If you were to eat, say, another human being, how many calories would you be taking in? That’s a valid question not only for health-conscious people, but for anthropologists, too. You see, our human ancestors were cannibals — but we don’t really know why. Did they kill and eat each other like they would a mammoth or a wholly rhino — for the meat? Or were they practicing some sort of religious ritual?
To answer that question, James Cole, a senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Brighton, looked into the nutritional value of a human being and then compared it to that of other animals our ancestors dined on. He found that eating a man provides fewer calories than gobbling down a mammoth, bison, or red deer. And that suggests that our ancestors ate each other not for nutrition but for some other purpose — maybe as a form of funerary or cultural ritual. The findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Today, cannibalism is a taboo. But we have evidence that our prehistoric ancestors — including Neanderthals — dined on human flesh. All over Europe, bones of early humans, collectively called hominins, show butchering marks similar to those found on animal remains. Some hominin bones are clearly chewed, or broken to extract the marrow; sometimes the base of the skull is missing, meaning someone was trying to get to the brain. Researchers mostly believe that early humans were eating the dead because they provided easy access to tasty steaks, Cole says. But there are still questions about how often we practiced cannibalism — and why.