Humans a modest meal compared to horses and other palaeolithic offerings – study

"Human cannibalism is a subject that continues to hold a morbid fascination within modern societies," says Dr James Cole.
“Human cannibalism is a subject that continues to hold a morbid fascination within modern societies,” says Dr James Cole.

Evidence shows that ancient man regularly ate horse meat and little wonder, with a study published this week revealing that the muscle mass of a carcass from the era would have delivered more than 200,000 calories.

However, even that paled against the calories available from dining on a mammoth, with its muscle mass estimated to deliver 3.6 million calories.

The British study, published in Scientific Reports, actually deals with the grisly question of cannibalism among our ancient ancestors, amid a growing body of evidence that some did, from time to time, eat each other.

Dr James Cole, from the University of Brighton in southern England, set about quantifying the calorific value of the human body to shed more light on the habits of our ancient human ancestors.

“Human cannibalism is a subject that continues to hold a morbid fascination within modern societies,” Cole says. “In particular, identifying the motivations for human cannibalism remains a contentious issue.”

Cannibalism among modern humans has been linked to any combination of a range of factors: survival needs, psychotic or criminal behaviour, aggression, spiritual or ritualistic beliefs, gastronomic or dietary motivations, and perceived medicinal needs.

“Cannibalism is not, however, purely a characteristic of modern humans and has been practiced by a range of hominin species from at least one million years ago,” he says.

Cole, an expert in human origins and senior lecturer in archaeology at the university, assessed the calorific value of the human body: A 65-kilogram, or 10 stone human, has about 32,000 calories in their muscle tissue, a quantity which pales against many of the species known to be hunted in the past.

The muscle tissue of a deer, for example, stands at 163,000 calories, while a woolly rhinoceros would have delivered 1.26 million calories from its muscle tissue. An auroch, an extinct form of wild cattle that lived in Europe, Asia and North Africa, would have provided close to a million calories.

The results question the idea that our ancestors hunted and consumed members of their own species for strictly nutritional reasons, given the much greater calorie return from the species known to have been commonly consumed in the past.

It is possible that some of our ancestors may have eaten members of their own species out of convenience – victims who died from natural causes were a ready source of food and did not need to be hunted.

But Cole says: “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 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?

“Undoubtedly,” he said, “each episode of Palaeolithic cannibalism would have had its own specific cultural context and reason for consumption.”

Cole hopes his research will form part of a holistic approach to the definition of prehistoric cannibalism, with a stricter use of terminology when describing cannibal episodes beyond the “ambiguous and leading terms ‘nutritional’ or ‘symbolic’.”

Cole, J. Assessing the calorific significance of episodes for human cannibalism in the Palaeolithic. Sci. Rep. 7, 44707; doi: 10.1038/srep44707 (2017).
The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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