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Earth Science

Ancient Cannibals Didn't Turn To Cannibalism Just For the Calories, Study Suggests (sciencemag.org) 96

sciencehabit quotes a report from Science Magazine: A new, slightly morbid study based on the calorie counts of average humans suggests that man-eating was mostly ritualistic, not dietary, in nature among hominins including Homo erectus, H. antecessor, Neandertals, and early modern humans. On average, an adult male human contains 125,822 calories of fat and protein, enough to meet the 1-day dietary requirements of more than 60 people. The numbers represent a lower limit, as Neandertals and other extinct hominins likely had more muscle mass than modern humans. Still, when compared with other animals widely available to ancient man like mammoths (3,600,000 calories), wooly rhinoceroses (1,260,000 calories), and aurochs (979,200 calories), it hardly seems worthwhile to hunt hominins that are just as wily and dangerous as the hunters, the researchers conclude. Some instances of cannibalism from nine Paleolithic sites, which date from 936,000 to 14,700 years ago, might be chalked up to starvation or not wanting to waste a perfectly good body that died from natural causes.
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Ancient Cannibals Didn't Turn To Cannibalism Just For the Calories, Study Suggests

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  • so, do we taste like gamy chicken?
    • Some say, veal, if you prefer red meat references.
      • Huh...I had no idea that adult human males had only 125 Calories. Talk about very low calorie density with good micronutrient content. That is the ultimate weight loss food. This should be on Dr. Oz, since he likes promoting that kind of stuff regardless of any empirical evidence. Maybe one of his sponsors could sell assault rifles and charcoal barbecues. Just be mindful that not all are created equal. Barbara Hudson is bigger than the typical adult male and likely carries more calories, for example.

        • by tsqr ( 808554 )

          Huh...I had no idea that adult human males had only 125 Calories. Talk about very low calorie density with good micronutrient content.

          Nice try at pedantry, with the implied "calories vs. Calories".The article says, "enough to meet the 1-day dietary requirements of more than 60 people." Unless you think a person can get by on 2 Calories per day, in which case it doesn't even rise to pendantry.

          • Unless you think a person can get by on 2 Calories per day, in which case it doesn't even rise to pendantry.

            For up to two months, or maybe longer if you happen to be the size and shape of a walrus.

    • so, do we taste like gamy chicken?

      No. Small animals taste like chicken. Humans taste similar to pork. My Appalachian in-laws call it "long pig". They say that once you get past the "yuck" factor, it isn't that bad.

      • by arth1 ( 260657 )

        It's saltier than pork. More like dachhase [wiktionary.org].

        But I'm wondering about the authors of the article if they jump from "not due to calories" to a conclusion that it must have been ritualistic. Why not taste?

        • But I'm wondering about the authors of the article if they jump from "not due to calories" to a conclusion that it must have been ritualistic. Why not taste?

          The most plausible explanation is that they were fighting wars over territory with other tribes, and if people are killed in battle, then hey, there is no good reason to let a perfectly good corpse go to waste.

          • That was my uneducated guess too :)
            But seriously, any meat provider would have been welcome. I agree that early humans wouldn't go specifically hunting other humans, but if they ended up clashing and killing each other, then all bets were off, consumption-wise.

        • Why not taste?

          My first thought, too.

          Occam's razor says: "Because we're tasty!"

          That's the main reason humans prefer any particular food group or (eg.) why we eat cows instead of horses. Why would cannibals be any different?

        • Exactly. Humano pibil is actually pretty nice provided they weren't smokers and got at least a bit of exercise on occasion.
          • by arth1 ( 260657 )

            Exactly. Humano pibil is actually pretty nice provided they weren't smokers and got at least a bit of exercise on occasion.

            Nah, exercise makes for tough meat. Like with kobe beef, the best meat is from specimens that get plenty of beer and massages. Much more tender, and with nice marbling and a fat rind that preserves the taste.

      • by Baleet ( 4705757 )
        Are your Appalachian in-laws immigrants from the South Pacific? Because that's where that term originated.
  • The local witch doctor, spiritual healer or prophet saw a new business opportunity and decided to expand their status in the community.
    To become the gateway to the supply and demand.
    That is why most normal religions ban such ideas.
  • by PPH ( 736903 )

    I'd rather eat Johnson [youtube.com]

  • by Eloking ( 877834 ) on Thursday April 06, 2017 @11:21PM (#54189419)

    Yeahhh..... I'm sure the homosapiens compared the calories betweens species before hunting.

    More seriously though, I find that this studies goes wayyyy to far in it's analysis of the situation. In my mind, for the decision of the prey to hunt, the quantity of food per individual fall pretty low in the decision process.

    What's the season? How easy it is to hunt and what are the odd of success? How much experience we have hunting that prey? How far from the colony the prey is? How dangerous it is to hunt that prey? Is there additional benefit to hunt that prey (are they challenging our territory? Can I impress the village if I hunt this?)

    • Yeahhh..... I'm sure the homosapiens compared the calories betweens species before hunting.

      It needn't be a complex math problem, sometimes math is built in to evolution. That is, the specimens that didn't choose prey with the correct calorie balance didn't survive.

      • That's only partially true. There a lot of wiggle room once you have enough to survive. There are lots of side effects that show up in evolution. If something tastes good then creatures will eat it whether or not there was any evolutionary advantage.

        Tigers will try to eat humans, even if there easier choices, these are attacks of opportunity. And tigers are not less evolved than humans.

        Too often I see scientists trying to create an evolutionary explanation for everything whether an explanation is needed or

        • Tigers will try to eat humans, even if there easier choices, these are attacks of opportunity. And tigers are not less evolved than humans.

          Wikipedia seems to think otherwise. [wikipedia.org] Quote:

          Most tigers will only attack a human if they cannot physically satisfy their needs otherwise. Tigers are typically wary of humans and usually show no preference for human meat. Although humans are relatively easy prey, they are not a desired source of food.

          • by aevan ( 903814 )
            Keep reading.

            Man-eaters have been a recurrent problem for India....There, some healthy tigers have been known to hunt humans
            ....
            During war, tigers may acquire a taste for human flesh from the consumption of corpses which have lain unburied, and go on to attack soldiers; this happened during the Vietnam and Second World Wars

            So some learn to find it tasty, and continue on preying on humans by choice. As Homer put it: "Faster Son, He's Got a Taste For Meat Now! "

        • by swb ( 14022 )

          African lions have been known to prey on humans as a primary food source.

          Game warden and former professional elephant hunter George Rushby killed off the pride in the late 1940s. His autobiography "No More The Tusker" details this and there is a BBC documentary on the the man-eating lions of Njombe.

          I think for the lions, the explanation was kind of simple -- a pride of lions basically started preying on humans often and long enough that their offspring learned it to be an easy food source to the point that

      • But in the summary they assume that mammoths and others were readily available prey.
        I really don't get that point. Humans have always been opportunistic eaters. There are no constantly available easy sources of food, starvation was a constant part of our past. So the idea that it wasn't worth it to kill humans because there are easier for sources available just makes no sense.
      • by DarkOx ( 621550 )

        That and you don't exactly need a lab to determine, there is more good meat on the bones of that Mammoth or Buffalo than on Bob over there.

        • Worth mentioning, I remember reading that when the Fijian chief finally ended cannibalism (mainly of conquered enemies), the warriors/citizens of the country were rather happy about it. Seems they didn't enjoy even eating their enemies.
    • by GuB-42 ( 2483988 )

      It is a risk,cost/reward analysis, something most animals including humans can do quite effectively from instinct alone.
      What you enumerate are mostly the risks and costs. However, the calorie content of the mammoth makes the reward really high, and thus, high risk is appropriate.

      Of course they don't have an table with the calorie content of each specie but they should have a good idea about how well each one can feed the tribe.

  • They were just trying to make ends into meat.

    • by dcw3 ( 649211 )

      Did you put blood, sweat, and tears into that? Make no bones about it please.

  • You attack your enemy, and if successful take their land. So what do you do with the people? Either make them slaves or eat them. Simple.

    This is exactly what had happened in New Zealand for centuries. But then the great chief Honga Hika realized the potential of muskets. He managed to go all the way to England, proportadly to help missionaries with a Mauri dictionary, but actually to get his hands on the "thousand thousand" muskets he heard were stored in a place called the tower of London. In that he

  • They need to take into account not just the calories contained in the person eaten, but also the calories that will no longer be consumed by the eaten, who having been themselves consumed no longer consume themselves, and those calories are thus available to the eater.

  • I'm imagining an alternate history version of this story, in a world where cannibalism is common. The same researchers, studying the same history, trying to figure out how the same practice started long ago, but from a different perspective.

    Result: "Ancient Cannibals Didn't Turn to Cannibalism Just To Consume the Spirits of the Vanquished".

    • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

      The indications are that in European history, was where a powerful phobia of consuming human flesh grew. Taking into account human propaganda to make killing humans more acceptable, likely the target of that prohibition were the Neanderthals. That whole ice giant exaggeration and the more northern Europe base for the legend tend to indicate, the whole thing was about the purposeful genocidal eradication of Neanderthals and the stories to excuse it plus the inevitable rape, abuse and slavery that likely acco

  • ... replying to questions and comments that were never stated.

    Seriously, how do you even get funding for this?

    "I need money and time to research whether cannibals just eat people because coconuts are in short supply."

    "Did someone say they did?"

    "Sure. I've definitely heard that claim being made. Think I read it in a text book."

    This is straw man research at it's best. Come up with an arbitrary claim and test it. It is crap published simply because you need to keep publishing to keep your position, and it tak

  • by Gravis Zero ( 934156 ) on Friday April 07, 2017 @12:42AM (#54189553)

    To say it was a ritualistic is missing the mark. The truth is that they ate people with "poko" (exceptional traits). Tribes would disseminate lists of exceptional traits they needed to acquire to advance within the hierarchy of their tribes. The quest to advance to the tribe leader has been succinctly described as, "Pokoman: gotta eat 'em all."

    • by jezwel ( 2451108 )
      I wish I had some karma for you. Well done.
    • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Friday April 07, 2017 @01:35AM (#54189707)

      A friend of mine is a paleoanthropologist (I hope that's the word in English too for "the guy that digs human bones from the ground that have been there a million years and tries to make sense of them"). According to him "ritualistic" and "religious" has become some sort of in-joke for everything that makes no sense. If they find something and can't really see any purpose of the ancient human for doing it, it's for "ritual" or "religious" reasons, because that doesn't have to make sense and it's as good an excuse as any for finding bones and other stuff in odd places, odd settings or arranged in some particular fashion for no apparent reason.

      In other words, whenever you get to hear one of them talk about "ritual" reasons for something, it basically means "we really have no good idea why the heck they did that".

      • In other words, whenever you get to hear one of them talk about "ritual" reasons for something, it basically means "we really have no good idea why the heck they did that".

        Considering the strange and elaborate rituals of current humans, it's a good deduction. I understand that science is all about continually seeking evidence and positing the best explanation when you find more.

        • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Friday April 07, 2017 @06:30AM (#54190407)

          True, but in the end it's basically them saying "We have no idea what that shit is about."

          And, let's be honest here, that's what religions look like. Imagine there is no written word. We haven't invented writing yet. And you unearth the ruins of a Catholic church. What will you find? Well, if you do it in Europe, chances are good that you will notice that this building was taller than many of the buildings around, giving you the idea that it was some important building. You will also probably find the altar and notice that this table played some central role in this building. Usually it's not big enough to serve as a table where everyone who was there could sit and eat, so it wasn't the dinner table for the congregation. You might find some of the wood used for the benches and notice that they were arranged in such a way to face that altar, and you would probably deduce that some sort of ritual or religious background is likely.

          What else will you find? You will probably find the tabernacle (where the hosts are stored), and you might even find that the (usually) richly decorated bowl inside he (usually also quite lavishly decorated) tabernacle contained an edible substance. It is also usually offset to a side (unless you're dealing with Gothic cathedrals, where it can as well be present near or even on the altar), so you would probably deduce that food still played a key role in the rituals that were held there. Also, food was somehow sacred, because it was stored in such a lavishly decorated box, and it was obviously considered valuable because the box can usually be locked. Usually the ornaments also contain angels that appear as guards for the contents, so you would probably come to the conclusion that this food was also supernaturally guarded against evil spirits or that the congregation was supposed to fear the retaliation of supernatural forces should they somehow act "wrongly" towards food.

          Your first conclusion would probably be that the cult celebrating there was either one celebrating food or a cult with sacrificing food as a central element. You will find that the food in that special place is of a single kind (usually host wafers), which suggests that the bread was distributed from there rather than everyone bringing something to the celebration and the food of the believers being stored there. So people congregated to eat together. Which will probably puzzle you because, as stated before, the table, the altar, is by no means big enough to allow everyone fitting into the church to sit around it and have a meal.

          What else will you find? Well, invariably, you'll find a cross. Actually, usually you will find multiple ones. The cross as a central element of the faith will be emblazoned on pretty much every sacred item, sometimes multiple times, so you will easily identify it as the most important symbol of the religion. You will quickly also find out that this isn't just some pretty symbol but that the cross is something where someone gets nailed onto and that this is also critical to the religion, i.e. that someone is tortured by being nailed to the cross. You will find paintings, both on canvas as well as on walls, and stained glass, that tell the story of someone being nailed to a cross. This is very obviously a central element of the faith, and you can somehow deduce that the person being nailed to the cross is revered and that it is in some way connected to the divine, that the god or gods these people believe in shine upon the crucified.

          So you could deduce that people in this religion either wanted to be nailed to crosses to be considered divine, or that they do it onto others in an attempt to "save" them for their religion. One could also ponder that nailing someone to the cross is some kind of fertility rite (remember the food in the special box off to the side), and that the people of this cult praise and deify the person sacrificing himself in such a manner.

          And so on. You see the problem here, that it is virtually impossible to accurately identify and follow the idea of a religion just by the stuff you find in the ground. You can at best make some guesses, but as soon as metaphysical shit gets mixed into the fold, you're usually completely off.

          • cult celebrating there was either one celebrating food or a cult with sacrificing food as a central element

            And the truth is that your deductions wouldn't be too far from the mark. The Christian Church incorporated a lot of pagan iconography into its rituals. Understanding Christian ceremonies as an extension of older fertility and death rituals is a more accurate interpretation that you would get from actually asking most Christians.

            • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Friday April 07, 2017 @11:00AM (#54191835)

              In the end, it would. What we usually do when we deal with ancient religions and trying to understand them is that we compare them to contemporary religions. We find idols carved out of wood and assume that they are gods or spirits. What we don't assume is that they were toys.

              Imagine some "alien" civilization (not necessary coming from out of this planet but having no connection to us today) comes down to earth and finds only part of what we wrote. Imagine they find a book giving the details of the D&D pantheon but nothing else concerning role playing games.

              I can SO see people create some sort of future SCO and try to reenact masses for the greater glory of Torm and Sune.

              • Is your friend actually a paleoanthropologist or are you just making that up to sound authoritative? Because they way you are talking is a amateur understanding of the subject. Scientists don't just find objects and make assumptions. There are whole journals full of analysis and evidence. We can look at the wear patterns on an object and see how often it was handled and how it was held. We can tell if an object was handed down for generations or cast side by a child. We can usually find things like trace po
    • by Gryle ( 933382 )
      Had I the mod points. Bravo, good Gravis, bravo.
  • There are exactly three reasons why we go after animals:

    It's fun
    They're pests
    They're tasty

    Usually, we only hunt humans for the former two. But why not add the last one to the mix?

  • The reports from people who engaged in cannibalism, (like the survivors of the Donner party or people interviewed in Papua New Guinea) say that human flesh is not all that tasty.Though gorilla meat is sometimes sold is bush meat in Africa, chimp meat is not common. Our flesh is likely to taste like chimp meat, we have split from chimps just 3 million years ago. So ...
    • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 )

      The reports from people who engaged in cannibalism, (like the survivors of the Donner party).... say that human flesh is not all that tasty.

      Well of course it didn't taste all that good. It was freezer burned and barely cooked over an open fire. Now, get some human flesh harvested at the right time, age it properly, season it, maybe braise it, and served with a good sauce and add a side and you've got yourself a meal. Make sure you source it properly though: I hear caged human flesh is a lot tougher than the free-range kind.

  • They hunted food, now here's another piece of easy prey, why not eat it? Why the assumption (the article doesn't point to evidence) that it was ritualistic? This is a very poorly written article for a "Science" site. We eat all kinds of animals that have fewer calories, WTF does that have to do with it?

    The submitter should have linked to the original article that Science linked to at http://www.nature.com/articles... [nature.com]
    Recent studies of Palaeolithic cannibalism6,9,11,12,13,14,53 have done much to illustrate

  • Straightfoward (Score:4, Informative)

    by bluegutang ( 2814641 ) on Friday April 07, 2017 @07:25AM (#54190601)

    This is straightforward if you fully consider the consequences of hunting other humans.

    Other humans most likely live in tribes just like you. By hunting one of them, you are declaring war on the entire tribe, who have good reason to fear that they are next. So they will fight very viciously against you. You may win in the end, but likely not without casualties. Even in the best case, you'll have to constantly watch your back rather than doing productive things. All this for the calories from a single person.

    This is a question that comes up in utilitarian theory. It's frequently asked, shouldn't utilitarianism allow you to find a lonely old woman, and kill her in order to save the lives of ten people awaiting organ transplants? In the short term, this might save lives and increase overall human happiness. But in the long term, every slightly-vulnerable person would wonder that they are next. This would cause an overall decrease in human happiness.

  • Early humans have been on the quest for things that have great taste and are less filling. This is not exactly news.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

  • Maybe they just liked the way humans taste. After all humans apparently taste a lot like pork. Ribs anyone?
  • No, I don't believe that other hominids were necessarily "...just as wily and dangerous as the hunters..." - those are the ones you'd leave alone.

    But the gullible, defenseless "sure come share our fire and our all-vegan porridge, I won't assume you're dangerous" naive ones? Yeah, pretty sure we'd eat THOSE.

    That's why Liberals took so long to evolve. They kept getting eaten.

  • Well kids and infants die too don't they? Also wouldn't this practice encourage murder by those that prefer the taste of human flesh?

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