What Counts as Cannibalism?

As in, how much of a person do you have to eat?

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Is there a certain threshold you have to hit before you can say you’re participating in cannibalism? My coworkers and I were discussing this the other day. One said she bites her fingernails and, after a few years, all that fingernail biting has probably added up to a decent-sized chunk of herself. Is that cannibalism? Over your lifetime you’ve probably consumed a large amount of skin flakes, your own and other people’s. Is that cannibalism? What about if you accidentally eat a little slice of someone’s finger because they cut themselves while making dinner? Is that cannibalism? What about sex stuff — is that cannibalism?

To answer our question (that is, how much human do you have to eat to be considered a cannibal) I reached out to Bill Schutt, author of Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History.

“Cannibalism is something where there is certainly a grey area,” he said. If you’re a scavenger, a dinosaur was the example he gave, and you come across a body of the same species and eat that body, well — there isn’t really a consensus on whether that makes you a cannibal. “There are some paleontologists who think yes,” he said, “and there are others who think no.”

“The guys who got stranded in the Andes, they ate their dead friends in order to survive,” he said. “That was an act of cannibalism. But are they cannibals?” Schutt thinks no, because they did not continue to eat people post-rescue. But hm. Did they continue to bite their own fingernails?

“I don’t really consider biting fingernails and things like that to be cannibalism,” Schutt said. “I don’t think there’s a specific quantity that makes you a cannibal. I just go by this definition: Cannibalism is the act of consuming all or a substantial part of another individual of the same species. Or with regard to auto cannibalism, if you’re eating a substantial part of yourself.”

As part of research for his book, Schutt ate someone’s placenta. He did so to be able to describe the experience, and to live life without the regret of not eating someone’s placenta when he had the chance. Does that make him a cannibal? “I mean … you know, I don’t think so,” he said. (You might have your own opinion.)

So, to be clear, Schutt don’t consider a baby consuming breast milk to be cannibalism, or the biting of fingernails, or “swapping spit” with somebody. “But if you’re swapping spit with somebody and bite their lips off,” he said, “that’s probably cannibalism. And it’s time for a new friend.”