10 True Stories of Survival Cannibalism

It’s an hour until lunchtime, but you’re so hungry you’re gnawing the inside of your cheek and nibbling your nails. What if lunchtime didn’t come – for days on end? Fuse/Thinkstock

We all know how hard it is to resist the lure of a birthday cake, leftover from some party, just sitting on the counter and waiting to be eaten. It's torture to have to turn away from it. And one little bite wouldn't hurt right?

Now imagine that you're stranded on a boat at sea, no substantial food or water for days, living off collected rain and already having lustily consumed the leather brim of your own hat. You realize, at a certain point, that there's a huge chunk of protein-packed meat right next to you. Suddenly you can't shake the idea that your fellow starving passengers -- hey, some might be dead already -- might not make the most appetizing meal but would absolutely be the key to your survival. And you thought ignoring the cake was hard.

In the next few pages, we'll explore some stories that showcase people breaking the ultimate taboo -- humans eating other humans. They're not doing it for kicks or for some sort of cultural practice. Instead, they're doing it to survive. So make sure you have plenty of supplies, as we start with a pretty famous case of survival cannibalism.

10
The Donner Party
The route selected by the unfortunate Donner Party, many of whom would not live to finish it. © HowStuffWorks

Yeah, yeah -- we all know about the 1846 expedition of pioneers that got stuck in the mountains and resorted to eating the corpses of those who died. But no mention of survival cannibalism would be complete without digging into the story of the Donner Party (pun!).

The Donner Party wasn't going swimmingly before being holed up in the mountains. They took a really crummy route to get West -- where they literally had to break ground for the wagon trail as they went, at one point -- and were caught in a desert for 80 miles (129 kilometers) before even getting to the point of no return in the California-Nevada mountains by November 1846.

They ate the pack animals first and then their dogs. After that they desperately made a gluey soup made from boiled animal bone and hide. By Christmas, the pioneers were eating those who had died, and there were several accusations among the group that people were being killed (or at least being neglected) so flesh would, ahem, be at hand [source: Diamond].

Now let's turn to another case of cannibalism, a more modern story of last resort for desperate travelers.

9
Rugby Players in the Andes
Oct. 11, 2002: Thirty years after their planed crashed, survivors from the Uruguayan rugby team Old Christians play against the veteran team Old Boys of Chile, the game the Old Christians were headed for before the accident occurred. Julio Castro/AFP/Getty Images

When most of us imagine a nightmare scenario, a plane that crash-lands 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) in the Andes Mountains is usually harrowing enough on its own. Add to that 72 days of being stranded in minus 30-degree Fahrenheit (minus 34-degree Celsius) weather, along with the frozen bodies of those who died in the wreckage. Then remember to include a deadly avalanche that killed eight. And, of course, don't forget that the survivors were forced to eat the flesh of the corpses to make it through to their eventual rescue.

A lot of us know the general story of the Uruguay team that crashed in the Andes in 1972 (it was told in the 1993 film "Alive!"). But it's important to be reminded just how horrific the whole experience was. Forty-five people were on the plane, and there were only a few supplies to be divvied: wine and chocolate. This was a tight-knit bunch, and the dead bodies were close friends and even family members. The group spent a terrible two months in the frozen mountains before a group made a desperate, 10-day trek and came upon a Chilean herder who eventually led a rescue party to them [source: The Telegraph].

Happily, the survivors have ended up playing several commemorative versions of the canceled match with the Chilean team [source: The Telegraph].

8
Jamestown
Experts unveil the reconstruction from the remains of 'Jane,' a 17th-century teenager from Jamestown, on May 1, 2013. They believe that she was consumed by colonists during the winter of 1609-1610. Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The U.S. elementary school view of pilgrims wasn't quite accurate. The early American settlers basically had no clue what they were getting into the moment they stepped on a boat to cross the Atlantic, and the years after their arrival were not a pleasant idyll of farming and housekeeping.

Archaeologists and historians have long known about the "Starving Time" that occurred during the winter of 1609-10, as colonists recorded eating cats, rats, leather boots and yes, even the flesh of corpses. But until recently, there was no physical evidence that cannibalism had really taken place.

In 2013, archaeologists came upon a deposit of bones and found human skeletal remains mixed in with those of other animals. After analyzing part of the skull, they were able to determine that the female (around 14 years old) had some telltale marks that indicated someone was butchering the body for flesh or to access the brain for consumption [source: Stromberg].

The Smithsonian forensic anthropologist who analyzed the finding doesn't suspect foul play in the case, although it does appear that more than one person took part in the butchering, due to different markings on various parts of the body. Whatever the case, this was almost certainly due to the desperation of the time, and anthropologists are fairly certain that there are more cannibalized bodies waiting to be discovered in the Jamestown debris.

7
Richard Parker
A crew member of the Mignonette uses a sea anchor in an open boat during (seriously!) stormy conditions. Original artwork: Engraving by J. Nash after sketches by Mr. Stephens, the mate of the Mignonette. Rischgitz/Getty Images

While so far our other cases of cannibalism are all borne out of necessity, they don't have strong evidence that a murder preceded the flesh consumption. But the 1884 story of the Mignonette, a ship sailing from England to Australia, leaves no doubt: Death did not come naturally to the victim.

About two months into the trip, the Mignonette sank and four crew members (including a 17-year-old named Richard Parker who managed to grab a couple tins of turnips) were able to get into a 13-foot (4-meter) lifeboat. Nineteen days later, things weren't looking so hot, and Thomas Dudley, the captain, suggested that Parker -- with no wife or family and much sicker than the others -- could be quickly dispatched for the survival of the rest. It was agreed. Dudley stabbed Parker in the neck with a penknife, and they ate his flesh and drank his blood.

They were found the 24th day, and eventually Dudley and one other crewman were charged with murder and cannibalism. They were found guilty, but public sentiment in England led to a hasty pardoning by the home secretary, and they were released from prison within six months [source: Teuber].

The tale of Richard Parker has a couple of literary connections as well. Years before the Mignonette set sail, Edgar Allan Poe wrote an 1838 short story where a character -- by the name of Richard Parker -- is eaten by fellow stranded sailors after hunger sets in. The 2001 novel "Life of Pi" borrows the name Richard Parker as well, for a tiger stranded on a lifeboat with the main character.

6
Alferd Packer
What's that uproarious scene? Why it's the 2002 mock trial for Alferd Packer at the Littleton Town Hall Arts Center in Littleton, Co. Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The search for riches has traditionally led many astray, but according to some accounts, it made Alferd Packer of Colorado resort to cannibalism.

Here's what we know: In February 1874, Alferd (also confusingly called Alfred) left a camp in Colorado with a group of five prospectors bent on finding gold in the Breckenridge mountains. In April, Packer alone staggered into another camp and claimed a storm had hit. All the others had wandered off in search of food, never to be seen again, he said. The story seemed fishy. Finally, Packer admitted that after one of the men had died, they had eaten him. Three other men died from exposure, and Packer claimed to have killed one in self-defense [source: San Luis Valley Museum Association]. Packer was jailed on a murder charge.

More details emerged as the campsite was found in August of that year, and it appeared all the bodies had not died of exposure, but of brutal murder. Before he could be questioned further, Packer broke out of jail and lived on the lam for nine years before being caught. His story changed this time; he claimed one of the men had killed all the others for meat, but Packer still maintained the one murder he committed was in self-defense. He admitted that he lived on the meat of the others for two months, stuck in the mountains [source: Ramsland].

Fun fact: The creators of the show "South Park" wrote "Cannibal! The Musical" to tell Packer's story.

5
The Franklin Expedition
This memorial cross of empty tin cans, used as a post office to leave messages, dates to 1854 and the search for survivors of the ill-fated Sir John Franklin Expedition. It's located on Beechey Island in Nunavut, Canada. © Pat and Rosemarie Keough/Corbis

When Sir John Franklin and 134 other men set off to map the Northwest Passage from Europe to Asia in 1845, they had a five-year supply of food with them. When the remains of the Franklin expedition were found in 1850, searchers discovered 30 bodies that showed signs of cannibalistic feeding. What the heck happened?

To some extent, we'll never really know. The Franklin Expedition was well-known in London, so its disappearance did result in three search parties. The only success came from one in 1854, who met some native Inuits who claimed they came across about 40 white men in the winter of 1850, dragging sleds and meager supplies. They bought some seal meat from the Inuits. Later that year, the Inuits came upon about 30 dead bodies and reported to one of the search units that "from the mutilated state of many of the bodies and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched Countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative — cannibalism — as a means of prolonging existence" [source: Cassidy].

The charges shocked Victorian Britain, but in 1859 another search party finally found the bodies. In the last 20 years, there has been speculation that starvation and scurvy might not be solely to blame for the deaths of the men; some evidence of lead poisoning from those tins of food has also been found.

4
The Siege of Leningrad
Lifelike dolls hold the interest of four Russian orphans whose parents were killed in the Leningrad siege. When the picture was taken on Jan. 15, 1946, the kids were being cared for in a children's home. © Bettmann/Corbis

The Siege of Leningrad was a nearly three-year bombardment by German Nazi forces against the city of (what is now) St. Petersburg. The Russian population didn't just face a daily barrage of bombing and violence. A million people died in the siege. For comparison's sake, an estimated 135,000 people perished in the bombing of Hiroshima [source: BBC]. The 900-day blockage forced the population to starve to death without any means of replenishing the food supply.

For a long time, Soviet authorities denied reports of cannibalism during the blockade, but findings in the last 20 years have been clear: Cannibalism wasn't just a rumor, but a very scary fact of life for those under siege. Consider that the people of Leningrad each had a daily ration of bread about the weight of a bar of soap and used whatever they could to fill their diet: glue, petroleum jelly, boiled leather briefcases or fur coats. Now evidence (in the form of diaries and other artifacts) shows that gangs of starving citizens, bent on any flesh they could get, were such a threat to the population that the city had a whole unit to fight cannibalism. Indeed, 260 were arrested and jailed for eating human flesh, and parents kept children home after dark to prevent them from being kidnapped for meat [source: Bivens].

3
The Greely Expedition
Cmder. Winfield Scott Schley and a party that rescued Adolphus Greely (third from right) and the 6 other surviving members of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. Incidentally, Schley was also one of the founders of the National Geographic Society. © Corbis

When U.S. 1st Lt. Adolphus Greely and 25 men set sail from Newfoundland in 1881 to mount an expedition in the "Far North," they weren't just going for the thrill of an adventure in the Arctic. They were charged with collecting a mass of scientific data that would help understand the little-known region. Of course, they also wanted to beat the British by going farther north than had ever been recorded.

The data collection went swimmingly. But when a promised relief boat failed to show at the camp they set up at in 1882 -- and 1883 as well -- things got a little tense. Greely ordered the men to make their way to the open sea, where they could make tracks for supply caches at Cape Sabine. It didn't work, and instead the men ended up in an even more desolate part of Canada, which was colder and less hospitable than the first. Naturally, frostbite and madness set in. And our story wouldn't be complete with the requisite cannibalism that shocked the public when the seven starved and dying survivors told their story after they were eventually found in 1884 [source: American Experience].

Although there was public outcry, the rescued men were shown a lot of sympathy for their actions, with most of the blame put on the poor planning of those who were responsible for their relief missions [source: American Experience].

2
The Essex
A sperm whale, the cause of the Essex misadventures iStockphoto/Thinkstock

We all know the tale of "Moby-Dick." The story is actually somewhat similar to that of the whaling ship Essex, which sailed the Pacific in 1820. In "Moby-Dick," nature showed man it was not to be trifled with, in the form of the Great White Whale. The Essex also was pretty much ravaged by nature, and a sperm whale even started the whole thing by striking the ship, causing the 20 sailors to move to three small, open boats, with only a ration of half a pint of water and three ounces of biscuit a day. Which -- during the course of their 90 days at sea – meant men quickly turned to drinking their own urine and eating the internal organs of their dead comrades.

Eight men survived and were found in the two remaining boats among bones and human remains. One survivor included the captain, Nantucket native George Pollard Jr., who had helped to kill and eat his own cousin -- the young boy had drawn a bad lot, a "custom of the sea" to help decide who would be murdered for meat, to sustain the others. Showing even more insanity than he did in the boat, however, Pollard decided the next year to captain another ship.

Yet again, Pollard's ship was wrecked, but luckily the crew was rescued before resorting to cannibalism this time. Pollard stuck to being a night watchman on solid land. The wreck of his second ship was discovered in 2011 [source: Than].

1
Modern Day Survival Cannibalism
This gentleman was one of only two survivors of a boat where 49 people died after drifting more than three weeks at sea. He is helped by civil workers for transport to a Santo Domingo hospital in the Dominican Republic on Dec. 5, 2008. © Eduardo Munoz/Reuters/Corbis

A lot of our stories of cannibalism are from a different era, and it's easy to dismiss them as relics from the past. But the tale of a group of Dominicans who set out for a better life in Puerto Rico -- and ended up living a nightmare at sea -- happened in 2008.

Thirty-three people had set out for the 160-mile (257-kilometer) journey in a wooden vessel, some paying as much as $1,800 for a spot on the fishing boat. When the engines malfunctioned a day and a half in, passengers were split about whether to turn back or press on, but the captain wanted to continue. The boat essentially drifted on open water for six more days until the first passenger died. The next night, the captain disappeared -- either thrown over by a passenger, or making a desperate attempt to swim for help.

The men and women began dying daily. After two weeks at sea -- and 27 of the 33 passengers already dead of dehydration and starvation -- the five survivors finally made a decision to cut some pieces of meat from the leg and chest of the last man to die. They took the small bits and swallowed them like pills.

They weren't forced to resort to any more cannibalistic feeding, as they were found the next day, rescued by the United States Coast Guard. One survivor did confirm that the human flesh was a lot like beef [source: Associated Press].

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Author's Note

After spending a few days with people who turned to human meat for survival -- maybe not in the flesh (ahem), but at least reading about them -- I discovered a disturbing thing: I totally got it. While I certainly can't imagine making the choice, I no longer found myself thinking that it was a weak one. Instead, it really was a matter of survival, and I can't blame anyone for grasping for any chance to live.

Related Articles

Sources

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