Friday, December 31, 2010

Cannibalism 3 - The Historical Context

This is the Third of three postings dealing in general with hunger, and starvation (Part 2); cannibalism's history and ineffectiveness as survival strategy (Part 1).  Here I will show that we have unfortunate examples of cannibalism in disaster scenarios, why they occurred, and what happened.
 Much of the following is from Scott and McMurray The Delicate Question:  Cannibalism in Prehistoric and Historic Times,

Given our blogs obsession with ending points, we naturally will focus  cannibalism induced by large scale disasters.  And unfortunately enough, there are examples of this as well.
The first example, by time line, is in Soviet Russia in 1921-1922.   A combination of agricultural confectionery taxes, and poor lead to mass starvation that peaked in 1921.  The Soviets were forced to ask for aid in feeding 10 million starving people.  There are a number of estimates of the death toll, but 5+ million seems to be an agreed on conservative number.  Accounts of cannibalism were common, possibly because by 1921 there had been so many famines in  Russian and the Soviet Union that by 1921 the Russians were becoming desensitized to the practice.  The behavior included the selling of human meat in markets and the practice of corpse-eating by entire families. 

The later Ukrainian famines induced by Stalin was more brutal as it was even more intentional.

Desperate hunger drove people to sell off all of their possessions for any food they could find. At night, an eerie silence fell over the village, where all the livestock and chickens had long since been killed for food and exhausted villagers went to bed early. 
But Communist requisition brigades looking to fulfill the impossibly high grain quotas continued to search even those villages where inhabitants were already dying from starvation. They used metal poles to probe the ground and potential hiding places where they suspected grain could be hidden.
Some of the brigade members, fueled by Soviet hate campaigns against the peasants, acted without mercy, taking away the last crumbs of food from starving families knowing they were condemning even small children to death. Any peasant who resisted was shot. Rape and robbery also took place....
Burtianski said at one point, he avoided buying meat from a vendor because he suspected it was human flesh. When the authorities heard about the incident, he was forced to attend the trial of a man and his two sons who were suspected of murdering people for food. Burtianski says during the trial one of the sons admitted in chilling terms to eating the flesh of his own mother, who had died of starvation. 

"He said, 'Thank you to Father Stalin for depriving us of food. Our mother died of hunger and we ate her, our own dead mother. And after our mother we did not take pity on anyone. We would not have spared Stalin himself'" ....

Naumenko also witnessed instances of cannibalism. He said he first discovered that his neighbors were eating human flesh after one of them, called Tetyana, refused to share her meat with him despite the fact he had just helped bury her father.

"I saw Tetyana eating chicken meat and saw there was a lot of it. I approached her and asked her for some, but she refused to give me any. Because it was human flesh."

Hundreds were executed or killed by other villagers for cannibalism. Soviet records show that around 1,000 people were still serving sentences for cannibalism in prison camps on the White Sea at the end of the 1930s.

"What do you do if there's nothing to eat? We collected birch leaves and toasted them and ate them. What else could we do?"

Many people met their deaths with quiet resignation, praying and comforting their starving children with fairy tales. 

Cannibalisms next well known Russian trip is to the Siege of Leningrad in World War 2.  Under siege for 900-days there were over a thousand cases of cannibalism in the polices' secret records.  What is particularly unusual about the famine is that it did not lead to epidemic decease which is usually the largest killer in long term famines.  The authorities went to particular care to isolate the contagious, and to keep the city as sanitary as possible.

During World War 2 in the Pacific,  Japanese soldiers in New Guinea in 1942-1944, cut off from access to supplies, cannibalized Australian Allied soldiers, Asian POWs, native inhabitants of New Guinea, and other Japanese soldiers.  The soldiers occasionally removed flesh while victims were still alive, perhaps in the hope of maintaining a fresh food supply in the moist jungle environment where decomposition was rapid.  These cannibalistic practices required planning and investment and became almost commonplace.
Our final visit will be to the The Peoples Republic of China during the Great Leap Forward."
“...[C]annibalism was a systematic and organized military strategy, committed by whole squads or by specific soldiers working within the context of a larger squad…The fact that such activities were committed by whole groups, working within the normal military structures, resulted in a situation in which the act of cannibalism ceased to be horrific and became instead a part of everyday life.”  Yuki Tanaka, Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II 1996.
China has had periodic food shortages throughout much of its history, and the near constant threat of famine was one cause of learned cannibalism.  The starvations caused by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward lead to unprecedented number and levels of the practice.  Natural disasters combined with confiscation of the peasants food supplies led  to at least 30 million Chinese people starving to death between 1958 and 1962.  Children were killed and consumed by their parents or sold to another family and human meat was sold in the open marked.  Peasants readily admitted to witnessing cannibalism first hand.

During the famine of the Great Leap Forward, peasants killed and ate their children in many parts of China.  In Wild Flowers Jung Chang recounts the story told to him by a party official:  One day a peasant burst into his room and threw himself on the floor, screaming that he had committed a terrible crime and begging to be punished.  Eventually it came out that he had killed his own baby and eaten it. Hunger had been like an uncontrollable force driving him to take up the knife.  With tears rolling down cheeks, the official ordered the peasant to be arrested. Later he was shot as a warning to baby killers.     Becker, Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine 1996.


Freyja said...

Interesting posts. Eating one's own young is a common strategy in most species subjected to overpopulation or starvation. We don't like to think of ourselves as animals, but we are. The animal lurks just beneath the thin, fragile veneer of civilization.
Making ourselves more aware of ugly possibilities before they happen may reduce the lag time between acceptance and action later, when action is critically needed.
I think I tend to joke about who will be first in the stewpot a little too often, but it is an effort to get others to realize we may face some really difficult decisions in the future.

Good Luck! Freyja

russell1200 said...

Thank you,

As the first post notes (quote at bottom) cannibalism does not work very well as a mass survival strategy. You run out of people too quickly.

But it does seem to be a pretty common "free loader" strategy. In this case a very direct version because you are latterly living off others.

Cannibals when it is practiced for survival (versus cultural) reason seem to lurk around the edges. Even when sold in the market, nobody adverstises human flesh as human flesh.

In general, if you are able to keep fit and defend yourself, you are likely to have larger problems. Novels such as One Second After, or American Apocalypse where mass cannibalism sets in a few weeks after the food runs out are not that likely. Most people, even bad people, will not eat other people.

Waldow said...

You have show very clearly why it is unreasonable to eat your own kind! Please come explain that to my chickens. They have room to roam and plenty of food but a group of chicks killed one of the hens in November. I pulled the carcass out and threw it in the woods for the coyotes, but they weren't interested. Ha! LOL cannibalism.

russell1200 said...

Opportunistic protean with no social stigma attached.

But we are much more advanced than chickens: right? LOL.