be coincidental but the fact that it's in all technologically advanced societies suggests to me that it is integral to the existence of such a society. Thoughts?
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    Ever heard of placenta pills? Encapsulating the dried placenta to combat post-partum depression is gaining momentum in today's advanced society. Would you consider the ingesting of your own body parts as cannibalistic? Or does a placenta not figure into this discussion?
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    Yes people do eat people, though not common. Generally I find it's because our parents don't do it, because their parents don't do it, etc. etc. etc. This is more than likely because of the phenomenon where a major disease killed off many people, when the survivors ate the dead it would either make them sick or kill them. This would be a pretty easy thing to notice the cause of and was likely attributed to the passing of bad spirits from body to body or something - as is the belief generally observed in most ancient and tribal cultures.
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  20. #19 Cannibalism? Yes! 
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    Actually, cannibalism among humans was widespread during ancient and pre-civilized times: one vivid line of evidence comes from mythology. Fathers are often depicted as eating their children. Numerous prohibitions against cannibalism indicate that it was indeed practiced - why ban it if it did not exist? There is also abundant scientific evidence - human coprolites containing human DNA; human skulls roasted and broken open using tools, the brains consumed. There is also historical evidence for cannibalism, including Aztec and Mayan blood sacrifice, with the victims bodies being consumed - protein otherwise lacking in the diet. Commanche and Apache Indians ate human meat; the Iroquois went on hunting parties with humans as the specific prey. The ancient Hebrews practiced cannibalism: read Deuteronomy. in which god forces them to eat their own children - mothers included, as punishment for not obeying him. The evidence is there; we ignore it.
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    As much as I dislike people, most of the time I don't even like being near other human beings. The thought of cooking a human being, especially a few Republican or Democrat politicians, doesn't sound so bad. But the eating part -- no way!

    Would I eat another already-dead human being if I was stranded in the Andes after a plane crash? Maybe . . .

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    I honestly do not care. in my mind it would be disrespectful to eat someone, I wouldn't mind eating my own finger, I would never do that though because I am using it and will take no pleasure in eating it.
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    The aforementioned Fore people had an epidemic of Kuru disease as a result of their cannibalism. In general it is probably not a very healthful practice, which would lead to a natural selection against the societies that practiced it. This is no doubt the case for many other taboos; i.e, the taboo has proven beneficial in some way to the society.
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    I could relate to Kalster's reply, since cannibalism was often practised by the native Maori people of my country. However, it was most definitely the "others" they ate. That is - members of another tribe killed or taken captive in battle.

    It is interesting that Kalster, a South African resident, should raise this one. He is obviously well aware of the tribal attitude of "they are not of our tribe, and that makes them non human." People who are not considered human are more likely to be the victims of cannibalism.

    The people of Papua New Guinea did the same. They valued their own tribal members, but regarded outsiders as non humans. Killing non humans is not a crime against the local ethos.
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    Some mammals have an aversion to cannibalism. Some don't.
    Bears seem perfectly happy to eat other bears, even their own species.
    That could be because they have to gain weight for winter hibernation, so have to be willing to eat anything.

    Tigers and Lions not so much. I saw a documentary on lions which were starving to death in a drought in Africa.
    One female died of hunger, but the other's were obviously extremely reluctant to eat their sister's body.

    They did eventually, but it was very clear that they had to overcome their natural inclinations.

    I've also read many accounts of Lions and Tigers killing Leopards, but they very rarely eat them.
    But a tiger did on one occasion. The researchers said it was an extremely unusual thing to happen.
    There must be SOMETHING inherent in cats that makes them reluctant to eat other cats.

    I was at a golf driving range once, and somebody hit a ball into nearby trees, and hit a magpie.
    It fell to the ground flapping it's wings, and the other magpies immediately attacked it, killing it and starting to eat it, even before it had stopped moving.
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    If you watched or read the whole "Silence of the Lambs"/"Hannibal Lector" series, it seems that particular serial killer ate the flesh of his victims as sort of a protest against the way society feeds off of itself, kind of as a message.

    Personally, I think the reason we evolved a distaste for it is because of the degree to which we feel the need to dominate one another in order to survive. Taking slaves, abusing children, or just declaring ourselves king and smashing dissent. The victims of such domination have to know they're not valuable as food, or they wouldn't view servitude as a likely means to their own survival. The instinct benefits both the dominator and the dominated. It might also explain why horse meat isn't all that interesting to us. It's like it's natures way of convincing us not to kill the golden goose for its eggs.


    Quote Originally Posted by Lynx_Fox View Post
    Emergency situations are a bit different. Most of us are lucky enough not to have our thoughts taken over by starvation after not eaten for three or four days--those that have say its an irresistible drive like nothing else they've experienced. Modern examples of starvation-based cannibalism are uncommon--the soccer team featured in "Alive," is one prominent example. Before modern transport it was a far more common event and somewhat accepted as necessary. Most of us know about the Donner party. A hundred years ago, most Americans were also familiar with the story of the Essex, the sailing ship sank by a sperm whale mid-Pacific which was the inspiration for Herman Melville's "Moby Dick." The actual events following the sinking of the Essex were worse than Melville's imagination. The crew tried to cross against the trade-winds to make South America in three small open boats. After sailing and rowing for weeks out of sight of land, out of food and unable to catch fish, they got so desperate for food that they ended up drawing lots to see who'd they kill for food--the thinking that a live crew would have more "meat" than a "dead" crew. They ended up killing and eating several of their own before making landfall and rescue. Despite the horror, they were forgiven by society and most went on with their lives without a serious stigma; the captain even got another ship to command.
    There's actually a name for it. It was called "long pork". Not all that uncommon a fate for people who'd get Shanghai'ed and forced into service on boats departing from Portland, OR back in the 1800's. Sometimes a boat would simply spend too long at sea and run out of supplies. You'd want to be very conscientious about your place in the pecking order at a time like that.
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    It is interesting that Kalster, a South African resident, should raise this one. He is obviously well aware of the tribal attitude of "they are not of our tribe, and that makes them non human."
    Indeed I am.
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    I would say that humans have a will to not cannibalise due to the evolutionary statement that 'doing so would potentially end your gene pool'. Humans have the brain and the evolutionary ability to subconsciously realise that canabalism would in turn have an effect on their social (inability to attract a mate due to the mate likening the subject to a predator) and physical well being, and can potentially end their own gene pool.
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    Excellent thread but there is a piece of misinformation. Prion diseases are a valid deterent to canabalism because no amount of cooking can render prion infected fleash safe to eat. Prions have to burned to the point of carbonization to be destroyed. Carbonized meat no longer has food value.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sealeaf View Post
    Excellent thread but there is a piece of misinformation. Prion diseases are a valid deterent to canabalism because no amount of cooking can render prion infected fleash safe to eat. Prions have to burned to the point of carbonization to be destroyed. Carbonized meat no longer has food value.
    That may be true, but to be a deterrent, people would have to know that it was cannibalism that made them sick.
    Without modern medicine, they would have no way of knowing what the cause was, especially if the disease came on gradually over many years.
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    Quote Originally Posted by mistermack View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Sealeaf View Post
    Excellent thread but there is a piece of misinformation. Prion diseases are a valid deterent to canabalism because no amount of cooking can render prion infected fleash safe to eat. Prions have to burned to the point of carbonization to be destroyed. Carbonized meat no longer has food value.
    That may be true, but to be a deterrent, people would have to know that it was cannibalism that made them sick.
    Without modern medicine, they would have no way of knowing what the cause was, especially if the disease came on gradually over many years.
    The proof of that being that we do have human prion caused diseases spread by cannibalism. My point was just to emphasize that cooking does not prevent the spread of prion disease. We tend to see the application of heat as a cure - all. It is not.
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    If you ate a person it would change your views on other human beings. You would be wild, feral and blood thirsty and being human our minds are very powerful yet very delicate. We love and want to be loved, we share and expect or don't expect anything back, we imagine and teach our own things, we create and ask for prays by others, we feel and have empathy for others and the ability to want to be apart of anyones life. It's better this way. I don't know anyone who would want to traumatize themselves in this way and become an outcast to the world. Your life would literally be over.

    I don't think "because we don't" or "Because you would get disease" is relevant.

    Asking the question is completely okay.
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  33. #32  
    Forum Bachelors Degree dmwyant's Avatar
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    In complete seriousness and honesty I want to try long pig. I am also fairly certain that the only thing that leads to prion disease is consuming brain matter. The rest of the meat should be fine and relatively disease free if cooked properly.
    Not all who wander are lost... Some of us just misplaced our destination.

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  34. #33  
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    At present day, humans don't eat humans as often for several reasons. First, there are alternate sources of nutrition that are easier to access and more humans can ensure more food is brought in. Second, eating or even killing people violates social norms. If someone were to eat a human, there is a very strong negative reaction and the person is shunned. Take for example the cases of the Greyhound Bus killer and more recently, the man who ate another man's face. Last, as part of social norms, people try to obey the law to the best of their abilities. A minor violation is fairly well tolerated but for killing and eating someone, the punishment is very severe, the person has likely restricted themselves of that dietary source forever (unless they are released and re-offend). With that said, there are exceptions even in modern times but it's important to determine whether cannibalization is due to necessity or intentional and desired.

    During earlier times, social norms may have differed and cannibalization was more common as a way to resolve an issue. By this, I mean a society with strong male hunters would consume an elderly person or someone who is very ill as they cannot contribute as much for gathering food, undesirable for reproduction and would slow down any migration of the pack. Killing the individual would solve all three problems, however, it generates quite a lot of risk by attracting dangerous predators. The most efficient way of solving this is to eat the person, plus it would serve as a large source of nutrition even if the individual was ill.
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