The thought of cannibalism is so revolting, many of us think that it's a subject confined to horror films and the annals of ancient history. But five recent flesh-crawling stories sadly remind us that this unthinkable act is still a part of contemporary society.
In late May, Rudy Eugene, 31, was shot and killed by Miami-Dade police after he reportedly refused to stop eating another man's face in Miami. A few days later, Alexander Kinyua, a 21-year-old Morgan State University student, reportedly admitted to killing his roommate, Kujoe Bonsafo Agyei-Kodie, and then eating his heart and portions of his brain.
These and other equally gruesome stories have some people thinking about notorious figures from history, including Alfred Packer, a Colorado man charged with killing and eating the remains of five men in 1874. The men were all part of a mining party caught in the snow, but at the time, Packer admitted to eating the bodies to avoid starvation. He claimed another traveler hacked his companions to death with an axe.
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David Bailey, the curator at the Museum of Western Colorado, which has a permanent exhibit dedicated to Packer, said the recent glut of cannibal stories has helped increase interest in the man, and a topic that is considered to be the ultimate taboo.
"We're getting a lot of school kids asking about him," Bailey told The Huffington Post. "Last time it was this big was [in 2001] with the movie 'Hannibal.' But it comes in waves."
Packer spent 15 years in jail for manslaughter before being released on parole in 1901, and has become something of a cult figure in Colorado, especially at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which named -- of all things -- the cafeteria after him and has an annual festival in his honor.
Packer died in 1907, but Bailey said he believes the story lives on because it represents the worst of humankind.
"Cannibalism really is the darkest fear of all humans," he said. "I think the reason Packer is popular is because there is the distance of time -- it happened in 1873 -- and that allows people to feel comfortable making jokes like 'Packer liked finger foods and open-faced sandwiches' more than, say, [jokes about] Jeffrey Dahmer."
Packer ate his victims in order to survive, but most cannibal cases throughout history have been more about institutionalized rituals, according to G. Richard Scott, an anthropology professor at the University of Nevada-Reno.
"People come up with all types of rationalizations for things," Scott said. "In the South Pacific -- where it's still the most common -- the women supposedly goad their husbands to get human flesh because the taste is preferable to pork."
"I remember seeing an article there where they explained how to cut up a human carcass into the sirloin, the round," he said.
Scott said that other cultures, such as the ancient Aztecs, have ritualized cannibalism as a form of social control, and said he's heard that cannibalism still may be common in the Congo region of Africa.
"I've heard about pygmies being eaten," he said. "They have rebel armies who do some bad things."