The peculiar phenomenon of cannibalism has existed in various forms since the beginning of human history.
Others viewed cannibalism as an integral part of their tradition or as an irreplaceable ritualistic and medicinal component of their culture, whereas some ancient peoples only engaged in this grisly practice during sieges and other desperate times of scarcity.
In some regions of ancient Mesopotamia and India, for instance, it was believed that medicinal cannibalism could aid in life extension. Gladiators in ancient Rome were known to consume the blood of their defeated foes in an attempt to ᴀssimilate their vitality, strength, and fighting abilities.
This genuine maxilla from Gough’s Cave (Somerset, England), approximately 14,700 years old, exhibits incised traces near the molars, believed to be evidence of cannibalism. London’s Natural History Museum.
It may be hard to believe that medicinal cannibalism in Europe continued well into the early modern period and peaked in the early 17th century, when the Scientific Revolution was being ushered in by the likes of Nicholas Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, and Johannes Kepler.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that science, philosophy, and the arts were gradually making the world a better and more comprehensible place, some crucial areas of medicine had not yet been sufficiently explored.
Things such as vaccines, antibiotics, and conventional painkillers did not exist, and people often employed what we today might consider outlandish methods to try and cure various ailments.
Paracelsus (1493-1541) was a Swiss-German physician, alchemist, astrologer and philosopher of the German Renaissance. He is remembered as the man who introduced chemistry into medicine.
One of these methods was the consumption of human remains. It was believed that human blood, which was perceived as the principal life force, contained reinvigorating and rejuvenating properties.
The famous Swiss-German physician Paracelsus encouraged people to attend public executions and buy a small amount of the recently deceased’s blood.
Blood was deemed the most valuable substance because people believed it contained the purest element of life. Also commonly used was fat. Physicians used it to treat a variety of injuries and incisions, and many medicine purveyors, who did not require a pharmacy degree or knowledge of human anatomy, marketed it as a cure for a variety of ailments.
Emperor Charles II (1630-1685).
However, while blood and fat were quite popular, nothing could have surpᴀssed the popularity of bone powder and mummified fragments. Bones, particularly skulls, were pulverized and incorporated into tonics and tinctures that were believed to be effective treatments for migraines, epilepsy, internal hemorrhaging, arthritis, and syphilis.
Charles II, king of England, Scotland, and Ireland, concocted his own tonic, dubbed “The King’s Drops,” which was believed to be effective. It reportedly contained cranium fragments mingled with alcohol and was quite popular among the aristocracy of the time.
Unsettling instances in which ancient Egyptian curses appeared to come true
Parts of ancient mummies, ground up and mixed with other substances, were highly prized for their presumed medicinal properties. Sadly, an unknown number of Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Mesoamerican mummies ended up in the digestive tracts of wealthy 17th century Europeans who believed that these preserved ancient remains contained mystical healing properties.
A scene depicting the Aztec god Mictlantecuhtli and ritualistic cannibalism in prehispanic Mesoamerica, depicted in the Codex Magliabechiano.
Because 17th century archaeology wasn’t advanced enough to accurately determine the age of many ancient artifacts, estimates tended to be based on pure speculation. People widely believed, or were led to believe, that the mummies they consumed were far older than they really were — maybe up to 20 thousand years old.
Of course, such misconceptions only added to the fascination for these mystical ancient remains; business was certainly booming for the charlatans who prepared mummy-based medicines.
Mumia vera aegyptiaca, a powder made from ground mummies, was considered to be an exotic cure-all. Reference to mumia can be found in medical literature from the 16th to 20th centuries. Mummia bitumen, the substances used to preserve the mummies, was used from the 18th century to successfully cure wounds.
With scientific breakthroughs of the 18th and 19th century and the research-oriented approach to medicine, people gradually abandoned such questionable practices in favor of remedies and procedures whose beneficial effects can be scientifically proven. Medicinal cannibalism and consumption of mummy-based medicines became a thing of the past.
However, the fact that expensive medicinal powders made from ground mummy parts appeared in German medical catalogs of the early 20th century proves that people are easily persuaded into purchasing anything labeled as “mystical” or “natural healing.”