Last week, the Ig Nobel Prizes were announced and, as always, they highlighted the best “improbable research” the past year had to offer. One study, in particular, has captured the attention of the public, thanks to its focus on the topic of cannibalism.
In a paper published in Scientific Reports last year, Dr James Cole estimated the calorific significance of human cannibalism during the Paleolithic era. According to Cole, these episodes have often been described as nutritional, but he found little evidence to suggest that humans would be a good staple of a healthy diet.
“In modern humans, cannibalism has been related to any combination of the following: survival, psychotic or criminal, aggressive, spiritual or ritual, gastronomic or dietary, and medicinal,” Cole, who works at the University of Brighton in the UK, said in a statement. “Cannibalism is not, however, purely a characteristic of modern humans and has been practiced by a range of hominin species from at least 1 million years ago.”
To clarify why our ancestors committed anthropophagy, Cole estimated the calorie content of every human body part using both weight and chemical composition. An adult weighing 65 kilograms (143 pounds) would have about 32,000 calories in their muscle tissues. This might seem like a lot but it’s tiny compared to the 163,000 calories in the muscle tissues of a deer. And no surprises, the early humans hunted mammoths, which each had an estimated 3.6 million calories stored in their muscles.
Only a few archaeological sites provide evidence of cannibalism so it is difficult to understand if the practice was common or rare. Humans hunting other humans as a source of food seems unlikely, according to Cole. Instead, it is possible that some of our ancestors ate other humans who died from natural causes, saving themselves the difficult job of hunting.
The research suggests that when we describe past episodes of cannibalism we should be more specific when discussing the motivations behind the behavior. So, while it might seem like a weird piece of research, there is an important scientific reason behind it.
“I felt very honored to win an Ig Nobel prize,” Cole told Newsweek. “It is a great forum to capture people's imaginations about the variety and diversity of science. It is also a great way to show how scientists tackle problems from different angles and how even though some methods may sound quirky there is always a bigger picture or reason why the work was done.”