Four months after their extraordinary rescue from being buried alive 69 days, the Chilean miners, Los 33, made new headlines by revealing that, during their ordeal, they contemplated suicide and cannibalism.Well, if we were buried a half mile under the earth, certain that a slow painful death was inevitable, thoughts of suicide would most likely shadow our minds too.Interestingly enough, cannibalism is the exact opposite thought, the life force exerting itself.Two choices at polar opposites: Kill yourself to end pain versus stay alive by any means.As good luck would have it, the miners weren’t forced to carry out either extreme.

In a similarly dire situation, what would we do?Say we’re one of the Chilean miners, or a rugby player in the Andes plane crash, or a member of the Donner Party.If we were starving, if our children were starving, would we eat the body of someone already perished?Eat the dead to save the living?Or would we favor the dead over the living?That seems like a no brainer to me but a lot of people simply shudder at the questions.I hope that none of us are ever forced to come up with answers, but being grossed out by what others have confronted seems a curious response for a population who can’t get enough of the latest TV fake reality survival show.

It’s not like cannibalism is new.

You can find evidence of cannibalism in ancient times and in modern times, particularly during wars and famine.There’s “the custom of the sea,” a quaint phrase that was actually a legal distinction made in the 19th century for shipwrecked sailors who, by necessity, practiced unorthodox maritime customs, i.e. cannibalism.

It’s even reported in the Bible, 2 Kings 6:25-30, that during a famine, one woman told the king that another had said to her, “Give thy son that we may eat him today and we will eat my son tomorrow.So we boiled my son, and did eat him; and I said unto her the next day, Give thy son that we may eat him; and she hath hid her son.And when the King heard this, he tore his clothes into sackcloth.”

As well he might.That’s a weird, grisly story of desperate bargaining I don’t want to think closely about, but my point is that cannibalism is not a new phenomenon.

Yet, say “the Donner Party” or “the Andes plane crash” and, right away, people shiver and reduce complicated heroic survivals to flesh eating orgies.That’s why all the teasers for the Chilean miners’ TV appearance said: “Miners Considered Cannibalism,” “Contemplated Cannibalism,” “Joked About Cannibalism,”… The media knows how to rope in the audience by promising shock and taboo, as have humorists long found fodder in cartoons of the missionary in the pot, Donner Party dinner reservation jokes, and Monty Python’s antic sketches.

Hannibal Lector maniac types aside, why do ordinary people make such a big deal about cannibalism?Why does it still horrify and fascinate?We are a people nearly unshockable but this one can do it.

Not that we should become inured to cannibalism and the hopeless situations that drive people to contemplate it.I’m simply suggesting we keep it in its context.

The Chilean miners are above ground but still suffering gravely from their nightmare entrapment.Years after the Andes plane crash, the survivors encountered averted looks, even censure, from some.When I attended the Donner Party Sesquicentennial, 150 years after the pioneers’ ordeal in the mountains, some descendants argued fiercely that their ancestors didn’t eat human flesh.With all due respect to protecting the reputation of one’s relatives, I think they’re emphasizing the wrong thing.

The Donner Party story, the plane crash in the Andes story, the story of the Chilean miners’ bleak moments then and now: these are HUMAN stories of people enduring tremendous adversity and trying mightily to survive.From the outside, we can never know what we might do in harrowing circumstances, but we can imagine, respect, even honor the complex experiences and desperate choices of those who have walked through that dark vale.

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GABRIELLE BURTON is the author of the novels Impatient with Desire: the Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner, and Heartbreak Hotel. Also the memoir, Searching for Tamsen Donner, and the nonfiction book on the Women's Movement, I'm Running Away From Home But I'm Not Allowed To Cross The Street. It took a while but she did get across the street. More info than you could ever want to know is at www.gabrielleburton.com.

6 responses to “What Would You Do To Survive?”

  1. dwoz says:

    I think the real question is “consomm√© or tar tar?”

  2. Although not nearly as extreme, I was in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The look of true desperation in a human’s eyes is as haunting as it gets.

    But I also have to wonder about why we, as humans, seem to find it necessary to embellish stories about people’s behavior when they are in desperate situation. Tons of stories of people acting crazy after Katrina. Some were true I’m sure but most were complete fabrications. Maybe we can’t deal with the real horror of a natural disaster or plane crash because we have to admit that it could happen to us so we make the people involved into the Other.

  3. Matt says:

    In all honesty, if I were in a situation like that (and like Alison, I was in New Orleans for Katrina), and I died, I would want the survivors to eat me.

    Seriously. It’s the most practical option in a dire sit

    Starving? Got a corpse? Problem solved.

    Nature hates waste, and in self-contained environments like islands cannibalism (especially among predators) is practiced frequently. You’ve got a finite amount of resources, and you need to make the most of them while you can.

  4. confused says:

    This article seems really bizarre in light of what is happening in Japan right now. I suppose it’s easy to write about tragedy when one is so far removed from it? Or are you suggesting that the Japanese just go eat the corpses around them? What does cannibalism have to do with anything? Sorry. I don’t get it.

    • dwoz says:

      My guess is that this has been in the pipeline for more than 7 days.

      You would be amazed at how often products and releases have to be pulled because something happened THAT DAY.

      There’s a famous example of a record cover that was literally pulled off the shelves the day it was released. It was an image of the world trade center exploding, and it was released on sept 11, 2001. Months and months in production.

      How’s THAT for good timing?

  5. dwoz says:

    huh? I was writing a response to Don’s comment and it went away…

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