Human cannibalism is steeped in controversy, a subject that both fascinates and repulses.
Many anthropologists argue that cannibalism is an instinctive part of human nature - that it was an institution in many, if not all, ancient cultures; that people will turn to cannibalism without reservation in a survival situation; and that our very bones are imprinted with evidence that we are creatures who eat our own.
Other experts vehemently disagree, denying that cannibalism played a major role throughout history. They question eyewitness accounts and take issue with what archaeologists claim is hard scientific evidence. 'Cannibals' gets to the heart of the debate by investigating both well-known and little-known scenarios in which humans may have resorted to eating other humans.
The taboo of cannibalism has been with us for centuries. We explore early accounts of cannibalism, and how the reputed act and its practitioners were perceived by the Western world, and to what extent we can rely on historic sources as truth.
Though European explorers were quick to slap the cannibal label on peoples they encountered exploring the globe, we’ll reveal the extent to which they practiced their own form of medicinal cannibalism back home.
We investigate some of the most common motivations for cannibalism beginning with survival: in 1765 the crew of the Peggy draws lots to decide who shall be sacrificed to feed the rest. A century later, Sir John Franklin's entire expedition perishes in the arctic, but not before some resort to consuming human flesh. In 1883, Alfred Packer makes headlines worldwide when he is convicted of murdering and cannibalizing five of his companions on a Colorado gold-rush expedition turned winter survival catastrophe. Finally, we meet two of the survivors of the 1972 Andes plane crash who, with over twenty other passengers, are forced to consume the dead bodies of their friends in order to survive for over 70 days in the Andes Mountains in Argentina.
Through these first-hand accounts, we try to better comprehend how, in certain situations; the unthinkable becomes the only choice. Survival expert Dr. Ken Kamler helps us understand the physiology of hunger and how it can push a person to transcend a taboo and choose human flesh over starvation.
Cannibalism is not always an act of necessity; it can also be a ritual, a ceremonial practice, as much an accepted choice as praying is in other cultures. We investigate the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, who consumed their dead as late as the 1950's. But the practice proved deadly, causing Kuru, a devastating and fatal disease passed through contaminated human flesh.
We’ll investigate the recent scientific findings that show Kuru is linked to other diseases, such as mad cow disease, and see how the disease pattern may shed light on a shared cannibalistic past worldwide. We’ll also take a look at funerary cannibalism as practiced by the Wari of Brazil, who are reported to have eaten the bodies of their loved ones to avoid burying them in the ground "to rot and be eaten by worms". But some experts are skeptical, claiming that no one has ever witnessed cannibalism in the act - which brings us to the heart of the controversy over this practice: what kind of "hard evidence" evidence is available as proof?
Today archaeologists around the globe are studying the remains of some of our earliest ancestors, and getting surprising results. From Europe to Africa to the Americas, it seems our early ancestors were at times motivated to butcher and consume each other in the same way they processed animals for meat.
We visit sites in the American Southwest inhabited by the Anasazi from the 12th and 13th centuries. Are the butchered bones left behind signs that they brutally killed, then ate one-another, or indications of witchcraft? Could cannibalism have been used as a means of political control, or part of an elaborate rite to destroy a condemned witch? Bimolecular analysis of petrified feces will shed surprising clues.
Meanwhile, in a cave site in France called Moula Guercy, archaeologist Alban Defleur will introduce us to the most convincing evidence to date that Neanderthal man routinely practiced cannibalism 100,000 years ago.
Using stone tools like those found in the cave, Defleur will demonstrate pre-historic butchering techniques that left behind telling cut marks on human bones. How does all the evidence stack up? Could it be that a cannibal instinct has been with us since the dawn of mankind?