Eating Human Flesh to Survive: 5 Tragic Stories of Cannibalism

Throughout history, human beings have been stranded in desperate situations where they’ve had to eat human flesh to survive. Here are some of the most harrowing tales.

Dec 30, 2022By Greg Beyer, BA History and Linguistics, Diploma in Journalism
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Sailors from the Frigate “Cospatrick,” who resorted to cannibalism in 1874, from Hulton Archive/Getty Images, via npr.org

 

There are those who have chosen to eat other human beings out of preference rather than desperation. Many have done so out of a sense of perverted sexual gratification, such as in the cases of serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Andrei Chikitilo. Gaining a grisly reputation, those who choose cannibalism out of desire rather than necessity have been shunned from society.

 

That being said, there have been societies in which cannibalism has been an accepted part of cultural and religious practice. Some of these societies still exist today, living deep within the rainforests, isolated from the modern world. The Korowai of New Guinea are an example of a tribe that professes to still practice cannibalism. Historically, the Aztecs stand out as a culture that practiced religious, ritual cannibalism, eating the bodies of sacrificial victims.

 

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A depiction of the alleged cannibalism of Brazilian natives by Theodor de Bry, 1557, via the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago

 

There are also those who have been forced into cannibalism not out of custom or perverted desire but by sheer circumstance. In these stories, the victims are also those who have had to resort to eating human flesh. Here are five of those stories.

 

1. Cannibalism & the Settlement of Jamestown

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Facial reconstruction of “Jane,” eaten by the residents of Jamestown, from Don Hurlbert, Smithsonian, via wired.co.uk

 

The early years of settlement in the Americas were not kind to the colonizers. The settlement of Jamestown struggled as it suffered from starvation through the first winters. Of the 104 families that founded the colony, only 38 survived the first winter.

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The winter of 1609 was the worst, and this period in Jamestown’s history was known as “The Starving Time.” The colonists had come to rely on supply ships, and when the cargo ship was lost at sea, anything that could be eaten was eaten. Horses, dogs, cats, rats, and mice were the first victims. People ate boots and straps of leather. Finally, the inhabitants turned to cannibalism.

 

In 2012, archeologists uncovered the remains of a 14-year-old girl who had been butchered and eaten. Researchers suggest that the victim was not murdered to be eaten but was rather an opportunistic meal as a recently deceased individual. This, however, is speculation, and we shall never know. What is known is what the girl looked like. Enough of her skull was recovered to be able to reconstruct her face.

 

The leader of the Jamestown settlement, George Percy, had made the claims of cannibalism in 1625, and his writings were the subject of skepticism until the archeological find. He made another claim that he had executed a man by burning him for the crime of eating his pregnant wife. As yet, no archeological discovery has been found, but since the discovery of the last victim, the veracity of George Percy’s claim is in very little doubt.

 

2. The Raft of the Méduse

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The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault, 1818-19, via elephant.art

 

In 1816, the French Frigate Méduse ran aground 100 kilometers (60 miles) off the coast of Mauritania. The crew numbered around 400, but there was only space for 250 people in the lifeboats. The remaining men (and one woman) attempted to make the journey to the African coast via a large raft.

 

Initially, the lifeboat towed the raft, but after only a few miles, someone made the fateful decision to cut the ropes, and the raft was set adrift. Rations on the raft were meager. The only food was a bag of biscuits which was consumed on the first day. The only cask of water was knocked overboard during a scuffle, and all that remained to drink were six casks of wine.

 

Chaos broke out on the first day, and fighting erupted between various groups on the raft. By the end of the first day, 20 people had been thrown overboard or had committed suicide. Stormy weather threatened, and waves rolled over the sides of the raft, dragging hapless victims to their doom. Others were killed in fighting while trying to get to the center. By the fourth day, only 67 crewmembers remained.

 

Parched, starving, and driven to madness, the survivors resorted to cannibalism, murdering and butchering their comrades. On the eighth day, the strongest of the survivors threw the weakest into the sea, leaving only 15 men on the raft. They survived for another four days before being accidentally found by a brig called the Argus.

 

3. The Donner Party

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The Donner Party by Vincent Decourt, via thenation.com

 

In 1846, a group of American pioneers headed west under the captaincy of George Donner. They decided to take a shortcut called the Hastings Cutoff across the Sierra Nevada on the advice of an unreliable guide named Lansford Hastings. The Donner party decided to press on through the route without heeding a warning to the contrary. The “shortcut” turned out to be 125 miles longer than had been claimed, and it ran through extremely inhospitable terrain.

 

The 87 members of the Donner Party reached the Great Salt Lake Desert, the crossing of which caused the loss of dozens of cattle. Several wagons had to be abandoned. By the time the party had reached the end of the Hastings cutoff, they were racing against time as winter was fast approaching.

 

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The Donner Party’s troubles began while crossing the Great Salt Lake Desert, from Bettmann Archive, via The New York Times

 

Winter hit hard, and the Donner Party was trapped in the Sierra Nevada with heavy snow falling without respite. The cattle wandered off and were lost, leaving the members of the party to starve. In desperation, a group of ten men and five women left the party to try and find help. Eight of the men died en route, but the survivors managed to get through to California and rally help. But not after having roasted and eaten meat from the bodies of the fallen. Two of the hikers, Native Americans, had refused to eat the bodies of the dead. They ran off but were hunted down, shot in the head, and eaten.

 

Meanwhile, back at the camp, dogs were eaten, then cowhides, and finally, the bodies of the dead. After two months, the rescue teams arrived. Among those rescued was a crazed Prussian named Lewis Keseberg. Around him were littered human remains, and he was preparing the lungs and liver of Tamsen Donner for his next meal. He was accused of murder, but nothing could ever be proven. Forty-two members of the Donner party died, and around half the survivors had resorted to cannibalism.

 

4. The Crew of the Essex

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The killing of “Mocha Dick,” a whale that inspired Moby Dick, via The New York Times

 

It is uncommon knowledge that the story of Moby Dick is inspired by true events. However, where Moby Dick ends, the story of the crew of the Essex continues and becomes a horrifying tale of men stranded at sea and turning to cannibalism to survive.

 

In November 1820, the whaling ship Essex had found good hunting grounds in the Pacific, and the small boats were out hunting when an 85-foot sperm whale made directly for the Essex, ramming the ship twice and causing irreparable damage. Captain Pollard, who was out with the boats hunting whales, returned to the Essex and asked his first mate Owen Chase what had happened. “We have been stove by a whale,” Chase replied.

 

The decision was made to abandon the ship, and in a bizarre and ironic turn of fate, they decided to head south instead of to the nearest islands, as they believed the latter would be inhabited by cannibals.

 

The crew piled into the boats and left the sinking Essex behind. Salt water saturated the bread, and the scorching sun beat down on them unmercifully. After two weeks, they spotted Henderson Island, but it was barren. Still, three crewmembers decided to stay on the island rather than climb back into the boats.

 

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In the Heart of the Sea, a 2015 movie about the events of the crew of the Essex, from Warner Bros. Pictures / AP, via LA Times

 

A storm struck, and Owen Chase’s boat got separated. After eating one of their dead crewmates, they were rescued by a British brig. The other two boats fared worse. On one of the boats, three men were eaten before the two remaining boats were separated. A whaleboat with three skeletons was later found on Ducie Island, but it was never established if it was from the Essex. The ship with Captain Pollard had the hardest decision. They drew straws to see who would be shot and eaten. Pollard ended up eating his own cousin.

 

When they were finally rescued, only two men remained, one of which was Pollard. The men were crazed from their ordeal and barely registered that they were being rescued when the American whaler Dauphin showed up. They continued sucking on bones as they drew near the ship, and when they were pulled aboard, they stuffed bones into their pockets.

 

The three men who stayed on Henderson Island were later rescued, and the survivors of the incident were all reunited. In 2015, a movie retelling this harrowing story, In the Heart of the Sea, starring Chris Hemsworth and Cillian Murphy, was released.

 

5. Alive! Cannibalism High in the Andes

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Last photo of Uruguayan flight 571 before it crashed in the Andes, via nzherald.co.nz

 

One of the most famous incidents in modern times is the harrowing tale of an Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed high in the Andes. On October 13, 1972, the team was on its way to Chile when their flight crashed into the snowy mountains. Of the 45 people on board, 29 survived the initial horror. But things would only get worse.

 

The ordeal that followed would last 72 days. In the high altitude of the Andes, starvation sets in quickly, and after a few days, one of the survivors picked up a shard of glass and began slicing off bits of flesh from one of their comrade’s buttocks. It was clear that they would have to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. The pilot had died in the crash, and the survivors ate him first as they had no emotional connection to him, but soon, they were having to eat their friends too.

 

Soon after, they found a transistor radio and learned that the search effort had been called off. After an avalanche struck and killed eight more of the survivors, it was decided that a team would go out to find rescue. Two men set out west in the direction of Chile. They trekked to the nearest peak, a monumental task on its own, but there was no sign of civilization from their vantage point.

 

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Survivors of Uruguayan Fight 571 pose for a picture in November 1972, via nzherald.co.nz

 

Resigned to their fate, they climbed down, assured that they would die. They heard the sound of rushing water and found a river. By the river, they found an empty soup can, a horseshoe, a herd of cows, and finally, a man on horseback.

 

Chilean military helicopters were dispatched, and on December 22, 16 survivors were rescued. In 1993, a film called Alive! was released that portrayed the events of the ordeal.

 

Human history is rife with events that have led to cannibalism, from our earliest ancestors to the modern day. In those incidents where survival is at stake, those who have eaten human flesh often struggle with the moral dilemma of what they have had to do. There will no doubt be cases of desperate cannibalism in the future, too, as humans continue to explore, progress, and take risks.



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By Greg BeyerBA History and Linguistics, Diploma in JournalismGreg is an academic writer with a History focus. He comes from South Africa and holds a BA from the University of Cape Town. He has spent many years as an English teacher, and he currently specializes in writing for academic purposes. In his spare time, he enjoys drawing and painting.