What’s it all about?:
For centuries scientists have written off cannibalism as a bizarre phenomenon with little biological significance. Its presence in nature was dismissed as a desperate response to starvation or other life-threatening circumstances, and few spent time studying it. A taboo subject in our culture, the behavior was portrayed mostly through horror movies or tabloids sensationalizing the crimes of real-life flesh-eaters. But the true nature of cannibalism–the role it plays in evolution as well as human history–is even more intriguing (and more normal) than the misconceptions we’ve come to accept as fact.
In Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, zoologist Bill Schutt sets the record straight, debunking common myths and investigating our new understanding of cannibalism’s role in biology, anthropology, and history in the most fascinating account yet written on this complex topic. Schutt takes readers from Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains, where he wades through ponds full of tadpoles devouring their siblings, to the Sierra Nevadas, where he joins researchers who are shedding new light on what happened to the Donner Party–the most infamous episode of cannibalism in American history. He even meets with an expert on the preparation and consumption of human placenta (and, yes, it goes well with Chianti).
Bringing together the latest cutting-edge science, Schutt answers questions such as why some amphibians consume their mother’s skin; why certain insects bite the heads off their partners after sex; why, up until the end of the twentieth century, Europeans regularly ate human body parts as medical curatives; and how cannibalism might be linked to the extinction of the Neanderthals. He takes us into the future as well, investigating whether, as climate change causes famine, disease, and overcrowding, we may see more outbreaks of cannibalism in many more species–including our own.
Cannibalism places a perfectly natural occurrence into a vital new context and invites us to explore why it both enthralls and repels us.
And now for something a bit different…
Hello everyone and welcome to a very special review on my blog. In April, I had the pleasure of doing my first buddy reads with Stuart from Always Trust In Books where we read the YA novel Scythe, the first in a fantastic new series. Check out my review HERE and Stuart’s review HERE. We both had a great time doing it and decided for our next buddy read to read something a bit different – in this case, a popular science book all about cannibalism. I realise I might have lost some readers right now, haven’t I?!
Stuart and I ummed and aaahed for a little bit about how we wanted to review this book – individually or more of a collaboration and he had the brilliant idea of capturing our Twitter chat and then including it as part of our review. So please find here before our thoughts and feelings about Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History at the moment of reading it. If you’re worried about spoilers, never fear! Stuart and I deliberately kept the juicier parts of the narrative very vague so if you haven’t read this yet, no big secrets are given away.
What did WE think?:
Beth: Okay I’ve just finished Chapter Five, let me know your thoughts whenever you’re ready! 🤔🤗
Stuart: I’ve been looking forward to teaming up with you again for a read and here we are! What a topic for discussion we have ourselves, cannibalism. The first 5 chapters were both immensely graphic and incredibly informative. I am enjoying Bill Schutt’s writing style, though it is slightly information dense, and his insights into insect, fish and mammal cannibalism was fascinating if not slightly hard to process. I will never look at Cupid the same again. How are you finding this read?
Beth: I’m really enjoying it Stuart, as you say it’s incredibly informative and as a huge animal lover this was always going to be an interesting read for me. It did take me about two or three chapters to really get into it and get used to his writing style but now I feel fully invested. I’m loving finding out facts I wasn’t aware of about cannibalism in the natural world – I mean the dedication of that mother spider was crazy wasn’t it? Are you enjoying the illustrations?
Stuart: The illustrations are great if not a little unsettling 😂. Yeah I know what you mean about getting into Schutt’s rhythm. I was surprised how common cannibalism is in the wild and what it truly takes for animals and creatures to cross that line. Reading about insects and animals makes me dread when Schutt gets to the humanity sections!
Beth: Very unsettling! I did like the part about the acrobat redback spider though even if he comes to quite a sticky end. 😕 There is a dark humour throughout which I am appreciating as well!
Stuart: I think we are going to need that dark humour for the coming chapters! This has to be the most surprising non-fiction read I have ever read. I wonder what other secrets Schutt has in store for us. He brings up many good points about the idea of cannibalism and what actually constitutes cannibalistic behaviour. I am glad that Schutt is a hands on scientist because I don’t think this book would have been as impacting if he was just reiterating previous research.
Beth: Well, we’ve got some interesting chapters coming up including one on dinosaurs and one on Neanderthals! I’m looking forward to what’s coming next – shall we read onto the end of Chapter Ten?
Stuart: Sounds good. Should be there by tomorrow morning. Chat to you then 😁
Stuart: I have just finished chapter 10 and ready to discuss you are 😁.
Beth: Okay I’m ready! Sorry, had an interview today and was studying. Well that was an interesting few chapters! I have to say I didn’t enjoy them quite as much as the previous five but I was intrigued to read about Colombus and his determination to label all indigenous people cannibals!
Stuart: Yeah it is hard to discern what is sensationalism and what is genuine cannibalism. I am glad the spirit of the book is that cannibalism is only an animals/humans last resort of survival. Painting the Carib’s as monsters to justify wiping them out is brutal and it has distorted our view on other cultures still to this day. I was fascinated by how far back evidence of cannibalism in nature goes.
Beth: I can’t even imagine how they had the gall to paint them as monsters with one eye or a tail etc?! It was quite a sobering fact to think of the amount of the indigenous population has been decimated due to invasion, direct or indirect factors! 😱
Stuart: Considering there is very little evidence to suggest any ritualistic cannibalism present in those communities and cultures other than in times of mourning or survival. Definitely not savage, mindless and evil behaviour. It goes to show how important it is to stick with the facts as false evidence can lead to a lot of suffering! Schutt has done a great job compiling and explaining the history of cannibalism. I hope we get more up to date insights in the coming chapters.
Beth: I completely agree. As the subtitle “A Perfectly Natural History,” suggests it seems like it’s only resorted to when necessary or as part of a ritual of a tribe for dealing with dead bodies rather than burying them as they find burial abhorrent. Who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong if they had their own religious/spiritual reasons for it?
Stuart: Reading ahead a little I can see a couple of natural western practices that involve cannibalism in certain forms so it is about to get even more intriguing. Meet back at chapter 15?
Beth: Hi Stuart, ready whenever you are. 😁
Stuart: I am ready too 😁 chapters 11-15 are, in my opinion, the strongest so far. What do you think?
Beth: Absolutely. I read it all in one evening yesterday as I’ve been so busy and it was so interesting I flew through it. The chapter about the Donner Party was fascinating and I also loved the eating people is good/bad chapters! I particularly enjoyed the small part on cannibalism in fairy tales and cannibalism in China. What did you think about the filial piety and honouring your parents?? 😱
Stuart: Each chapter delved into the thought, struggle and methodology behind potentially eating another human being. It really did turn my stomach but it was interesting to see humanity’s recent dealings with cannibalism. The Donner Party showed the true circumstances that a person may cross that line. I guess different cultures have to show their love/mourn their losses in different ways 😯
Beth: Yes and if it’s the option of survival where food is scarce, what else where they going to do? I was quite interested about the references to cannibalism in the Bible, I was raised Catholic (lapsed now!) but I remember being told communion was Christ’s body and blood. Of course I didn’t even connect it back then with cannibalism. 😳
Beth: Ready to read until the end? 🤗
Stuart: Absolutely! I am impressed with Schutt’s work and I am hoping he has saved the best for last 😁
Beth: Hey Stuart, ready whenever you are! 😁
Stuart: I am ready 😃. What did you think of the last lot of chapters?
Beth: Yaay! Well, those were some very interesting chapters indeed! He certainly knows how to go from strength to strength in his book. I couldn’t even tell you what my favourite topic was, he covered so much but I found medicinal cannibalism kind of horrifying! 😳
Stuart: I had a hard time with the last sections of this book. You’re right that the medical cannibalism part was weird and I don’t think mummy booze would catch on but I thought the rest of the chapters didn’t go down so well. I know that Kuru and BSE may have links to cannibalism but I felt like I was reading a different book!
Beth: That’s interesting 🤔 I did feel like I was skimming a few chunks right near the end, I’m not sure why. The placenta chapter was a bit odd wasn’t it?
Beth: How did you feel like you were reading a different book?
Stuart: The placenta section was strange but I have come across the placenta decision in other NF books so it wasn’t too surprising. I thought that the last couple of chapters changed the direction of Schutt’s momentum so much that I also found myself skimming and a little disappointed.
Beth: That’s a shame. I think I *enjoyed* if that’s the right phrase the medicinal and the placenta chapters and was intrigued by cannibalism in the Pacific Islands but it did feel a bit “samey” when he started talking about kuru and CJD. It suddenly got a bit dry which was strange as the majority of the other chapters were so strong!
Stuart: It was a bit of a shame to finish on a low but overall it was a pretty fascinating read that definitely changed my perspective on cannibalism. What do you think overall?
Beth: Overall I’m really impressed both with the subject matter and writing style. I did expect it to focus much more on cannibalism in nature but I’m kind of glad it didn’t. I felt that I discovered much more about historical incidences of cannibalism in different cultures and their reasoning behind doing it. It took down all the sensationalism behind the topic and delivered honest, accurate evidence. You?
Stuart: I agree. Bill Schutt is a hands-on researcher and an informative and down-to-earth writer. He wanted to get all the facts in one place and discuss where cannibalism exists in nature and the reasons behind it. I was amazed about the injustices done to the Carib and other indigenous tribes just to gain more land but to be honest after thinking about it, it’s not surprising. Us humans are capable of terrible things. Do you have a favourite chapter?
Beth: Very true. It made me ashamed of what we’ve done to people on their own land purely for colonialism! Ooh that’s a good question 🤔 I think my favourite chapter had to be Go On Eat The Kids or Sexual Cannibalism, Or Size Matters just because I was absolutely fascinated by cannibalism in nature. How about you?
Stuart: The chapter about The Donner Party was my favourite. It captured the essence of how desperate a normal human being would need to eat their own. Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History really gave me food for thought (excuse the pun). It was a subject I had no experience of and I was surprised by how much I learned. Thank you for suggesting it for our buddy read. I was glad that Bill Schutt skipped the unnatural cases like serial killers etc and instead focused on the deep rooted presence of cannibalism in nature and humanity. We need to find more eye opening NF just like this!
Beth: Absolutely! I’m very intrigued to read his other NF now, it’s called Dark Banquet: Blood And The Curious Life Of Blood-Feeding Creatures. Any NF that is as eye opening as this is a winner in my books. 🤗
Stuart: Cheers for another brilliant buddy read. I look forward to reading your full review 😁
Here endeth the Twitter chat.
As some of you might know, I’m a scientist (by day! blogger by night!) and I really love to get my teeth into some popular science non fiction. This book has been on my radar for a little while now as it appealed to the science geek in me as well as my more morbid, darker side. I actually wished for it as one of the books I’d most like to receive for my birthday this year (see my post HERE) and very luckily for, some little fairy was listening in the form of my sister, fellow blogger Chrissi Reads and it landed on my doorstep along with ALL the others on the list as soon as I had returned from holiday. I have the best sister.
Anyway, as my previous buddy read with Stuart was YA fiction, we thought we’d branch out a bit into a different genre and the topic of cannibalism throughout history seemed to be the ideal, if rather controversial talking point. I’m not sure if I can speak for Stuart but this was a hugely different buddy reading experience for me, personally. I mean, obviously we’re talking real-life events rather than fictional characters but it was fascinating to hear his point of view on certain topics that were raised, as you can see in our Twitter chat above. We both had similar reactions to the horrific ways indigenous peoples have been treated through history and is certainly now something I want to educate myself more about going forward in reading non fiction.
Bill Schutt, author of Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History.
Generally speaking, I thought the author made consistently valid and sensible points regarding an issue that at times could be considered both sensationalist and scare-mongering. In fact, this was precisely the way many people in our recent history have viewed it, labelled certain behaviours or simply used it as an excuse to get rid of certain groups of individuals that don’t fit the necessary mould. The great thing about this book is that it never delves into that sensationalist mindset. It would be so easy for Bill Schutt to talk about the cannibalistic murderers in human society that have made headlines and whom we may associate with the topic as soon as the word pops into the periphery. Of course, they are given a brief mention, it would again be strange not to acknowledge them but this book is about so much more than the rogue psychologically disturbed and relatively few members of the human cannibalism club.
The title says exactly what it does on the tin. This astounding piece of non fiction is about cannibalism both in nature and in history. We learn the reasons why animals may cannibalise in the natural world and even the isolated incidents in humans are explored in a rational and methodical manner. It’s not just about eating your own kind for the hell of it. Sometimes it’s pure and simple survival when other resources are dangerously dwindled and there is literally, no other choice. Of course, there will be obvious exceptions to this rule but it was fascinating to see this topic in a whole new light and realise that we can’t always rely on history to tell the absolute truth.
Thank you so much to Stuart @ Always Trust In Books for another amazing buddy reading experience, I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to many more in the future!
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):