Prehistoric cannibalism not driven by hunger

Prehistoric cannibalism was a surprisingly common behaviour. But why did our ancestors do it? New research suggests it wasn’t because they were hungry.

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Nowadays, cannibalism is generally frowned upon; unless you’re in a serious survival situation or have found a nice chianti. However, prehistoric cannibalism seems to have been much more common. Stone age humans, Neanderthals, and earlier hominin species all seem to have gnawed on each other. But what drove our ancestors to this?

Many explanations have been proposed. For instance, we’re dealing with ice age humans here. Perhaps the cold drove them to a deadly food source once all others had vanished. Or they could have been trying to conquer territory, taking out the competition in a grizzly way. Or maybe this behaviour was cultural, being part of some ritual.

Sadly, we’ll probably never know the answer. But we might be able to rule some explanations out. New research claims to do just that, finding evidence that these victims weren’t consumed for their calories. This leaves behind culture and conquest as possible reasons. Which, given the breadth those two topics cover, isn’t really narrowing it down that much.

Prehistoric cannibalism

Prehistoric cannibalism has a long history. Early evidence comes from the Spanish ancestor of NeanderthalsHomo antecessor. 800,000 years ago this species cannibalised juveniles, focusing on skinning and slicing to get as much flesh from them as possible. Even that wasn’t enough, with the cannibals also breaking the bones to get at that sweet marrow inside.

The Neanderthals continued their ancestor’s tradition, perhaps even taking it up a notch. At sites Krapina, Croatia, more than 100 bones show signs of prehistoric cannibalism. This could represent as many as 14 individuals being sliced and diced. And it’s not just this one site either. Locations across France tell a similar story, some containing up to half a dozen more butchered remains.

And whilst we might like to think we’re civilised, ancient humans carried on this practice too. In one particularly brutal example, they really went to town on the skull of a 4 year old. The head was cut off, ears sliced away, and eyeballs snipped out. All to allow the top of the skull to be precisely cut and smoothed into a cup.

A skull cup, made from the skull of a 4-year-old. Cut marks are handily highlighted with arrows

Humans: an overrated food source?

These cases of prehistoric cannibalism stretch over a huge time period. From 800,000-year-old Homo antecessor to a 14,000-year-old skull cup. This is interesting because it makes it hard to correlate cannibalism with the environment. You might think that the harsh climate of the ice age drove ancient species to do the unthinkable. But not all these cases of cannibalism took place in such harsh conditions. In fact, the skull cup was produced well after the ice age had ended.

There are many other factors which suggest that this prehistoric cannibalism isn’t as straightforward as you might think. For example, many of the consumed remains seem to have been treated with a degree of respect. In fact, many were even given a proper burial after they had been eaten. To me, this suggests that something more is going on than “I needed a cup and the closest thing was a 4-year-olds skull”.

Another researcher also seems to agree with me. They reviewed the caloric benefits of this prehistoric cannibalism, to see if we’d actually make a decent food source. Should we start making soylent green?

Calculating cannibalism

So what did this researcher find? Well, the primary conclusion was that yes, humans are made of meat. No surprise there. However, our meat is particularly average. We’re about as nutritious as they typical mammal of our size is. Your diet won’t be improved eating a 70-kilo man versus a 70-kilo deer. Except that would be a really small deer. And that’s the rub. Whilst we’re average for our size, our size is pretty small compared to most prey in the local environment of these prehistoric cannibals.

And that’s the rub. Whilst we’re average for our size, our size is pretty small compared to most prey in the local environment of these prehistoric cannibals.

For instance, there’s a lot of cannibalism in Gough’s cave (where the skull cup is from). Yet eating all of those people would provide as much nutrition as a single deer. And most of these sites contain these alternate prey types. So they could clearly hunt them well and would get more out of them than the average human. If you’re a hungry prehistoric cannibal, you should probably change your diet.

Common prey types of prehistoric cannibals. Humans aren’t that great

Some salt for your human steak

Based on all this, it seems likely that nutrition wasn’t the only factor driving human cannibalism. Assuming, of course, that humans were behaving rationally when it came to their prey. But as a general rule, we do. There are some caveats, but hunter-gatherers generally follow a surprisingly optimal strategy for survival; similar to the results produced by computers when asked to optimise the same thing.

But like I said at the start, it’s going to be hard to pin-point the motivation much more than that. Prehistoric cannibalism happened in a world so far removed from us. We’ll probably never find out exactly why they did it. It just seems likely they didn’t do it because they’re hungry.

Which, in reptrospect, would be the less disturbing option. Eep.


Bello, S.M., Parfitt, S.A. and Stringer, C.B., 2011. Earliest directly-dated human skull-cups. PLoS One, 6(2), p.e17026.

Bello, S.M., Saladié, P., Cáceres, I., Rodríguez-Hidalgo, A. and Parfitt, S.A., 2015. Upper Palaeolithic ritualistic cannibalism at Gough’s Cave (Somerset, UK): The human remains from head to toe. Journal of human evolution, 82, pp.170-189.

Bello, S.M., Wallduck, R., Dimitrijević, V., Živaljević, I. and Stringer, C.B., 2016. Cannibalism versus funerary defleshing and disarticulation after a period of decay: comparisons of bone modifications from four prehistoric sites. American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Cole, J., 2017. Assessing the calorific significance of episodes of human cannibalism in the Palaeolithic. Scientific Reports, 7.

Raichlen, D.A., Wood, B.M., Gordon, A.D., Mabulla, A.Z., Marlowe, F.W. and Pontzer, H., 2014. Evidence of Lévy walk foraging patterns in human hunter–gatherers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(2), pp.728-733.

Saladié, P., Huguet, R., Rodriguez-Hidalgo, A., Caceres, I., Esteban-Nadal, M., Arsuaga, J.L., de Castro, J.M.B. and Carbonell, E., 2012. Intergroup cannibalism in the European Early Pleistocene: The range expansion and imbalance of power hypotheses. Journal of human evolution, 63(5), pp.682-695.

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7 thoughts on “Prehistoric cannibalism not driven by hunger”

  1. Jalfrezi says:

    Eat your loved ones to keep them with you.

    Eat your enemies to destroy them.

  2. clayton says:

    It’s interesting to speculate that perhaps those other forms of Homo didn’t have the aversion to cannibalism that we do, except that it would be total bull-shit, since there are at least few cultures (of our own species) that did or do practice cannibalism, if I’m not mistaken. But it is kind of deliciously creepy, in a way. (I think I made a pun!) But, according to the evidence you mentioned, something ritualistic or spiritual seems the most likely answer. It’s always possible, I suppose, that the extremely rare fossil evidence discovered is evidence of an extremely rare event, like a scene of unspeakable horror. But I think it’s more likely something more mundane, like a ritual or ceremony.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Plus one of the main examples from this post, Gough’s Cave, is a modern human site

  3. Maria OConnor says:

    Probably, was ceremonial. Something like a communion? “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and … He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:53–56). This is sacred symbolic language, but maybe in prehistory times cannibalism was something like a communion, literally eating the flesh of the holy ones?

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Perhaps, although it would be difficult to confirm in most cases. There are some instances where a number of grave goods associated with a fossil hints at them having some sort of special status, such the “the prince” burial from stone age Italy. But I’m not aware of any overlap between these burials and cases of cannibalism.

  4. Ever-Curious says:

    I wonder if it was a domination or intimidation thing – a way of showing you’d really beaten your enemy

    1. Adam Benton says:

      It’s a possibility, although it makes you wonder why they often gave them a proper burial after eating them

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