It began on Saturday, 5/26/12. The nation was shocked to hear that 31-year-old Rudy Eugene, a resident of Ft. Lauderdale, ran naked down the Miami Causeway, came across a 65-year-old homeless man (Ronald Poppo) lying innocently in the shade, pummeled him in broad daylight, and devoured most of his face.
I had actually recently posted a blog entry about my personal observation of an obese, naked, mentally ill man rolling around Ft. Lauderdale Beach for years, but the Rudy Eugene story was something well beyond that. There are news reports that Eugene had a history of aggression, paranoia, religious pre-occupation, and poverty. Given his age, it is possible that he may have had a mental illness such as schizophrenia, but even if this is true, cannibalism is not common in schizophrenia. It is unclear if Eugene was intoxicated at the time and there has been much speculation that he showed tell-tale signs of delirium and aggression on that day due to ingestion of bath salt stimulants that he may have ingested at a Miami concert the night before.
Then on 5/30/11, it was revealed that a 29-year-old gay porn actor named Luka Rocco Magnotta (real name Eric Clinton Newman), who was known for killing kittens and posting the videos online, shipped human body parts (i.e., foot, hand) to political parties in Canada. I joked that night that I was scared to see what tomorrow’s news will bring. Indeed, on 5/31/12, it was revealed that Magnotta videotaped himself killing the victim, eating parts of him, and then releasing the video on the internet. This was after his animal abuse exploits went unaccounted for. And if that wasn’t enough, a 21-year-old Maryland college student named Alexander Kinyua was arrested the same day for killing his 37-year-old housemate, cutting him up, eating his heart, and part of his brains.
That’s three human cannibal stories in less than one week, which is extremely bizarre.
As a scientist who studies the causes of human behavior, I wanted an explanation as to why this was happening and why someone would ever decide to eat another human besides starvation in extreme conditions. Below is a basic summary of what I have found, thought about, and hypothesized, to understand this issue more but I welcome your comments as well because I sure do not have all the answers.
To begin with, the word cannibal comes from the fact that Christopher Columbus wrote about ferocious people from the Carribean islands and parts of South America, known as the Caniba, who ate people. Some anthropologists believe that cannibalism was very common in pre-historic times. There is even a story of cannibalism in the Bible (2 Kings: 25-30). As a neuropsychologist, I am also familiar with the incurable neurodegenerative prion disease known as kuru, which was transmitted when members of the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea consumed the dead.
There have been many stories throughout history of cannibalism due to necessity from famine. Many may be surprised to know that this happened among U.S. colonists, who dug up corpses for food. One colonist even killed, salted, and ate his pregnant wife. Many are more familiar with the cannibalism among the Donner party, a U.S. settlement group in the mid-1800s. Cannibalism occurred all over the world, such as in Nazi concentration camps, Japanese troops in WWII, China and North Korea (due to famine), and many others.
Then there are cannibal stories popularized in our culture, such as the hag in Hansel and Gretel who tries to cook and eat little children. We are told of Count Dracula, who didn’t actually eat people, but bit their necks and sucked their blood. The Dracula craze has never died off and is popularized in modern times by the Twilight book and movie series. Zombies have also been very popular as popularized the Living Dead series and their quest for eating human flesh. Then there is the story of Leatherface, in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, who was a cannibal living amongst a family of cannibals. Leatherface took things one step further and wore the skin of his victims. Perhaps the most famous modern fictional cannibal is Hannibal Lecter, who was famous for eating his victim’s faces (sound familiar?).
Many people perform a very limited form of self-cannibalism, such as biting their fingernails and toenails and eating them although some dispute that this is true self-cannibalism. Some people eat their own skin after it has peeled off from a bad sunburn. Some people also eat their own hair, which is known as trichophagia. Some people eat their own scabs. Some animals (e.g. goats) are known to engage in self-cannibalism as well such as eating the placenta of their young but this is for nutritional benefit. The short-tailed cricket is known to eat its own wings. The North American rat snake has been known to try to consume its own body.
Back to humans, most people all familiar with the cannibalistic crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer. One of the most disturbing cases is that of Albert Fish, who cannibalized young children and tormented parents by sending them notes vividly describing his crimes. Andrein Chikatilo used cannibalism as a way to gratify his sexual needs, in an extreme extension of Count Dracula. Just a few years ago (2008), Tim McLean was savagely decapitated on a Greyhound bus by 40-year-old Vince Weiguang Li, who then proceeded to eat parts of the body.
This year, a German researcher (Hamalainen, 2012) reported the first case of a non-human primate (gray mouse lemur) cannibalizing an adult member of the same species. The body cavity was torn open and the inner organs eaten. The skull had been broken and the brains were consumed. The spinal cord was being devoured as well. It is unknown if the cannibal lemur had killed its victim or if it was scavenging. The authors concluded that “Cannibalism may confer immediate nutritional and energetic benefits to the cannibal and therefore might have adaptive value at the individual level.” Previously, non-human primates had only been known to cannibalize the young. Some insects (e.g., praying mantis), fish, amphibians, and birds have been known to cannibalize adults members of the same species.
Overall, if you think about it, cannibalism has been practiced all over the world and throughout history, sometimes due to famine, sometimes due to crime, and sometimes due to mental illness. It occurs in humans, insects, and various other non-human animals including primates. It is popularized in our culture through scary stories told to children and horror movies designed to scare adults. It is also relatively common for people to eat parts of their own skin (e.g., nails, hair, peeled skin) and scabs. My theory is that what happened in the Rudy Eugene case is that someone with a probable prior mental illnesses and/or certain form of drug intoxication caused him to become disinhibited and regress to a very primitive evolutionary state. Whether this is what happened in the other two cases is less clear given that not enough information available. Why there have been three cases in less than one week is also unclear but one has to wonder if there is a copycat crime element to this in some people who are already seriously mentally ill.
Hamalainen, A. (2012). A Case of Adult Cannibalism in the Gray Mouse Lemur, Microcebus murinus. American Journal of Primatology 00:1–5 (2012).
Wikipedia cannibalism page
Wikipedia self-cannibalism page