Cannibalism: Man, a low-calorie snack

Although there is ample evidence of acts of cannibalism among our prehistoric ancestors, it seems unlikely that this gruesome practice was motivated by the simple need for food. Compared to other animals, humans are indeed not very nutritious.

Recent archaeological excavations have established that Homo antecessor, a pre-Neanderthal who lived nearly 1 million years ago, was cannibalistic just like Homo Erectus (680,000 years ago) or Neanderthal man, our deceased cousin who also ate human meat. Modern man, Homo Sapiens, was also a cannibal, as evidenced by bones found in Maszycka Cave in Poland (about 15,000 years before our era) and in the English Gough Cave (14,700 before our era). But what were their motives?

Episodes of cannibalism in the Paleolithic have often been defined as « nutritional » in the nature, but the evidence is lacking and the motivations remain controversial in our modern societies. According to a new analysis of the calorie content of the human body, it is not particularly rich. James Cole, Palaeolithic specialist at the University of Brighton (United Kingdom), has indeed recently established a table of the different parts of the human body indicating their respective weight and their nutritional value expressed in calories (fat and protein). According to this study published this Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, humans do not stand out nutritionally.  » Calorically, we match an animal our size and weight. “, explains to AFP James Cole.  » We are not very nutritious compared to the large animals that early humans hunted and ate “, he adds.  » Man is a rather lean species « . Fat is more caloric than protein. Mammoth, bear, wild boar, beaver and bison meat was indeed much more energetic according to another comparative table published by the researcher.

To give you an example, a 66-kilo man potentially provides 1,300 calories per kilo of muscle while a mammoth provides 2,000 calories, a bear 4,000 (three times as much as a man), as do wild boars and beavers. The overall caloric value of a man’s muscles is rated at around 32,000 calories (in other words, if you were to eat a person from head to toe, you would consume around 32,000 calories). On the other hand, it is around 3 million for a mammoth, 1.2 million for a woolly rhinoceros, 600,000 for a bear or even 200,000 for a horse.  » At the individual level, man displays a low caloric rate. And even if you put five or six individuals, it will still provide fewer calories than a single horse or a bison notes James Cole.

In terms of energy, a human body would deliver about the same amount of energy as an antelope, but Man would have been much harder to hunt and kill, too much effort for so little reward. In view of these results, the researcher believes that the motivations were therefore not nutritional:  » I don’t think we can’t explain acts of cannibalism just by a need for food,” he continues. “The reasons for this cannibalism could then be cultural or social. »

It would indeed seem that so-called “ritual” cannibalism is the most probable (when one eats the heart or the liver of one’s enemy to appropriate his qualities) or even cannibalism linked to funeral rites as in New Guinea.


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