Books in brief: Eat Me by Bill Schutt

Schutt's otherwise entertaining account is let down by a somewhat sensationalist conclusion
February 16, 2017
Eat Me: A Natural and Unnatural History of Cannibalism by Bill Schutt (Profile, £14.99)

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In 2003, the American Film Institute polled its members to find the 50 greatest screen villains. Hannibal Lecter was number one. Anthony Hopkins’s performance as a psychopathic cannibal is seared in our minds—and popularised Thomas Harris’s trilogy of novels. It also turned the taboo subject of humans eating humans into a fascinating, if gruesome, topic of discussion.

Bill Schutt’s new book, Eat Me, attempts to understand how cannibalism fits into the world around us, to work out where it came from and why it began.

A research fellow at the American Museum of Natural History, Schutt is primarily interested in cannibalism among animals—covered in the opening chapters. Sand Tiger Sharks, one of the few shark species not to lay eggs, eat their siblings in their mother’s oviducts until the greediest shark has no rivals.

Schutt explores cannibalism among humans, charting its history from our Neanderthal relatives—whose remains show the same humanoid teeth marks as those found on animal bones from the same period—to the modern era where we find out that ground mummified remains were still on sale for medicinal purposes in Germany in 1908. This quirk has been attributed to a mistranslation of the word mumia—meaning both dried corpses and a tar-like adhesive substance. But human organs were still a delicacy in China until the 1960s.

While Eat Me is entertaining and enlightening on the story of this once unspeakable subject, Schutt is let down by a somewhat sensationalist conclusion that global warming may play a part in increasing incidences of so-called survival cannibalism—I guess only time will tell.