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Eat Me: A Natural and Unnatural History of Cannibalism

Weird tales of mate gobbling and more.

If you are expecting a nose-to-toes account of human cannibalism, as I was, you might be disappointed. Bill Schutt is a zoologist, so Eat Me is front-loaded with animal tales. Get to the anthropophagy already, I thought. Turns out nature is full of superbly weird tales of mate gobbling and self-sacrifice, and these are some of the best bits of this fascinating book.

So before we get to mad cow disease, kuru (a neurological disorder suffered by brain-eaters in New Guinea) or even permissible modern forms such as placenta-eating, we get to meet cannibals throughout the animal world. Not often appearing in nature docos: the biggest sand tiger shark pup consuming his fellow embryos in utero; chilling chimp behaviour; mouthbrooding fish typically eating a good portion of their eggs; and why golden hamsters make terrible pets.

Humans, for their part, are nothing if not cannibalistically inventive. I didn’t know that Psycho’s Norman Bates and Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill were both based on one Ed Gein. In his house in the 1950s, police found a decapitated woman’s body, along with delights such as soup bowls fashioned from human skulls, a pair of lips attached to a drawstring and a belt made from nipples.

But “Weird Old Eddie” was just the latest in a long line. There’s evidence Neanderthals munched on their kin. Fears of cannibalism were used to justify colonialism: we’re looking at you, Christopher Columbus. And on the author diligently and amusingly goes, through cannibalism in literature, religious rites (Body of Christ, anyone?), its long history in China and once-enthusiastic use in Europe (John Donne and Francis Bacon were advocates of medical cannibalism). Bonus fun fact: George HW Bush narrowly avoided being eaten by starving Japanese soldiers.

Eat Me: A Natural and Unnatural History of Cannibalism, by Bill Schutt (Profile, $36.99)

This article was first published in the June 3, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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