Last Saturday while sipping tempranillos with Karin, she said: “Life is there to be devoured, not nibbled at!”
Truer words were never spoken than on that sunny afternoon as we sat on the Southbank peering into the depths of old Lady Thames. Moments earlier we purchased tickets to Mozart’s Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall, and in that moment, tempered by the bounty of Bacchus and great camaraderie, I felt invincible. Like the forerunner to rapture or a scientist on the cusp of a great discovery. Vitality is intoxicating. Speaking of devouring life, do you know what our ancestors did to elicit this high? Beyond cultivating an intimate rapport with the forest fungi and anthropomorphising its effects (because spirituality just isn’t the same without a god or spirit to whisper sweet nothings in your ear), recent evidence suggests that our Bronze Age forbearers got their rocks off by eating human flesh.
There is something disturbingly familiar about cannibalism. Go on, admit it. The gruesome deed, the cold steel and the blood that strikes a chord and sings to our unsophisticated selves; an urge that has become domesticated over time with civilising ethics and a borrowing of tamer adjectives to describe what is essentially the same thing. Food and religion, a timeless confederation that marries man’s fundamental need for sustenance with an equally powerful will to worship. Cannibalism is nothing new. Christians have been cannibalising Christ for 2000 years by taking the Eucharist: “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:54). We assume a similar gesture when eating hot cross buns, a relic from Germanic paganism, when heathens used to eat spiced buns to honour the goddess Eostre. How many times have you referred to a loved one as sweet, delicious, delectable? The devouring of life, and of love, would not have been allegorical or indeed far-fetched to our ancient forbearers. The ritual of eating the body at a funeral, for instance, was a promise of a new transformed relationship between the living and the dead. Traces of cannibalism continue to surface all around the world, and new evidence suggests that we have been eating human flesh since our earliest ancestors walked the earth.
People are fascinated by cannibalism because it strikes them as being awfully alien yet inexplicably familiar at the same time. There is a German word that describes this notion of detached familiarity well. The word is nachvollziebar (literally: able to be traced through thought). The statement ‘kanibalismus ist nachvollziebar’ can be read as: “While only a madman would commit the act of cannibalism, the craving to devour an object of desire is perfectly understandable to a normal mind.” Romanticising cannibalism is one thing, but what would you do if you were on the cusp of death and your only chance of survival was to eat human flesh?
It is a remarkable tale of human endurance, one that has been the ghoulish reality of many survivors and the fate befalling countless explorers on the high seas. One famous example is the Peggy, an American cargo ship sailing back to New York in 1765. One stormy night, a barrage of storms tore the ship’s sails and they lost all navigation. The Peggy’s crew held out for over a month, and after all the rations were gone they ate rats, and then the leather from their own shoes. When there was nothing left to eat, withered, emaciated and maddened by hunger, they eventually drew lots; the unlucky men were to be sacrificed so that their shipmates could live. Upon rescue, the men admitted to eating human flesh but insisted that they did not consider themselves cannibals, nor were they condemned as such by society or the courts. Dozens of other ‘cannibals of chance’ were exonerated upon their safe return; another example is the British vessel HMS Terror in 1845 (what an ironic name, given its fate!). A recent example is the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes in 1972. Incidentally I warmly recommend the film “Alive” (1993), based on that case.
The mind’s resistance to the taboo of cannibalism can be broken down by the psychological stress caused by starvation. Let’s look at the science. When a person begins to starve, their body sends a warning signal called hunger. To combat starvation the body turns to its own resources for fuel; first it burns the carbohydrates and sugars that provide energy. When they are gone, the body consumes its fat reserves, and once those are depleted the final source of fuel is the body’s own protein. The problem with that is that it’s like burning your house down to keep warm; you are literally eating yourself alive. But desperate times call for desperate measures. In the human body, the biggest source of protein is muscle tissue. It will deplete your muscles to the point where you are weakened but can still function. If no food is forthcoming, the body starts to shut down all the organs not essential for survival, such as the liver, stomach and intestines. Your body reaches a kind of ‘black out’ condition where it is now concentrating on keeping your heart, lungs and brain going. When it gets beyond that point, when your body can’t even keep those organs going, it will begin to shut down your brain. It is at this point that cannibalism becomes acceptable.
The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for all our higher thoughts; ethics, reasoning, love, beauty, and compassion. But none of these emotions are essential for survival, so the body shuts down the cerebral cortex. What that leaves you with is a primitive, reptilian brain that is only interested in survival. Ethics have left the scene and it makes it easier for you to do whatever it takes to survive, including killing and eating another human being. This is exactly where the crewmen of the Peggy found themselves after two months of starvation rations. Their ethical behaviour was essentially cut-off from their lower functions.
The connection between human sacrifice and cannibalism has long been documented. There is much evidence to suggest that cannibalism was a regular feature of Neanderthal life and ritual. In various archaeological digs around Europe, remains of countless men, women and children have been found with their limbs severed from their bodies in what anthropologists believe was for the purpose of consuming the bone marrow. Significantly, many animal bones were found too and radiocarbon-dated to the same time as the Neanderthal bones, indicating that hunting was good in the area and that consuming fellow Neanderthals did not necessarily indicate a shortage of food. Perhaps one day they fancied hog, another pheasant, and the next man flesh was thrown on the barbeque.
The Aztecs (above) were arguably the bloodiest proponents of ritual sacrifice and cannibalism; about 30,000 people were killed annually to “nourish” the gods. Hearts of victims were cut out and bodies eaten ceremoniously in an orgy of religious frenzy. Tales of ritual sacrifice in Gaul and Iron Age Britain have prevailed, and indeed the famous ‘bog bodies’ of Europe have been put forward as proof that ritual sacrifice was practiced by Druids, yet these accounts may have been largely manufactured by the ever-encroaching Romans as proof of Celtic barbarity:
Cruel Teutates, pleased by dreadful blood,
Horrid Esus with his barbaric altars,
and Taranis, more cruel than Scythian Diana.
(Lucan, Roman poet, 1st century AD)
Rather satirical when you consider the Romans’ own taste for blood and sacrifice! But there is scant evidence of ritual sacrifice in Gaul and ancient Britain. The grisly accounts Roman scribes such as Lucan and Tacitus give of it may be propaganda designed to justify the Roman invasion of Gaul and then Britain in AD 43.
The principal of sacrifice is as old as human consciousness. Think about what you sacrifice, daily, for your loved ones or for a more professional recompense. The development of human spirituality, understanding of primal urges and the violent unpredictability of nature go hand in hand with all that we are, even if these urges have been anesthetised and lessened with the passing of time. Show me a man who rejects this and I’ll show you a liar, because to resist primitive bloody urges is noble, but to deny their existence and feign intellectual or religious superiority is a lie.
As for devouring life, I have my own rituals.
There is a place not far from my home that I like to visit. It boasts a green river and a misty wood with deer, ancient box-trees and fields of lavender spreading as far as the eye can see. In a secret spot, obscured by nettles and foxgloves, is a Saxon burial ground. It is my favourite place in the south of England. I don’t go often as the weather is notoriously treacherous towards those who would defy it with a pageant through muddy fields. I bring food and verse. Last time it was a slice of homemade apple pie and a book. Because a writer without a book is like a sea without salt or a pasture of black barren soil. It is here that I take my sacrament. I take a bite, whisper a prayer, and the wind tarries like a pensive ghost, before carrying my words through the shimmering boughs of trees.