Ancient Cannibalism Was About More Than Just Filling Bellies

The human flesh isn’t particularly nutritious. If you kill an average-sized modern man, you are going to get no more than 144,000 calories, according to a new study on cannibalism. That is barely enough to provide a group of 25 Neanderthals a day’s worth of calories. Killing a mammoth, whose body contains about 3.6 million calories, could provide the same group of Neanderthals enough sustenance for more than a month. In short, you as a meal aren’t worth all the effort.

Why eat humans when they aren’t nutritious?

The University of Brighton archaeologist James Cole studied the nutritional value of human flesh to understand the reason behind cannibalism during the Paleolithic period. Boars pack an impressive 1800 calories in each pound of muscle. The same amount of human muscles contains merely 650 calories. If humans aren’t particularly valuable in terms of nutrition, why would our ancestors want to eat another human?

There has been plenty of evidence of cannibalism in ancient times. Cole says many such instances that were previously attributed to nutritional factors might have occurred for social or cultural reasons. Killing another human just for filling your bellies meant dealing with someone as resourceful and smart as you are, and they could fight back. Unless they were dying or sick, they wouldn’t be an easy prey.

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For the purpose of the study, James Cole focused on nine sites where fossils evidence of cannibalism has been found. The fossils were between 14,000 and 900,000 years old. Cutting and gnawing marks on bones showed clear signs of ancient people eating their own kind. At the Gran Dolina cave, our ancestors ate the brains of their victims, who were mostly children or adolescents.

Cannibalism was driven by social or cultural reasons

The human remains were found alongside butchered remains of sheep, deer, and bison. The way the human body parts were prepared for consumption indicates that it might not have been done in a food emergency or as part of a ritual behavior. Maybe they considered human flesh a common supplement to their diet. Or maybe ancient humans ate their companions who had just died. Findings of the study were detailed in the journal Scientific Reports.

Cole says the cannibalistic behavior of our ancestors was driven by cultural or social reasons instead of just nutrition. Cannibalism might have its roots in multiple factors such as survival, warfare, violence, and spiritual beliefs. The marks on the bones do not reveal the motivations of our ancestors. Bill Schutt, a biologist at Long Island University, said cannibalism is pretty common in the animal kingdom. The only thing that makes humans different is the culture, the rituals, and the taboos.