Can we consider cannibalism is some kind of a practice by bloodthirsty psychopaths? Is it a Common motivations for eating human flesh because of periods of starvation? warfare? perhaps ritualistic behavior?
Claims arises that many of our ancestors were actually cannibals. But exactly why has remained a bit of a mystery. In a new paper, published in Scientific Reports, I have now started to answer the question.
Cannibalism took place across prehistoric western Europe. 960,000 years ago to the Bronze Age – shows that the practice of cannibalism must have been fairly common, given the number of hominin remains that show evidence of cut marks and human gnaw marks. “the broken long bones – indicating an effort to get to the marrow”.
Humans have engaged in cannibalism throughout history, says James Cole, an archaeologist at the University of Brighton in England, for ritual and medicinal purposes, and as the result of psychosis and warfare, among others, even before our ancestors evolved to be Homo sapiens, they were eating each other. Archaeologists have found evidence of cannibalism in the skeletons of early hominins found all over Europe.
Hominins are a group that includes modern humans, extinct human species (like the Neanderthals), and the immediate ancestors to humans. In studying hominin species that preceded Neanderthals and Homo erectus, archaeologists have found bones that had burn marks similar to those found on animal remains—marks scientists believed to have been made by cooking the animals (and humans) over a fire.
Considering all the reasons that humans ate each other, it seemed odd to Cole that the early hominins only had one motive. He wanted to see if it actually made sense for our ancestors to eat members of their own species based on nutritional value, compared to all the other animals they could have been eating. So, he took all the data he could find about the fat and protein content of various human organs, and calculated an approximate caloric value of a typical person.
“Even if you ate six individual [hominin]s, you’d still not have as many calories as if you ate one horse,” says Cole. His conclusion: at least some of the time, hominins were eating their peers for other reasons, like fulfilling rituals or putting a (grim) end to conflicts.
To be sure, Cole’s estimates of caloric density aren’t perfect. He’s working off size estimates for some extinct species, like the mammoth. And hominins probably didn’t eat every last piece of their hominin meals. When asked if the calorie count for the hominin skeleton was referring to bone marrow, Cole said he wasn’t sure how much of the bone was being eaten. “It’s just not possibly with the data I had available to tease them out,” he says. Also, some of the cannibalized skeletal remains include women and children, whose specific fat and protein distributions would undoubtedly be different.
Of course there’s really no reason we need exact caloric estimates of our fellow humans or even for extinct animals. The point of the study, Cole says, was to show that our ancestors were more socially complex than we usually give them credit for. They had jewelry. They probably kissed. It’s not a stretch to say that they had more complicated social dynamics and rituals than had been considered before, too—like ritual cannibalism. “This work suggests, but doesn’t prove, we need to be more inclusive and see these other species more like us,”.