Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History

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Garnering rave reviews from The New York TimesBoston GlobeThe New Yorker and elsewhere, Cannibalism places a perfectly natural occurrence into a vital new context and invites us to explore why it both enthralls and repels us.

For centuries scientists have written off cannibalism as a bizarre phenomenon with little biological significance. Its presence in nature was dismissed as a desperate response to starvation or other life-threatening circumstances, and few spent time studying it.

Cannibalism is available everywhere books are sold. 

A taboo subject in our culture, the behavior was portrayed mostly through horror movies or tabloids sensationalizing the crimes of real-life flesh-eaters. But the true nature of cannibalism–the role it plays in evolution as well as human history–is even more intriguing (and more normal) than the misconceptions we’ve come to accept as fact.

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Zoologist Bill Schutt sets the record straight, debunking common myths and investigating our new understanding of cannibalism’s role in biology, anthropology, and history in the most fascinating account yet written on this complex topic. Schutt takes readers from Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains, where he wades through ponds full of tadpoles devouring their siblings, to the Sierra Nevadas, where he joins researchers who are shedding new light on what happened to the Donner Party–the most infamous episode of cannibalism in American history. He even meets with an expert on the preparation and consumption of human placenta (and, yes, it goes well with Chianti).

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Bringing together the latest cutting-edge science, Schutt answers questions such as why some amphibians consume their mother’s skin; why certain insects bite the heads off their partners after sex; why, up until the end of the twentieth century, Europeans regularly ate human body parts as medical curatives; and how cannibalism might be linked to the extinction of the Neanderthals. He takes us into the future as well, investigating whether, as climate change causes famine, disease, and overcrowding, we may see more outbreaks of cannibalism in many more species–including our own.

Cannibalism contains over thirty illustrations by award-winning artist Patricia J. Wynne.


Publisher’s Weekly (Starred Review)

In this comprehensive account of a taboo practice, Schutt (Dark Banquet), professor of biology at LIU-Post, finds that cannibalism is more widespread than generally believed and proffers insight as to why different species resort to the practice of cannibalism, with plenty of scientific evidence to support his conclusions.

Schutt covers the commonly known cannibalistic practices found among tadpoles, chimpanzees, sand tiger sharks, and polar bears, but the real intrigue is found in his descriptions of lesser-known instances of cannibalism in humans that have been actively struck from history, including during the 1941 siege of Leningrad and the medicinal cannibalism practiced by a range of European and Chinese rulers. Schutt cites starvation, overcrowding, and even global warming as reasons that humans and animals have turned to cannibalism. Depending on the culture, cannibalism has also been practiced as a learned behavior, as filial piety, as a form of luxurious indulgence, as a funerary ritual, and even as a mood stabilizer. With plenty of examples of cannibalism in humans past and present, Schutt’s well researched and suspenseful work is a must read for anyone who’s interested in the topic—and can stomach the gore.

More Reviews, Articles and Interviews

School Library Journal (Starred Review)

Cannibalism has seemingly always held a place of the utmost abhorrence in human society. But why, asks Schutt (Dark Banquet; biology, LIU Post, NY; research associate, American Museum of Natural History), when cannibalism is such a normal part of nature as a whole? In a witty, often funny, and thoroughly fascinating study, Schutt delves into cannibalism as an everyday occurrence throughout the animal kingdom. Cannibalism is a biological imperative, he argues, that is brought about by environmental stress factors. For example, there is a species of fish whose female gives birth to thousands and thousands of baby fish, only to eat most of them in order to replenish nutrients lost from the act of giving birth. The author also explores the human history of cannibalism and how it became such a taboo in our society–culminating in the most famous case in U.S. history: the tragic case of the Dormer party. VERDICT Schutt’s writing is delightfully accessible, rarely boring, and utterly captivating. A must-buy for high school and public libraries. 

Kirkus Reviews

Zoologist Schutt (Biology/LIU Post; Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures, 2008) gets to the heart of the matter of a topic that makes people shudder. Eating people is wrong. So goes the title of a grimly satirical novel by British writer Malcolm Bradbury. It’s wrong, yes, but practiced all the same in some places—and perhaps not always the places you might think. (Ohio, anyone?) Schutt, a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History, looks into cannibalism as it exists in orders other than the human, assuring us brightly that some species do practice cannibalism without blushing. If you’re of tender mind and spirit, you may never look at a snowy egret with admiration again, and as for spadefoot toads, well… The author examines evolutionary theories of inclusive fitness to discuss the genetic rewards of eating one’s own, ensuring not just one’s own survival, but also improving the chances that, if the dinner is properly selected, one’s own bloodline will flourish. As for humans, Schutt explores some of the better-known cases as well as the less studied ones, noting that while there is reason to believe that many human groups have practiced cannibalism at some point in the past, the ones who are most often accused of it—the peoples Columbus first encountered in the Caribbean, for instance—may not be the ones to worry about. The sensational nature of human cannibalism assures that it makes for good news copy but not always good science. The author singles out a misplayed news release concerning a recent reanalysis of bone materials from a Donner Party site and reports that climate change is driving polar bears to eat their young, both of which are stories far more complicated than the headlines would have one believe. One takeaway: humans don’t taste like chicken. A learned, accessible, and engaging approach to a meaty—beg pardon—and always-controversial subject.


Schutt’s popular history of humankind’s juiciest taboo starts as you might expect: Wisconsin’s least favorite son, Ed Gein, whose crimes inspired Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, et al. As a zoologist, however, Schutt’s interests are less garish (though, on this subject, all is relative), and he starts by investigating the “cannibal morphs” of smaller organisms and what might trigger their urge. (Spoiler: it’s often a result of decreased resources.) Schutt covers too much to get too detailed but presents an impressively large smorgasbord: why stressed-out hamsters eat their young, the secret habits of T. rex, and whether breast-feeding qualifies as cannibalism, as well as offering robust looks at both the Donner Party and WWII’s Chichijima incident; Robinson Crusoe’s role in promulgating cultural opinions; the troubling implications of the Last Supper; and, finally, in what feels like the book’s unique offering, the modern upper-middle-class fad of eating one’s own placenta. This falls into the Mary Roach school of nonfiction, with Schutt presenting himself as your good-natured, joke-cracking guide, and though less salacious than expected, it’s certainly a tasty tour.


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