Human Cannibalism Through the Ages: Why? cover

Human Cannibalism Through the Ages: Why?

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Cannibals are an ancient human tradition. Cannibalism in the human line goes back more than 2 million years, and–given its ubiquity in the animal kingdom–probably far beyond.
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Human Cannibalism Through the Ages: Why?

Humans are Cannibals

First it was vampires that got long in the tooth. Now it’s zombies. These fabulous creatures who feed on human tissue are fading from the cultural zeitgeist, according to Charles Bramesco at The Verge. What’s next? Trendspotter Bramesco cites current examples of popular entertainments that feature “the humble cannibal as the heir apparent to the horror throne du jour.”

If so, vampires and zombies are being nudged out of pop culture by a kind of human who is not fictional at all. Cannibals are an ancient human tradition. Cannibalism in the human line goes back more than 2 million years, and–given its ubiquity in the animal kingdom–probably far beyond.

Fragment of a Neanderthal thigh bone from a cave in southern France. Finger for scale. Flesh was stripped from the bone before it was broken open (to get at the marrow) by a stone hammer upon an anvil stone in the cave. The site, dated at about 100,000 years ago, contained many obviously butchered bone fragments of both deer and Neanderthals. (c) 1999 Tim White, Berkeley.

If so, archaeologist James Cole’s timing is brilliant. He’s long been studying why people eat other people, a topic of some dispute in anthropology. Funerary ritual? Magic ritual? Simple hunger?

Cole hoped to clarify the reason(s) for people-eating by figuring out how much nourishment a human body contains. He published his results yesterday (April 6) in Scientific Reports (free to read), concluding that the reason was not always hunger.

That’s because humans yield about the same amount of nutrition, fats and proteins, as other animals our size, and even less per pound than beavers and other animals of moderate size. One horse can provide the same number of calories as 6 people and is a lot easier to hunt and catch, Cole said in a post at The Conversation.

So if hunting and eating people was less efficient than hunting and eating other animals, why was it done? There are several social and cultural possibilities, Cole says, but he’s pretty vague about specifics.

His sole suggestion in the Conversation post is that cannibalism might have happened as a result of warfare over territory. Perhaps those killed in the dispute were also eaten.

To the victor belong the spoils.

A human skull cap, probably for ritual drinking use, from Gough’s Cave in Somerset, England. The site was occupied for thousands of years, but substantial evidence of cannibalism, including human tooth marks on bone, was unearthed from a layer dated at about 14,700 years ago. Credit: Natural History Museum

“The issue is not one of nutrition as an alternative to large game,” anthropologist Erik Trinkaus told Erika Engelhaupt at Gory Details. “It is an issue of survival when there are no other food sources, members of one’s social group have died, and the surviving members consume the bodies of already-dead people.”

Cole seems to agree that could be one reason. He notes that humans are opportunists, so may have consumed any edibles they came across–including other humans, especially dead or dying humans.

That seems perfectly rational. It may make no sense to hunt humans when other animals are easier to catch and lots bigger. But the demographics of ancient human communities, where 30 was a ripe old age and death in infancy was not uncommon, could have generated a convenient source of nourishment for the rest of the group, at least occasionally.

Waste not, want not.

It’s easy to see how that practice could have acquired spiritual dimensions as well. Consuming the (naturally) dead might have honored their memory and perhaps made it seem possible to consume their virtues too.

Cannibalism By The Book

Another scientist with good timing on cannibalism is vertebrate zoologist Bill Schutt, author of the recently published book, Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History. Schutt’s accounts of like eating like range throughout nature.

He told Angus Chen at Salt, “My favorite is these legless amphibians, or Caecilians. The mother provides her skin to the young hatchlings, and they peel her skin like a grape.” The skin is full of fat, according to Schutt, and it grows back. So Mom lives to be eaten another day.

Chen’s favorites among Schutt’s stories of human cannibalism is something you might not think of as cannibalism: using human body parts as medicine. There’s a long history of European aristocrats eating human parts for medicinal purposes, a practice that sometimes involved grinding up mummies. It lasted until the end of the 18th century and probably persists elsewhere.