You shouldn’t have to ask yourself, “why can’t I eat other people?” There are many societal factors for why that’s a bad idea. But it turns out, cannibalism is more than just a social taboo–it can bring about some pretty negative health effects as well. So why exactly is cannibalism bad for you?
Why Is Cannibalism Bad for You?
Cannibals in Nature
Before we go down the rabbit hole that is cannibalism, let’s first get on the same page. Quick refresher, cannibalism is when you eat members of your own species. You know, like a praying mantis eating another praying mantis, or a human eating another human.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of cannibalism; endocannibalism and exocannibalism. The former is when there is cannibalism within the perpetrator’s community. That would be like you eating people you live with. The latter revolves around eating things outside the community. That’s hunting and eating your neighbors for food.
Cannibalism is actually not too uncommon in nature, and it can take many different forms. The aforementioned praying mantis, and also some spiders, will eat their mates. Some animals will even eat their own young. This kind of cannibalism is aptly named, “filial cannibalism.”
In aquatic places, nearly 90% of life will exhibit cannibalistic tendencies somewhere in their life cycles. For example, there are some sharks that will eat each other while in the womb.
And cannibalism isn’t even unique to meat-eaters. It turns out some herbivores will also eat each other.
Humans Causing Cannibalism
With all the weird and terrible things humans do, is it really that much of a surprise that our actions have actually caused cannibalism in some animals? Let’s look at how we facilitate cannibalism in poultry.
This phenomenon occurs a lot in domesticated poultry. Think chickens, turkeys, stuff like that. And it’s such a strange, yet frequently observable occurrence, that there’s actually been quite a lot of research into it. We’ll stick to chickens in our example.
So chickens are notoriously aggressive, and they establish a social hierarchy called a pecking order. In captivity, there is a lot of stress placed upon a flock of chickens. And this immense stress can destroy the pecking order; or at the very least violate it. In which case chickens will begin to act aggressively towards one another. This causes bleeding.
Well, it turns out when chickens see blood, they go kind of nuts. Bleeding birds often get killed and/or eaten by other chickens. It’s such a well-known issue that we make special goggles for chickens so they can’t see the blood.
Ultimately, the environments we create for captive chickens are great for making the birds flip out. Captive chickens are often overheated, overcrowded, and underfed. Dominating chickens get all the food, while lower order chickens are more likely to be attacked and subsequently eaten.
Cannibalism in Humans
Cannibalism in humans has been well-documented in various cultures around the globe, both past and present.
Some scientists believe Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans may have practiced cannibalism. There’s also evidence to suggest its appearance in ancient Egypt. More recently, scholars have found cases of cannibalism throughout the world, from the islands of Oceania to the Amazon Rainforest to the Congo in central Africa.
Even in the 21st century, there are a handful of cultures where we see evidence of cannibalism, like with the Aghori in India. They believe in eating the flesh of those already passed as a path to enlightenment. No, there aren’t records of the Aghori hunting and killing people that we know of.
It’s also not uncommon to see human cannibalism in times of war or famine, like during the Siege of Leningrad during WWII. Sometimes, cannibalism is used as a last resort of survival, like in the famous stories of the Donner Party and the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. In both cases, passengers ate the dead to survive.
The Health Dangers of Cannibalism
At the end of the day, cannibalism is not great for humans. Like at all.
Your body needs proteins to function, and they work by being folded. Proteins are simple in structure, so the way they’re folded is a great way to identify what the protein does. The problem is that two proteins made of the exact same stuff, but folded just slightly differently, can do a lot of terrible things.
Misfolded proteins are called prions, which cause transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). They’re also called prion diseases, which we find rolls off the tongue better.
The problem with prions is that they cause nearby proteins to also misfold. This results in clumps of misfolded proteins, and your brain gets spongy holes, which can be fatal. It’s like super brain damage.
This leads us back to cannibalism, because it turns out, eating human brains or flesh is a wonderful way to get prions into your system–especially when the flesh is already infected with prions. That’s the origin of a condition known as Kuru, largely localized to Papua New Guinea due to a small handful of tribes that practice cannibalism.
This is the same reason mad cow disease came about. Through quite a similar transmission method.
Further Reading: What Is Mad Cow Disease?