Ancient Cannibals Didn’t Eat Just for the Calories, Study Suggests

Apr 6, 2017


Here’s some food for thought. How many calories would you get from consuming one whole human body? More than 125,000, according to a new study on human cannibalism that will either make you queasy or have you reaching for some fava beans and a nice chianti.

For more than a decade James Cole, an archaeologist from the University of Brighton in England, pondered that question while studying “nutritional human cannibalism” during the Paleolithic, which lasted from about 2.5 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago.

“I was interested in how nutritious are we actually?” Dr. Cole said. “Whenever I talk about the topic, I always get a slight sort of side view from my colleagues.”

His morbid fascination led him to create what is essentially a calorie counting guide for cannibals, which he published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports. He is the sole author.

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28 comments on “Ancient Cannibals Didn’t Eat Just for the Calories, Study Suggests

  • Dr. Cole said. “Whenever I talk about the topic, I always get a slight sort of side view from my colleagues.”

    Oh yes. I know that look all too well. But this is why I love the Evo sciences. We can ponder the most upsetting topics about us sapiens and slash through any mindsets that try to block the hideous unpleasantness. All aspects of sexual behavior are available to us without puritanical filter. Check out this discussion, for example, of S&M bondage etc run through an evolutionary perspective in an article on Quillette:

    Also we can plow through discussions of human infanticide and rape all through the filter of Evo theory and use that knowledge to understand deep motivations for current human behavior. I don’t think we can find solutions to the current social problems that these deep motivations produce without understanding their evolutionary roots from the past.

    So given that, I’m happy to see articles here and in other places that acknowledge the existence of cannibalism in our species and not just as a one off freakish event. We don’t have to go back so very far in time to find humans living with no surplus in body fat. Starvation events, tough winters, droughts and prolonged sickness must have been regular challenges in the past.

    Just the fact that infanticide exists speaks to the challenge of raising children to adulthood and the threat of unplanned additional babies siphoning off food resources that existing children need to stay alive. Also the connection between female ovulation and our BMI is an adaptation that allows our reproductive system to shut down ovulation in times of nutritional insecurity. We are built to survive the threat of starvation.

    In that situation of life or death, with hungry children, drop in fertility, sickness and general weakness, I just don’t believe that our ancestors would have said no to that 125,000 calories that just went strolling past the waterhole. If it’s an individual from another tribe or band that isn’t genetically related to us, looks disease free and can be brought down with minimal risk, then…what the hell are we waiting for? Fire up the BBQ I say!

    Just so you know, if we are ever in a plane that goes down in the high Andes together, I won’t hesitate to stay alive by turning someone into a pot roast. Fair warning.

    Ok, there we go. The “slight sort of side views…” Bring it.

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  • Hm. We could once again have evolution breed us for for the skinny fitness of our ancestors. Those toothsome family sized porkers don’t waddle too fast.

    In the past, fat was a mark of the rich and belonging to the kleptocracy. The social benefits just go on and on.

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  • Olgun

    Do you mean the part where the tribesmen are saying that normal people feel bad about eating other people? I thought that was pretty funny. Freud would have a field day with that one.

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  • 7
    maria melo says:

    After edition, I only removed the previous comment before anyone could see, but it was a silly idea.

    Having read Christophe Boesch about a comparative behavioural study that compared modern human cannibalism with chimpanzee´s, it seems right to conclude that cannibalizing the enemy after a battle/war is a symbolic way of punishing the enemy of a rival group/tribe in some situation where cannibalism occured, as far as removing the head from the enemy (not to be upset by his spirit), testicles, as far as raping, sodomizing… Odd to me is the explanation of calories. Really?
    In a New York crime scene, a Play boy murdered is lover, a gay man, and the testicles revealed to be na important body part of the body, he was sick perhaps of pretending to be “gay” and the attack in testicles had some meaning?

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  • Apropos the topic, I’d like to recommend a short story: “Cannibalism In The Cars”, by Mr. Mark Twain. It is one of the funniest stories ever written, in my opinion. If you want to get your mind off of Trump and all the terrible thing that are happening right now, read that story. Laughter is curative.

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  • 10
    maria melo says:

    I remember years ago (too many) having watched a tv report on tv news, some interviews with modern cannibals where they described the flavour of meat: babies tasted like fish, old people were not so good… I will never forget it.

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  • Maria

    Testicles are considered to be perfectly acceptable food items in N.Africa and maybe in other locations too. I’ve seen them for sale in some meat shops there. Not human testicles necessarily…ha…but I think they were from sheep. Just guessing. I didn’t ask about it since I had no intention of eating them. I wonder if the locals there think that eating testicles will enhance their virility. I just asked my husband (he’s from there) and he said no, that it’s just food, that’s it. But he did remind me that the French have a dish with testicles. Cow or sheep, I don’t know.

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  • 14
    maria melo says:

    Carlos Castro, Renato Seabra like two lovebirds before murder, castration, says witness

    Meaning in it´s a proper context:

    Defense lawyers believe that Seabra was overcome with pyschosis and
    snapped, believing that God was talking to him, telling him to extract
    the “virus” of homosexuality by tearing off Castro’s testicles. “The
    world is a better place,” he told detectives after the murder.

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  • 15
    maria melo says:

    Also the connection between female ovulation and our BMI is an
    adaptation that allows our reproductive system to shut down ovulation
    in times of nutritional insecurity.

    LaurieB, could you please explain

    “Starving women are the most fertile due to a substance produced by the liver.” I remember these Were the exact words I´ve heard in a lab by a chemistry monitor, how infortunate for African women, I don´t doubt, this woman was a scientist. If it was recentely, I would have asked Dr. Jacqueline more questions, but it was more than 20 years ago.

    (I still have a photo of her I took in the lab.)

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  • 16
    maria melo says:

    A nutricional appart:

    Speaking about nutricion, I just cannot help thinking of creating a kind of velvet cacau vegan cake, even or specially because I didn´t enjoy the one I degusted today created by a nutricional Chief, so I thought I need creativity to create my own (how many ingredients will I waste to find my own pleasant creation?).
    Once I´ve “created” a beautiful purple soup that was really bad for my guts, but I was happy with the colour.

    Well, now I have type II diabetes and methabolic disease and really need to take care, also had an episode of heart discontrol, perhaps caused by stress, I am taking pills to control the heart (but it seems to have no damage). In work place we are tempted often with a lot of food- poisonous food by someone so I took some colleagues with me to some healthy cooking workshps and hope they- including me- will think better before eating, sincerely hoping to re-educate the hypotalamus, perhaps it will change something for the others, while for me it´s definitely the time to stop with nutricional madness, and overweight.
    There´s more people worldwide dying for overeating bad food than people dying for starvation it seems.

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  • 17
    maria melo says:

    For now, I think I will cook my own soup, and perhaps my own little Curcumine Oats´ bread, because I´ve noticed by eating and testing sugar in blood that bread is really bad, so I will make my own little bread (even bought a little pan just for my OWN bread).

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  • Maria,

    To start off, here is an interesting obituary that I noticed a while ago in the NY Times. I tore it out and saved it in my notebook. Here is the online copy. A good place to start:

    Ok. After that I came across a very cool book titled: The Fragile Wisdom: An Evolutionary View on Women’s Biology and Health. by Grazyna Jasienska. I don’t know what the hell is so fragile about this wisdom but just ignore the stupid title for now. I will type out some sections of this book that I hope will explain my statement above.

    Starting book quote here:

    Allocations and Trade-Offs
    Everything in life has a cost. An individual allocates energy from digested food to physiological maintenance and physical activity, and stores what is left as fat. When this individual sexually matures, she needs to make an allocation to one more process: reproduction. If resources are limited, energy used to support reproductive processes will result in less energy allocated to other processes. This means other processes will not receive as much energy as they optimally require, and in consequence the organism will not function as well as it would if it were “celibate” or sterile.

    Our ancestors lived for more than 90% of their evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers, a lifestyle that involved a very different diet, very different patterns of physical activity and a very different web of social interactions. For women, it also meant a very different reproductive life: late maturation, few menstrual cycles, several widely spaced pregnancies, and long-lasting breastfeeding. Most of human evolutionary adaptations are believed to have been shaped during that time which means modern humans are adapted to the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers. This subsistence strategy changed relatively recently, no more than 1 4,000 years ago…

    Page 23
    Ovarian function is sensitive to changes in lifestyle and responds with reproductive suppression, especially to factors such as energy expenditure or negative energy balance, when energy intake is lower than the energy used by the organism. Ovarian suppression is understood as any change in ovarian function that lowers the chance of pregnancy, and it is thought to occur in a gradual fashion (Prior 1985; Ellison 1990). For example, a small reduction in body weight may cause low estrogen production in the menstrual cycle and thus a reduction in the chance of conception. A more serious weight loss may result in the absence of ovulation, and a dramatic weight loss may result in the total suppression of cycling (amenorrhea). The probability of pregnancy is, of course, reduced to zero when menstrual cycles are anovulatory or absent.

    Page 27
    Severe caloric restriction in women during the famine that occurred in the winter of 1944-1945 in German-occupied Netherlands resulted in a reduced ability to conceive (Painter, Rosebloom, and Bleker 2005). We know this only from birth records. More recent findings show that women who have lost about 15% of their initial body weight experience disturbances in the release of pituitary gonadotropins (hormones involved in stimulating production of ovarian steroid hormones) and consequent amenorrhea, a state characterized by the absence of menstrual cycles (Vigersky et al. 1977) Caloric restriction diets in young women frequently lead to menstrual disturbances and suppressed levels of ovarian steroid hormones (Pirke et al. 1985). Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, which most frequently occur in girls or young women, are often associated with menstrual and hormonal problems (Becker et al. 1999).

    Page 40
    Reproductive suppression occurs when environmental conditions temporarily deteriorate and women experience increased energy expenditure an often negative energy balance. Reproductive suppression serves to protect the maternal condition and to optimize a woman’s lifetime reproductive output (Ellison 2003a). It lengthens the interbirth intervals and, by providing the comfort of metabolizing for one, allows women to improve their own nutritional status before the next energy drain. All acquired energy goes only to the maternal organism, without sharing it with a fetus or nursling.

    Longer interbirth intervals mean that a woman will have few children. How can having fewer children be adaptive? In humans, important trade-offs appear to exist between the number and the quality of offspring (Strassmann and Mace 2008). Beverly Strassmann and Brenda Gillespie (2002) found among Dogon women in Mali that very high fertility leads to lower reproductive success, measured as the number of children who survive to the age of ten. Chances of surviving the first five years of life were lower for children who had more siblings (Strassmann 1997b) clearly suggesting that in large families each child was less likely to receive adequate parental investment, which in turn led to poorer conditions of the children and worsened survival.

    End of book quote –

    Maria, I know we are both interested in this topic and I think you would really enjoy the book that this section comes from. Now that we know that women’s nutritional status is directly linked to their fertility, it’s very fascinating to think about the consequences of this! If fertility declines sharply in times of nutritional insecurity then what happens in times of plenty? Fertility goes way up! This may not be a good thing necessarily. I read about a famine relief organization that brought in help to starving community somewhere in Africa. This prolonged aid caused the fertility rates to surge and after a few years the women had produced more offspring than they could possibly support and the condition of the entire tribe ended up less than optimal.

    Let me know what you think of this info.

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  • 20
    maria melo says:

    I think I should better have written the French word Chef instead of the English Chief.
    LaurieB, are you writing as a predator and having desire/appetite for meat (didn´t my whole discourse changed your taste for meat?)

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  • 22
    maria melo says:

    How can having fewer children be adaptive?

    well it seems it is, otherwise, gemini would be very common, which is not?

    I don’t know what the hell is so fragile about this wisdom

    I don´t quite understand what the word wisdom means in this context, but considering this data which I think must be undeniable, it reflects the use of the word fragile or inbalanced, gain and loss of weight, even violent sports affect ovulation it seems (well it´s true by experience), gain of weight not necessarly increases fertility because of a larger body mass would need more estrogens homones, it seems, so the text mustn´t be taking into account overweight in those African women, I think.

    found among Dogon women in Mali that very high fertility leads to lower reproductive success,

    So what defines fertility sucess is not necessarly reproductive success .

    Why then have you said that infanticide is a Woman´s female
    reproductive strategy? How could it be, there´s too much investiment in pregnacy of women (as a spider to make it´s own webs, I would say recurring too some explanations I read in a Richard Dawkins ´ book).

    Then maltreatment and abandonment can be an ontological behaviuor learnt and repeated, not philogenetic I would think, why would abortion be a “new form of infanticide” (well, I know some women that must have made hundreds of abortions, I cannot figure out why either, but it mustn´t be a reproductive strategy, I once even offered to help raising children to avoid someones decision to abort, but it´s a very personal decision it seems, well I did never made a single one). I just think they don´t know too much about their own bodies, cause don´t read enough science books, well they should, it would be better for their own health).

    Well, tanks for the careful lecture.

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  • 23
    maria melo says:

    I´ve always said some women use abortion as if it was contraception, sometimes even because they don´t really know who is the father of the foetus they are carring, which I know from experince after receiving a phone call of a woman that wanted to have VIP voluntary interruption of pregancy while working in a Hospital and another colleague that had a depression because was pregnant and didn´t kow if the father was her husband of a lover, while I could never be favoured to have my schedule shifted to have an examin in university, I guess if it was to be with some lover I would be favoured.

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  • Maria

    Sorry it took me so long to answer your comments above.

    In the same book, The Fragile Wisdom there is a section that I want to include here that does agree with your point about obesity interfering with female fertility.

    Page 33

    “Obesity decreases the chances of pregnancy even among women who are not seeking medical help for fertility problems. Obese British women reported more menstrual problems and were less likely to conceive than women with lower body weights. (Lake, Power, and Cole 1997). Once they conceived, they often experienced complications such as hypertension. In the United States, the risk of infertility increased from 1.1 among women with a BMI between 22.0 to 23.9 to 2.7 in women with a BMI of 32 or greater (Rich-Edwards et al. 1994). In fact, women in all categories of BMI above 23.9 had an elevated risk of infertility.

    Body fat, a metabolically active tissue, converts androgens produced by the adrenal gland to estrogen. In obese women, high levels of these estrogens interfere with the production of estradiol by the ovary; as a result, circulating levels of estradiol are often low (De Pergola et al. 2006). Obese women may also have high levels of testosterone, with potentially detrimental effects on follicles, oocytes and the endometrium (Gosman, Katcher, and Legro 2006)”

    LaurieB, are you writing as a predator and having desire/appetite for meat (didn´t my whole discourse changed your taste for meat?)

    😀 Maria, don’t worry. I’m not a cannibal and I sure hope I never need to resort to that as a means of staying alive! Just a little provocation and hyperbole, that’s all. In fact, I’d be happier if I could claim to be a vegetarian. It’s ethically the higher ground, no doubt. At this point, I eat meat and then feel bad about it. I hate to support the disgusting meat industry.

    So what defines fertility sucess is not necessarly reproductive success .

    Yes. At least for women this must be true.

    Why then have you said that infanticide is a Woman´s female
    reproductive strategy? How could it be, there´s too much investiment in pregnacy of women

    Yes, I agree. The investment in the pregnancy is very high. The much greater requirement of calories to support the growing fetus, and after that, lactation, and after that the energy needed to raise and provision the child is enormous above and beyond what she needs just to sustain herself. It’s definitely a longterm high investment.

    The calculation therefore, in whether or not to devote years of high energy cost of support to a newborn is extremely important to a new mother. Nine months of pregnancy is a long enough time for the mother-to-be to think over her situation and decide if all the factors are good or bad for her child to get a decent opportunity in life. Some questions she will consider are; does the baby’s father seem like he’s committed to provisioning her and the child? Will he stick around for the longterm or was he a casual sexual encounter and will move on to other relationships as his priority? What about the parents and extended family of the mother, will they be nearby to help with care and provisioning? Do they accept the pregnancy or have they made their rejection known to her? And, one very important question that she will ask herself is – How will this new baby affect the welfare of the child or children that I already have? This is important because even though a pregnancy is a very high investment by any mother, she already has a massive investment in the children that she already has! There’s no way she will jeopardize that! Remember that these women are living in nutritionally insecure environments. If she decides to raise the baby and then a famine hits, she could lose all of her other children and maybe she won’t make it either. So as disturbing as it is to us who are sitting in a comfy Western middle and upper class society with excellent health care (hopefully) to consider the idea of infanticide, this very sad behavior could be the most ethically correct choice that a new mother could make in the interests of herself and her other children.

    why would abortion be a “new form of infanticide”

    In the days and places where medical services are primitive and lacking, an attempt by untrained, uneducated people to perform an abortion could be fatal to the pregnant woman. This is a very risky procedure without sterile conditions and decent training. It is much less risky in this case, to follow through with the pregnancy and then end the life of the neonate. Abandonment is a form of infanticide because they rarely survive and at some level this must be known by the mother. She doesn’t dispatch the neonate herself but leaves it to chance or the Gods or whatever, to decide the fate of the newborn.

    Now, with our current state of medical knowledge, an abortion is less risky than following through with labor and delivery. When a woman judges her life circumstances to be unfavorable to raising a child she can end the pregnancy in the very early stages with minimal risk to herself medically. Also, not to mention that if she decides to end the pregnancy, it is kinder to do so as early as possible. This is certainly an ethical improvement over waiting until the child is born and fully formed.

    Using abortion as contraception is a bad idea for medical reasons. It’s much more efficient and safe to provide birth control and education on the topic to women right from the start. This is a life skill that all young women need to know and utilize. Less abortions is a good thing. This may be the only statement that I can agree on with the religious right. We all want less abortions but how we can reach that goal is where we have the parting of the ways.

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  • Maria
    If you track down information (YouTube interviews, podcast discussions etc.) involving folks like Rhonda Patrick, Dominic D’Agostino, Valter Longo etc. then you will probably get some info you’ll find interesting.

    Also, there was a guy around in anthropology (before it became completely dominated by Marxism and Post-Modernism): Marvin Harris (extremely politically incorrect), who argued that males are valued in human society primarily as warriors (to either defend against tribal aggression or to directly undertake tribal aggression) for the fundamental evolutionary reason that violent human societies (i.e. politically and ideologically driven rather than scientifically and economically driven) are compelled to value male offspring more highly than females.
    The idea being that this compelling short term avoidance of immediate disadvantage (tribal defence) or short term incurring an advantage (killing people from other tribes and taking their stuff) outweighs the longer term effect of game theory in stable circumstances. i.e. not the Nash equilibrium situation.

    The evolutionary selection effect not being via the high value assigned to males, but the consequently inevitable implications of a lower value assigned to females. Which influences the rate of pre or post-natal abortions of female offspring. Fertile females can be sold for a relatively high price, but only when population expansion is beneficial. Boys who can fight being much more valuable, at least in the short run. The long term effects being that the number of fertile breeding females governs that rate of human population expansion. And that tribal warfare stress implies population pressure and the need to minimise reproduction. Hence the systematic control of the number of breeding females affecting future human population, as an indirect consequence of the preference for male babies. i.e. Population control is achieved not so much directly by male deaths in battle or from starvation or disease owing to population pressure or environmental disruption (relatively trivial prior to the era of the machine gun, incompetent generals, and nuclear weapons) but more indirectly via female infanticide. Basically many more infant girls being killed than future male adult fighters, at least in ‘normal’ Palaeolithic type societies. Something that had gone unnoticed prior to Harris.

    Human reproduction obviously depends on the relative health and nutritional history of breeding females. But probably depends more on the outright existence of sufficient stock of breeding females. Which is a much less subtle effect, though operates over a timeframe of generations, rather than months or years.

    This effect has a hangover in modern times, such as the one child policy in China where the one child tends
    to be male. Males generally have only one main life purpose: to defend or attack rival tribes, and to obtain access to suitable breeding females. Given any relative lack of available females or attacking tribes then much of what passes for current international politics can be explained by simple demographics.

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  • For the record, something that is so ubiquitous in the “Christian world” is the ritual of the communion. The symbolic consumption of the body of Christ in the form of a special cracker and the symbolic drinking of the blood of Christ in the form of a glass of wine or grape juice, reminds us that cannibalism, at least in symbolic form is alive and well and perfectly acceptable in current times. This faux cannibalism is perfectly acceptable to Christian church-goers as part of their tradition but I wonder what would happen if we confronted these faux cannibals with what they are actually participating in. Instead of being horrified in the realization of what they are participating in, I predict that instead, they’ll become very angry that we would dare question their sacred ancient rituals.

    I’m half way through the fourth season of the TV show Vikings and even though I know I can’t rely on a TV show to be faithful to what we know about history, still, the comparison of the Christians of the time with the Vikings of the time has convinced me that even though they both have gruesome rituals, I’d rather take my chances with the Vikings. Women have a much better deal with the Vikings and I think this holds true for certain other pagan societies as well. Human sacrifice and cannibalism must have played a significant part of ancient rituals for it to still maintain such an important part of the Christian church services today.

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