What Do Cannibals Look Like? Unraveling the Mystery!

The subject of cannibalism has been a topic of interest and curiosity throughout history. The phenomenon of one human consuming another has been cited in numerous historical accounts across various cultures, but what do cannibals look like?

In this article, we will attempt to unravel the mystery of cannibalistic appearances and characteristics, exploring the various factors that may influence what a cannibal looks like. From cultural practices and beliefs to psychological factors, we will examine different aspects and draw insights from various studies and writings on this subject.

Cultural Influences on What Do Cannibals Look Like

Cannibalism, in particular, anthropophagy (from the Greek “anthropos” for “human” and “phagein” for “to eat”), has been documented in a wide range of cultures throughout history, from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the tribes of Papua New Guinea and Amazonian natives. Although the practice is frowned upon in most societies today, it is still present in several tribal communities where it features as part of specific cultural practices, religious rituals or beliefs, or as a means to survival.

The appearance of a cannibal may be strongly influenced by the cultural context in which they exist. For instance, in some cultures, the act of cannibalism is seen as a rite of passage or a demonstration of power and strength, where cannibalistic acts may be committed only by certain people or in certain circumstances. Tribesmen may decorate their bodies with paints or tattoos, wear feathers, masks or other traditional accouterments to signify their social status and identify themselves. In some cases, this may manifest itself in physical traits or scars that identify a person as a cannibal or a participant in such ceremonies.

The Case of Papua New Guinea’s Fore People

The Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea is one of the most well-known cases of cannibalism in recent times. Anthropologist William Arens noted that eating the flesh of the deceased was often seen as necessary to release the spirit of the dead person, and to relieve sorrows from the living. He observed that the Fore people believed that “the dead were the ideal source of protein” and that “they could not have grown their crops without eating their kinsmen.” By consuming the flesh of their deceased kin, they believed that they were showing their love and respect to the deceased, keeping them near and preventing the spread of death. This belief was so ingrained in their culture that Fore men would wear necklaces made from the skulls of their loved ones, while women would decorate their hair with the jawbones of their relatives.

Psychological Factors Influencing What Do Cannibals Look Like

Cannibalism, as a behavior, can also have deep psychological roots. Psychologists and criminologists have extensively studied the phenomenon, attempting to understand the behavior and motivations of individuals who engage in such acts. Some researchers suggest that certain psychological conditions or disorders can influence a person to consume human flesh, while others argue that cannibalism is simply an act of desperation and survival in extreme situations.

Psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia or severe personality disorders can occasionally lead individuals to commit cannibalistic acts. Some high-profile cases, such as that of Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered and dismembered 17 victims, showed that cannibalism is sometimes a side-effect of a broader mental health condition.

Other factors such as trauma, neglect, or abuse can also lead to cannibalistic tendencies. In extreme cases, where a victim experiences severe abuse and neglect from an early age, they may resort to cannibalism as a means of survival, or exhibit a type of psychological dissociation, where they detach from reality and lose their sense of identity.

The Case of Issei Sagawa

Issei Sagawa is a prime example of an individual whose psychological condition led him to engage in cannibalistic acts. Sagawa, a Japanese man who moved to France to study literature, developed a fascination with cannibalism from a young age. In 1981, he killed and dismembered a young Dutch woman, whom he ate over a period of several days before being arrested. Despite being found guilty of murder, he was eventually released due to his high profile and mental illness diagnosis. Sagawa went on to earn celebrity status and wrote several books on his life and cannibalistic habits, including a cookbook titled In the Fog For My Father, which contained cannibalistic recipes.

Forensic Research on What Do Cannibals Look Like

Forensic researchers have also looked into the physical manifestations of cannibalistic behavior. Several studies have examined the remains of deceased individuals who had been consumed by another person and noted specific signs that may indicate cannibalism. The provenance of the human tissue examined is important, as medical cannibalism, i.e., the use of human tissues for therapeutic purposes already introduces some similarities between cannibals and non-cannibals.

One study conducted by Dr. Catrine Johansson and colleagues at the National Board of Forensic Medicine in Sweden noted specific changes to bone structures and joints that indicate cannibalism, along with signs of sharp cuts and tool marks indicating that the flesh was cut from the bone. Another study by Dr. James Chatters, examining the remains of a group of Algonquin Native Americans who lived hundreds of years ago, found that the bones exhibited gnaw marks and scrape marks consistent with bone consumption by other humans.

Cases of Modern Cannibalism

Several cases of modern cannibalism have been reported in recent times. In 2012, a man in Miami attacked a homeless man and ate about 75% of his face, leading to widespread media coverage and speculation about the possible motivations behind the attack. Although not all cannibalistic acts are tied to mental illness, it is likely that this incident was linked to some form of psychological condition in the perpetrator.

In a more bizarre case, a Japanese man named Mao Sugiyama served up his genitals to diners at an event in Tokyo in 2012. Sugiyama was not charged with any crime as there are no Japanese laws regarding cannibalism or eating human flesh. However, the incident drew worldwide attention and highlighted the often taboo and controversial subject of cannibalism in modern societies.


Cannibalism, while not necessarily a widespread phenomenon or socially accepted, has found its place in various cultures, religions, and belief systems throughout history. The appearance of a cannibal may be strongly linked to cultural context or psychological conditions, while forensic research has been able to identify specific signs and markers that may indicate cannibalism. While it remains a taboo subject, unraveling the mystery of what a cannibal looks like can perhaps provide some insight into the human psyche, as well as societal norms and values.

Common Questions Related to What Do Cannibals Look Like

  • Q: Do cannibals have any physical or recognizable traits?
  • A: Cultural practices and traditions may identify specific marks, tattoos, or scars that signify individuals who have consumed human flesh.
  • Q: Is cannibalism always motivated by psychological factors, or can it be a cultural practice?
  • A: Cannibalism can be both, depending on the cultural or psychological context in which it occurs.
  • Q: Are there any forensic indicators that could identify a case of cannibalism?
  • A: Yes, specific physical markers such as tool marks, gnaw marks, and bone changes may indicate cannibalistic behaviors and practices.


  • Arens, W., The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Chatters, J.C. and Larson, P., “Human Skeletal Remains from the Algonquin Ogden Site.” National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, 1989.
  • Johansson, C. et al., “Bone tissue changes in cancer patients who were eaten by cannibals,” International Journal of Legal Medicine, vol. 118, pp. 323-9, 2004.
  • Sell, A., “Issei Sagawa – The Cannibal of Kobe and His Role as a Celebrity,” Medium, 2018.

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