Luckily, survival cannibalism isn’t a common occurrence in today’s modern world, but it wasn’t always like this. Still today we hear rumors and stories about desperate people resorting to the most extreme of survival strategies to get through an otherwise impossible situation. Most of the time, however, when one hears of cannibalism it involves very ill people, or one of the few remaining uncontacted tribes still in existence.
Survival cannibalism in our history
While most consider it unthinkable to resort to eating a fellow man, even in an extreme survival situation, there are examples of this having occurred.
The Donner Party’s Struggle in the Nevada Mountains
The Donner Party was a group of American pioneers who set out for California in the spring of 1846, led by George Donner and James F. Reed. The group followed the California Trail, but a series of unfortunate events and poor decisions led to one of the most tragic episodes in the history of westward migration.
As they traveled through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the fall of 1846, an early snowfall trapped the Donner Party, preventing them from crossing the mountain pass. Stranded in harsh winter conditions with dwindling supplies, the pioneers faced starvation.
Desperation set in, and some members of the Donner Party resorted to cannibalism as a last-ditch effort to survive. When rescue parties finally reached them in early 1847, nearly half of the original group had perished.
The Donner Party tragedy is a stark reminder of the challenges faced by pioneers during westward expansion and the extreme measures individuals may take when confronted with life-threatening situations. It remains one of the most infamous examples of survival cannibalism in American history.
The Uruguayan Rugby Team’s Fight for Survival in the Andes
In 1972 a flight carrying the whole Uruguayan rugby team was on the way to Chile. Unfortunately, the plane crashed into the Andes Mountains which started the 72 days long disastrous situation in which the team and their families had to fight for survival. They where up against extreme condition, including hihg-altitude terrain, cold temperatures, and a lack of food.
With little hope of immediate rescue the survivors had to make difficult choices to stay alive. Some even resorted to eating the deceased to stay alive themselves. After the event some of the survivors faced both psychological and physical challenges.
Risks of Survival Cannibalism
As with any type of food, meat especially, that is not properly made, it carries significant physical risks, even in a survival situation. Besides the potential for bacteria, viruses and other types of common diseases, there’s also the risk to contract fatal neurological disorders, like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from prions.
Cooking would mitigate some bacterial and viral infection. Prions, however are exceptionally resilient to heat and would be able to withstand normal cooking, thus still putting the eater at significant risk.
Ethical concerns of survival cannibalism
The ethical concerns could be divided up further into several groups:
Respect for the dead
One of the things that separate humans from animals is our respect for our deceased. We are pretty much the only species who bury our dead. In addition to this, many cultures believe in reincarnation, life after death and similar. Violating a deceased person, wether by eating or otherwise will robb that person the dignity in the afterlife everyone deserves.
Violation of inherent rights
Every human’s right to life, dignity, and bodily integrity are considered fundamental rights in most ethical frameworks.
Impacts on future behaviour
Even in extreme survival situations, practicing cannibalism can have rippling effects for the future of human behaviour. It could set a precedence for people in other tough situations to resort to extreme practices and might even lead to a breakdown in societal norms and ethical boundaries.
One thing that should not be underestimated in such situations is the psychological impact of the events for survivors. In the examples of the rugby team many of the survivors suffered greatly. Both from the trauma of losing friends and family and from resorting to cannibalism for survival.
Practicing cannibalism in even the most exteme of survival situations doesn’t seem like a good idea. The potential risks of contracting diseases, both mental and physical, should not be understated. In addition, extreme events might form human behaviour even in the future, where it might not be called for.
After death, a man’s reputation is all that’s left.
Read other articles on survival here to make sure you’re prepared and never have to resort to extreme meassures!