Criminal psychology has made great strides in recent years towards elucidating the mentality of serial killers, yet few researchers have dared to grapple with the subject of cannibalistic murder. In an attempt to fill that macabre void, a team of neuroscientists from the US and Germany have published a new study that categorizes the murder methods and patterns of victim selection typically employed by homicidal cannibals.
Explaining their findings in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the study authors scoured the internet and the scientific literature in order to identify 121 convicted cannibalistic offenders since 1900. Between them, these flesh-eating murderers amassed 631 victims, yet their modus operandi tended to differ significantly from that of more conventional killers.
“We conclude that cannibalistic homicides have a unique pattern of murder methods, offenders, and victims,” write the researchers. For instance, cannibals were found to be older than regular murderers, while their victims tended to be younger than normal homicide victims.
Cannibalistic murders were also more likely to be sex-related, and manual killing methods like stabbing, strangling, or beating were far more common than the use of guns. This may be connected to the fact that most cannibals committed their crimes for the sheer pleasure of it and even seemed to get a sickening thrill from selling human meat to unsuspecting customers, with many disguising their victims’ flesh as beef, pork, ostrich, or horse meat.
However, what most intrigued the study authors was that cannibals were much more likely to prey on strangers, whereas victims of regular murders are often killed by someone they know. According to the researchers’ statistical analysis, only 2.5 percent of cannibalistic killers target their own family members, while a significantly higher fraction of conventional homicides are perpetrated against blood relatives.
Furthermore, the small number of cannibals who did eat their own kin were found to have the most severe mental health issues. Almost two-thirds of those who cannibalized family members had extreme mental health scores, compared to 22 percent of those who murdered and consumed strangers.
While any form of cannibalism would appear to indicate a severe mental imbalance, the study authors speculate that most offenders of this type obey a natural logic that prevents them from eating their own relatives and that only the most deranged violate this golden rule.
Acknowledging that their hypothesis needs refining, they suggest that cannibalizing kin is not evolutionarily advantageous, which is why certain cannibalistic species such as spadefoot toad tadpoles never eat their blood relatives.
Obviously, humans are not a naturally cannibalistic species, but the researchers propose that this same evolutionary impulse may influence the behavior of the few individuals who do commit the act.