Is it really bad to eat people?

Clearing up cannibalism.
diversus devops
diversus devops
Is it really bad to eat people?

Eating other humans is an ultimate taboo—but is it really that bad?

Ethically, it raises a lot of questions.

Legally, the implications can be quite complex.

But what about biologically speaking?

Once you get past the cultural implications of cannibalism, you’ll find there’s a lot of science behind the consumption of human flesh.


Not at all.

Cannibalism occurs in every corner of the animal kingdom.

Most often, it’s a survival strategy.

Sometimes it’s stress induced.

And sometimes it’s all about sex.

From insects to toads, rabbits to bears—even humanity’s closest living relatives—everybody’s doing it.

View Larger

Chimpanzee’s were first observed cannibalising other chimps in the 1970’s

Image credit: Adapted from Carine06
Chimpanzee’s were first observed cannibalising other chimps in the 1970’s


As far as dietary guidelines go, the Australian Government would probably prefer that we eat chicken.

The human body contains a significant amount of adipose tissue (fat), which means that cannibalism is probably not compatible with you having a tight beach bod.

Of course, moderation in all things is the best policy. I guess that also applies to cannibalism.


Most reports point to no, although sources conflict as to our actual flavour profile.

Cow, pig and sheep are all animals we have been likened to. ‘Goaty’ has been thrown in the mix.

We have variously been described as sweet, bitter, tender, tough and fatty. Most of this insight has been contributed by certified madmen, so who knows how reliable their testimonies really are?

What is likely is that our flavour will depend on which of our muscles is being eaten and how it’s being cooked as well as our diet, health and age.

We do know that we are definitely red meat, thanks to the myoglobin in our muscles. Its purpose (in living muscles) is to help ship around oxygen. In dead meat, it’s mostly found in that red puddle at the bottom of the Styrofoam tray (yeah, that stuff isn’t actually blood).


I’m sure your team mates don’t go down easy, but apparently they don’t come out easy either.

In 1972, a plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team crashed into the Andes mountains. Of 45 passengers and crew, only 16 survived. When survival rations ran out, it was necessary to eat the bodies of the dead, which had been preserved in the sub-zero temperatures.

In Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, the survivors’ accounts detailed how they suffered terrible constipation after consuming their team mates.

So if you like pooping, cannibalism is probably not for you.

View Larger

The plane crash site where a Uruguayan rugby team turned to cannibalism to survive

The plane crash site where a Uruguayan rugby team turned to cannibalism to survive


Yes, definitely.

The consumption of human flesh has helped plane crash survivors live, but it has also caused the untimely death of many … and not just those being eaten.

Without properly preparing your person-meat, you run the risk of catching bloodborne diseases. I’m talking hepatitis, Ebola, HIV, syphilis—all that fun stuff.

People are pretty filthy—dead or alive. Contamination from E. coli and other gut diseases are also a threat to your wellbeing when you munch on mankind.

But if you’re really keen on living past your posthumous snack, it’s their brain that you have to watch out for—the brain and those pesky prions.


A prion is a misfolded protein that causes prion diseases or transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs).

Prion diseases affect the brain, giving it a sponge-esque form, not unlike Swiss cheese.

TSEs in humans were first observed in Papua New Guinea, when members of the Fore tribe died after consuming their loved ones in cannibalistic funeral rites. Their disease, called kuru, started with unsteadiness and tremors, then progressed to emotional instability, incontinence, unresponsiveness, ulcers and, ultimately, death.

Kuru was most often seen in women and children, as they traditionally ate the brain of the dead. The brain has a much higher concentration of prions than other organs, but all other body parts (including blood) could contain them.

If eaten, prions will convert normal proteins into more prions in a fatal, painful, incurable cascade.

View Larger

Mad Cow Disease causes cows to lose muscle control before they ultimately die

Mad Cow Disease causes cows to lose muscle control before they ultimately die

More recently, mad cow disease killed over 200 people when they ate prion-infected beef. The cattle had been fed the remains of other cows in an effort to make them nice and plump and juicy for market. Yum.

Prions don’t have DNA, so you can’t kill them with radiation or heat. A good grilling won’t make your prion-riddled steak safe for consumption.


I’m going to go ahead and say, yeah, I think it’s probably bad to eat people.

But if the threats of getting fat, being constipated and dying haven’t convinced you, then I’m not sure anything will.

diversus devops
About the author
diversus devops
View articles


We've got chemistry, let's take it to the next level!

Get the latest WA science news delivered to your inbox, every fortnight.


Creative Commons Logo

Republishing our content

We want our stories to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.

Therefore, unless it says otherwise, copyright on the stories on Particle belongs to Scitech and they are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This allows you to republish our articles online or in print for free. You just need to credit us and link to us, and you can’t edit our material or sell it separately.

Using the ‘republish’ button on our website is the easiest way to meet our guidelines.


You cannot edit the article.

When republishing, you have to credit our authors, ideally in the byline. You have to credit Particle with a link back to the original publication on Particle.

If you’re republishing online, you must use our pageview counter, link to us and include links from our story. Our page view counter is a small pixel-ping (invisible to the eye) that allows us to know when our content is republished. It’s a condition of our guidelines that you include our counter. If you use the ‘republish’ then you’ll capture our page counter.

If you’re republishing in print, please email us to let us so we know about it (we get very proud to see our work republished) and you must include the Particle logo next to the credits. Download logo here.

If you wish to republish all our stories, please contact us directly to discuss this opportunity.


Most of the images used on Particle are copyright of the photographer who made them.

It is your responsibility to confirm that you’re licensed to republish images in our articles.


All Particle videos can be accessed through YouTube under the Standard YouTube Licence.

The Standard YouTube licence

  1. This licence is ‘All Rights Reserved’, granting provisions for YouTube to display the content, and YouTube’s visitors to stream the content. This means that the content may be streamed from YouTube but specifically forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution, except where otherwise licensed. When uploading your content to YouTube it will automatically use the Standard YouTube licence. You can check this by clicking on Advanced Settings and looking at the dropdown box ‘License and rights ownership’.
  2. When a user is uploading a video he has license options that he can choose from. The first option is “standard YouTube License” which means that you grant the broadcasting rights to YouTube. This essentially means that your video can only be accessed from YouTube for watching purpose and cannot be reproduced or distributed in any other form without your consent.


For more information about using our content, email us:

Copy this HTML into your CMS
Press Ctrl+C to copy