Many of us have had moments of desperation where we'd eat anything to satisfy our hunger. However, when it comes to survival, would we eat meat? Human meat? If we were starving?
Most of us are familiar with the Hannibal Lecter franchise, where an eccentric forensic psychiatrist is also a cannibalistic serial killer, but what happens when we eat people IRL?
In AsapSCIENCE's latest video, "What If You Only Ate Human Flesh?" Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown explain cannibalism is not a far-fetched idea — when it comes to insects, snails, fish, or amphibians. For example, crab spider mothers lay unfertilized nurse eggs for her spiderlings to feast on, and once the eggs are consumed, she offers herself to be eaten entirely in the process called Matriphagy. But, when it comes to mammals, cannibalism is more rare, and is typically triggered by environmental stressors, such as when rabbits eat their young under stressful situations.
French paleontologists have found human examples of cannibalism from 100,000-year-old Neanderthal bones. They showed signs of breaking as a way to extract marrow and eat brains, while tool cut marks show the tongue and thigh were also consumed. Meanwhile, in 20th century Europe, medicinal cannibalism took place, where human blood was prescribed as a remedy. However, without proper care and preparation, people ran the risk of contracting any blood borne disease like Hepatitis or Ebola from the infected person.
So, can eating humans be nutritious for our health? Not exactly.
Our entire body is approximately 81,000 calories: the thigh is about 10,000 calories, and the heart is 700 calories. Close to half of these calories come from adipose or fat tissue, which makes us the less healthy option for dieters. Anecdotal accounts suggest we taste somewhere between pork and veal, while a culinary robot has identified us as bacon.
Eating human meat becomes risky due to the presence of prions — versions of normal protein that had their shape altered, losing their function, and becoming infectious. These distorted proteins can influence other similar healthy proteins, and change them, causing a chain reaction, and creating disease. Specifically, prion disease creates holes in the brain, giving it a spongiform appearance, and ultimately causes death.
Unlike viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasitic infections, which contain DNA or RNA, prions don't, which means they can't be eradicated with radiation or heat. They could be present in any nervous tissue, including our organs and muscles. However, they are most common in the brain and spinal nerve tissues.
As a means of survival, eating people is probably the best option. Pedro Algorta, a man who was stranded in the Andes mountains for 71 days after a plane crash in 1972, ate anything he could find to nourish his body for two months, including the hands, thigh, meat, and arms of people. In his book, Into the Mountains, Algorta explained his decision and his group's decision to eat the frozen dead came from a place of cold, distant logic; it was a survival tactic.
Eating human flesh isn't always bad for us, especially if it lacks prions, but doing so carries an exceptionally high risk that's not worth sinking your teeth into.