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The usually ritualistic eating of human flesh by humans. The term derives from the Spanish name (Caríbales or Caníbales) for the Carib people, first encountered by Christopher Columbus. Reliable firsthand accounts of the practice are comparatively rare, causing some to question whether full-blown cannibalism has ever existed. Most agree that the consumption of particular portions or organs was a ritual means by which certain qualities of the person eaten might be obtained or by which powers of witchcraft and sorcery might be exercised. In some cases, a small portion of the dead person was ritually eaten by relatives. Headhunters (seeheadhunting) sometimes consumed bits of the bodies or heads of deceased enemies. The Aztecs apparently practiced cannibalism on a large scale as part of the ritual of human sacrifice.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on cannibalism, visit Britannica.com.