Cannibalism as medicine: forgotten medical history

By Lara Becker | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published October 5, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Medicinal cannibalism occurred throughout history more frequently and more recently than many would believe.

  • Cannibalism was common practice for the rich. Figures such as King Francis I of France would carry a vial of mummy mixture for his health.

  • Alleged health benefits were wide-ranging: curing epilepsy, strengthening bones, or protecting against illness.

It’s a historical scene as fascinating as it is gruesome: a panel of doctors peering over a corpse, examining an assortment of internal organs ready to be harvested. It’s a race against time before decomposition begins. There are hands and tools flying everywhere—the recently deceased donating it all so that someone else might live. Across Europe, recently deceased bodies, ones without serious disease, were being picked apart by physicians looking for salvageable fat, fresh blood, and human skulls.

This wasn’t the precursor of an organ transplant or an autopsy, but something more ghastly: medical cannibalism. That is, the consumption of dried mummy flesh, fresh blood, or human skulls.

History reveals that medicinal cannibalism was a common practice beginning around the 1500s.

“In the 1500s and 1600s, you could walk into any well-stocked apothecary shop in London or Paris or Zurich or Copenhagen, and find the shelves full of packages of corpse medicines,” said Beth A. Conklin, PhD. Conklin is an associate professor of medical anthropology and sociocultural anthropology at Vanderbilt University. Mixtures and extractions of deceased body parts were used to treat hemorrhages, bruising, and a wide variety of illnesses, she said.

Medical cannibalism even went all the way to the top: King Francis I of France carried a mixture of “mumia” and rhubarb. His mix was called “true mumia,” a thick, black liquid extracted from the corpses of Egyptian aristocracy who were rich enough to have their bodies preserved with myrrh, aloes, saffron, and spices. “True mumia,” a sub-type of the greater “mumia” category, became so popular that it needed a special classification: corpse extractions in liquid form from wealthy, ancient Egyptians. 

Bring out–and prepare–your dead

Medieval purveyors of “medicine” had a system for turning mummies into so-called miracle cures. First, they would prepare the mummy. After maintaining and cleaning the corpse, there are options, ancient sources tell us.

If you want to keep things classic, go for the standard powdered mummy. The afflicted can take doses of 2 drachms, or apply externally to wounds.

Medieval apothecaries believed powdered mummy was beneficial for epilepsy, vertigo, or palsy. 

Mummy powder a bit too dry for your taste? There’s also a recipe for an extraction or tincture of mummy. Famed alchemist Oswald Crollius of Marburg, Germany, used a similar process to create mummy wine. An excerpt from Crollius’ “Royal Chemist” and a discussion of it in 1915’s “The Practical Druggist,” describes his detailed process from mummy to wine:

“Take the carcass of a young man (some say red-haired), not dying of a disease, but killed; let it lie twenty-four hours in clear water in the air, cut the flesh into pieces, to which add powder of myrrh and a little aloes, imbibe it in spirit of wine and turpentine, take it out and hang for twelve hours in fresh spirit, then hang up the pieces and in a dry air and shady place.”

Crollius called the macabre concoction a counter-poison that could prevent the plague and resist all manner of infection in the body. 

How often was this really used?

The popularity of medical cannibalism peaked in the 16th and 17th centuries, Conklin said. European doctors were trying to emulate patterns of these practices they were hearing from reports in the New World of the Americas. 

Conklin said that medicinal cannibalism was gaining popularity at the time due to several factors. In the time of the Renaissance, educated Europeans wished to harken to ancient health practices, such as the aforementioned Egyptian-corpse ravaging, as well as ideas from physicians such as Swiss-born Paracelsus. He was the first to introduce chemistry into medicine, and believed that the best way to heal a sick human body was from a healthy human body. 

Sometimes patients took matters into their own hands. Public executions became opportunities to source their own human ingredients.

As described in “Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts,” epileptics would “stand around the scaffold in crowds, cup in hand, ready to quaff the red blood as it flows from the still quavering body.”

More recent history

Medical cannibalism in Europe reduced human corpses to biological matter for consumption, whereas other cultures, according to Conklin, view cannibalism as an appreciative gesture.

For example, Conklin spent a year living among the indigenous Wari’ people of Brazil. Her studies led to the book “Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society.” She said that the Wari’s use of cannibalism, which continued into the 1960s, emphasized the relationship between the eater and the eaten.

The Wari’ would consume roasted flesh, organs such as the liver and heart, and ground bones. However, a New Republic article points out that the Wari’ did this because once the deceased truly passed over, they believed that eating the flesh did not constitute cannibalism. Rather, to the Wari’, death signified the body leaving the realm of the living, making the corpse akin to edible prey.

In this sense, eating the dead was appreciative and honorific, using their body to heal and help others to sustain their lives.

The Wari’ no longer use these practices, and now bury the dead, but still recall the history of their ancestors who did. 

“Cannibalism is a difficult topic for an anthropologist to write about, for it pushes the limits of cultural relativism, challenging one to define what is or is not beyond the pale of acceptable human behavior,” Conklin wrote in her book. “As one of the last real taboos in contemporary cosmopolitan society, cannibalism evokes a mixture of revulsion and fascination that guarantees any account of it will be read against a host of preconceptions.”

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