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A person or animal who practices the eating of its own species.

There is no doubt that cannibalism has been accepted by certain societies since earliest times. In great stretches of Africa it was witnessed by early Portuguese slave traders when they started their transactions in the early 16th century.

It persisted in Eastern Europe until the late middle ages - possibly lending belief and colour to werewolf and vampire stories.

And mentioned in 12th century writing by the Chinese of the northern provinces, who called man "two-legged mutton"

Human cannibalism became apparent to Europeans in the time of Christopher Columbus. He came across a tribe called the "Caribs" in what is now the west Indies, who not only ate their captives, but imprisoned, then castrated some to improve their bulk and flavour - in the manner we might fatten capons.

The above were all triggered by hunger, whereas some forms of cannibalism were purely driven by religion.

The conquistador Cortés (1485-1547) found piles of skulls in every temple forecourt on his way to Tenochtitlan (what is now Mexico City), he is said to have said "in return for our coming to treat them like brothers, and tell them the commands of our lord God and the king, they were planning to kill us and eat our flesh, and had already prepared the pots with salt and peppers and tomatoes".

Certainly the Aztecs believed their gods demanded the living heart of their sacrifices - local wars being fought with the sole purpose of taking prisoners, who had their chests ripped open by priests so that their hearts could be taken out still beating, The better parts of the body were then consumed by the elders, while the victim"s captor took away the remains and made it into tlacatlaolli (man & maize stew).

The Spanish were extremely shocked by this, for although they too were barbarous, they tortured and their prisoners in the name of Christianity and didn't eat them afterwards. Although human bones, have been found at Atapuerca in Northern Spain, with marks of butchery - showing they had been stripped of flesh.

In Britain, skeletons over 12,000 years old have been found at the Cheddar George. These had been scalped, beheaded, had their tongues cut out, and their arms and thigh bones smashed open to extract bone marrow.

In Central America cannibalism died out with the population; when Cortés landed the population was estimated at 25 million, thirty years later it had been reduced to about 6 million, and by 1605 (less than 90 years after Cortés' conquest) about 1 million remained. War and newly introduced diseases (to which the peoples had no resistance) were the cause. It was considered at the time to be God"s justice.

Cook's travels in the Pacific in the 1760's and 1770's (eventually leading to his death in 1779).

Studies of the head-hunters of Papua New Guinea show that they practised cannibalism until recently and fell victim to kuru, a brain disease, as a result.

If you enjoy cooking take a minute to look at ‘Simon Scrutton French Cookery Classes’ on Google – and learn how to make top class bistro-style dishes. Suitable for beginners upwards.

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