Medicinal cannibalism, despite cannibalism’s obvious negative connotations today, has surprisingly popped up multiple times and in multiple different cultures over the course of history. From traditional Chinese medicine to the mummia that was so prized by Europeans, a wide range of human anatomy was once used for therapeutic purposes.
One of the earliest instances of medicinal cannibalism comes from ancient Rome, where physicians believed human bodies were made up of natural elements, and thus, natural elements, including human body parts, were used in pharmaceuticals. An influential idea at play during this time was humoralism, the belief that imbalance in or separation of the 4 humor (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) was the cause of all illnesses. Excess or deficit in one humor could be cured with consumption or limitation of the opposite humor. It was therefore a relatively logical conclusion that human bodily fluid or excrement such as blood, milk, and urine could be used as medicine.
Surprisingly, even after the fall of the Roman empire, Christian Rome continued to practice medicinal cannibalism. Towards the end of Renaissance, medicinal cannibalism was at its peak, with drinking human blood to treat epilepsy, smearing human fat to help with bruises, and distilling human bones into spirits to lessen stomach troubles being relatively common medical practices. A recipe for blood jam was even provided by a Franciscan apothecary in 1679, just in case fresh blood (obtained from a healthy living donor or still warm from the dead body was most common) or powdered blood (most effective for stopping nosebleeds and bleeding from wounds like a weird band-aid) was too inconvenient. Perhaps even more popular than blood was the use of mummia, or powdered mummies. Initially, the word mummia only referred to the natural pitch (otherwise known as liquid asphalt) that could be found in sandy landscapes, but due to a translation error in the twelfth century became known as the pitch-like substances that could be found on Egyptian mummies. Over time, the medicinal properties of the mummia were attributed to the bodily liquids from the corpses, and the definition expanded to include powdered mummy, not just mummies’ liquid exudations by the 1600’s. By the time the 1700’s rolled around and encyclopedists were trying to document what mummia actually was, there were 4 different kinds, only one of which did not require human bodies. Whatever it actually was, mummia was believed to be a panacea: a cure-all type of medicine, applied for symptoms ranging from coughing to joint pain. The reasoning behind this medicinal cannibalism was fairly simple: Northern Europeans believed that after death the soul would gradually leave the body, so recently dead bodies had powerful forces still at work that could be transferred to others through consumption.
On the Eastern side of things, traditional Chinese medicine had plenty of cannibalistic treatments for diseases. Some of the treatments were further removed from the mental imagery you might have of barbarians chowing down on drumsticks made from human flash and drinking blood in the place or wine: in fact, the human ingredients were processed and manipulated before physicians prescribed them to patients. It was more like taking medicine that just happened to have human flesh in it. On the other hand, some treatments did not involve the processing process. Two such examples would be the practice of ko-ku, taking flesh from one’s thigh to feed to a diseased parent, and ko-kan, feeding part of one’s liver to a diseased parent. These practices started during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) but spread during the Ming (1368-1644 BE) and were done more in private than in institutions, unlike the prescription of medicines made from human ingredients. Ko-ku and ko-kan likely did well in China due to the immense influence of filial piety and the Buddhist cult Kuan-yin’s emphasis on self-sacrifice.
No matter what we think about medicinal cannibalism nowadays, it is still interesting to look back at the past and try to understand the beliefs of our ancestors.