In 2001, a lonely computer technician living in the countryside in Northern Germany advertised online for a well-built man willing to participate in a mutually satisfying sexual act. Armin Meiwes’ notice was similar to many others on the Internet except for a rather important detail: The requested man must be willing to be killed and eaten.
Meiwes didn’t have to look far. Two hundred and thirty miles away in Berlin, an engineer called Bernd Brandes agreed to travel to Meiwes’ farmhouse. There, a gory video later found by police documented Brandes’ consensual participation in the deadly dinner. The cannibalism was both a shock to the German public and a conundrum to German prosecutors wanting to charge Meiwes with a crime.
Cannibalism might be humanity’s most sacred taboo, but consent of a victim typically eliminates a crime, explains Emilia Musumeci, a criminologist at the University of Catania, in Italy, who studies cannibalism and serial killers.
More technically, cannibalism is not designated as illegal in Germany’s extensive criminal code: Until that point, laws against murder had sufficed to cover cannibalism. If Brandes had volunteered his own life, how could Meiwes be accused of murder?
Because of his victim’s consent, Meiwes was initially found guilty of something akin to assisted suicide, and sentenced to eight years in jail. Had there not been widespread uproar about the seemingly lenient penalty, Meiwes would be out of jail by now. Instead, the uproar led to a subsequent retrial, where Meiwes was found guilty of killing for sexual pleasure. He will likely spend the rest of his life in jail.
The unusual Meiwes case is just one of the topics to be discussed this weekend at an interdisciplinary cannibal conference to be held at the Manchester Museum—the world’s first, say many attending the meeting.
The idea of a cannibalism conference might sound like the basis for a macabre joke about coffee-break finger food. However, there’s serious cannibal scholarship taking place in many disciplines, says conference organizer Hannah Priest, a lecturer at Manchester University, who has previously hosted other academic meetings on werewolves and monsters under the banner of her publishing company Hic Dragones. “From contemporary horror film to medieval Eucharistic devotions, from Freudian theory to science fiction, cannibals and cannibalism continue to repel and intrigue us in equal measure,” advertises the conference’s website.
When the call for abstracts went out last fall, “our first response was one from anthropology, another one was on heavy metal music and the third was on 18th-century literature,” Priest says. “Academics will quite happily discuss very disturbing things in quite polite terms and forget that not everybody talks about this stuff all the time.”
It is perhaps fitting that the conference should take place in Europe because the region has a long chronicle of cannibalism, from prehistory through the Renaissance, right up to the 21st-century Meiwes case. In addition, the area has bequeathed us a bounty of fictional cannibals, including Dracula, who is arguably the world’s most famous consumer of human blood and a gory harbinger of the current pop culture fascination with vampires and zombies.
Europe boasts the oldest fossil evidence of cannibalism. In a 1999 Science article, French paleontologists reported that 100,000-year-old bones from six Neanderthal victims found in a French cave called Moula-Guercy had been broken by other Neanderthals in such a way as to extract marrow and brains. In addition, tool marks on the mandible and femur suggested that tongue and thigh meat had been cut off for consumption.
The cannibalism at Moula-Guercy wasn’t an isolated incident in prehistory. In the past decade, researchers have reported other evidence that Neanderthals continued eating each other until just before their disappearance. In one particularly grisly discovery at the El Sidrón cave in Spain, paleontologists discovered that an extended family of 12 individuals had been dismembered, skinned and then eaten by other Neanderthals about 50,000 years ago.
When early Homo sapiens began engaging in cannibalism is a topic of debate, although it is clear they eventually did, says Sandra Bowdler, an emeritus professor of archeology at the University of Western Australia. Evidence is scant that this happened in early human hunter-gatherer communities, she says, although in 2009 Fernando Rozzi, at the Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique, in Paris, reported finding a Neanderthal jaw bone that may have been butchered by early humans.
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