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San Diego Museum Of Man Serves Up New Exhibit On Cannibals

Learn about corpse medicine, skull moss, and the custom of the sea

The San Diego Museum of Man is serving up a new exhibit on cannibals. KPBS arts and culture reporter Beth Accomando says it may not be what you expect.


The San Diego Museum of Man is serving up a new exhibit , Cannibals: Myth and Reality, and it may not be what you expect.

What do Jeffrey Dahmer, Hannibal Lecter and King Charles II have in common? They are all cannibals, said Dr. Emily Anderson, director of exhibit development at the San Diego Museum of Man.

"Here at the San Diego Museum of Man we’re really interested in looking at topics that might make some people a little uncomfortable," Anderson said. "But actually if you explore them with some sensitivity and thought you discover that there’s more that unites people than divides us."

Such is the case with the new exhibit, Cannibals: Myth and Reality. Most people probably know that serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and the fictional Hannibal Lecter consumed human flesh but they may be unaware that 17th and 18th century European aristocrats, such as King Charles II, can also be categorized as cannibals for using corpse medicine.

"Part of us wants to think this is maybe a fringe or maybe folk type of medicine but this [was] mainstream. Advocated by people of science and one of the most famous users of this kind of medicine was King Charles II of England," Anderson explained. "In fact, he had his own lab. And there is a kind of ground-up skull called King’s Drops after him."

Photo caption:

Photo by Beth Accomando

The reproduction of a 1747 manual for apothecaries.

Corpse medicine

For the exhibit, Anderson defines cannibalism in the broadest possible terms as people who eat anything that comes from another human being. That can include Charles’s favorite King’s Drops, mummy dust, skull moss or fresh blood — all of which can be found listed in a 1747 manual for apothecaries, a reproduction of which is on display at the exhibit. You can also take home a prescription slip for a popular type of corpse medicine:

Mummy Dust: Made from historical mummies or recently mummified corpses and taken orally to reduce bruising and improve overall health. "When the supply ran low, they actually started creating artificially, rapidly mummified bodies in Europe and there are actually recipes that we can find from this period that explain how you mummify a corpse and then they would use those for the medicine made from mummies," Anderson said.

Skull Moss: A fungus that grows on skulls left outdoors and snorted to stop nose bleeds and applied directly to wounds to stop bleeding. "The main supplier of these skulls were basically the battlefields of Europe. This is a period when there were wars happening all the time, either for conquest or religious reasons and especially in the case of Germany. Apparently in Germany the skulls that came from the battlefields in Ireland were especially popular, so it was a whole business of exporting skulls from the Irish battlefields to continental Europe," Anderson said.

Fresh Blood: Preferably taken from a young, healthy man who died a swift, violent death and taken orally as needed to restore health and prolong life. But also, Anderson points out, as a cure for epilepsy. "Taking of blood was one of the most public ways that human-based medicine was ingested. Those people used to gather blood at the site of executions. So when someone was beheaded there are all sorts of eyewitness accounts of people standing with a cup waiting for the blood to come out of this executed person and then running vigorously. That was part of the prescription, was to get it circulating through your body as quickly as you could," she said.

Such remedies were not referred to as cannibalism but rather as the more socially acceptable corpse medicine.

"So at the same time that Europeans are going out around the world and meeting people they didn’t understand and using cannibalism as one of the ways to reinforce that difference and say those people are not like us because they eat other people. Back in Europe medicine was made of human body parts and prescribed regularly to people for a number of different ailments," Anderson said.

Columbus coins the term cannibal

Labeling someone a cannibal has been used as shorthand for designating them as different and even subhuman. When Columbus coined the term and applied it to natives in the New World it allowed Spain to enslave those people without stirring moral outcry. In order to challenge this kind of hypocrisy, the exhibit has a number of interactive components.

"One of the things we really wanted to do with this exhibit is to ask visitors to step into the shoes of people who were faced with real difficult decisions and to make people think, given the same circumstances, would they make the same choices. Can I empathize with that person, do I understand what happened?" Anderson said.

Photo caption:

Photo by Beth Accomando

One interactive element of the San Diego Museum of Man's Cannibals exhibit allows visitors to draw straws and experience the "custom of the sea."

Custom of the sea

Visitors can step onto a raft and pretend to be a survivor of a shipwreck in the 1800s.

"If there was a group of people who survived and ran out of food it was acceptable, socially acceptable for them to kill somebody in that group in order for the group to survive. It was considered sort of an unpleasant but necessary practice and was called 'the custom of the sea.' There were even rules about it, basically you drew straws and the one who drew the shortest was the one who was eaten, and the one who drew the second shortest had to do the killing," Anderson explained.

There are also more modern examples of cannibalism where visitors can put themselves in the shoes of people facing extreme questions of survival, such as the Donner Party or the Siege of Leningrad. To make the Siege of Leningrad — which took place in 1941-42 where starvation drove some to cannibalism — more tangible the exhibit allows you to weigh out your rations and experience how starvation weakens your body and makes just carrying a bucket of water increasingly more difficult.

At the end of the exhibit, the museum asks visitors to consider exactly what it means to be a cannibal.

"We have this magnet wall where we can put up different human-based things, like blood and would you consider the ingestion of blood cannibalism? What about cremated human remains if you snort them, is that cannibalism or not?" Anderson asked.

The museum hopes to challenge visitors and maybe even push them out of their comfort zone in order to reconsider a taboo topic such as cannibalism from new angles.

The San Diego Museum of Man’s Cannibal Exhibit is scheduled to be up for a couple years and is recommended for adults and children 10 and up.

Here is my list of some "gourmet" cannibal films.


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