I’ve been digging into the ethnographic evidence for cannibalism over the last few years. Before I started searching, I had a few basic expectations about where and why cannibalism should appear:
1) Opportunistic cannibalism in response to starvation. See the Andes flight disaster, for example. This sort of behavior can happen without any historical tradition or conventional social sanction behind it, instead being undertaken as a last resort through a miserable hunger to survive. Starvation-cannibalism is something you might expect some people in any society to be willing to resort to in very desperate—and probably extremely rare—circumstances.
2) Social traditions of cannibalism. Such as funerary cannibalism where (often small) portions of the deceased are ritually consumed by living members of their community. Or war cannibalism, where some piece of an enemy—often just part of an organ or a body part—is consumed to gain their power.
3) Habitual cannibalism in response to chronic shortages of meat/nutrition. This is the Marvin Harris perspective on the Aztecs. I wont be focusing on the issue of Aztec cannibalism here, but will touch on that in a future post. Note this is not mutually exclusive with the social traditions of cannibalism category, but key here is an emphasis on nutritional value from cannibalism, whereas in the social traditions nutrition may play little-to-no role.