There are many different ways to cook food. Why should it be so common for people to associate pots with cannibalism? Media exposure and tradition may be one powerful reason. But even more likely is the natural association between cooking and pots. Pots have been used to cook all kinds of food for most of mankind's history. It is only logical to assume that those who may have cooked humans used pots to do it.
Imagine my surprise after reading some historical accounts of cannibalism to find that there is no evidence that real cannibals ever cooked people whole inside pots (let alone alive). It appears that the common image of a missionary simmering in a big pot is purely myth. That is not to say that cannibalism is a myth; it is not. Nor does it mean that cannibals did not use pots for cooking flesh. There are simply no reliable accounts of cannibals killing victims by boiling them alive or even boiling victims whole after they had died.
There is plenty of evidence that cannibalism has been practiced throughout human history. Archeologists have discovered human bones in cooking hearths in China that are as old as 500,000 years. Nor has cannibalism been confined to one particular region. At various times in history, there is evidence of cannibalism on all continents. However, archelogical information does not provide any information about motivation or technique. For this information, we rely on first hand accounts of cannibalism.
Most first hand information about cannibalism in recent times was compiled from the accounts of explorers and missionaries working in the 17th through the 20th centuries. These men and women were part of the mass colonization of Africa, the South Pacific, and the western hemisphere during the height of European imperialism. According to the accounts, cannibalism was common in some parts of these areas. It is hard to guarantee the accuracy of these reports. But most historians consider them to be genuine.
The first surprising fact of these accounts is that cannibalism in many cultures was not commonly motivated by a lack of other food. Instead, cannibalism was often practiced for religious reasons, as a by-product of war, or as a special addition to an otherwise conventional diet. In certain religious ceremonies, the sacrifice of a human was made more significant to the gods by eating some portion of the victim after death. In war, some cultures came to believe that by eating your vanquished enemy, his best qualities where transferred to you. But some of the most disturbing accounts of cannibalism where motivated by the third reason: human meat in some of these societies was considered a rare delicacy that could enhance an otherwise plain diet. Under the first two circumstances, torture of the victim played little or no part in the act of eating human flesh. As we shall see, that is not true about the third.
By and large, most victims of cannibalism where killed before being cooked and eaten. This is definitely true in religious ceremonies and in battle. But when a group of humans came to crave the taste of human flesh for its own sake, it appears depravity and torture were much more common. In this circumstance, some victims were indeed cooked alive. Here is an account of a missionary, David Cargill, about his experiences in the islands of Figi in 1838 :
Some of the circumstances connected with the immolation of human victims are most revolting and diabolical. The passions of the people during the performance of these horrible rites seem inflamed by a fiendish ferocity which is not exceeded by anything we have ever heard in the annals of human depravity.Still, despite the obvious cruelty of this account, these missionaries and others make no mention of cooking people in large pots. Further, where victims were cooked alive, all of the accounts recite roasting as the technique of choice (usually using a shallow pit lined with hot stones as described above).
When about to offer a human sacrifice, the victim is selected from among the inhabitants of a distant territory, or is procured by negotiation from a tribe which is not related to the persons about to sacrifice. The victim is kept for some time, and supplied with abundance of food, that he may become fat.
When about to be immolated, he is made to sit on the ground with his feet under his thighs and his hands placed before him. He is then bound so that he cannot move a limb or a joint. In this posture he is placed on stones heated for the occasion (and some of them are red-hot), and then covered with leaves and earth, to be roasted alive. When cooked, he is taken out of the oven and, his face and other parts being painted black, that he may resemble a living man ornamented for a feast or for war, he is carried to the temple of the gods and, being still retained in a sitting posture, is offered as a propitiary sacrifice.
These ceremonies being concluded, the body is carried beyond the precints of the consecrated ground, cut into quarters, and distributed among the people; and they who were the cruel sacrificers of its life are also the beastly devourers of its flesh.
The unnatural propensity to eat human flesh exists among them in its most savage forms. The Feegeeans eat human flesh, not merely from a principle of revenge, nor from necessity, but from choice. Captives and strangers are frequently killed and eaten... The flesh of women is preferred to that of men, and when they have a plentiful supply the head is not eaten. In some cases the heart is preserved for months...
Of course, small pots where used to cook humans in some cannibalistic societies. There are many accounts of South American tribes who, after killing, disemboweling, and butchering their victims, made stew from their flesh. But these were small cook pots used for preparing ordinary sized portions. Giant pots are never mentioned.
If some cannibals practiced cruel torture on their victims, why didn't they boil people alive in huge pots? We can only speculate on the answer to that question.
One reason may be the lack of large cauldrons to cook their victims. Many of the tribes where cannibalism was reported did not have advanced metal making capability. Large iron cauldrons were probably out of their technological reach. However, large pots could be made using clay pottery techniques. Many South American tribes produced very large and beautiful works of clay or stone. Large cooking pots should have been within the reach of these societies.
The most likely reason boiling alive was not a part of cannibalism is that it is not a particularly practical or appealing way to cook whole humans. It is not practical because cooking humans alive in a pot presents a number of challenges to the would-be cannibal. It is not appealing because boiling large cuts of meat is not generally considered tasteful whether you are a cannibal or not.
Discounting cannibalism for the moment, it is very uncommon for humans to cook any meat alive (lobsters are the only exception I have come across). It is simply easier to prepare and cook meat that is dead. Even when animals are cooked whole, they are usually skinned, washed, and disemboweled first. Cooking an animal alive provides no opportunity to properly prepare the meat and this may be dangerous to those who eat it later. Cannibals who chose to boil their victims alive might have had to worry about the abdominal cavity bursting under pressure due to the lack of disembowelment, or the victim excreting wastes into their carefully prepared soup. These problems don't arise when using other cooking techniques.
Boiling is most often used to prepare soups and stews. These recipes always call for meat that has been chopped into small, manageable chunks. Larger cuts of meat are usually baked or roasted. These observations seem equally applicable to cannibalism. Large pieces of meat boiled in water until they are gray are not appetizing to many people. I doubt that whole humans boiled alive in a pot were appetizing to cannibals.
Whatever the reasons, history seems to show that cannibals did not boil people alive in pots. Our favorite jungle stories appear to be just that: fiction. For actual accounts of men and women being boiled alive, we must leave behind cannibalism and look into the history of "civilized" societies and their modes of punishing criminals and traitors.
This mode of punishment, although not as common as other forms of execution, was practiced widely throughout the heart of civilized societies in the first and second millenia and earlier. There is documented evidence that boiling alive was used as a form of execution in Europe, Asia, and North Africa during the Middle Ages through the 18th century.
Some of the earliest accounts of boiling prisoners to death come from China. There are many early woodcut drawings of prisoners meeting their end in pots of boiling water. The following excerpt was taken from the writings of Sun Tzu on the Art of War :
12. Having DOOMED SPIES, doing certain things openly for purposes of deception, and allowing our spies to know of them and report them to the enemy... Li I-chi played a somewhat similar part in 203 B.C., when sent by the King of Han to open peaceful negotiations with Ch`i. He has certainly more claim to be described a "doomed spy", for the king of Ch`i, being subsequently attacked without warning by Han Hsin, and infuriated by what he considered the treachery of Li I-chi, ordered the unfortunate envoy to be boiled alive.
It also appears that boiling was used as a means of execution in Japan during the first thousand years after the death of Christ. However, few of these accounts have been translated from the original Japanese. A fictionalized account appears in James Clavell's novel, Shogun. In this account, a European explorer meets his end in a pot of boiling water after the local leaders decide the explorers may be pirates or spies.
In India and north Asia, there are several accounts of boiling prisoners as a means of religious persecution. The following is a short excerpt from a historical account of the fate of Guru Tegh Bahadur :
Guru Tegh Bahadur was subjected to many cruelties, he was kept in an iron cage and starved for many days. The Guru was made to watch as Bhai Mati Das the devoted Sikh was tied between two pillars and his body split in two by being sawn alive. Bhai Dyala was boiled alive in a cauldron of boiling water and Bhat Sati Das was wrapped in cotton wool and set on fire. The Guru bore these cruelties without flinching or showing any anger or distress. Finally on November 11, 1675 Guru Tegh Bahadur was publicly beheaded with the sword of the executioner as he prayed.
The use of boiling for religious persecution was not confined to Asia. Early Christians in the first through third centuries A.D. were often put to death for their beliefs by the Romans. One mode of death for such men and women was by boiling. As an example, the woodcut drawing above was taken from The Tortures of Christian Martyrs.
Many people shutter when they hear the phrase "boiled in oil".
This phrase appears to have its origin in the Middle East
Perhaps due to a relative lack of water, boiling prisoners
in the middle east was often done in vats of boiling oil.
Oil has a much higher boiling point than water and one
can only imagine the cruelty of such a fate.
In England, boiling prisoners to death was a legal form
of punishment during the years under the rule of
Henry VIII :
The punishment had been common both in England and on the
Continent before its precise enforcement by Henry's Act.
It has frequent mention as a punishment for coining.
The "Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London" (published
by the Camden Society) has an account of a case at Smithfield,
in which a man was fastened to a chain and let down into
boiling water several times until he was dead.
We see that there is ample evidence that boiling people
alive was relatively common in ancient times in
many different areas.
Why was boiling used as a form of execution? It
is hard to say.
In earlier times when life expectancy was lower,
there was a smaller value placed on life.
With a lower resistance to taking life,
revenge was often left unfettered when criminals were
brought to justice.
Boiling a particularly depraved criminal to death was
probably seen as just punishment for his crimes.
But the most likely reason boiling was used as
a form of capital punishment is fear.
Governments and religious leaders of the time often
ruled by force and fear.
Those that opposed leaders of the time were punished
severely to discourage others from following in their
In the dark recesses of the mind, we all have a natural
fear of live boiling as a form of punishment.
It is precisely because we all recognize the horrible
nature of this fate that leaders of the time found it
a useful tool for controlling their people.
It is hard to even imagine the fear of a prisoner, drawn
to the scaffold, only to see a seething, boiling pot of
water awaiting him or her.
The terror of such a situation must have been unbearable and
the cruelty of a death in the pot unmeasurable.
It is precisely this primitive reaction to this horrible
fate that makes the study of the subject fascinating.
Boiling to death was legal punishment in the olden time, though
instances of its exercise were not so frequent in the annals of
crime as some of the other modes of execution.
In the year 1531, when Henry VIII was King, an Act was passed
for boiling prisoners to death.
The Act details the case of one Richard Roose, or Coke, a cook
in the diocese of the Bishop of Rochester, who had, by putting
poison in the food of several persons, occasioned the death of two,
and the serious illness of others.
He was found guilty of treason, and sentenced to be boiled to
death without the benefit of clergy; that is, that no abatement
of sentence was to be made on account of his eccesiastical
connection, nor to be allowed any indemnity such as was commonly
the privelege of clerical offenders.
He was brought to punishment at Smithfield, on the 15th of
April, 1532; and the Act ordained that all manner of prisoners
should meet with the same doom henceforth.
A maid-servant, in 1531, was boiled to death in the market-place
of King's Lynn, for the crime of poisoning her mistress.
Margaret Davy, a maid-servant, for poisoning persons with
whom she had lived, perished at Smithfield on March 28th, 1542.
The Act was repealed in the year 1547.
In England, boiling prisoners to death was a legal form of punishment during the years under the rule of Henry VIII :
The punishment had been common both in England and on the Continent before its precise enforcement by Henry's Act. It has frequent mention as a punishment for coining. The "Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London" (published by the Camden Society) has an account of a case at Smithfield, in which a man was fastened to a chain and let down into boiling water several times until he was dead.
We see that there is ample evidence that boiling people alive was relatively common in ancient times in many different areas. Why was boiling used as a form of execution? It is hard to say. In earlier times when life expectancy was lower, there was a smaller value placed on life. With a lower resistance to taking life, revenge was often left unfettered when criminals were brought to justice. Boiling a particularly depraved criminal to death was probably seen as just punishment for his crimes. But the most likely reason boiling was used as a form of capital punishment is fear. Governments and religious leaders of the time often ruled by force and fear. Those that opposed leaders of the time were punished severely to discourage others from following in their footsteps. In the dark recesses of the mind, we all have a natural fear of live boiling as a form of punishment. It is precisely because we all recognize the horrible nature of this fate that leaders of the time found it a useful tool for controlling their people.
It is hard to even imagine the fear of a prisoner, drawn to the scaffold, only to see a seething, boiling pot of water awaiting him or her. The terror of such a situation must have been unbearable and the cruelty of a death in the pot unmeasurable. It is precisely this primitive reaction to this horrible fate that makes the study of the subject fascinating.