Cannibalism in the Congo: A New Take on an Ancient Practice

14 May




“Nearly all the tribes in the Congo Basin either are or have been cannibals; and among some of them the practice is on the increase. Races who until lately do not seem to have been cannibals, though situated in a country surrounded by cannibal races, have, from increased intercourse with their neighbors, learned to eat human flesh. There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that they prefer human flesh to any other.”

Sidney Langford Hinde (former captain of the Congo Free State Force), The Fall of the Congo Arabs, Methuen, 1897

This post is not meant to be an expose on the practice of cannibalism in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DAR). Cannibalism has existed there for generations and still takes place in the bush. The latest practice of cannibalism morphed into a demoralization technique employed by rebel armies during the first and second  Congo Wars in order to keep the villagers subservient and according to my sources was directly related to the number of skirmishes between rebel and governmental forces  in the Eastern part of the country. No one who has spent time in East Africa would deny the  existence of cannibalism in the Congo but most individuals consider it a delicate topic, like incest and politely refrain from discussing it unless specifically asked  to do so. Yet the latest concern with the practice of cannibalism has extended beyond the question of morality and now centers around its  connection to a  fatal disease called Kuru; the implications of which have  just begun to be understood by the World Health Organization. It seems that this disease “bites back” by killing the living who prey upon the dead.

What is it about the practice of cannibalism that invariably stops the most civilized people in their tracks and upsets their normal sensibilities?  It is a topic begrudgingly acknowledged but not openly discussed especially among friends when in more intimate social settings. Yet anthropologists suspect that the eating of human flesh is not a new practice at all and has existed since the “Dawn of Man”. The practice of humans ingesting humans has been directly connected to a wide range of culture-specific needs such as: man’s attempt to capture the human spirit, grieve over the death of a loved one, survive in the face of famine, triumph over one’s enemies after physical conflict, and for the sheer taste  of human flesh. According to Tim White in “Once We Were Cannibals, there is irrefutable evidence to support the claim that cannibalism existed in the Neolithic Period in Europe and in North and South America. White discovered crushed cranial bones in Neanderthal skeletons inside burial sites in Croatia which when analyzed proved that other human beings had tried to crush the craniums attached to the spinal columns in several places in order to remove the brain tissue inside the skulls. He also collected further evidence from among the skeletons to confirm that these bodies had been systemically roasted over an open fire.

Anthologists have identified two major forms of cannibalism as it has been practiced around the world for the past two hundred years. The first category is referred to as ritualistic or exo- cannibalism.  In this type of practice human beings outside of one’s own tribe are consumed usually for offensive and defensive reasons most likely associated with some type of tribal warfare. The victorious members of one tribe eat the flesh of the vanquished in order to demonstrate their superiority and their disdain for the people they have defeated. The use of violent actions such as murder and torture are employed to dominate or scare away potential enemies who might otherwise consider challenging this tribe. It has also been used to reduce the number of slaves residing in a particular village so they have no chance of threatening the welfare of the villagers who reside there. Many tribal cultures believe that as they digest their enemy they also take in the courage and the talent the victim once possessed during his lifetime; this practice  remains one of the most total acts of domination possible.

Many reports of cannibalism practiced by severely disturbed individuals support the notion that they may also have  incorporated a spiritual as well as a ritualistic dimension into their crimes. Serial killers and sex offenders such as Ottis Toole in the late 1970’s and Peter Bryan between 1994 and 2004  defended their criminal actions by explaining that when they consumed their victims they too believed that they became  one with their victims and absorbed their strength.

The second type of cannibalism, mortuary or endo-cannibalism promotes the consumption of a member within one’s own culture or tribe. It is more often associated with rituals established around the burial or internment of a dead member of the tribe and lately anthropologists like Beth Conklin have proposed that this form of cannibalism is very closely associated with the process of grieving that occurs in family and friends after a loved one dies. Dr. Conklin, associate professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University, conducted an intensive study into the cultural practices of the Wari people, a grouping of tribes who reside in the Amazon rainforest and who once practiced cannibalism. According to Conklin, “The Wari were an unusual ethnic group because they practiced two distinct forms of cannibalism; one during warfare and the other during funerals. However, the two practices were very different and had very different meanings. Eating one’s enemies was an intentional expression of anger and disdain. But at funerals, when they consumed members of their own group who died naturally, it was done out of affection and respect for the dead person and as a way to help the survivors cope with their grief.”

In a related article by Ellie Shick, Mortuary Cannibalism Practiced by the Wari, she identified a more humane desire. “Upon consumption of the deceased group member, the spirit of the dead was believed to be absorbed by the entire tribe and was considered by them to be one of the most respectful ways to treat a human body.” Peggy Sanday in her book Divine Hunger, proposed that cannibalism was viewed as a holy act, in which the adult males of the tribe were granted divine powers bestowed upon them by their gods in gratitude for their actions. 

Survival cannibalism is the most recognized form of cannibalism in the Western World. Stories abound about expeditions by American and European adventurers who had no choice but to eat dead comrades in order to survive. Accounts of the doomed whale ship Essex in 1820, the destiny of the Donner Party in 1847, and the tragedy of the Greely Expedition of 1881 were extensively circulated in newspapers and magazines of the time. Every account both shocked and fascinated their readers. In each case the men accused of these heinous acts swore under oath that they had been revolted by their deeds but were left with no other alternative. They had resorted to cannibalism only in order to save their own lives and the lives of their men. Anthropologists have proven that the Aztecs approved of cannibalism in times of great famine. During the famine of 1920-1921 people in the Soviet Union were forced to eat anything they could find and ultimately ate one another in their attempt to survive. Acts of cannibalism were also reported during the famine in the Ukraine between 1932-1933. As far back as the Great Famine in northern Europe 1315-1317 and again in the Egyptian Famine of 1201  acts of cannibalism were noted in official records that detailed the extent of the damage that occurred during each famine. 

Cannibalism is not a crime and is still not considered an illegal act in most countries. People who have been arrested for eating human flesh are more likely to be charged with the crime of manslaughter, first or second degree murder, or desecration of a dead body. In the twenty-first century the practice of Cannibalism has not been exclusively the domain of populations residing in Third World countries either.

 Armin Meiwes shocked the world in 2001 when he admitted to killing a man whom he said had formally consented to being killed and eaten. This unusual story began with Meiwes seeking out a man to eat on the internet. According to Meiwes, he found the man after he posted an add for a “well-built man who would consent to be killed and eaten”. Meiwes also informed authorities that there were over 400 cannibal-related web sites and chat rooms on the internet and that many were devoted to epicurean cannibalism. Meiwes testified that around 200 men had responded to his ad but  in the end he chose, killed, dismembered, cooked, and ate Brandes.

Historically, reports describing cannibalism were cited by colonial officials in order to justify their domination of the natives in the Congo who they viewed as thoroughly immoral individuals incapable of demonstrating civilized behavior and therefore unable to rule themselves. Although the people of the Mangbetu tribe located in northeast territory along the Bomokandi River were grestly admired by “the whites”for their tribal structure and remarkable artistry, most Europeans of the late 1880’s mistrusted the actions of the tribes and considered them to be nothing more than an “immoral group of savages”. First-hand descriptions of the brutal, uncivilized, and repulsive behaviors of men and women of the Congolese tribes were sent home in letters written by scandalized Baptist missionaries stationed in the Congo. Their stories were confirmed by European explorers and Belgian traders who further damaged the integrity of the tribes. Several European historians have proposed that this was the primary reason a meaningful alliance between the “White” Belgian Colonialists and the “Black” Congolese tribes was never forged in the early 1900’s. Tales of cannibalism and savagery combined with images of exotic weapons and the semi-nude attire of the natives so fascinated yet offended the continental Europeans’ rigid sense of morality that they refused to even consider the notion that over time the native peoples in the Congo could ever develop  the skills needed to govern themselves. 

In the case of the Mangbetu tribe, the most damning evidence of their savage nature was cannibalism. Reports of Mangbetu cannibalism attracted a wave of negative sentiment throughout  Europe because their motives were regarded as particularly “crude and boorish”.  Their reason  for  eating human flesh was in no way connected to the more spiritually- acceptable desire to communicate with the gods. Europeans had been introduced to this form of spiritual cannibalism practiced by some of the other  tribes in the Kongo and if not outright supportive of their actions, at least they were able to identify with the religious intentions. But in the case of the  Mangbetus, their simple preference for the taste of human flesh was considered a  reprehensible and unforgivable act by the majority of Belgian colonialists living in the area and was a critical factor in why the colonists never seemed comfortable forming close relationships with individal members of this tribe.

Ngombe/ Doho execution swords also referred to as Ngombe cult weapons were highly collectable items prized by colonial administrators and military officers. The knives were created to symbolize the inevitability of death. These remarkably balanced swords were not created for use in punitive events but for religious ceremonies.The back side of the blade was used like a panga for cutting. The front side of the extremely sharp blade if used properly detached the victim’s head from his neck in one swift blow. This ritual was carried out in very precise steps. The victim was usually a slave but any member of the tribe could ask to be chosen as an execution victim. The victim was positioned on the ground in a clearing with his legs set straight out in front of him. A young tree was bent over until it touched the top of the man’s head. Then the victim’s head was firmly secured by leather straps to the end the sapling. The ritual leader, chosen by the group, swung  the sword  in one powerful downward stroke  slicing off the victim’s head. As soon as the head had been removed from the victim’s body the taunt tree snapped back into place causing the victim’s head to careen through the air where it would land somewhere deep within the tropical forest. The tribes believed that the person, although dead, could still sense the ultimate freedom of flying through the air to meet his ancestors. The victim’s body was then dismembered and cooked in order to feed the members of the village who had witnessed the ceremony.

 The practice of cannibalism has returned to Eastern Congo and has been associated  with the actions of rebel militias during the two civil wars in the Congo and the revolution in Sierra Leone. In 2003 the United Nations Security Council released an official statement condemning the massacres and human rights violations, including cannibalism that were inflicted upon the populace by rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Sierra Leone. In July 2007 a UN report declared that the abuses of Congolese women and children go “far beyond rape” and include sexual slavery, forced incest, and cannibalism.” Marginalized groups such as the Pygmy have been far more vulnerable to the threat of cannibalism by the rebel forces than other tribes because of their smaller size and lack of  guns. During the Civil War in Uganda from 1980’s until 2007 Kony’s Lords Liberation Army was continuously accused by children who had escaped from his camps of having  engaged in cannibalistic  rites in order to ensure victory for his soldiers in upcoming battles.  

The Truth Behind the Cannibals of the Congo

 In 1986 Jean Bedel Bokassa dictator of the Central African Republic, was tried for several cases of cannibalism in which he supposedly killed and ate a number of primary school children although he was never formally convicted of the crime. In the spring of 2012 the International Criminal Court (ICC), Hague Netherlands did find the former Liberian President Charles Taylor guilty on 11 counts listed in the indictment that related to the aiding and abetting of war crimes in Sierra Leone’s civil war. It was the first conviction of a head of state by an international court since the Nuremberg trials of Nazis right after World War II. He was found guilty of “aiding and abetting rebel forces” and in supporting their practices such as murder, rape, sexual slavery, conscripting children younger than 15, and the forced enslavement of miners to extract diamonds (blood diamonds) in order to support a range of military activities. Taylor denied eating human flesh in his secret society and several witnesses testified under oath that his soldiers in the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) deliberately engaged in cannibalism in order to terrorize and demoralize the villagers. Taylor will be sentenced on May 30, 2012 and prosecutors have asked that he be given the maximum sentence of 80-years. This means that the 64 year old ex- Liberian president could spend the rest of his life in prison.

The tribes of Papua, New Guinea practiced both endo- and exo-cannibalism until the 1960s. The majority of women in these tribes consumed their dead relatives’ bodies and brains as a way to demonstrate their grief and as a sign of respect for their dead relations. Eventually medical researchers confirmed that these women were dying from a strange disease named Kuru caused by their cannibalistic rituals with dead bodies. Then a scientific team led by Carleton Gajdusek and Baruch Blumberg discovered that it was these diseased mothers who were passing this sickness on to their children.

Kuru is a disease that causes severe deterioration in the human brain and nervous system similar to that of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease ( CJD). The variant form of CJD is believed to be the human equivalent of  Mad Cow Disease discovered in livestock in the late 1970s and which appeared in cows as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). The disease was caused by an infectious agent found within the human tissue in the brain of dead people. Kuru is a highly infectious disease that is transferred to others through a variety of daily actions such as contact with bodily fluids. The spread of the disease stopped only when the practice of cannibalism ceased in New Guinea but individual cases of Kuru were reported for several years afterwards because of the disease’s long incubation period.

The symptoms of Kuru include: arm and leg pain, lack of motor coordination that increases over time, difficulty walking, severe headaches, difficulty swallowing and eating leading to malnutrition and starvation, tremors and muscle spasms (myoclonus). The average time from exposure to physical symptoms (incubation period) is between 10 to 13 years, but incubation periods of 30 years or even longer have been reported. There is no known treatment and death usually occurs within one year after the first symptoms appear.

The symptoms for Nodding Disease start with a continuous nodding of the head that eventually leads to convulsions, staring spells, difficulty walking, difficulty swallowing and eating leading to malnutrition and starvation, deterioration of mental capacity, deterioration of fine then gross motor coordination, and eventually debilitating seizures . This condition affects children between the ages 3 to15 years and has been reported in East Africa, specifically in the countries of South Sudan, northern Uganda, and southern Tanzania. No child has ever recovered from this disease and there is no known cause or cure yet. Anti- epileptic medicines are currently being used to treat children with this disease but they only minimize the effects of the seizures. Over 4,000 children have this condition and about 170 have already died from it( WHO, 2012). Lately there have been reports that adults have contracted the disease too but this data has not yet been confirmed.

 Compare the symptoms of both diseases.

Symptoms of Kuru Disease

Symptoms of Nodding Disease

lack of motor coordination that increases over time deterioration of fine then gross motor coordination
tremors and muscle spasms (myoclonus) continuous nodding of the head, convulsions
difficulty walking difficulty walking
difficulty swallowing and eating leading to malnutrition and starvation, difficulty swallowing and eating leading to malnutrition and starvation,
severe headaches severe seizures
 deterioration in mental capacity deterioration in mental capacity

Is it possible that the children in Uganda and South Sudan are suffering from a variant form of encephalopathy, (disease of the brain),  that in some way is related to a form of Mad Cow Disease in humans? Could it be similar to the variant form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) that has been proven to be related to Mad Cow Disease? Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is a form of brain damage that leads to a rapid decrease in mental functions and movement. The infection that causes the disease in cows is believed to be the same one that causes vCJD in humans. Variant CJD accounts for less than 1% of all cases of CJD but it tends to affect younger people. However, fewer than 200 people worldwide have been identified as having this disease.

Variant CJD is caused by exposure to contaminated human tissue or blood. Other vCJD cases have occurred when people were given corneal or other tissue transplants, blood transfusions from infected donors, or through improperly disinfected electrodes used in brain surgery. Within 6 months or less after the symptoms have begun, the person is unable to care for him/ herself. The disorder is fatal within 8 months but a few people have lived for as long as one or two years. The cause of death is usually diagnosed as infection, heart or respiratory failure.

Is there a connection between what desperate people have been forced to do during war in order to survive and the appearance of Nodding Disease? The UN has confirmed that cannibalism increases when people who normally practice it are involved in conflict. There had not been one case of Nodding Disease reported in northern Uganda and South Sudan prior to the start of the Civil War in the 1980’s. At the conflict’s peak in 2005, there were 1.84 million Internally Displaced Persons living in 251 camps across 11 districts of northern Uganda to keep them safe from the rebels ( UNHCR, 2012). That is an average poulation of 7, 331  individuals living in each camp. Doctors with whom I have worked in the past have been very clear when they tell me -“whenever abnormally large groups of people are made to live closely together and there is not an adequate sanitation system in place, new forms of old diseases and totally new diseases appear in people overnight”. Plagues have been known to begin  this way. Usually these new diseases show up so quickly they have not yet been named. The doctors are not sure what course of treatment to pursue so they begin with following the  recommended dosages of antibiotics many times to no avail. And if this new disease is a virus like AIDS, what then? Could completely new diseases have been generated inside the camps? Does Nodding Disease exist as an infection in the form of prions like Kuru rather than as a virus, bacteria, or parasite?  Is it being been passed down to children by their mothers like Kuru or is it spread by ingesting infected tissue? I strongly advocate that scientists investigate the connection between Kuru, Nodding Disease, and variant CJD (vCJD) as a possible physical reaction to the practice of cannibalism. Could  a variant form of Mad Cow disease in humans be causing Nodding Disease in children after all?

Kat Nickeson                   Kingston,  RI         USA


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