To understand the cannibalism practiced by prehistoric men, a researcher had the idea of calculating the nutritional value of the human body. Verdict: it is not particularly rich. The aim sought would therefore not have been purely food, he deduced.
Tackling a taboo subject, James Cole, paleolithic specialist at the University of Brighton (United Kingdom), has drawn up a table of the different parts of the human body indicating their respective weight and their nutritional value expressed in calories (fat and proteins).
From this table, published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, it appears that the brain and spinal cord do not weigh heavy but are very caloric, that the thighs have good caloric potential but that the adipose tissue is even richer.
“In terms of calories, we are an animal of our size and weight,” said James Cole. “But we are not very nutritious compared to the large animals that the first men hunted and ate,” he adds. “Man is a rather thin species”. Fat is more caloric than protein.
The meat of mammoth, bear, wild boar, beaver, bison was clearly more energetic, according to another comparative table published by the researcher.
A 66-pound man potentially provides 1,300 calories per pound of muscle. The mammoth is at 2,000 calories per kilo, the bear at 4,000 (three times more than humans) just like the boar and the beaver.
The overall caloric value of a man’s muscles is estimated to be 32,376. It is 3,600,000 for a mammoth, 1,260,000 for a woolly rhino, 600,000 for a bear, 200,100 for a horse.
“At the individual level, humans have a low calorie level. And even if you put five or six individuals, it will still provide fewer calories than a single horse or bison,” notes James Cole.
– Cultural and social reasons? –
“What is more, the man is smarter and his behavior is complex. It must have been more difficult to kill six men than a horse.”
“This is why I suggest that maybe we cannot explain cannibalism just by the need for food,” he said. The reasons for this anthropophagy were perhaps “cultural or social” (defense of the territory …).
The Paleolithic is a period that begins with the appearance of the genus Homo 3 million years ago and ends around 10,000 years ago.
Archaeological excavations have established that Homo antecessor, a pre-Neanderthal who lived almost 1 million years ago (Gran Dolina site in Spain), was cannibalistic. Just like Homo Erectus 680,000 years ago (site of the Caune de l’Arago in Tautavel in France).
The Neanderthal man, our missing cousin, also ate human meat (French site of Moula-Guercy, site of El Sidron in Spain).
And modern man, Homo Sapiens, was also anthropophagous as shown by the bones found in the cave of Maszycka in Poland (about 15,000 years before our era) and in the English cave of Gough (14,700 before our era).
Archaeologists have several clues to identify cannibalism from the study of bones: incisions, cutting marks, fractures on fresh bones (to extract the bone marrow), traces of human chewing, absence of the cranial base (for extract the brain).
For most of these sites, cannibalism was explained by a need for food. But for a few others, ritual reasons have been put forward. In Gough’s cave three skulls transformed into a drinking cup by Homo Sapiens were discovered.
In Maszycka, it could be a cannibalism linked to the war and in Caune de l’Arago, a ritual anthropophagy because there was no shortage of game.