Looking for a cutting-edge foodie read, some vicarious cultural adventure or a glimpse into the shadows of a fundamental taboo? Bill Schutt’s Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History is scheduled to come out this February, and is the perfect literary entrée for those willing to contemplate mummy umami or Tex-Mex placenta while touring the history of animals and people eating their own kind. Schutt, a Long Island University biologist, is no stranger to the macabre and published his first book, Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures in 2008. Scientific American had the chance to ask Schutt a few questions about what inspired his latest book, and about cannibalism—and what we’re getting wrong about it.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What inspired the book’s subject?
When people I know find out I’ve written a book on cannibalism, nobody’s really surprised. I’ve always been into the macabre and natural history. I started working on my PhD back at Cornell [University] working on bats, focusing on vampire bats. I wrote a lot of papers and had the opportunity to write a book about the nature of blood-feeding, Dark Banquet. I was looking for a follow-up to the natural history of vampires, and cannibalism seemed like a natural progression. There was a big gap in between the sensationalized cannibal crime books and the really academic stuff like scientific papers. What I’m interested in doing is taking concepts that are either misunderstood, that people are completely grossed out by or both, and interpreting them in a way that’s entertaining and educational without heavy-duty use of jargon.
The book was really funny. How did you go about using humor with a subject like cannibalism?
You can’t just go looking for big yuks about the Donner party or the millions of people in places like China that starved to death under the rule of Mao Zedong and had to cannibalize their own families. But you pick your spots, and that’s what I tried to do. There are places where you can be humorous and other places where it’s completely inappropriate. I have no interest in offending anyone.
You also talk a lot about the mainstream press distorting popular science. How do people and the media get things wrong?
It’s not just cannibalism. They take a little bit of information, run with it and put a spectacular headline together—and before you know it, they’re off on a tangent that’s taking the reader further away from the real science. For example, there are all these incredible pictures of polar bears dragging bodies of the dead cubs they were cannibalizing, which headlines blamed on reduced polar ice. While that may be so, climate change deniers were really quick to jump on the fact that, guess what, polar bears have been eating cubs for millennia, and so do other bear species. In reality, the scientists themselves hinted at the fact that we might be seeing some of the first responses by animals to global warming because of the stresses it causes. But the media jumped the gun and ignored a well-known fact, probably because it made the story less exciting. That burned them in the end.
What do you think was one of the biggest surprises of your research?
I think the big surprises can be broken into two. The first was how common medicinal cannibalism was throughout Europe, right up into the early part of the 20th century. Mummia, or powdered mummy, was found in the Merck Index [of chemicals, drugs and biologicals] until the early 1900s. The second was how common it was across the animal kingdom in every major group—mostly in invertebrates but also in fish and amphibians—less common in reptiles and mammals but still there. It’s a natural behavior that exists for any number of functions.
Medicinal cannibalism is around today, right?
I guess you’re talking about placentaphagy—eating placenta. What I gleaned from talking to Mark Kristal at S.U.N.Y. (The State University of New York) Buffalo, the world’s leading expert on consuming placenta, is that it’s not that common. It popped up in the hippy culture in the 1960s and ‘70s and then died off, but had resurgence with alternative medicine recently. I went down and visited Claire Rembis and her husband in Plano, Texas, who are preparing placentas in every number of different ways: in tinctures, powdered in a capsule and ground up to put in a smoothie. I went down with all these preconceived notions about how little science there was to back this up, but then I fell in love with her and her family. She understands there’s probably a great deal of placebo effect involved, but after her first seven kids she was having severe baby blues. Someone had told her about eating her own placenta; she tried it and convinced herself that she felt better.
So you tried it.
It’s something I hadn’t expected to do. But when the opportunity arose, I thought, “I’m writing a book about cannibalism—I’d be stupid not to do this.” None of my friends or relatives were surprised that I did it.
When I was reading the book, I couldn’t believe it—I thought, “he’s really going to go down there and eat part of another person.” What does it taste like?
You know, I’m not sure I want to give it away. But they asked me how I wanted it prepared—either Tex-Mex or osso bucco. Being half Italian, I went with placenta Italiana. A lot of people have claimed that it tastes like pork or veal, and everything tastes like chicken, I guess. To me, it didn’t taste like any of those. And I’ll tell you, I cleaned my plate. It’s something I’ll never forget.
What do you want the reader to take away from reading the book?
Certainly that culture is king. There’s a tribe of people in South America who were just as mortified at the idea of burying their dead as we would be eating our dead. Culture dictates what is disgusting and what is a ritual, or even sacred. I didn’t write the book to show that our customs were superior or that cannibalism is savagery. I’m hoping that’s the mind set I bring to the book as a scientist and an observer without an agenda. I’m not interested in sensationalizing this behavior.