Survival Cannibalism: Rugby Gone Wrong ?

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Toothpaste for dessert ? Sounds questionable. For the survivors of el Milagro de los Andes (the miracle of the Andes), Aquafresh was a rationed delicacy. On October 13, 1972, a chartered aircraft was on its way from Montevideo, Uruguay to Santiago, Chile for a rugby match. Tensions were running high as the players anticipated beating their long-time rivals, who had an outstanding record in their league. But all of these fears got pushed aside when the plane crashed in the Andes mountains, killing 29 passengers and the pilot. Of the remaining 25 people, 16 people survived by rationing the meager supply of chocolate bars, biscuits, and other snacks scattered among the wreckage. Every time someone died, the crew would do the unspeakable–skin them and roast their flesh for sustenance. When life is reduced to primitive instincts, these are the kinds of decisions people have to make.

Cannibalism has been around for centuries, but that doesn’t change the fact that people tend to avoid talking about it. For regular carnivores, meat, fish, and poultry seem to suffice. Why would someone even think about consuming a fellow human being ? As a species, we are not genetically inclined to eat each other. We need to multiply, and we have the tools to kill other animals. So why is it that some people choose to partake in this obscure ritual ?

     The Korowai tribe of Papua New Guinea has been eating people for years. Not just any humans, though. They claim to only eat khakua (men they consider to be evil witches). The tribe lives in tree-houses up to 45 meters high about 100 miles inland from the Arafura Sea in a country that already has a low-density population, putting them out of reach of any “civilized” metropolis. Dutch missionaries lived among the Korowai between 1978 and 1990, observing their behavior in detail. For Westerners, their accounts are gruesome. According to cultural relativism, each society has its own moral codes and social norms. These tree-house dwellers have clashed with police for eating their own people, but the practice continues, though on a more clandestine level.

A Korowai man stands in front of a traditional treehouse in West Papua. PHOTO: MARKUS FLEUTE

     The Uruguayan rugby team members had to choose between life or death. Far from the societal constraints we know all too well, they separated the concept of body and soul to help keep their own bodies from disintegrating. The basic desire to survive drove 19 year-old Roberto Canessa and 21 year-old Fernando Parrado to search for help. Stocked with plenty of flesh for the trip, they set out on a 10-day journey from the snow-capped peak of Tinguiririca that culminated in a free meal from herdsman in the foothills and a long-awaited rescue mission for the teammates who stayed behind.
     Sleeping bags made of plane insulation may be a relic of the past, but the living survivors of the crash hold vivid memories of those 72 days of isolation. On October 13, 2012, the team took a plane to play that rugby match that had been post-poned for 40 years in Santiago, Chile. This time, winning and losing was not a priority. The sense of togetherness and camaraderie overshadowed any lingering bad memories and the plane ride home was simple, as they all live within a 5-mile radius of each other in Montevideo. Their fellow passengers helped them live through hell, and they honor their lives by donating money to a charitable sports foundation in Uruguay so that children in poverty can play rugby.
     Some like to think they would never stoop so low as to eat human flesh, and perhaps they are right. There are many people who would die to uphold their convictions. But no one knows until they are sitting on a mound of snow, shivering, wishing the body in front of them were a feast of gargantuan proportions.

Survivors of the crash honor their dead teammates with a moment of silence in Santiago, Chile. PHOTO: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

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