This post isn’t for the squeamish. Whether we are talking about Hannibal Lecter, Sweeney Todd, the witch in Hansel and Gretel, or the many accounts from early human history, cannibalism makes us uncomfortable. And why wouldn’t it? Who wants to think about people eating other people or worse, being on the menu yourself?
Whether you are fascinated or repulsed by the topic, you won’t be surprised to hear there are researchers trying to understand the when, where and why of human cannibalism.
Cannibalism in the animal kingdom
We know more than 1,300 species of animal eat other individuals of the same species and this is likely to be a gross underestimate. A variety of spiders, insects, fish, birds and even mammals eat their own kind.
I’ll never forget the day, early in my zoological career, when we were out at dawn checking traps that we had set for antechinus (native Australian mouse-sized carnivores). One particular trap felt heavy in the hand and, upon peering inside, we expected to see two antechinuses. It was the mating season after all.
Instead, we found precisely one-and-a-half antechinuses.
Despite our tendency to view bonobos, our closest living relatives as peace-loving, you don’t have to search far to find evidence of cannibalism. Have a look on YouTube if your stomach is up for it.
Perhaps equally disturbing, there is a particular kind of cannibalism common in some insects and spiders called matriphagy, when babies eat their mothers. Now that’s taking a mother’s love to the extreme!
Cannibalism in ancient humans
Cannibalism is believed to have occurred as long ago as 800,000 years in Homo antecessor, the earliest known ancestors of humans in Europe. The evidence comes from remains found in a cave in Spain.
Researchers found the remains of at least 11 humans mixed up with those of wild sheep, deer, bears, wolves and bison. The bones of both animals and early humans bear the signature marks of stone tools, which were used to prepare meals. Fossils from another Spanish cave also suggest cannibalism in Neanderthals, our closest extinct human relative.
How do we know that a person died as a result of cannibalism? It’s a bit gruesome but there are a few clear signatures of cannibalism such as the base of the skull being missing in an otherwise intact skeleton (in order to get at the brain).
And in not-so-ancient humans
Human cannibalism made big news in 2013 when researchers showed that English colonists had resorted to cannibalism in Jamestown in the Colony of Virginia during the deadly winter of 1609–1610, known as the ‘starving time’. Eighty percent of the colonists died during that winter.
Despite its current taboo status, evidence suggests that cannibalism has been a common practice in human history. But why did early humans resort to eating their own kind? There are thought to be examples of all of the following:
- Gastronomic or dietary cannibalism (to supplement nutrition)
- Starvation cannibalism (as a result of nutritional necessity)
- Aggression cannibalism (fighting and hunting enemies)
- Spiritual cannibalism (eating the dead as part of funeral rites)
- Medicinal cannibalism (to tackle health concerns)
- Psychotic cannibalism (a result of psychological imbalance)
James Cole, a lecturer from the University of Brighton in the UK set out to explore whether early human cannibalism was more commonly due to ritual and social reasons (cultural cannibalism) or as a vital source of nutrition (gastronomic cannibalism).
How nutritious are you?
As an important step, Cole decided to work out how much nutrition was actually available in a human body. He developed a “nutritional template” for a human and, based on four men aged 35–60 years, he argued that a whole cooked human cadaver would give 81,472 calories. A medium-sized apple contains about 80 calories.
Cole calculated that if every edible part is eaten, an arm yields 1,800 calories, a leg, 7,150 calories and a human heart, 722 calories. But half of these calories come from fat.
There are clearly nutrients and energy to be gained from eating another person but that still doesn’t tell us if nutrition was the primary motivation for the cannibalism. I should point out for comparison that a cow provides about 500,000 calories.
What can tell us more about the motives for cannibalism is how the human remains were treated. To explore this, researchers analyse and interpret the cut marks on bones.
The argument goes that when humans consumed other humans primarily for nutrition, the victims were treated just like any other prey. Hence the mix of bones in the Spanish cave, all with similar tool-inflicted marks. We would also expect that the most nutritious parts of the body to be targeted.
In contrast, if the cannibalism is for cultural reasons, we might expect to see human remains treated very differently to those of other animals.
Based on this rationale, the simple answer is that Cole has found evidence for both nutritional and cultural cannibalism among early humans. He argues that in fact these categories shouldn’t be considered as mutually exclusive at all.
And as for the remaining burning question: do humans taste like chicken, who knows? Not me! But perhaps ‘long pig’ provides the best clue:
Upon it once stood the temple and about it were enacted the rites of mystery, when the priests and elders fed on the long pig that speaks, when the drums beat till dawn and wild dances maddened the blood. Frederick O’Brien, White Shadows in the South Seas, 1919
Links and stuff
- Recent discussion of cannibalism in animals (including a somewhat gory video of baby spiders eating their dead mother).
- Description of the Homo antecessor fossil finds.
- Press release describing the evidence for cannibalism in 17th century American Jamestown.
- You can get access to James Cole’s thesis on prehistoric cannibalism here.
Isn’t it that canibalism is a social taboo? If 95% of humanity was in prehistory, it was likely practiced. We see it as being morally reprehensible, but this is from our perspective. Rightly so. If you read Anthony Beevors history of world war 2, you’ll realise that the public history didn’t publicise how common cannabalism was for thousands. That’s where our current fear and horror of it come from, a generation ago. Hannibal lectors childhood.
Thanks so much for your insights! I totally agree it is all about perspective. I’m interested in whether exploring science’s understanding of cannibalism can lead to more thoughtful conversations beyond the horror and sensationalism!