Cannibalism is usually defined as eating the flesh of another animal of the same species. In the case of humans, this of course means eating the flesh of another human. But sometimes people eat their own flesh. Is this still cannibalism, and is there anything wrong with it?
The answers usually given seem to be yes and yes. I agree that eating your own flesh is, by definition, a form of cannibalism, but I really cannot see what all the fuss is about. What about people that chew their fingernails, called onychophagia, or (oww!) their cuticles? Or perhaps more extreme is the fashion of eating placentas after childbirth – some women take them home and cook them, or there are companies that offer to sterilise and morcelise placentas and make pills from them. There is not, unfortunately, universal agreement on the supposed health benefits.
British social anthropologist Alfred Gell reported that in the 1970s he was conducting fieldwork among the Umeda people of West Sepik in Papua New Guinea, when he accidentally cut his finger and, as people often do, put it in his mouth to suck the wound. The locals were horrified and considered him a cannibal:
“the shocked countenances and expressions of disgust evinced by my Umeda companions told me soon enough…”
If Gell was thought a cannibal for sucking his own blood, what would the Umeda think of Spanish ‘influencer’ Paula Gonu, who announced that she ate some cartilage that was removed from her knee during surgery? In an interview with the Club 113 podcast, Gonu, who had opted for local anaesthesia, spoke of watching the doctor operate on her knee in real-time on a screen. After the doctor finished the procedure, the influencer said he asked her if she wanted to keep the part of her meniscus that he had removed. Gonu said yes and the doctor put the piece of cartilage in a small bottle filled with preservative.
Gonu explained that she had to undergo surgery to remove her meniscus (cartilage in the knee joint) following an injury. A week after the surgery, Gonu decided she wanted to eat the cartilage.
“I was talking with the boyfriend I had at the time, and I told him, ‘I want to eat it. It’s mine and I have to reinsert it into my body’. He asked, ‘But why do you want to eat it?’ I answered, ‘Why not? It’s not going to hurt me.’ So, then I made a Bolognese sauce, I added it in, and I ate it.”
Gonu previously shared the story in a viral TikTok last November, which has been viewed more than 4.3 million times, with the caption: “It didn’t give me super powers.” However, after Gonu retold the story on the Club 113 podcast, it entered the news cycle again.
Spanish media was quick to trumpet Gonu’s cannibalism. “Paula Gonu practiced cannibalism: She ate her own meniscus,” read one headline. Another headline from November, when the influencer originally shared the story, stated: “The rich eat meniscus.”
One Twitter user called it “Bizarre”. This was one of the more moderate comments.
Autocannibalism or autosarcophagy is in a sense universal, in that we all consume dead cells from our tongue and cheeks all the time. But autocannibalism is not always voluntary. The Hungarian noblewoman Erzsébet Báthory (the one who allegedly used to bathe in the blood of virgins in the early 17th century) is supposed to have forced some of her servants to eat their own flesh. In 1934, Claude Neal, a 23-year-old African-American, was brutally lynched by a group of white men who had stormed the county jail in Brewton, Alabama where he was being held after confessing to the murder of a 20-year-old white woman in Greenwood, Florida. One member of the mob told an NAACP investigator that during the lynching, which lasted ten-to-twelve hours, the men cut off Neal’s penis and testicles and forced him to eat them. Other incidents of coerced autocannibalism were reported in the years following the 1991 Haitian coup d’état. and in the 1990s, young people in Sudan were forced to eat their own ears.
As for the other kind, voluntary autocannibalism, there are many cases documented, well before Paula Gonu thought of the idea. A recent one was the case of Incrediblyshinyshart who told Vice that he had served his friends tacos, made from his own amputated leg.
So Gonu’s idea was far from original. But nor is there much wrong with it. Cannibalism is frowned upon when it involves disturbing a corpse, and definitely disapproved when it involves killing someone as prey. But Gonu did none of that – she merely ate a part of herself, with her own full consent, instead of throwing it away. You could almost say she was into recycling.