Among humans cannibalism has been practiced as a funerary ritual within numerous cultures across the world, and also as a way of ritualistically degrading defeated enemies, as was done most notably among the Maori and other Polynesian peoples. But cannibalism also poses a strong risk of disease; most notably with lethal prions such as Kuru. It’s also not a long term subsistence strategy.

Keeping these factors in mind, I’m wondering if it would be plausible at all for a culture that already practiced exocannibalism to incorporate it into a broader strategy. My questions are:

• Can weak supply chains and foraging be supplemented by the murder and consumption of enemy civilians? Would there be a competitive edge to this?

• Would diseases simply make this strategy a slow suicide?

• Would the terror inflicted by such brutality be enough to compel submission?

• Can cannibalism be sustained by a large society when it is solely directed outwards for warfare and its accompanying ideology?

The society this Army is drawn from is pre modern in development and is also fighting a pre industrial society.

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    $\begingroup$ "Would the terror inflicted by such brutality be enough to compel submission?" - ummm, you mean that someone will submit... in order to be eaten more easily? If people know that losing means they and their kin get eaten then there's no motive to ever submit! $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 0:39
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    $\begingroup$ According to Randall Munroe, according to Ryan North, a human provides about a month's worth of sustenance to another human. But unless you're campaigning in the harvest season (which you shouldn't), the civilians need several months of stored sustenance to survive anyway. And people tend to run faster than granaries, so I imagine it's easier to forage from their food stores than from their population. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Jan 13 at 0:46
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    $\begingroup$ Sun Tzu already said "When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.". If they know they'll be eaten regardless of whether they resist or not, every enemy soldier and every civilian you face will fight with (sometimes literal) nails and teeth if that's what it takes. A cornered and desperate enemy has nothing left to loose in a last ditch attempt, and that's a dangerous kind of enemy to have, especially if that's every man, woman and child you meet. $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 0:47
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    $\begingroup$ In a pre-modern era, where there's no mechanism to enforce the terms of a peace agreement, the promise to not cannibalize the surrendering population is worth little. Discipline in pre-modern armies is not anything close to modern standards so it's certain incidents would occur even with the promise. I have to agree with others; being attacked by literal cannibals would motivate the defending population and army tremendously. $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 0:57
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    $\begingroup$ Please limit yourself to one question per post. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Jan 13 at 1:56

Probably not

Let's look at some precedent. It appears that there were (hopefully past tense now) villages in Papua New Guinea that raided each other intermittently and ate the losers. Kuru, as noted, was transmitted primarily by eating the brains of infected people and disproportionately affected the women and children who were the consumers of this part of the body. Eating other parts of the body was a less risky practice. So the disease risk may be relatively manageable - don't eat the brains - although prolonged cannibalism practices are likely to result in diseases evolving to fill a niche.

The second-biggest problem with this idea is that weak supply lines can be supplemented by chowing down on enemies. The huge weakness with this strategy is that if offensive action is unsuccessful or even delayed by some days - for example, as a result of bad weather or flooded rivers - then it means that the cannibal army will starve. (If they have plans to mitigate the lack of cannibal supplies then they didn't really need them in the first place.)

The biggest problem with this idea is that it will stiffen the resolve of any enemies if they know that losing means that they and their families will be eaten. Even in the unlikely event that the cannibal army has demonstrated that they adhere to a promise not to eat enemies who surrender, all bets are clearly off if any resistance occurs. Which means that as soon as one group in nation B resists the incursion, each and every person in nation B is totally motivated to resist up to and if possible beyond their last breath, because they know they are doomed if they give up. Non-combatants will do their utmost not to be captured and will fight to the death if they are. Which means that even a successful war of conquest will be very costly and will only win the cannibals the land itself (probably scorched earth), there won't be any farmers, miners, loggers etc remaining to make it profitable land. The more likely outcome is that the surrounding nations will find common cause to wipe the cannibals out and take their land.

Looking at the more general case, brutal tactics do not tend to make people surrender, they just stiffen resolve. The Roman legions didn't eat people but they were very brutal and very good at winning wars during their expansionist phase. People still resisted the Romans like crazy initially, what tended to make post-conquest life more accepted was that once they had won the Romans built infrastructure and trade rather than barbequing civilians on the weekends. Machiavelli's wisdom that conquered peoples should be either treated well or destroyed utterly has been shown to be sound throughout history. (Note that "treated well" is subjective and the invading army's and invadees' perceptions may be quite different.)

In summary:

  1. Disease is probably a manageable problem, though as recent events in the real world have shown, diseases find new niches over time.
  2. Weak supply lines mean that the cannibals will be wiped out the first time they are delayed in a campaign, there's no substitute for solid logistics.
  3. The intimidation factor isn't going to work and will more likely stiffen the resolve of all your neighbours to resist any attacks and may inspire them to unite against the cannibals.
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    $\begingroup$ I’m selecting your answer because you had a solid rebuttal of the intimidation factor, but I disagree on point 2. Pre modern armies often had both supply trains and foraging operations due to the precarious nature of war and how dang difficult overland logistics were. Having more options is perfectly reasonable IMO $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 1:42
  • $\begingroup$ Disease is definitely manageable the same way we do it with other mammals, which is a combination of hygenic slaughtering practices and avoiding certain organs. Examples include: Do not nick the offal and avoid the human brain. $\endgroup$
    – Drew Nolan
    Jan 13 at 2:21
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    $\begingroup$ @NixonCranium appreciate the tick but there may be better answers crop up in the next 24 hours from people in different time zones. I'll edit in some further thoughts on the foraging issue, actually ties into the "resist at all costs" theme. $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 3:43
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    $\begingroup$ Reminds me on “amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics” and here, smart people will adapt their strategy to the enemies’ logistics problems. In other words, once the defenders understood that the attacker relies on winning to gain food, they also understood that they do not need to win, as delaying and avoiding losses the attacker could harvest, is enough. Like slowly retreating without leaving food behind, making the attacker’s supply lines longer and longer. And what will the hungry cannibal do when the reachable guy next to him has as much calories as the unreachable enemy? $\endgroup$
    – Holger
    Jan 13 at 9:30
  • $\begingroup$ I would send suicide bomber to the cannibals. They can't eat what is exploded or burned. $\endgroup$
    – Mixxiphoid
    Jan 13 at 10:37

In the face of an under-supplied invading army, tactics such as poisoning wells and scorched earth by retreating defending armies can ensure that the invaders starve, reducing their fighting effectiveness.

All it would take to turn starvation into something worse in the face of a cannibalistic invading army would be a slow poison, such as Arsenic or ricin, taken by those unable to flee in order to posthumously harm the cannibal invaders.

Since a cannibal army is most likely to eat prisoners in their entirety, as few as possible at a time, starting with the worst injured or ill so as to be able to keep the more healthy prisoners as walking cattle and not have to carry putrefying meat around, it makes sense for mortally injured defenders to poison themselves so that after death - probably killed by the cannibal invaders - they can exact revenge against the cannibals. Just a few people who were willing to take a slow poison in the hope of taking a bunch of cannibals with them could cripple the whole cannibal army within a few weeks.

If the cannibal caught on that the people that they were invading would poison themselves so as to injure or kill them, it would rapidly lead to a reluctance to eat the locals, especially if old, crippled or injured and unable to escape... even if they hadn't been poisoned. How could they tell without risking being poisoned themselves, and those slow poisons are typically quite unpleasant. If the alternative is starvation... things could get quite unpleasant for the invaders with starvation, poisoning and mutiny being significant risks.


Its probably a bad move.

Taking a good look at your main strategy, what you're doing is not too dissimilar to Napoleon's approach to conquer Russia during his empire (you know? The one military move that was an absolute disaster and essentially doomed his plans as an emperor to destroy England financially and conquer Europe?), but with a more cannibalistic approach. Basically what this does is that you do have proper resources on you, but you also rely a fair amount on there being resources on the regions you conquer, with your own provisions still existing and being delivered. The biggest pro of this move is that, thanks to not being as encumbered by the extra weight of a lot of provisions, your army can move faster and cover more ground, meaning the enemy has less time until you arrive.

This link explains fairly well the problem. But to sum it up a fair bit, here are the main pros and cons of relying a fair bit on resources from the conquered regions:

  • Main Pro: the smaller amount of heavy provisions being carried around makes the troops capable of moving faster, meaning less time for the enemy to prepare for your arrival. Napoleon himself planned for the war against Russia to be quick, which likely motivated his choice of this strategy involving more mobile troops.

  • Main Con: to depend on your enemy's resources is a huge gamble, because if there are no resources for you to take, you won't last.

The problem with Napoleon's advances was that not only was he in a territory with a fairly unforgiving climate and fewer number of large crops to take, he was fighting enemies willing to sacrifice it all to destroy him.

Your situation has similar problems, if not greater ones.

Firstly, Humans are a potentially viable source of food, especially if you back it up with other nutrients to ensure you're getting all the nutrients and vitamins you need, so the nutritional problem is likely the least of your problems with this strategy.

By eating the civilians instead of just being normal and stealing the food they would eat, you put your soldiers at a risk of contracting prion-related diseases. Make sure not to eat the brains. You also risk causing even more severe psychological impact on your troops, because humans as social animals are naturally hardwired to be against cannibalism (normally a person will start to consider cannibalism under a rather extreme state of starvation, at which point their brains have already shut off natural inhibitors against things they also wouldn't normally eat. The body is so starved the brain starts to consider any food as fair game).

The main problem I see with this however is that while you might be hardwired against eating your buddy, your buddy is hardwired to be against eating you and to be against letting himself be eaten, and that's where it falls apart.

Like Sun Tzu in his book "The art of war" already said: "When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.". The reason for this is that if an enemy sees a way out, it's very likely for them to first try to flee to safety. However if they're completely cornered with no apparent hope of being spared, then they'll naturally go from flight strategy to the fight strategy. They're cornered, they're hopeless and they have nearly nothing to loose, so they might as well give their everything. The intense stress of being in a deadly situation also makes them more prone to release natural limiters and make use of their "hysterical strength", which while not necessarily as absurd as what some tall tales might tell you, isn't something to brush over, especially when that strength is being directed towards killing you.

As for the fear factor compelling submission, it just has little chance of working for long. Sure, you might tell everyone that you won't kill and eat them if they surrender, but anyone with a brain and the knowledge that you don't carry around a lot of food on you can tell that you're not only unwilling to keep your word, you're incapable of doing so. That means there's a higher chance that the peasants you plan to snack on will be naturally desperate even before you arrive, which makes them more willing to take desperate measures, such as abandoning and burning down their villages. If you can't find a village with any provisions to use or food to feed your troops with, you'll have to take your hungry soldiers to the next one. That is a problem if every village is willing to do that, because if you can't feed your troops, you become much more vulnerable, you also have the problem of now having an army of cannibals alone and starving with nothing but one another around, all coming ever so close to the necessary psychological conditions to begin considering an ally as a snack. Basically, with a strategy such as yours, an enemy willing to have losses in order to crush you can force you to retreat by not engaging with you at all,because if you retreat they'll gain time, and if you don't you'll eventually have to retreat, but this time weaker and a more vulnerable against those you were invading.

Essentially, it's a gamble with a high risk and varying reward. Sure, you're faster, but you become like a natural predator, dependent on finding proper prey, the absence of which will make you grow weaker and make you easier to target as time goes by. Put your troops in an attempt to conquer Russia and you'll probably end as the new Napoleon, but one with a thing for human meat.


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