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Explaining early human cannibalism

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A UK researcher suggests that prehistoric human cannibalism was most likely motivated by something other than nutritional needs. The scientist found that the nutritional value of the human body is not particularly high, raising the possibility that early humans ate each other for social reasons. The findings include that human skeletal muscle has a nutritional value broadly in line with animals species of a similar size and weight that were available prey at the time.

Journal/conference: Scientific Reports

Organisation/s: University of Brighton

Media Release

From: Springer Nature

Archaeology: Counting the calories of cannibalism

A tool that suggests episodes of prehistoric human cannibalism may not have been purely ‘nutritional’ in nature is presented in Scientific Reports this week. The template provides a proxy calorie value for the human body that may be used to determine the dietary value of prehistoric cannibalistic episodes when compared to the consumption of other animals.

James Cole constructed a nutritional template for the human body by using the total average weights and calorie values (fat and protein) for each body part from chemical composition analyses of four male individuals. However, the data obtained pertains to modern humans and it is unknown how these values would vary for non-Homo sapiens species. The author suggests that in the case of Neanderthals, the values for skeletal muscle may be higher given their greater muscle mass, and that the values presented in this study may be minimum values for non-Homo sapiens hominin species.

By comparing the calorific values calculated to those for animal species whose remains have been identified at sites of Palaeolithic cannibalism, the author found that human skeletal muscle has a nutritional value broadly in line with species of a similar size and weight. However, it produces significantly fewer calories than most of the larger animals, such as mammoth, woolly rhino and species of deer, which are known to have been consumed by hominins.

The author argues that the findings question the viability of hunting and consuming hominins strictly for nutritional reasons and recommends that the data and methods form part of a holistic approach to defining episodes of prehistoric cannibalism.


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