Cannibalism has been used in numerous occasions by people threatened by starvation. In many of those cases it worked well, in the sense of providing survivors with the means necessary to sustain life. However, every cannibal, whether he or she became one willingly or not, later finds a negative stance – to say the least – from other members of society, and in some cases, accusations of murder, that is, anthropophagy.
Cannibalism is not something that takes place for survival reasons. It is a complex thing that entails numerous motivations and it is regarded essentially as a crime until proven otherwise. Here we will deal only with survival cannibalism.
Historic cases like the crash of an Uruguayan plane in the Andes and the subsequent cannibalism are part of what is understandable, but other cases are dubious or show something entirely different. Survival cannibalism is not based on learned cultural traits but on instinct and it is not limited to humans: some other species practice it under duress, like dogs, while of others is a common, natural occurrence.
The Donner group of settlers that in 1846 attempted to cross North America on its way to California ended up in a terrible winter due to a series of mistakes, and many of its members resorted to cannibalism after depleting their resources. Rumours had that some people amassed resources while letting others starve, violence, murder as a revenge for eating relatives, and so on. Plus, a lot of exaggeration appeared as the facts became legend. of However, the facts were never clearly understood and so the innocence of those survivors could never really be established.
Some reports appeared describing cannibalistic practices among German POWs captured after the battle of Stalingrad by Soviet forces. In reality, these reports couldn't be really substantiated because most witnesses perished: initially, the Soviets captured hundreds of thousands of Germans. Only about 4.000 survived the prison camps and some returned to their country as late as 1954, literally anihilated as human beings.
In some cases cannibalism can become officially-sanctioned, at least to some extent: according to historian Yuki Tanaka, there were cases of cannibalism among Japanese soldiers who belonged to units that were left isolated due to military blockade operations performed by the allies. In some of these units, according to Tanaka, cannibalistic acts were performed under the supervision of officers of those units.
Lieutenant General Yoshio Tachibana was tried, sentenced and executed for cannibalistic acts in Chichi Jima, 1944. This was later knows as the Ogasawara Incident, in which at least eight prisoners of war were executed by orders of Tachibana and eaten.
Lance Corporal Hatam Ali, who fought in WWII and became a Japanese POW in New Guinea, as the Kokoda Trail campaign raged on, testified that at least in two camps in which he was held, Japanese guards regularly selected prisoners to be killed and latter ate them. In one of the camps, according to his testimony, flesh was cut or ripped from their bodies while they were still alive. Then, the Japanese cooked the flesh and threw the the prisoners into a ditch to die.
In his book "The Knights of Bushido" Lord Russell cites the testimony given before a military court after the war in Guam by Major Matoba, a Japanese officer who saw these deeds and described them as celebrations or festive occasions – that is, when a human was eaten. According to these testimonies, human flesh was seasoned with sake and was eaten in the presence of high ranking naval and army officers who supported and stimulated such actions.
The problem with cannibalism is then what happens afterwards, at least in those cultures that do not approve it as normal practice. On the other hand, during a survival situation the future, as seen by survivors, is not far-reaching. Even intellectually-prepared individuals fall into this trap: Just remember those Japanese officers who, like in most armies around the world, have some degree of education, or at least more than the average individual. Since the mind is set on solving immediate needs and problems, normally people under such dire circumstances hardly thing about the distant future and the consequences of their present deeds.
But the survivor should know and keep in mind that his or her acts will be judged by relatives, society at large and possibly, a legal court. The question is then whether the survivor will be willing to live with the burdens that cannibalism will entail. Cannibalism is a bet that will always end in defeat.