Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads

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#StevesLibrary: Eat Me

First off, as this is my first blog post since before the festive season, I hope you had a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! I thought I’d kick 2022 off with something a little different, that I finished a couple of weeks ago – Eat Me: A Natural and Unnatural History of Cannibalism. Surprisingly, this was an extremely fascinating and easy read, with it being very well written. Bill Schutt has done a fantastic job researching the various different forms of cannibalism both in the natural world, and the anthropogenic one. You’ll be glad to know (as much as I was), that there are a few instances of amphibians and reptiles popping up throughout, such as caecilians. Hatchling caecilians will eat the outer layer of their mother’s skin, a behaviour that I first became aware of through Life in Cold Blood, you can watch a video of this spectacular behaviour here. Cannibalism is very rare in mammals and birds, at least in times when individuals aren’t stressed, which may be due to an increased investment in parental care and kin recognition. To a frog, a fish, or an insect, your brothers and sisters are a tasty meal!

I’m fortunate enough to have observed cannibalism a few times, mostly in frogs – such as the midwife toad (Alytes obstetricans) and the marsh frog (Pelophylax ridibundus), both introduced species to the UK. These small insights into the world of cannibalism helped to prime me for this book. Aside from the cannibalism that is boundless in the natural world (it really is), Schutt also addresses the taboo of human cannibalism, as well as murder. Now, this is a topic that I know frighteningly little about, so I was pleased to be able to get my teeth into the topic (pun intended). It is quite evident that the European settlers that claimed the New World as their own, used the term ‘cannibal’ as a justification of the subjugation and enslavement of those nations/people. It was unfortunately an effective strategy, but the story doesn’t end there. There have been a few famous cannibals in the 20th Century, such as Edward Gein who was later known as ‘the Butcher of Plainfield’. Schutt addresses all of these sensitive topics extremely well, giving them the dignity and respect they deserve, without glorifying any wrong doers. Schutt also briefly looks at the psychology and the motivations of cannibals, including those times of crisis, such as survival situation where the only option people have is to eat the remains of their dead friends.

I know it seems like I have a weird fascination for the dead, especially after recently reading Stiff and All That Remains, but these topics are genuinely fascinating. To me, the reason for this is because they’re taboo, and that no one dare speak about them without the fear of being judged. If you liked Stiff, then you’ll enjoy this just as much. While many may judge spiders or mantids for their cannibalistic behaviour, palaeontology is painting a darker picture of the lives of early humans. It is very likely that we killed and consumed one another, although whether this was ritualistic or for genuine survival we will never know. The only thing that troubled me within Eat Me, is that Schutt sometimes uses the terms archaeology and palaeontology interchangeably, especially when describing Neanderthals. While it can be both, I’m sure most people I know working with fossil human remains would rather consider themselves palaeontologists. Cannibalism is one of those behaviours that is frowned upon, yet as a very rich, if dark history. Society and religion my have supressed our drive to eat one another, but it is clear that under the right circumstances, it occasionally occurs. After reading Eat Me, I must go and watch the 1973 film ‘Soylent Green’, especially as it was set in 2022.

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