Anthropology is a discipline with subfields specializing in every aspect of human behavior, even those you might not think warrant an entire specialty of their own. Anthropophagy is one such subfield. You’re probably more familiar with the word cannibalism.
This specialty is small and unique – it’s not a subject many folks want to spend their professional lives amidst. Admittedly, with cultural practices varying from place to place, there are always challenging ideas to wrap your mind around, but the art of eating humans is a difficult one if you happen to have been raised in a culture which does not practice nor condone such behavior.
The consumption of human flesh has been practiced for a wide variety of reasons – ranging from practicalities in times of desperate food shortage (think Donner Party type of situations here) to purported important ritualistic ingestion by relatives of the deceased (think preservation of soul/spirit in the next generation). Context means everything when you study such a controversial topic and when it is part of the fabric of culture, there are generally valid identifiable reasons for the practice. That may not make it any easier to understand or consider – but our own practices and behaviors are often rife with bizarre ideas and values from the perspective of outsiders. The challenge in studying such behavior is the lack of evidence. Much the same as trying to find the source of an urban legend, there is an increasingly large discrepancy between the groups of people assumed to have practiced anthropophagy at various times and any evidence to support actual behavior.
Of course we know it has occurred – individuals in modern society have capitalized on the accessibility of victims. In times of extreme hardship, people have turned to ingesting their companions in a desperate bid for survival. In those cases we aren’t talking about cultural norms but more isolated practices. When it comes to hard data, many of the so-called cannibalistic cultures of the recent past fail to produce results that match the mythology. If there’s a lesson to be learned in this conundrum, perhaps it is that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what we think people consumed in the past – for ritualized purposes or otherwise.