“Surprising. Impressive. Cannibalism restores my faith in humanity.” —Sy Montgomery, The New York Times Book Review
For centuries scientists have written off cannibalism as a bizarre phenomenon with little biological significance. Its presence in nature was dismissed as a desperate response to starvation or other life-threatening circumstances, and few spent time studying it. A taboo subject in our culture, the behavior was portrayed mostly through horror movies or tabloids sensationalizing the crimes of real-life flesh-eaters. But the true nature of cannibalism--the role it plays in evolution as well as human history--is even more intriguing (and more normal) than the misconceptions we’ve come to accept as fact.
In Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History,zoologist Bill Schutt sets the record straight, debunking common myths and investigating our new understanding of cannibalism’s role in biology, anthropology, and history in the most fascinating account yet written on this complex topic. Schutt takes readers from Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains, where he wades through ponds full of tadpoles devouring their siblings, to the Sierra Nevadas, where he joins researchers who are shedding new light on what happened to the Donner Party--the most infamous episode of cannibalism in American history. He even meets with an expert on the preparation and consumption of human placenta (and, yes, it goes well with Chianti).
Bringing together the latest cutting-edge science, Schutt answers questions such as why some amphibians consume their mother’s skin; why certain insects bite the heads off their partners after sex; why, up until the end of the twentieth century, Europeans regularly ate human body parts as medical curatives; and how cannibalism might be linked to the extinction of the Neanderthals. He takes us into the future as well, investigating whether, as climate change causes famine, disease, and overcrowding, we may see more outbreaks of cannibalism in many more species--including our own.
Cannibalism places a perfectly natural occurrence into a vital new context and invites us to explore why it both enthralls and repels us.
In this comprehensive account of a taboo practice, Schutt (Dark Banquet), professor of biology at LIU-Post, finds that cannibalism is more widespread than generally believed and proffers insight as to why different species resort to the practice of cannibalism, with plenty of scientific evidence to support his conclusions. Schutt covers the commonly known cannibalistic practices found among tadpoles, chimpanzees, sand tiger sharks, and polar bears, but the real intrigue is found in his descriptions of lesser-known instances of cannibalism in humans that have been actively struck from history, including during the 1941 siege of Leningrad and the medicinal cannibalism practiced by a range of European and Chinese rulers. Schutt cites starvation, overcrowding, and even global warming as reasons that humans and animals have turned to cannibalism. Depending on the culture, cannibalism has also been practiced as a learned behavior, as filial piety, as a form of luxurious indulgence, as a funerary ritual, and even as a mood stabilizer. With plenty of examples of cannibalism in humans past and present, Schutt's well researched and suspenseful work is a must read for anyone who's interested in the topic and can stomach the gore. Illus. by Patricia J. Wynne.