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Slate’s Explainer: What does human flesh taste like?

Researchers at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History announced yesterday that colonists at Jamestown ate their dead. This starvation cannibalism likely occurred during the winter of 1609-1610, when most of the colonists died. The bones of a teenage girl show clear evidence of butchery, but it is not clear whether she was killed or died naturally. Last year, Slate Explainer examined the question of what human flesh tastes like.

Veal. In his 1931 book Jungle Ways, American adventurer and journalist William Buehler Seabrook provided the world’s most detailed written description of the taste of human flesh. Seabrook noted that, in raw form, human meat looks like beef, but slightly less red, with pale yellow fat. When roasted, the meat turned grayish, as would lamb or veal, and smelled like cooked beef. As for the taste, Seabrook wrote, “It was so nearly like good, fully developed veal that I think no person with a palate of ordinary, normal sensitiveness could distinguish it from veal.”

There are reasons to question Seabrook’s account. He traveled to West Africa to get the inside scoop on cannibalism from the Guero people, but he later confessed that the distrustful tribesmen never allowed him to partake in their traditions. In his autobiography, Seabrook claims to have obtained the body of a recently deceased hospital patient in France and then cooked it on a spit. His description of man-eating in Jungle Ways came not from his experiences in West Africa, he said, but in Paris.

Despite this credibility issue, Seabrook’s description remains the most useful. Many commentaries on the taste of human flesh come from madmen – serial killer Karl Denke, for example, or the German murderer Armin Meiwes – and are therefore patently unreliable. Most of the others are vague and contradictory. Most consistent is the unsurprising fact that young children are more tender than adults, because of the development of collagen that advances with age. Some have suggested that human infant meat is so tender that it resembles fish in texture. Beyond that, cannibals have told anthropologists that human meat is sweet, bitter, tender, tough and fatty. The variation may result from disparate styles of cookery.

Many tribes eat the meat of deceased humans only after it has rotted slightly. Roasting and stewing seem to predominate, with many tribes throwing in hot peppers or other seasonings. The Azande people of Central Africa reportedly used to skim the fat off the top of a human stew for later use as a seasoning or torch fuel. Cannibals in the South Pacific wrapped human cuts in leaves and cooked them in a pit. Sumatran cannibals once served criminals with salt and lemon.

Perpetrators of the recent spate of cannibalism have each gone for different body parts. Rudy Eugene, an attacker in Florida, ate his victim’s face. A Swedish cannibal went for only the lips, while a Tokyo man reportedly cooked and served his genitals to the highest bidders.

Cannibalistic tribes show a similar diversity. Seabrook’s West African cannibals preferred the loin, rump, ribs and palms, which were considered especially tender. They ate organs, he wrote, but found them indistinguishable from those of other animals. Cannibals in 19th-century Fiji reportedly preferred the heart, thigh and upper arm.

Other tribes apparently held the breasts of young women in high esteem. (Ritualistic cannibals are sometimes more interested in the symbolic significance of parts than taste. Eating the heart of a brave warrior or the arm muscles of a powerful fighter is thought by some to imbue the eater with the deceased’s desirable qualities.)

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