Why Did Prehistoric People Eat Each Other? Not for the Calories, Says Archaeologist

A new study sheds light on the subject but leaves people still wondering: why were our ancestors cannibals?

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Archaeologist James Cole estimates that our ancestors were not cannibals for the nutritional value alone.
Archaeologist James Cole estimates that our ancestors were not cannibals for the nutritional value alone.Credit: Mike Porter (University of Brigh
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Why did prehistoric people eat each other? Because they were starving, say the compassionate; because they could, sneer the cynical; because of ancestor worship, suggest the spiritual.

We may never know, but a study in Scientific Reports this week – the first of its kind – suggested that if cannibalism was practiced for sheer nutrition, prehistoric man was better off dining on mammoths and deer.

James Cole, the archaeologist who conducted the research, created a template providing a proxy calorie value for the human body that can be compared with the nutritional value of other fat and protein sources. The conclusion arising from Cole’s unusual tool is that prehistoric cannibalism may not have been practiced for purely nutritional ends.

Cole estimates that human muscle tissue is nutritionally on par with that of other animals of similar size and weight, but it is significantly inferior, calorie-wise per weight, to the flesh of the mega-fauna and likes of the mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and deer.

It should be noted, in prehistoric man’s defense, that they didn’t have access to the information provided in Cole’s template and therefore didn’t know their neighbor was nutritionally deficient compared with a deer or sloth, for instance. It also bears saying that our ancestors weren’t too fussy about what they ate, which would be anything they could catch, including micro-mammals.

It is also noteworthy that Cole’s nutritional map for the human corpus is based on averages taken from four men, who happen to be Homo Sapiens, as other human species have gone extinct and cannot be weighed, measured, poked and probed in the name of science. Therefore, we cannot know precisely how much nutrition could be achieved by dining on Denisovan or Neanderthal, let alone on a “hobbit.” Cole, however, does note that Neanderthals were thought to be beefier than Homo Sapiens, so to speak, and may have been nutritionally more valuable.

What scientists are confident about is that Homo sapiens indulged: There are signs of cannibalism throughout much of human history, into contemporary times. One striking example reported this week involves a coastal cave in Alicante, Spain, dating to some 10,000 years ago, when hunter-gatherer society was gradually ceding way to a more settled lifestyle. As the scientists squeamishly put it in their paper “Funerary practices or food delicatessen? Human remains with anthropic marks from the Western Mediterranean Mesolithic,” human and faunal remains were found with similar “anthropic manipulation marks,” which in less subtle terms means that they were butchered.

While there are suspicions, there is no categorical proof that Neanderthals ate each other, despite headlines to the contrary based on evidence found chiefly in France and Spain. Some feel that bones from a Belgian cave in Goyet, dating to about 40,000 years ago – the late days of the species, do attest to that very thing.

Although there isn’t even a consensus about whether Neanderthals used fire – let alone controlled it – there’s no reason why they couldn’t have eaten their meat, of whatever source, raw, or have cooked it on fires they came across serendipitously. As for Denisovans, scientists have barely proved their existence, much less their culinary predilections.

So Cole reached the conclusion that prehistoric man may have been eating each other for reasons other than pure sustenance. What those reasons are, however, we may never know. Possibly, they were blissfully unaware that their neighbor on the coals was nutritionally inferior to the bird in the bush.

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