Human flesh may be consumed as a food or as part of a ritual, especially in order to obtain spiritual power over enemies, or to pay respect to dead relatives (endocannibalism).
The practice of cannibalism goes back to early history and was found on all continents. The term is derived from a Spanish form of Carib, an early West Indian tribe of cannibals.
Cannibalism is still occasionally practised among tribes in interior New Guinea and prevailed until recently in parts of west and central Africa, Melanesia (especially Fiji), Australia, New Zealand, Polynesia (especially Sumatra), and North and South America. Reports circulated in recent years have implicated several heads of state in cannibalistic rites. Cannibalism is occasionally reported in the case of people marooned without food, isolated in a grounded aircraft in subarctic conditions, refugees and shipwreck survivors at sea without food, or prisoners of war left to starve. Incidences are also reported in connection with severe famine conditions although, as in the case of the famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s or the siege of Leningrad, efforts are made by the authorities to suppress such information. The probability of cannibalism increases amongst the civilian population in war zones in the event of extended disruption of food supplies. Psychologically disturbed individuals have been known to kill and eat victims, for example, a Japanese university student in Paris killed and ate a Dutch woman student at the same university. There are occasional reports of cannibalism in connection with satanic rituals. In 1993 it was alleged that some of Mao Tse Tung's supporters during the Cultural Revolution practised cannibalism as an ultimate affirmation of the defeat of their political enemies.
Cannibalism may be the only recourse for people subject to a long period without food. Recent research has questioned the authenticity of missionary reports of cannibalism in Africa arguing that incidences were exaggerated by missionaries endeavouring to illustrate the contrast resulting from their intervention. Such research questions how such practices came to be given up so easily if they were socially approved rather than aberrant. When it occurred it may largely have been a symptom of social breakdown. Whilst cannibalism certainly existed, the existence of tribes whose favourite food was human flesh is a fiction invented by Europeans.