I have a community in a freezing polar region who occasionally resort to cannibalism to survive. This only occurs when all other food reserves are exhausted due to story based logic.

Each year/few years they designate a number of people to be standby victims. This is to avoid potential conflict over killing someone in power's sickly grandmother or favourite lover etc. If these unlucky chosen individuals are lucky, they don't get eaten and they get taken off the roster and live to eat another day, others replace them in the following roster slot. If they are unlucky...they get eaten. (Extra clarification: They have no say in the matter... while they are on the roster.)

  • the roster time period does not have to be a year. It could be a number of years if it makes more sense.
  • the roster system is not the question.
  • the security of these individuals is also not the question but can be taken into account. (Edit - clarification these victims have no say in the matter. If they need to be tied down or come willingly is story based logic)
  • how victims are chosen is out of scope.

Would the community's dietary requirements during a harsh polar winter require these standby victims to be fitter or fatter?

My initial thoughts were that: in these extreme situations the community would be needing to replace their own depleted fat reserves and would therefore require/prefer their emergency supply to have higher fat content rather than lean muscly meat. Therefore I thought that these sacrificial victims could be living a life of 'luxury' for their duration on the roster (with their potential death looming over them) . During the good years, as well as building up the communities fat reserves, they would also try and add in a living fail-safe fat reserve. Build up their victim's fat reserves while the hunting season/s are good and plentiful, in case of a future bad season?

Main Edits:

(1) Thanks for the comments and answers so far. They are all valid points that I had already tried to take into account. I was trying to avoid story based and opinion based question so tried to narrow down the question to the crux of the matter. If you were the polar based cannibal, would you eat the fatter or skinnier morsel on offer.

(2) For those that need extra information...

First off: this question is not on the logic of the roster premise or who and how those on the roster are chosen. young/old/powerful/weak/childless/grandparent that is all good moral and ethical story stuff dilemmas. I am trying to figure out: of those in the roster group do you select by amount of fat or those that are fitter (as considered in modern day western culture).

  • Those on the roster have every reason to help ensure the community is ready for the winter, so that that they can survive uneaten. Many do survive their term on the roster. And if the system does end up having a fattening up program, they could potentially get out ahead at the end of their term. These days it's not often that they lose out on the deal. Back in the day? Totally another story.

  • The roster system was designed to stop infighting over who was to be killed. The settlement was hastily constructed and didn't have enough resources. As logic dictates, unplanned cannibalism took place, feasting on the perceived weak and ill. Illogically, the military elite did not want their own injured brothers and sisters killed and eaten, they would rather try save their comrades and eat the non vital civilian members of the group. Over a number of years the roster system was developed to ensure that those in power had no fear of being eaten or dying of starvation. Roster selection criteria has changed multiple times over the years and is dependent on story based logic.

  • Food is certainly preserved in the frozen wasteland they call home. They do plan ahead as much as possible. Occasionally they are sh%t out of luck and all their food reserves are used/ruined/stolen/spoiled/poisoned/ice-shelf fallen on top of it/ whatever you can think of. The roster system is still in place, mostly by tradition, but partly out of fear of what happens if the worst case situation happens. How the community at large and those on the roster react to finding out they are about to actually make use of the roster system is story based logic.

  • There is actually nothing stopping a community member from volunteering to prevent a roster member from being killed (but this happens even less frequently than the need to utilise the roster!). Those community members that die anyway during a harsh winter, will obviously get eaten before the Roster is used...they are cannibals, not complete imbeciles!

  • This is obviously not a stable or long term viable settlement system.

  • This is not Earth.

  • Thanks again for the further comments and answers. Lots of food for thought. I hope I covered everything.

(3) Choice of answer. It was hard, as the popular answer is the most logical that would apply in most normal situations/settlements. I already knew this but created this settlement based on the extreme end of the 'normal' reasoning spectrum. Humans are illogical. My community had a very abrupt introduction to the environment and formed traditions upheld by a very strong military force. I was already going to be choosing the 'weaker' undesirables for the roster while keeping those with specialist knowledge alive, at least at first. I have dropped the idea of a purposeful fattening up program but need the roster to stay put even if just for the initial start up of the community.

The chosen answer was selected because it did actually answer the question as stated, as well as answer the reality check part of the question. Even though you should eat the fat one for dietary purposes, logic dictates you start with the thin one anyway.

There were actually two answers that stand out as saying this. However, the selected answer had the extra bonus of mentioning the social acceptance of the need to resort to cannibalism.

Thanks again for all the input. It has all been taken on board.

I feel a DISCLAIMER is needed: I in no way endorse cannibalism as a long term solution in make-believe or real life. I withhold judgement on real life emergency situations until I am ever in such a position myself.

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    $\begingroup$ I sense a logical problem in your question. If people are fat, why are they eating each other? At the point where cannibalism becomes a matter of survival, everyone is skinny. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 11:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix, Well not everyone is fat. And also during a period of lack of food you will burn off your fat supplies. So if there where individuals who were fatter to start with there would still be 'fat to spare'? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 11:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35, this is why i stated that how they are chosen is out of scope :) . Initially this society did eat their slaves/lower class, then they created a system out if it. But as the question is "who do you pick if you were a cannibal?" The criteria and justification questions would, in my mind, be closed as opinion based and story based. I want to know if i need to fatten up my harvest or make them work to the bone. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ I have added clarifications on the points you guys raised. I do appreciate your input in this morbid topic! Hope you aren't speaking from experience :) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ @DragandDrop, if you had two choices lined up. One old one weak. Do you eat the fitter or fatter of the two? It's the basic building block I'm after. If they weak/old/powerful/slave can all be discussed endlessly and would be a matter of opinion. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 14:00

5 Answers 5


The Custom of the Sea applies

Though in your case it's the custom of the ice.

The custom of the sea allows the survivors to agree to resort to cannibalism to survive a shipwreck without the usual penalties associated with killing (and eating) someone on return to civilisation.

First you eat those who are dead or dying anyway. Then you draw lots. This drawing of lots is important, it makes it fair on all those involved. It so happened that the passengers tended to lose first, followed by the junior crew, but lots were drawn.

Your society is drawing the lots in advance and skipping the stage of eating the already dying. Though you have declared this out of scope it is highly significant that you may be eating the healthiest to try to save those who may die regardless.

Eat the fat one

A couple of links but we'll go over the key aspects



Lots of butter, explicitly stated, along with other high fat food. Cheese, chocolate, nuts


Saunders and L'Herpiniere will consume almost 6,000 calories a day—a combined total of 1.3 million calories for the trip. The largely freeze-dried menu includes porridge and cream for breakfast, energy and protein bar snacks washed down with hot carbohydrate and electrolyte drinks, and chicken curry with added fat for dinner.

Note the amount of fat included in both sources. It's actually really hard to physically consume enough calories while being that active. You need to seek out the highest concentrations of calories you can. You can't use large quantities of low calorie foods, you won't be able to eat enough. Butter comes in at over 700 calories per 100 grams. There's very little that can come close to pure fat at around 900 calories per 100 grams.

However it's reasonable to suggest that the skinny ones will already have died before the fatter ones agree that it's time to start eating people. So in practice you'll eat the skinny ones first.

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    $\begingroup$ If i get my characters to eat the skinniest of the fatted up roster victims first that would allow for some excellent story drama! And if someone in the community does die during this hunger period they can always get eaten before the roster lineup! $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 12:13
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    $\begingroup$ @EveryBitHelps, eat the weak and the dying first. That also gives you a culture of hiding the fact you're sick, no weakness can be shown in public or you may get eaten. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 12:37
  • $\begingroup$ Your advice to eat the fat people first has the problem that the fat people are the ones who were more likely to survive in the first place: body fat gives more insulation against the cold and somebody with more energy stored within their body will be able to live longer in a survival situation. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby, my advice is to eat the skinny ones first because they'll be nearly dead already, but the answer to the question as written is to eat the fat people first. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ Hmm. Relegating that advice to the end of the answer, after writing "Eat the fat one" in boldface large font seems... misunderstandable. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 15:58

This practice makes no sense.

There is no reason to do this, in the Arctic you can store food nearly indefinitely, they should never be be planning for starvation, it should only occur in extremely rare emergencies (like a fire in the food stores). If there is enough food to fatten people up there is enough to store, keep in mind we burn most of our calories just keeping ourselves alive. There is a reason cannibalistic societies occur in the tropics (and mostly islands).

We only fatten up livestock this way because they can eat things we can't. Anything that can be used to fatten up your victim could be eaten instead, feeding it to a victim is actually wasteful as it uses more food than it produces.

If you have enough time and extra calories to fatten up victims you should not have victims in the first place.

As an alternative if scarcity is an issue they should be sending people out on high risk hunting expeditions, which will tend to either bring back food or reduce the population. This is what real communities do.

  • $\begingroup$ Valid points. That is why most times those in the roster get to live and eat another day. It's only when all food stores have disappeared, like you say. I'm trying to figure out given a choice of two ppl, what would the dietary preference be: fat (blubber and more of it) or fit (muscly and stringy meat and not as much of it). $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 14:13
  • $\begingroup$ In asking the fat or fit question. I can decide if there would be a need to fattening up of victims or not. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ @EveryBitHelps I think the point is that you should never fatten up victims - that is a bad investment with a guaranteed negative return. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi, Which is point well made. I can make the community not spend extra resources fattening up the lined up victims, which is partly why I asked the question. If fatter was better, I could see an argument for giving extra resources and less strenous work to those on the roster. But if as you say no extra resources should be given, i can at least take away the extra strenous workload so they do not burn off their normal fat reserves while on the doomsday list. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ When you live in the arctic maybe that's not where it's frozen all summer -- so maybe any (frozen) meat stores don't survive the summer, and must be replenished each year. You might want to store live meat ("on the hoof") but they can't live through the winter (wild herds migrate with the seasons). $\endgroup$
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 16:29

There are many problems with your scenario, human meat is not worth what is put into it. So the food these people consumed is of much more value than their meat.

Relying on and planning for cannibalism to prevent starvation is not a good survival strategy for any community and is inherently unstable and that society is heading for collapse, so we'll set that aside as well.

High fat is the way to go for the protein since it contains over double the amount. It's unhealthy if eaten all the time, but the best thing in times of famine.

  • $\begingroup$ Oh, it's not a stable community at all. That is an interesting point you raised about the initial food input. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ 'the food these people consumed is of much more value than their meat', are you suggesting you kill the chosen before the start of the lean period so you get to eat both them and the food they would have eaten? $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ Were these individuals being 'fattened up' for slaughter, then it would be better to just kill them earlier. The OP has stated that this isn't the point - cannibalism is a contingency hopefully never to be needed. If everything works out, nobody gets killed at all and everyone lives through to the next year. This just tells me that they are really bad at planning, else they would be able to inventory their stored food for the winter and know going in whether or not they have enough food for everyone - and cull early if not. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 14:44

Eat the fit one

In a polar context, fat is a key for survival. A fat body protects from the cold, and helps survive the hard times without food. Think about animals stocking a lot of fat before winter.

So the fat ones are the more likely to survive extreme situations like a long period without food. They should eat the fit ones, who have more risk to starve to death quickly during the famine.

The fat ones will have more chance to reproduce and have children, when the fit ones -who know they will be sacrificed- should not have kids (because they won't be able to care for them). On the long term, the genetic selection will increase the percentage of fat people in the population, giving them more chance to survive new famine episodes.

  • $\begingroup$ Here I was thinking eating the fat ones would increase my fat reserves. But if i reverse the order of sacrifice on which of the roster victims is thinnest...so there is a way to guarantee your survival on the roster - be the fattest! This opens up several new story ideas already. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 12:09
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    $\begingroup$ I edited the answer to add a paragraph about genetic selection $\endgroup$
    – Ghajini
    Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 12:25
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    $\begingroup$ There's no need to worry about genetic selection, they're all going to die of Kuru within fewer generations than genetic selection requires :) $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ Kuru is an infectious disease from Papua New Guinea. They shouldn't die of kuru unless they eat some papuan indigenous already infected. :) But this is true they should worry about diseases, if they often eat each other. $\endgroup$
    – Ghajini
    Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 13:11

Eat the old ones

The old ones can't work that much any more, so if they get to eat as much as the rest then they might just get fatter. On the other hand, it is also more likely they get ill, and they would die anyhow. You'll need the young people - whether fat or skinny - to replace your population.

On another note, I'm not sure "fit" in a polar region means no fat. The fittest can hunt most and so they get to eat most in times where game is not scarce, be able to store most fat, and it might not necessarily slow them down.


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