Times In History When Cannibalism Was (Arguably) Justified

Typically, the idea of people consuming other people is considered far beyond the bounds of acceptable human behavior. Ever since the Europeans invaded the New World, cannibalism has been seen as the quintessential symbol of uncivilized savagery. Modern day individuals aren't even as inclined to believe in the spiritual or medicinal aspects that once seemed to make eating people acceptable.

But believe it or not, there are times when cannibalism was the only option in order to survive. However, these really aren't the people you should be asking what human meat tastes like given the circumstances that led to their consumption. This concept could be referred to as "justified cannibalism," and you really should keep this phrase in mind as you read these chilling accounts of survival cannibalism.


  • A Pioneer Trek To California Led To Wagon Trail Cannibalism

    A Pioneer Trek To California Led To Wagon Trail Cannibalism
    Photo: Lawrence & Housewirth / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    One of the most widely known stories of survival cannibalism dates back to 1846. A group of 87 people now known as the Donner Party left Missouri to make the glamorously promising journey to California. The group was led by 60-year-old George Donner, who had absolutely no experience to lead such a trek. Ultimately, the group took a "shortcut" that led to them being stranded for four months, eventually finding themselves on the edge of winter. After the few survivors were rescued, many recited accounts of cannibalism.

    Almost half of the party died before rescue efforts were made, and, by that point, the living had resorted to eating the dead. However, they made all attempts to avoid cannibalism for as long as they could. They ate anything and everything they thought they could possibly digest, such as their livestock, their own pet dogs, rodents, leather belts, sticks, and animal hides boiled down to glue-like pastes. However, as survival became more difficult, it became necessary for people to eat their own dead kin – including their children.

  • Jamestown Was Full Of Starving Settlers

    Jamestown Was Full Of Starving Settlers
    Photo: YouTube

    The winter of 1609 posed an extreme challenge to Jamestown settlers, as the colony was a mere two years old. Starvation was such a huge issue that this period of time is referred to as the "Starving Time." While rumors of cannibalism have always been faint whispers where Jamestown is concerned, the partial remains of a 14-year-old English girl were found amongst the bones of dogs, cats, and horses during a 2012 excavation at the historic site.

    The girl's skull, which was only around 66% intact, appeared to have had her brain, tongue, and cheeks eaten. Supposedly, the remains showed no evidence of murder, which supports the idea that starving settlers simply resorted to eating the only food available to them. After many forensic tests, the skull was replicated as a 3D model, the missing portions were filled in by mirroring the remaining fragments, and a team was able to render a 3D-facial reconstruction of the girl. Eerie.

  • A Sperm Whale Sunk The Essex, Causing Sailors To Resort To Cannibalism

    The story of the Essex, a whaling ship that sailed the Pacific in 1820, is almost parallel to that of Moby-Dick – except for the fact that it involves cannibalism instead of being eaten by a whale. Maybe they're not so similar...

    During its time at sea, a sperm whale struck the Essex, which caused around 20 of its sailors to evacuate into small boats. They were equipped with a meager amount of food, which only amounted to a ration of about half a pint of water and mere slivers of a biscuit per day. Oh, and they spent a whopping 90 days at sea. They soon had to resort to drinking their own urine and eating bits of those who didn't survive on the open boats.

    When two of these boats were found, they contained only eight survivors amongst bones and the remnants of the other, less-fortunate sailors. The captain, George Pollard Jr., was among the survivors – and he is known to have killed and eaten his own cousin during the voyage. By the next year, Pollard took an unnecessarily confident leap of faith by deciding to captain another ship. The ship wrecked, but this time it was discovered before he and his new crew had to resort to cannibalism.

  • Uruguay Plane Crash Survivors Were Forced To Eat Their Friends And Family

    Uruguay Plane Crash Survivors Were Forced To Eat Their Friends And Family
    Photo: BoomerKC / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1972, a plane filled with a Uruguay rugby team and their families crashed at 13,000 feet in the Andes Mountains. Many died in the wreckage, and those who survived were forced to endure -30-degree-Fahrenheit cold. Mind you, they also had to live among the corpses of those who didn't survive the initial crash, and if that weren't bad enough, an avalanche eventually killed eight more people.

    The plane was originally filled with 45 people, and the only edible supplies on board were wine and chocolate. Those who survived this harrowing series of events were stranded for 72 days and wouldn't have lived to make it through their rescue without eating the flesh of their fallen friends and family members. Eventually, a few people from the group made a desperate 10-day trek in hopes of finding help. Luckily for them, they encountered a Chilean herder who ultimately led a rescue party to their aide.

  • The Holodomor Famine In Ukraine Led To 2,500 Cannibalism Arrests

    The Holodomor Famine In Ukraine Led To 2,500 Cannibalism Arrests
    Photo: Alexander Weinerberger / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In the 1930s, the Soviet Union made the decision to replace individually owned farms with collective ones in an attempt to increase their food supply. This type of collectivization forced farmers to sell their harvest for next to nothing, and the workers were forbidden from eating their own crops. Not surprisingly, the Soviet Union's plan backfired and spiraled into a massive famine that ultimately killed millions of people. 

    Ukraine experienced the worst effects during this period, and their famine became known as Holodomor, or "hungry-mass death." Holodomor caused around three to five million deaths, and cannibalism was rampant. Gangs were formed for survival; people murdered members of their families; and dead children were eaten. Cannibalism was so prevalent that posters were put up by Soviet officials that said: "To eat your own children is a barbarian act." An estimate of around 2,500 people were supposedly arrested for cannibalism during this famine, and most of those convicted of it had fallen mentally ill because of starvation.

  • Crewmen Of The Mignonette Were Charged With Murder And Cannibalism

    In 1884, a ship making a trip from England to Australia sunk two months into its journey. Four crew members of the Mignonette were lucky (or unlucky?) enough to procure a 13-foot lifeboat. Barely 20 days into being stranded, Thomas Dudley, the Captain, decided that Richard Parker, a sick 17 year old with no wife or family, would be the best person to aide in the survival of the group. After Dudley stabbed Parker in the neck with a penknife, he and the rest of the surviving crew members ate Parker's flesh and drank his blood.

    On the 24th day, they were rescued. Dudley and another crewman were charged and found guilty of murder and cannibalism. However, due to the gravity of their situation, they were quickly pardoned and released from prison within half a year.