Early Humans Ate Their Own for More than Just Calories

CannibalismThe human body is nutritious — something first humans knew quite well.

In fact, the average human body contains an astounding 126,000 calories, with the fat from the stomach and skeletal muscles accounting for most of those calories.

A recent study on cannibalism highlights that our ancestors did not just consume other humans for caloric intake, but much more.

James Cole, an archaeologist at the University of Brighton, has long had a fascination about human cannibalism, especially in the content of early humans. Approximately 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago, our ancestors ate their own.

In the study, Paleolithic cannibalism was examined to see not only why they ate other humans, but what cultural and social aspects led to cannibalism. To start the experiment, Cole first calculated the caloric value of the human body.

There are multiple ancient sites throughout Western Europe where evidence of human cannibalism was found. In Gough’s Cave in England, for example, researchers found ritual practices where the human body was consumed as part of the burial ceremony. Other times, they were consumed for nothing more than their food.

Many Reasons to Consume Humans

Cole has concluded that there are many reasons to eat a human, and it was not always about the meat. The consumption of the food and the calories seemed to be an afterthought rather than the purpose. Also, some cultures sucked the marrow from a bone as a means of territorial control, while eating a spleen was a way to pay homage to a deceased family member.

By reviewing fossil records, Cole found that eating brain matter was a sophisticated process and quite common among early humans. From the small amount examined in his study, the first case of human cannibalism was in Spain nearly one million years ago.

The motivations for eating other people were complex. Modern humans that engage in cannibalism do so during warfare or as part of a ritual. However, these early human cannibalism ceremonies were completed for various cultural activities as well as sustaining life.

However, Cole feels that the human body is not as nutritious as a bison or horse, so it was unlikely that nutrition was the sole reason for early humans eating one another — and there was no way to tell if those humans were dead at the time they were consumed.

Humans, per Cole, have a lacking calorie count per kilogram in comparison to the muscles of mammoths, wooly rhinos, and aurochs, which were common during those times. Also, boars and bears had an astounding 4,000 calories per kilogram. Considering that these animals were plentiful in those times, it is more likely that a human ate another because they could no longer hunt or for a ritual.

The actual reason for cannibalism is left to the ancestors, and no one will ever know the exact reasons why a human being consumed another. However, Cole’s research does bring to light the fact that nutrition was the least likely reason for doing so.