The Walking Dead season finales are not exactly known as happy, optimistic affairs - and the end of Season 4 could be the most worrisome yet.
The finale of the latest season saw Rick and the gang seemingly imprisoned in a boxcar at the mysterious Terminus. Now, the jury is still out as to what their captors have in store for them, but there are some extremely heavy hints that they could have taken a leaf out of the Walker-lifestyle and resorted to cannibalism.
Cannibalism is a trope we find across the apocalyptic genre - whether it's zombies or something entirely else. Films such as The Road and The Book of Eli feature it heavily, while there is also a Walking Dead comic-book storyline which sees survivors turning to man-sushi (mushi).
However, is large-scale cannibalism actually a long-term survival strategy, or does it have severe side-effects? Let's take a look.
Nice to Eat You!
Cannibalism is extraordinarily rare in the modern world. Most recorded cases either result from psychopathic killers or severe short-term survival situations. However, ritual cannibalism is expected to have been practiced since prehistoric times, while it was first recorded in Western history in 1492.
Indeed, the word is believed to originate from the West Indies Carib tribe, which were first discovered on Christopher Columbus' voyage to the Americas. Their name was subsequently mispronounced by the explorers as 'Canib,' and the word cannibal was first recorded in 1553.
Many tribal and indigenous societies practiced cannibalistic behavior, often in the form of funeral rituals and/or other religious ceremonies. The most predominate reason seems to be based on the belief that eating someone else transfers their life energy to you - both bolstering you and allowing that person to live on inside you.
However, even in these cases it was relatively rare, as eating your neighbors is not exactly good for community spirit, or a sustainable food source.
Is Eating Humans Good for You?
The question remains, could you theoretically survive on man-flesh if there was a big enough source, like for example, in the possible case of the Terminus survivors? The answer is a complex one.
One line of thought asserts that most animals, including humans, have an inbuilt evolutionary 'defense mechanism' which makes cannibalism impossible in the long-run. Collectively this anti-extinction safeguard is present in progressive neurodegenerative disorders such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).
These disorders, which are still not fully understood, seem to be linked to the consumption and interaction of 'prions', which are described by the CDC as "abnormal, pathogenic agents that are transmissible and are able to induce abnormal folding of specific normal cellular proteins... that are found most abundantly in the brain."
These folded-prions essentially cause a 'traffic jam' of proteins in the brain, which results in brain damage and eventually death. Often these transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) occur spontaneously, but they can then be spread through consumption. In the case of BSE, it is widely believed the disease spread because cattle were being fed the ground-up remains of other cattle.
Ultimately, the logic states that eating an animal of similar physiology or genetic make-up to you drastically increases the likelihood of catching whatever infection they had - including, potentially, the one that killed them. This likelihood also greatly increases if you eat the brain. Remember, the sudden onset of HIV was believed to come from humans eating great apes who originally held the disease.
Often we remove the risk of infection by cooking food, for example in the case of trichinosis from pork, or rabbit fever from rabbits. With prion diseases, there is no way to destroy the infection and leave the food edible.
There is also the case of famous French cannibal, Tarrare. Upon his autopsy it was discovered his body was littered with pus and ulcers which could have resulted from his man-eating tendencies. Although to be honest, he didn't exactly have the most healthy diet...
This brings us to Kuru - a rare, and geographically isolated disorder which is primarily known to affect the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea. This tribe, who practiced extensive ritual cannibalism, suffered an epidemic of the disease in the 1950s and it is widely believe to have resulted from their cannibalistic tendencies.
The condition is almost always fatal and it's not exactly a pleasant or dignified death either. The symptoms can be split down into three increasingly disturbing phases. First, the sufferer experienced unsteady movement, decreased muscle control, and tremors. Following this, the victim becomes unable to walk, while their tremors become even more pronounced and uncontrollable. They may also experience emotional instability, depression and, oddly enough, uncontrollable bouts of laughter.
Finally, the sufferer loses complete muscle control, becomes incontinent and unresponsive to their surroundings and eventually develops ulcerations and sores. The person then usually dies, often due to the infection of these sores. Not very nice, right?
You may recall that in The Book of Eli, Eli frequently checks the hands of people he meets to see if they have the shakes. The logic here is that if someone has uncontrollable shakes, it's because they have been eating human flesh.
So Will Cannibalism Eventually Kill the Terminus Survivors?
Well, potentially yes, but not necessarily. You see, for Kuru disease to spread like wild-fire, you need to eat someone who has contracted variant CJD (vCJD) or a similar TSE. Currently this is expected to spontaneously occur at the rate of one per one million people per year, which isn't exactly a lot.
However, I can imagine most survivors in the zombie apocalypse aren't exactly in their healthiest state - while we also know almost all humans left on the planet are infected with some kind of disease which causes the dead to reanimate. With this mind, even in the absence of vCJD, it's probably not a good idea to be eating every scruffy looking wanderer who comes into your camp, especially if their meat is being shared with everyone. That's a very quick way to contract whatever illnesses that person may have had. Simply put, on a long enough time-scale, such practices could wipe you out.
There is, of course, another issue. Seeing humans as a walking burger isn't exactly ideal for the cohesion of the group, and although you might be chowing down on Brad on Tuesday, if there's no one else around, you could find yourself being served up on Friday. Personally, I'd probably invest my effort into trying to grow some carrots or something...