Anthropology: Stereotypes and Stigma in Portrayals of Cannibalism


In the last few hundred years of colonization and imperialism, many parts of the world have become more impacted by each other. In this process of globalization, there have been many flawed treatments of individuals who are viewed as lesser in various ways. Social and cultural activities, such as body modification and cannibalism, can be viewed as taboo or strange, and may influence these ethnocentric processes. As anthropology has evolved as a discipline, it has aimed to remove itself from its colonial and missionary-associated past. It is important when considering the history of cannibalism to look at it relativistically.

stereotypical illustration depicting a cannibalism feast
Image Credit: AM Reading

Anthropology and Understanding Cultural Differences

One of the main advantages of anthropology as a discipline is to help broaden understandings of cultural differences and similarities, and to help positively impact individuals. Unfortunately, in many past interactions with other cultures, settler-colonialists often brought back racialized and stereotyped tales. These led to decades of media that propagandized indigenous tribes as ‘savages’ for entertainment. In analyzing these media pieces as cultural texts, we can understand how unfamiliar behaviours can be weaponized and twisted to reproduce xenophobia (Goldman).

a funny image of a crocodile eating a croc shoe, mimicking cannibalism
Image Credit: NY Daily News

Common Stereotypes of Cannibalism

While cannibalism has a long history in many cultures, it is often poorly represented. When the average person thinks of cannibals, they reel back in horror or disgust. To most individuals in core nations today, the process is taboo and unthinkable. For others, it is a compassionate and caring act that has highly spiritual importance. As many cultures have been influenced or conformed to the norms of European societies historically, many regions have outlawed the practice. Funerary practices are often culturally shaped. While there are some instances of violent cannibalism, the form usually shown in various media is inaccurate and often racist. Even in many of the photos I include here consciously, cannibalism is presented with significant biases as an example.

steaks forming the shape of a heart, symbolizing cannibalism
Image Credit: Smithsonian

Cannibalism and Social Interpretations

From a strictly literal view, cannibalism is the process of eating one’s fellow species. It is not, however, always associated with violence and depraved individuals. While there are contemporary examples of cannibalizing serial killers, these individuals are uncommon across cultures. There is usually a genuine social or cultural incentive behind cannibal acts that has been scrubbed out of portrayals in books, films, and popular culture. In fact, in many animal species, especially aquatic ones, cannibalism is a common practice. Historically, it was not as uncommon or taboo as it is today. Like alternative foodways, taboo consumption practices teach us about cultural norms. Studying what is feared or taboo in society can often teach us interesting cultural facts. One should avoid viewing practices of cannibalism traditionally as immoral or ‘othering’ acts.

an old illustration showing purported cannibalism
Image Credit: TFP

Various Forms of Cannibalism

Traditionally, cannibalism has also been associated with dire times, such as famines. In various societies across the years, individuals who faced extreme food shortages have been recorded to have eaten the dead as a last resort. Cannibalism has also existed in many tribal societies. However, early reports and legends are likely exaggerated or fabricated in their nature. Another term used for cannibalism is anthropophagy, which translates roughly to ‘eating humans’. One can also distinguish between endo- and exo-cannibalism, as well as necro- and homicidal cannibalism.

a still from the film Cannibal Holocaust
Image Credit: Cinematique

Media and Racializing Horror Tropes

When examining the classic canon of influential horror films and literature, it is clear that the consumption of human flesh has been a common fear. It has been used in various controversial horror films, like Cannibal Holocaust, which has been widely banned. These films, while at times entertaining, also often contribute to widespread misrepresentation of most cannibals in history as homicidal cannibals. Historically, most bodies that were consumed across cultures were already dead naturally in advance. In most cannibal horror films, either the mentally ill or foreign tribes are shown to be involved in anthropophagy. This reinforces beliefs in the moral superiority of primarily Caucasian, core nations, and stigmatizes the mentally ill.

a human skull that has purportedly been eaten by another human
Image Credit: Yahoo

Cultural Relativism and Consumption

As anthropology revolves around cultural relativism, studying cannibalism can be a perfect way to challenge preconceptions and develop an anthropological viewpoint. As one of the most taboo human acts, it can be used to challenge ethnocentric beliefs to help adopt an empiric perspective. During my first anthropology course several years ago, we focused on cannibalism, and this was one of the first times I challenged myself to view things reflexively and relativistically. Normally, we first learn of cannibalism through exotic and uncommon examples, or through folklore like Hansel and Gretel.

an illustration of Robinson Crusoe, a book that stereotypes indigenous cannibalism practices
Image Credit: Wikipedia Image Commons

Robinson Crusoe:

The first novel that I ever read was Robinson Crusoe. Incidentally, it was also my first exposure to the concept of cannibalism. Written in 1719, during an early period of exploration and settling outside of Europe, the novel presents an early racialized view of these areas. The novel, which is written as if it were an autobiography, describes a man who is stranded for 28 years upon a desert island. This occurs after a process of attempted slave-trading and plantation ownership, among various details, showing elements of the types of individuals who inspired the tale. Many of our earliest literary representations of indigenous cultures in Central and South America have been derived from colonists and explorers.

the cover of Robinson Crusoe
Image Credit: Literature Fandom

Crusoe and Colonial Portrayals

The novel mimics the style of an autobiography of such an individual, and when examined critically, it can indicate widely held beliefs from the era. Initially, Crusoe does not kill the cannibals in the tale, as he decides they do not know that what they are doing is wrong. Nowadays, this value judgement of their activities is still likely unacceptable, despite the assertion that they are unaware of their taboo actions. The portrayal is unrealistic, and presents them as ‘savage’ beings who are less civilized than Crusoe. They are shown to eat prisoners they have captured, and he later frees one, with whom he kills most of the indigenous islanders. He, like missionaries of the time, also converted the prisoner turned servant, named ‘Friday’, to Christianity. Histories of missionary conversions have had many negative impacts on impacted cultures.

a still from Cannibal Holocaust showing camera pieces and skeletons eaten in cannibalism
Image Credit: Dead Entertainment

Cannibal Holocaust:

Cannibal Holocaust is one of the most banned and controversial films in the history of cinema. The filmmaker was even tried based on a belief he murdered the actors to create the on-screen deaths. It also may be one of the most famous instances of anthropology in popular culture. The film is also a key example of the stereotyping of tribal people as cannibals in the media. The film, from the Italian exploitation genre, centers around a fictional anthropologist who visits the Amazon rainforest to rescue a team of filmmakers. These filmmakers, who are revealed through found footage, encountered an extremely over-the-top stereotype of a cannibalistic tribe.

Criticisms and Praise

The film is one of several Italian horror films which focused on anthropophagy and is argued by some to be a commentary on journalistic integrity and the stereotyping of other cultures as lesser. Others argue the imagery and violence of the film arguably may outweigh this, contributing to unrealistic understandings of cannibalism and of tribal societies. The violence shown in the film is shown to be less clear-cut than in previous representations of cannibals, as the filmmakers are shown to have staged violence and acted maliciously, being inspired by a perceived lack of journalistic integrity. This point arguably could have been reached without including this level of controversial and exploitative imagery, like rape and the murder of animals, according to various critics.

Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs, a famous media cannibal
Image Credit: The Richest Images

Modern Cannibals and Contemporary Legends:

The history of cannibals in the media has stretched from Shakespeare to postmodern works like American Psycho. Cannibals have become part of the fears of many societies. This leads to widespread contemporary legends, in which individuals (or creatures) are rumoured to be cannibals. Less common, however, are examples of actual modern cannibals that engage in murder for the consumption of flesh. There are infamous examples of individuals experiencing mental illness doing so, such as serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Albert Fish.

Armin Meiwes and Consensual Cannibalism

One infamous example in recent years is Armin Meiwes, a German who engaged in consensual cannibalism with an online man. The two met on an internet forum, and the man agreed to be killed as part of Meiwes fantasy of consuming human flesh. This example is an uncommon exception and is an interesting case as both parties consented to the practice. However, Meiwes is currently serving a life sentence. Canadian shock performance artist Rick Gibson has also engaged in public acts of cannibalism, eating donated human parts from the deceased.

an image of a man from a tribe puported to have practiced endocannibalism
Image Credit:


When examining the less exaggerated cases of cannibalism that have occurred in select tribal societies, one can witness two main kinds. Cannibalism was not generally practiced in the same ways as described by colonists and missionaries. The two forms generally witnessed are endo-cannibalism and exo-cannibalism. The former refers to cannibalism within a group or tribe. This is almost always done after death (mortuary cannibalism) for various ritual or spiritual reasons, and is done consensually. It is also not used as a means of nutrition like many would believe. It is unclear to what extent endocannibalism has been practiced across cultures and history.


The next variety of cannibalism is exo-cannibalism. This form of cannibalism in most tribes that practiced it was less common. It was mostly practiced during times of war, and involved eating individuals outside of the tribe. Individuals that were killed during battles or wars would potentially be eaten, potentially to show domination or for spiritual purposes. This form of cannibalism is closer to the one that presides in our collective imagination and pop culture. However, it is not inherently a sign of immoral actions nor uncivilization. Many of these practices were believed to give characteristics of the victims to warriors. However, exo-cannibalism is not designed out of respect for the victim, as endo-cannibalism generally is.

the cover of the ethnography Consuming Grief, which addresses cannibalism
Image Credit: University of Texas Press

Consuming Grief

Consuming Grief is an ethnography written by Beth Conklin about a period she spent living with a tribe called the Wari’ in the Amazon rainforest. The Wari’ people are among the most well-known examples of tribes that engaged in cannibalism. However, Conklin notes that they had genuine reasons for these practices, and developed close bonds within their society. Most of their cannibalistic consumption was mortuary endo-cannibalism, which involved eating the flesh of the dead to help them reach the after-life. This practice was purposely designed to avoid enjoyment, and had to be done as part of the burial rite.

Separating Enjoyment from Consumption

Consumption was done of burnt and rotten flesh, which separated the image of the body from the deceased. It did not provide any notable nutritional needs for the Wari’. The process was hard and often made them sick, but they did so because the now-deceased had once begged them to do so. This process was fully consensual, and only occurred after natural deaths. It did not harm anyone seriously. While it may seem shocking and unbelieveable to an outsider, through relativism, we can attempt to seperate these practices from mediatory representations of cannibalism. The practice did not involve murder, and the individuals did so out of genuine concern.

an old illustration showing missionaries
Image Credit: I Stock Photo

Missionaries and Cultural Change

Throughout the last few hundred years, as settler-colonial nations explored the globe, they attempted to proselytze indigenous populations through Christian doctrine. After missionaries arrived in the Amazon, they made contact with the Wari’. During this contact, they were horrified by the practices of anthropophagy. The practices have no longer occurred in the last half a century due to this missionary influence. While their practices of cannibalism were primarily endogenous and harmless, they did not fit into Christian morals. This influence has also stripped cultures of their languages, rituals, and expressive traditions. One key aspect of anthropology in recent decades has been to rectify the discipline from its missionary-associated tradition.

an old illustration shows bodies hung for cannibalism
Image Credit: Smithsonian Magazine

Conclusion: Significance to Anthropology

In conclusion, the study, and humanizing, of practices that are considered strange by outside cultures is key to anthropology. Cannibalism is an act that is considered to be widely taboo, and is thus no longer practiced in most cultures. The influence of missionaries and religious doctrine, along with other colonial presences, has wiped out many cultural practices like endo-cannibalism among the Wari’. Violent necro-cannibalism should be discouraged, but many outlawed traditional forms don’t involve murder or violence. Therefore, due to this misrepresentation, we can see the use of cannibal iconography as an ‘othering’ device in various media forms.

Impacts on Discourse Through Media

This can have the impact of promoting false beliefs of cultural superiority and hierarchies, and fuel ethnocentric and racist discourse. Even in areas like England, in which cannibalism has taken place in medicine and other instances, these viewpoints persist. In examining works like Robinson Crusoe and Cannibal Holocaust, we can see conflicting presentations of cannibal presentations and media representation of them.

The Importance of Relativism

In the early years of colonial exploration, urban folklore of cannibal savages was often used to justify the subjugation of indigenous populations. Tales of endo-cannibalism, for example, may have been twisted due to misunderstandings, and the ritual and spiritual associations would have been removed. While it is largely impossible to ethnographically study cultures that still practice cannibalism, they did recently. Anthropological work, unlike some media, often humanizes and connects us to individuals who, until relatively recently, engaged in compassionate cannibalism. This includes the Wari’. As cannibalism has likely existed in the history of most cultures, it is not as far removed from human practice as we may believe. Just like many animals that eat their own, through relativism, we can seek to more accurately understand taboo acts. While an extreme example of using relativism, anthropologists can adapt such a viewpoint to reconstruct hierarchical discourses.


  • Arens, William. The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Oxford University Press: Oxford and New York.
  • Conklin, Beth. A. 2001. Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society. University of Texas Press: Austin.
  • Goldman, Lawrence. R. 1999. The Anthropology of Cannibalism. Bergin and Garvey: Westport and London.

Leave a Reply