New evidence suggests that prehistoric humans did not have the same rich caloric offerings as wild animals, leading to the belief that cannibals weren’t in it for mere nourishment.
The study presented what could be considered the first-ever calorie counting guide for cannibals. UK archeologist Dr. James Cole from University of Brighton investigated “nutritional human cannibalism” in the Paleolithic age, which occurred from 2.5 million years ago to around 10,000 years ago.
Human Body Calorie-Counting Guide
Cole, the sole author of the new research, devised a caloric breakdown of the human body, from head to toe and all the tasty parts one can find in between.
“I was interested in how nutritious are we actually?” Cole said in a New York Times report, pertaining to his interest in how ancient hominins acted as well as the complexities that surrounded their lifestyle.
He found that generally, humans have the same nutritional value as equally sized animals when it comes to fat and protein. The former, however, boast of notably fewer calories when compared to bigger prey in the wild.
As cannibalism may not have been worth the trouble in the face of so many alternatives, the study concluded that ancient hominins may have practiced it for a range of reasons, such as ritual, cultural, and social factors.
There is a wealth of reasons behind cannibalism, but experts primarily believe it was done out of nutritional intent. The calorific template for the human body then offers a better look into why Paleolithic cannibalism was performed, Cole told Gizmodo.
Using a chemical composition analysis on four male bodies, he took the average weights and caloric values of each body part. While the resulting data pertains to modern humans, the values are deemed close enough as far as body frame is concerned.
Human torso and head boast of about 5,400 calories, while the upper arms have 7,450 calories. Human thighs come in at a significant 13,350 calories, the heart at about 650 calories, and both kidneys at approximately 380 calories.
Significantly Fewer Human Calories Weren’t Worth The Trouble
Using the chart, Cole compared the resulting caloric values to animal species whose remains were detected at the sites of Paleolithic cannibals, including the woolly rhino, mammoth, bison, boar, and some deer species.
Humans yield substantially fewer calories than their big animal counterparts, where a mammoth’s muscle mass can contain as much as 3.6 million calories.
“Therefore, I would question whether the motivation for the cannibalism act was due to nutritional needs or perhaps something more socially driven such as resource defense or something along the lines,” Cole explained, noting that it could be harder to hunt an ancient human than an animal because it’s just as smart and able to fight back.
Ancient humans may have become cannibals out of the need to survive during famine or drought, but there may be much more to the practice. Neanderthals, according to Cole, demonstrated intricate behavior and cultural diversity, and therefore could have performed cannibal acts out of equally complex motivations.
Cornell University’s David Levitsky said the calculations of the paper were the same technique used by researchers to determine the energy offerings of modern diet staples like beef. Other nutritionists such as Susan Roberts, however, thought that using four cadavers to estimate energy quantities had been a “terrible” method to calculate the human body.
Forensic anthropologist Danielle Kurin from UC Santa Barbara echoed Cole’s point, saying that the study shows how cannibal behavior was not merely out of nutritive requirements but of a “process deeply imbued with symbolism" or an important part of bereavement in those early humans.
The findings have been detailed in the journal Scientific Reports.