American 'Cannibal Apocalypse'?

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A recent spate of sensational cannibalism cases is making headlines. On May 26, in Miami, Florida, Rudy Eugene was high on drugs when he attacked a homeless man, Ronald Poppo, biting his victim’s face and ripping his flesh until police shot and killed him.

As if that crime wasn’t bizarre enough, a second case emerged a few days later when Alexander Kinyua, a student at Maryland’s Morgan State University, allegedly confessed to killing, dismembering, and eating his roommate’s heart and brain. Kinyua’s motive is unclear, though many believe it is related to African belief in magic. Kinyua is from Kenya in East Africa, where there is strong belief that body parts (including those of albinos) have magical abilities.

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As Jennifer Viegas recently pointed out here on Discovery News, though human cannibalism is rare in the modern world, it still persists. Viegas described a case in Brazil where two suspects confessed to murdering at least two women, eating parts of their bodies, and using the rest to make meat pies sold on a streetcorner in Sao Paulo. One of the killers stated that the murder and cannibalism was driven by religious duty.

Cannibalism has occasionally been practiced by murderers; serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer infamously killed and ate parts of several victims during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and in 1994 an Ohio man named Henry Heepe killed his mother, dismembered her, and cooked some of her body parts. Heepe said he killed his mother because he believed she was a “vampire devil.”

Perhaps the strangest case was that in 2006 of German Armin Meiwes, who solicited for — and found — a willing victim to cannibalize. Meiwes posted an online ad “looking for a well-built 18- to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed.” A man named Bernd Jürgen Brandes volunteered, and Meiwes ate Brandes over the course of the next ten months. Despite his victim’s participation Meiwes was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

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The idea that consuming another’s flesh (or taking another person’s body parts) gives the cannibal or killer some special power or ability is ancient. Tribes in South America, Indonesia, and elsewhere practiced headhunting into the twentieth century, often taking limbs and heads as war trophies and sources of magic. This theme can be found in mainstream religion as well; for example in Roman Catholicism bread and wine are believed to literally — not just figuratively — become the flesh and blood of Jesus upon consumption (in a process called transubstantiation).

There are many myths about humans eating human flesh. While some historians believe that cannibalism was an accepted practice in some tribal societies, this view has been disputed by William Arens, an anthropologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

In his 1980 book The Man-Eating Myth (Oxford University Press 1980), Arens challenges the claim that that cannibalism was ever a socially approved custom anywhere in the world. Arens doesn’t deny that cannibalism has been practiced, but questions the assumption that it was ever routine, ritualized, or acceptable. Instead, incidents of cannibalism were driven by famine, mental illness, or aberrant belief in mysticism or religion.

As it turns out, one of the most famous cases of American cannibalism may not be true. In 2006, archaeologists who researched Alder Creek, Nevada — the site where the ill-fated Donner pioneer party became trapped during the winter of 1846 and allegedly resorted to cannibalism — announced that “there’s no physical evidence that the family who gave the Donner Party its name had anything to do with cannibalism.” The findings did not disprove the sensational stories that emerged after the survivors were rescued, but found no physical evidence to support the claims.

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Though many in the media have dubbed the recent attacks as part of a sensational “zombie apocalypse,” there is nothing particularly zombie-like nor apocalyptic (nor entertaining) about them. Rudy Eugene did not attack his victim to eat his flesh; instead the naked, unarmed man used his teeth as a weapon, not a tool for consumption. These are isolated incidences of horrific attacks and murders on innocent victims by attackers influenced by drugs and mystical superstition.

There is a very real history of cannibalism, but it has little to do with anything in today’s headlines.

Photos: Rudy Eugene, left, the perpetrator of the Miami attack. Ronald Poppo, right, the victim. Credit: Miami-Dade Police Department