Stone Age Cannibals Didn't Just Eat Each Other For The Calories

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Now us modern humans have our civilization and we like to think we're above nature, so we try to justify the numerous instances of cannibalism among early humans and Neandtherals by thinking “well, they must have been really, really hungry.”

However, a new study suggests a much stranger reality: Maybe they didn’t always eat each other out of nutritional necessity for food, but perhaps sometimes for reasons of aggression or ritual.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, added up the calorific content of a human. In total, tucking into a dinner of whole human (served rare) would be about 143,771 calories. Archaeologist James Cole from the University of Brighton even broke it down part by part (below).

Body Component Average Weight (kg) Nutritional Value in Calories (Fat + Protein)
Skeletal Muscle [total]: [24.90] [32375.50]
Torso and Head 4.17 5418.67
Upper arms 5.73 7451.16
Forearms 1.28 1664.48
Thighs 10.27 13354.88
Calves 3.45 4486.30
Brain, Spinal Cord, Nerve Trunks 1.69 2706.00
Lungs 2.06 1596.50
Heart 0.44 650.75
Kidneys 0.35 376.00
Liver 1.88 2569.50
Adipose Tissue 8.72 49938.50
Skin 4.91 10278.00
Skeleton 10.31 25331.50
Teeth 0.04 36.00
Nerve Tissue 1.53 2001.00
Alimentary tract 1.23 1263.25
Spleen 0.15 128.33
Pancreas 0.09 160.50
Remaining Tissue: Liquid 1.03 469.50
Solid 6.66 13890.50
Total 65.99 143771.33

James Cole/Scientific Reports (CC BY 4.0)

Numerous archeological sites across Europe contain evidence that strongly indicates Neanderthals, extinct species of hominid, and humans (Homo sapiens) all engaged in cannibalism, as shown by the burns, bite marks, and general butchery of human bones. In most instances, they were all interpreted as being driven by nutritional needs.

But compared to other animals that were eaten around the time in relatively abundant numbers – such as mammoths, wooly rhinos, horses, pigs, and deer – the body of a human contains notably fewer calories. Many of those animals are notably larger than humans, and therefore have more meat, but they're also more nutritious pound for pound. For a human group of 60, cannibalism would only be a viable model if the group is in a position to effectively consume itself each year. 

Dr Cole concedes that there were undoubtedly some instances where hunger did drive Neanderthals to eat one of their buddies for an opportunistic easy meal. However, the fact that we are so nutritiously puny hints at social, cultural, or even spiritual factors that could have been at play. On top of that, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that early humans had the emotional complexity to understand the implications of eating a fellow member of their species.

The study concludes: "We know that modern humans have a range of complex motivations for cannibalism that extend from ritual, aggressive, and survival to dietary reasons. Why then would a hominin species such as the Neanderthals, who seem to have had varying attitudes to the burial and treatment of their dead, not have an equally complex attitude towards cannibalism?"

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