Development of human brain coupled with development of society and religion has broadly categorized human behaviors and acts as acceptable and unacceptable. Many unacceptable behaviors and practices such as gambling and stealing, though considered immoral, may not necessarily be taboos. For something to be considered taboo, it has to generate strong social disgust and abhorrence.
The word taboo has come from the Polynesian word ‘tabu’ which generally means unacceptable or prohibited. The definition of taboo varies according to region, religion and society. Hence, some practices could be considered taboo in one society, while could be considered merely immoral acts in another: still in some other society it might be considered normal. Also, many taboos are illegal though not all. Let us look at the top 10 most common taboos prevalent in human societies.
Cannibalism, no doubt, is the number one taboo for human beings and this would be the last thing on earth that most human beings will do in order to survive. Cannibalism though exists in biological world, is not a common phenomenon as it threatens the existence of species. Most human societies have strong taboos against dealing with human corpses, let alone eating flesh from them. Nevertheless, cannibalism has been observed among humans in various situations like famine, war, insanity and religious ceremonies. Currently the only groups practicing cannibalism are Korowai tribe of south-east Papua and Aghoris of India.
Incest is one of the most common taboos across cultures. Among incestuous relationships, parent-child and sibling-sibling unions are the most abhorred ones. Though incest occurred among many cultures sporadically throughout history, modern age has seen the steep decline of formally practiced incest. Many countries also legally prohibit incest, though some countries like Israel, China, Russia, France and Turkey do not have any legal prohibition against consensual incest. Incest, however, amounts to inbreeding and the resulting offspring are likely to suffer from congenital birth defects. In nature, animals tend to avoid inbreeding if alternatives are available.
Abnormal sexual relationships
Human beings consider heterosexual relationships excluding incest as normal. All other sexual preferences and practices are considered abnormal and have strong taboos attached to them. Examples include homosexuality, bestiality, pedophilia, necrophilia and masturbation. Many of the abnormal sexual acts are both socially and legally prohibited.
Murdering another human being is considered an extreme act unless it is in war or in self-defense. The resulting anarchy from tolerating individual cases of murders has forced society to consider murder as a prohibited act. However, despite social and legal prohibitions against murder, they do occur rather regularly due to various reasons.
The will to live is the strongest desire in any living being. Hence, suicide frequently counts as a taboo as it surpasses even the strongest desire to take its place. It is also considered a religious taboo as almost all the religions have prohibited it. It is often believed in many religions that the soul of a suicide victim will not find peace and is denied the gates of heaven. Some religions also prohibit suicide as they consider human life to be sacred and a gift from God, not to be tempered with. Suicide is also a legal crime in many jurisdictions.
Human beings have never been comfortable with dead bodies. Dead bodies are generally disposed of in distant places after religious ceremonies. Touching or being in contact with human corpse is often considered unclean and plain unacceptable. Tempering with graves or handling decomposing corpses is also frowned upon. Even medical pathologists conducting autopsies on dead bodies are not seen as normal and the job is often considered socially unacceptable. Some religious groups or ethnic groups even oppose autopsy on the ground that the procedure will violate the body.
Eating Carnivorous Animals
Though meat-eating is a fairly common practice amongst human beings, the meat is usually sourced from vegetarian animals. Flesh of carnivorous animals is often not consumed in many parts of the world. There is a strong social taboo against eating meat of carnivorous animals. Exceptions include bear, fox, dog, crocodile, shark, most fish and duck.
Foods and drinks
Many types of foods and drinks are considered taboo and not eaten based on geography, region, religion, ethnicity, weather and culture. Religious laws often control the criteria which qualifies a food as taboo. Examples are Jewish dietary law (Kashrut), Islamic dietary law (Halal), Hindu dietary law and Jain dietary law. While beef is prohibited for Hindus, pork is prohibited for Jews and Muslims. On the other hand, Jains are prohibited from eating any meat and even some plants. Most religions prohibit from eating carrion and blood. Muslims are prohibited from consuming alcohol, in any form, while Sikhs are prohibited from smoking.
Inter-racial Sex and Inter-religion Marriages
For many years, inter-racial or inter-ethnic marriages have been considered taboo. While absence of contact originated the taboo in the first place, fear of loss of culture and identity still holds the taboo. Such marriages are often considered to bring in adjustment problems due to different social values and cultural practices. Inter-religion marriage also is opposed on the same grounds. However, the biggest opposition to inter-religion marriage comes from the fear of inter-mingling of faith and loss of identity.
Ordinary bodily functions like menstruation, defecation, urination and flatulence are considered social taboos. People generally do not discuss about these bodily functions. Most people find the sight, smell and even mention of these disgusting. Body functions such as these are considered to be private and are not to be performed in front of other people. Accidental flatulence, though found to be socially unacceptable, is usually accepted and laughed off in informal gatherings.