Early Humans May Have Committed Cannibalism Out Of Choice, New Research Says

Published April 6, 2017
Updated December 15, 2017

New research adds some complexity to our understanding of human evolution.

Early Humans Committed Cannibalism

Wikimedia Commons

Let’s say you skipped that salad you’ve saved for lunch today and instead chose to munch on a human leg.

But swimsuit season is coming fast, so you’d obviously want to know the calorie count of said leg before you dug in.

Well, now you can.

A new study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports gives a fairly detailed caloric breakdown of the human body.

The reason why is still fairly unclear.

“I was interested in how nutritious are we actually?” the study’s author, archaeologist James Cole, told The New York Times. “Whenever I talk about the topic, I always get a sort of side view from my colleagues.”

Cole’s interest in this unappetizing question stems from his research on ancient hominins — who are known to have snacked on their fellow human ancestors.

Scholars have found evidence of this happening throughout the Paleolithic era — a period stretching from 2.5 million years ago to 10,000 years ago. Normally, they classify it into either ritualistic or “nutritional” cannibalism, the latter meaning there is no evidence of any greater purpose.

But how, Cole wondered, can we really call it “nutritional” if we don’t know the health benefits?

Us Homo sapiens have historically practiced cannibalism for all kinds of reasons, mostly for ritualistic and social occasions.

“If we have this variety in our species, I was interested to see if that variety existed in other hominins,” Cole, who works at the University of Brighton in England, said.

If he could understand the survival benefits of people-eating and how they compared to just eating another kind of readily available animal, he’d be able to deduce whether there other factors influenced the diet choice — thus suggesting social complexities in our evolutionary predecessors.

So here it is — his Weight Watchers for Cannibals.

Whole human: 125,000 – 144,000 calories
Thighs: 13,350
Calves: 4,490
Nervous System: 2,700
Bones: 25,330
Skin: 10,280
Head and Torso: 5,420
Upper Arms: 7,450
Forearms: 1,660
Heart: 650
Spleen: 130
Liver: 2,570
Lungs: 1,600
Fat: 49,940
Kidneys: 380

So, what does this mean? Apparently eating a human is not really worth it for purely caloric reasons.

Paleolithic groups could have stuck with mammoths (one of which could sustain an entire tribe for 60 days) or bison (about ten days of food per bison). One person would only be able to keep the hunger pains away for half a day, if split amongst a tribe of 25 adult males.

So, Cole concludes, just because there hasn’t always been evidence of social motivators for cannibalism in past archaeological findings, doesn’t mean the feedings were nutritional.

This finding isn’t conclusive, though, since calorie counts would obviously differ depending on the person being eaten (bodies of four adult men were used for the data this study). And even if you had a more representative sample of modern people, ancient hominins were likely meatier.

Some nutritionists also dispute how the numbers were interpreted.

“The energy contents of lean tissue, fat and body carbohydrate are well established, and using four cadavers to get to estimates of quantities is a terrible way to go about calculating the human body,” Susan Roberts, a nutrition scientist, told the Times.

Either way, most historians would agree with Cole’s main argument: the decision to eat other hominins was a choice, not a survival tactic.

OK, that’s all. Enjoy your lunch!

Next, do you know the real story behind history’s most infamous act of cannibalism? Then, check out these five interesting death rituals around the world.

All That's Interesting
Established in 2010, All That's Interesting brings together a dedicated staff of digital publishing veterans and subject-level experts in history, true crime, and science. From the lesser-known byways of human history to the uncharted corners of the world, we seek out stories that bring our past, present, and future to life. Privately-owned since its founding, All That's Interesting maintains a commitment to unbiased reporting while taking great care in fact-checking and research to ensure that we meet the highest standards of accuracy.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.