What did the cannibal do after he dumped his girlfriend?
Along with pirate jokes, cannibal jokes count among those I find most ticklish. Once I told this joke to my Japanese language tutor. It necessitated explanation of the double-entendre involved in the slang meanings of the verb “to dump.” A memorable English lesson, I think.
Like most humor, this joke makes light of a topic that we are, deep down, very uneasy with. Cannibalism is a firmly-entrenched taboo in most (but not all) contemporary societies.
We might draw a distinction between two categories of cannibalism: voluntary and involuntary. Involuntary cannibalism is the unfortunate result of a stubborn unwillingness to starve to death in the face of dire circumstances such as accidents in remote locations or widespread famine. Well-known incidents include the Donner Party and the Uruguayan ruby team in 1972, although accounts have abounded throughout history. Desperate and starving, many Russians resorted to digging up corpses for food during the 1921 famine, as did North Koreans during the devastating famine of 1996.
Other involuntary cannibals include the hoodwinked population of New York in the sci-fi classic Soylent Green, but we’ll assume that this doesn’t happen very often.
Voluntary cannibalism is a somewhat different beast. In modern times the desire to eat human flesh is associated with derangement or insanity. There are scores of real-life and fictional serial killers who eat their victims, from Jeffrey Dahmer to Hannibal Lector. Cannibalism has also been widely practiced in warfare, as in the ancient Anasazi civilization (see below), 19th century Belgian Congo, or in more recent decades to intimidate or terrorize victims during conflicts in Liberia.
In the Western tradition, myths and fairy tales feature cannibalistic monsters such as the Greek Titan Cronus, who devoured his own children to prevent them from supplanting him, or the Grimm Brothers’ gingerbread house-dwelling witch trying to fatten up poor Hansel. Zombies, the most gluttonous and unrepentant cannibals in popular culture, terrify and fascinate us on the big screen. They probably fascinate us more than they terrify, judging from their proliferation from film to television, books, comics, and video games.
Cannibalism, we would conclude from the most common cultural representations, is an activity reserved for the monstrous, savage, and uncivilized. Which is precisely what Europeans thought when they encountered cannibalistic practices during colonial expeditions. Ritual cannibalism, involving the cooking and eating of human flesh, organs, or making medicines derived from human bones or blood, has been practiced by certain South Pacific, Tropical African, or Amazonian peoples (among others, including North American Indians and Europeans) in ceremonies as a way to honor the dead.
In fact the word “cannibal” comes from the Spanish word for the Carib people of the West Indies, who were reputed in the 17th century to be ferocious man-eaters. More recent anthropologists and historians have called into question the accuracy of past European accounts of cannibalism, arguing that these stories propagated a perception of native peoples as savage and primitive, which was used to justify colonist brutality, enslavement, and extermination. While this is undoubtedly the case, the widespread occurrence of cannibalism in many cultures has solid grounds based on documentation and archeological evidence, as Jared Diamond, for one, points out with respect to the Anasazi civilization in his book Collapse.
Most people feel strongly that cannibalism is somehow profoundly wrong. And yet—and yet. The swelling wave of adventurous eaters—those that seek to open their minds and their mouths to what is generally deemed far beyond any standard of decency—is flirting with the breaking point. Anthony Bourdain, the spirited leader of all the worst convention-flouting dining, affirms his participation. Asked by an audience member at a Brooklyn summer festival if he would eat another human, he reportedly said, “Yes, yes, I fucking would.” Then there’s the case of Mao Sugiyama, a Japanese asexual living in Tokyo who this past spring cooked and served to volunteers his own recently-severed genitals, salvaged after a sex-change operation (the subheading of the article I read ran, “Police Shrug, ‘It’s not Illegal’ ”).
Although it may be technically legal, the consumption of human protein is not highly encouraged by Randall Fitzgerald, author of The Hundred Year Lie, an investigation into dangerous chemical additives in the modern diet. Fitzgerald says we ingest so many of these toxins that our own bodies have become toxic. Similarly, in Collapse, which links man-made ecological disaster to the collapse of civilizations, Diamond writes that the levels of highly toxic PCBs in marine animal-eating Inuit mothers’ breast milk is so high as to be considered “hazardous waste.”
I suppose Soylent Green, were it to be manufactured today, would not be approved by the FDA.
To end, allow me to venture a second cannibal joke:
Why did the cannibal live on his own?
–Because he was fed up with other people.
 It has been reported that the Korowai tribe of Papua New Guinea still practices ritual cannibalism. However, it is unclear how prevalent the practice is in reality and how much of the documentation may be exaggerated or sensationalized.
 See The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo by Robert B. Edgerton for a fascinating account.
 Adventurous eaters look to dine out on anything from grasshopper tacos to choicer bits of various animals such as heart and tongue and testicles.
 Jared Diamond, Collapse. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. p. 518