Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Cannibalism as a Survival Strategy

This is the first part of three: three too many for some. 

My intention here is to indicate not only the prevelance of cannibalism from a historical perspective, but also to show its limitations as a viable survivial strategy.

Cannibalism is formally referred to as anthropophagy.  It rears its head in many a post apocalyptic fiction such as the very famous  Soylent Green  in the 1970s, and more recently Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, even the Ubber Christian Warrior Rawls eludes to it.

However, as a sustenance strategy it is a bit dubious.  You would quickly run out of people if it was your major source of protean.  There have been arguments that the Aztecs used it as a way for their elites gain easy access to the required animal protean.   IMO the argument that the Aztecs rulers were a twisted bunch is a more plausible one.

Within the animal kingdom, Laurel Fox in Cannibalism in Natural Populations 1975, found 48 species of herbivores, and 89 species of predators normally engaged in this behavior.  Motivation includes food shortages, population stress, the availability of vulnerable victims, and the elimination of competitors.  Cannibalism has been observed in four species of non-human primates, and in apes it has been seen in both gorillas and chimpanzees.  It is particularly common in chimpanzees with the most common victim being the children of other males.

There is strong evidence in early hominids going back 700,000 years ago of tool cut human bones intermixed with other animal bones, and 100,000 year old Neanderthal remains have been found mixed in with other butchered animal bones.
Recent example from non-literate (prehistoric) are uncommon, but none-the-less practiced in a diversity of times and locations.  The most famous case being that of the American Southwest Hopi.

Cannibalism is not seen pervasively in the historical records, but it is not that hard to find either.   The biggest problem I have with this post  is that there is too many examples to include all of them here.  Only very left leaning archeologists-who wanted to view the indigenous preliterate societies in an earth mother warm glow of fuzziness- would  argue the point.

Cannibalism seems to go out of fashion in most areas with the introduction of more centralized governments.    As the exception Aztecs showed, cannibalism by the central state can very quickly get out of hand, and you are going to make yourself very unpopular with whomever your selected targets are.  However, as a cultural institution it does have some persistance within Chinese culture.  Confucsios in recommending the complete anhiliation of ones enemies included eating them.   Source:  Scott and McMurray The Delicate Question:  Cannibalism in Prehistoric and Historic Times.
One of the key distinctions that would interest us is cannibalism by choice versus necessity.  Necessity in this case meaning starvation situations.  In some cultures certain organs are viewed as having special magical properties and are eaten for their power.  In others there may be a reverence for the dead.  Many of the native North Americans believed that the spirit left for the hereafter in the form of its body: so mutilation your enemies dead bodies was a common practice.
The socialist-anthropologists would generally be the best people to discuss these issues in a systematic way, but the discussions always get into a very Marxist rich eating poor argument that seems more about arguing socialist talking points than about the reality on hand.
When people in the average bring more to civilization than they take away, there cannot be problem with overpopulation, or with funding education and retirement -- people are indeed an asset. When people are all in all more consumptive than productive, then they are a liability indeed, surviving by spending away the capital accumulated by better men; their society is going down the drain and none of the proposed statist remedies can help, whether fostering reproduction or non-reproduction, immigration or emigration, early retirement or euthanasia…
When society collapses, anthropophagy is a poor way to slow down this collapse if it does at all; actually, inasmuch as it would imply murder and/or deception.   Anthropophagy is rather a sign of the collapse accelerating than slowing down.  Live Journal Posting
Continuing to more detailed matters:
The typical human body has a muscle to fat ratio similar to a bear, which is about 770 calories per pound. If the average post-apocalyptic person weighs about 130 lbs and is a bit leaner than a bear (say 600 calories per pound), throw away say 20 lbs of bones and 20 lbs of inedible organs, leaves you with about 54000 calories. Assuming 1200 calories a day for survival, that’s 45 person days per human body. 1200 may be too high; I’ve read concentration camp prisoners survived for months on about 300-500 calories per day, engaged in some degree of hard labor.
Even at a rate of 100 person days per body that would use up 1% of the population per day.  An initial population of 100 million, killed off at this rate, would have only one person left after five years. In the novel [The Road] there were many corpses around that clearly hadn’t been eaten; if only half the bodies were eaten, the population would last half as long. No way a kid lives to be seven when born into a world where the main food is cannibalism.
Even under ideal conditions, people living mainly on cannibalism just couldn’t last that many years. Quoting Zac Gochenour at Overcoming Bias.
As we will see later, canibalism in desperate times is generally practised as a mid-term strategy during lengthy periods of famine, and even then it is not a strategy employed by the majority.

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