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Cannibalism in Brazil as described by Hans Staden in the 16th century

The Startling History of Cannibalism

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Cannibalism, a grim and macabre subject, has a long and varied history. Human fascination with cannibalism is reflected in modern media, from films like "Night of the Living Dead" to TV shows such as "Yellowjackets" and "Santa Clarita Diet." Throughout history, instances of cannibalism have been recorded, often under dire circumstances, but also influenced by ritual and religious beliefs. 

One infamous tale is that of Alexander "Sawney" Bean in 15th-century Scotland. Bean and his family purportedly lived in a cave, ambushing and consuming travelers. Their reign of terror ended when one victim escaped and alerted the authorities, leading to the family's capture and execution. 

In 16th-century Germany, Peter Niers, a notorious bandit, claimed to have killed and eaten hundreds, believing that consuming human flesh granted him magical powers. Similarly, Peter Stump, the so-called "Werewolf of Bedburg," was accused of eating people while dressed in a wolf costume, allegedly given to him by the devil. 

Cannibalism has also been reported during sieges and famines. During the Roman-Jewish War, the historian Flavius Josephus wrote of a woman in besieged Jerusalem who ate her child to survive. The Numantines in ancient Hispania and the defenders of Su Yang during the Tang Dynasty in China also resorted to cannibalism under siege conditions. 

The Great Famine of 1315-1317 in Europe saw widespread starvation, leading to reports of cannibalism. Similarly, the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s forced desperate individuals to consume human flesh, documented by local priests. 

Even prehistoric evidence supports the occurrence of cannibalism. Excavations in England have revealed human bones with signs of cannibalistic practices dating back thousands of years, suggesting that cannibalism has been part of human history for millennia. 

Top image: Cannibalism in Brazil as described by Hans Staden in the 16th century. Source: Public Domain 

Robbie Mitchell's picture


I’m a graduate of History and Literature from The University of Manchester in England and a total history geek. Since a young age, I’ve been obsessed with history. The weirder the better. I spend my days working as a freelance... Read More

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