Prehistoric Cannibalism Was Not Driven by Hunger: Study
Sat, April 17, 2021

Prehistoric Cannibalism Was Not Driven by Hunger: Study

Many people are fascinated by cannibalism. Over the years, there are many examples of brutal and dark dramas exploring the topic such as “Hannibal” and “Silence of the Lambs” / Photo by: Shatsko Yauhen via Shutterstock

 

Many people are fascinated by cannibalism. Over the years, there are many examples of brutal and dark dramas exploring the topic such as “Hannibal” and “Silence of the Lambs.” These films portray psychopaths as bloodthirsty human beings who eat human flesh but, in reality, it was practiced by our earliest ancestors.

In the early history of our species, Neanderthals interbred and even ate each other. A 2006 study revealed that Neanderthals supplemented their diets with cannibalism during periods of starvation. Another study in 2011 also showed that the earliest humans in Europe 32,000 years ago practiced ritual cannibalism.

Cannibalism: Normal Behavior

During major excavations in the late 1980s and early 1990s, archaeologists found many ancient humans remains in Gough’s Cave located in Cheddar Gorge on the Mendip Hills, in Cheddar, Somerset, England. The remains belonged to several individuals, including a teenager and a child around three years of age, showing clear evidence of cannibalism. The archaeologists discovered that many of the bones were chewed on by humans. Ribs and long bones were cracked open and gnawed to extract marrow and grease. 

According to BBC, a British free-to-air television news channel, the researchers found that the human remains were placed in the cave almost 15,000 years ago through radiocarbon dating. "We’ve found undoubting evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, human chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow,” Silvia Bello of London's Natural History Museum said. 

The findings also showed that cannibalism was a normal behavior for our ancestors. While the practice can be a reminder of the dark and gruesome side of human nature, this can also be an example of complex behavior, symbolism, and the external manifestation of a belief system. The archaeologists found that some human skulls had been modified after death. But if you’re thinking that cannibalism has long been forgotten, you’re wrong.

Last October, a man was arrested in northern Russia for eating human flesh. Reports showed that apart from three partially eaten murder victims, remains of cats, dogs, and smaller animals were also found. He allegedly stabbed them and chopped them up. This leads some of us to ask why people eat human flesh when there are tons of food choices in the market. Similarly, we could also question why our ancestors chose the path of cannibalism instead of hunting the animals around them.

During major excavations in the late 1980s and early 1990s, archaeologists found many ancient humans remains in Gough’s Cave located in Cheddar Gorge on the Mendip Hills, in Cheddar, Somerset, England / Photo by: Tom Meaker via Shutterstock

 

An Easy Meal

Cannibalism has been an inseparable part of our history. A study published in the Journal of Human Evolution revealed that the oldest human cannibals were Homo antecessor, an extinct human species dating back 1.2 million to 800,000 years ago. The researchers suggested that our ancestors resorted to eating human flesh simply because humans were "overrepresented" in the environment during that time. The chance of encountering another human made them an easy meal.

According to Newsweek, which provides in-depth analysis, news, and opinion about international issues, the researchers stated that there are several possible explanations for our ancestors’ cannibalistic behavior, ranging from social and cultural motivations to purely nutritional causes. They explained that cannibalism was a more profitable survival strategy for them back then compared to "obtaining and processing" large animals.

This means that a lot of food n the past could be obtained from humans at a low cost compared to animals. "For Homo antecessor it was easier to encounter a human than another animal. One of the possible explanations for this high encounter rate between humans could be that the cannibalized cadavers were those of members of the group who had died from different causes,” author Jesús Rodríguez said. 

Not Just Driven By Hunger

One of the theories for why our ancestors are human flesh has to do with the human body’s nutritional value. However, James Cole, an expert in human evolution from the University of Brighton, revealed that the nutritional value of animal species was higher. According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, the skeletal muscle of a mammoth offered 3,600,000 calories, a horse 200,100 calories, and a red deer 163,680 calories. Meanwhile, an adult male of about 66kg contains roughly 144,000 calories, with skeletal muscle accounting for just over 32,000 calories, kidneys providing 376 calories, and the spleen 128 calories.

These findings don’t suggest that our ancestors ate human flesh because of their nutritional value. A 2017 study suggested that there might have been social or cultural reasons for cannibalism. For instance, it may have been related to the social defense of resources or territory from interlopers who were consumed after being killed. The evidence revealed that eating human meat was not exclusively about survival. 

Recent studies investigating the broader behavioral patterns for our ancestors, including the neanderthals, revealed that they may have been more culturally complex than previously thought. 

Cannibalism was probably more often practiced as a choice rather than for survival. However, researchers have stated that future studies of cannibalism should keep looking for new methods of analyses and new sites to better understand this behavior.

Cannibalism was probably more often practiced as a choice rather than for survival. However, researchers have stated that future studies of cannibalism should keep looking for new methods of analyses and new sites to better understand this behavior / Photo by: Matthias Kestel via Shutterstock