Fine Young Cannibals

Preparing a meal in “Alive”

Call me sick or demented if you must, but I have always been fascinated by cannibalism. I’m not talking about ancient civilizations that ingested the bodies of their enemies because they believed they could absorb their strength. And I’m not all that interested in some primitive tribe that still practices cannibalism today. What I find most intriguing are stories where cannibalism becomes a necessity for survival. Fortunately, I was chilling out earlier this afternoon—doing some channel surfing while waiting for blog inspiration—and stumbled across the film “Alive.”

The 1993 movie focuses on the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes Mountains in 1972. The team was heading for a match in Chile when they hit turbulence, descended from a cloud bank at too low an altitude and clipped the peak of a nearby mountain. The tail and a wing of the plane immediately ripped away, taking a number of passengers with them, while the fuselage slid down a snowy slope and eventually stopped.

For more than 70 days, the survivors endured bitter cold, an avalanche, starvation and death. With no hope of rescue and nothing to keep them alive—their last bits of wine and chocolate having been used within the first few days—they had no choice but to feast upon the flesh of their dead, all of whom were preserved in the snow. They did so in a very methodical and respectful way, of course, but the fact is that they weren’t just eating people; they were eating people they knew.

Talk about getting a little help from your friends.

Eventually, two of the survivors—Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa—load up with meat and makeshift sleeping bags, dress as warmly as possible and trek for twelve days through the mountains towards Chile. They obviously make it and alert the authorities, who send helicopters to pick up the 14 survivors they left behind. Years later, the group returned to the site of the crash to properly bury their dead, or what was left of them. A memorial to their 29 departed friends still stands there today.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

Granted, some may find this story gross or even sinful, but I think most of us understand that “desperate times call for desperate measures.” And from what I understand, the closest match for human flesh is pork, so I’m sure it wasn’t as nasty as we may think. The bodies were pretty frozen when they were consumed and I’m certain this reduced the gross factor. If this had happened in a warmer environment, then they may have been forced to slice their friends into flank steaks and grill them up. This seems much more gruesome and offensive, but also more delicious.

Sorry. I couldn’t stop thinking of pork ribs as I was writing that.

The Donner Party succumbs to a snow storm

Of course, the classic tale of cannibalism for survival occurred in 1846, when a group of American pioneers left Missouri for California and made a very fateful navigation decision. To save time, the Donner Party and their wagon train chose to take the Hastings Cutoff through the Wasatch Mountains and across the Great Salt Lake Desert. Unfortunately, this path set them back even further and they arrived at the California trail a month late.

As they were traversing the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, an early winter storm rolled in and blocked their path with snow. The Donner Party was forced to spend the winter there and took shelter in several cabins. Once their food supply dwindled down to almost nothing, a group of 15 members set out for California in the hopes of being rescued. Cold and starvation claimed eight victims and in order to survive, the remaining seven members were forced to eat their dead companions. Fortunately, this provided the energy they needed to escape the mountains 33 days later.

Back at the campsite, the survivors were eating everything in sight: mice, ox hide and even soup made from soaked horse bones. These short-term solutions didn’t last and eventually, cannibalism again became their only option. Those who died were mutilated, packed in snow and used as food, and this included women and children. Several rescue parties were dispatched later and reported seeing survivors carrying body parts and living off the organs of their deceased friends and relatives. And when all was said and done, 48 of the original 87 Donner Party members were still alive.

Cannibalism had saved them.

Human beings are incredibly resilient creatures. And when survival and self-preservation are at risk, we sometimes do things we aren’t proud of to ensure we live to see another day. Eating human flesh isn’t ideal, to be sure, but it is a “last resort” we all may be willing to take if the need arises. Personally, I wouldn’t hesitate to do so if I had no other option. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but it would make logical sense. The human body needs food to sustain itself and, given no alternative, it can certainly serve this function itself.

I hope I never find myself in a Donner Party or “Alive” situation, but if I do, I hope I’m one of the first to go. That way the survival of my group will be guaranteed, because I’m confident everyone will be fat and happy once they eat me!

Posted on November 3, 2012, in Perspectives, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I remember in school reading a short story by Stephen King called Survivor Type which dealt with cannibalism. Great story. I share your fascination with the lengths humans will go to survive.

    Great post.

    • I seem to remember that story too, J.D. Is that the one where the guy is stranded and has to eat his own body? There was a line about it tasting like ladyfingers, I think. Great story. And great comments, too. Thanks for checking this out!

  2. Hah! I have always wanted to see that movie but wasn’t sure I could stomach it! Some day I’m sure I will. Now see, if they’d mentioned that part of the Donner Pass history in grade school, I’d probably have been better at history but they take out all the juicy parts and the rest is so bland!

    • You’re right about that, Sarah. These are the kinds of details that kept me interested because history was never my bag, either. I like it a lot more now that I’m older and have a more demented perspective. LOL

      You should totally check out the film. It’s not gross in the least.

      Thanks for posting, Sarah!

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