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Reproduction of a prehistoric cave painting showing hominins hunting

Million-Year-Old Cannibals Took Advantage of the Easy Calories

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Research scientists have discovered that almost one million years ago an ancient human relative, Homo antecessor, ate humans “in preference” to other animals.

Inhabiting hunting planes in what is today Spain some 900,000 years ago, Homo antecessor hunted and ate their own kind, providing scientists with the oldest evidence of cannibalism. These shocking findings were published in the June 2019 issue of the Journal of Human Evolution and the paper suggests human flesh was “nutritious” and that humans were “easier targets than other types of large prey.”

Jesús Rodríguez, Ana Mateos and Guillermo Sorrel, scientists at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), analyzed the cannibalistic behavior of our million year old ancestors from evidence gathered at the Spanish archaeological site Gran Dolina. The bones of seven Homo antecessor individuals were found to have “human tooth marks” and fractures that were caused to expose the bone marrow.

Homo antecessor, incomplete skull from "Gran Dolina" (ATD6-15 & ATD6-69), in Atapuerca, Spain

Homo antecessor, incomplete skull from "Gran Dolina" (ATD6-15 & ATD6-69), in Atapuerca, Spain (replica) (Pubic Domain)

Those bones, according to the paper, “were mixed with bones representing nine other mammal species; 22 individuals that also had been butchered and eaten.” The CENIEH researchers strategy began with examining many pre-existing studies which demonstrate how animals feeding strategies are adapted to achieve the optimal “cost-benefit balance”. This was the basis upon which their new models were built to study cannibalism in Homo antecessor populations.

With an abundance of prey to hunt and eat, why did humans choose to eat humans?

Attempting to answer this perplexing question, computer models generated the calorific intake that H. antecessor require per day, which yielded “the caloric payoffs of various animals including humans” compared with the energy expended to catch them (calories used). They speculated that  H. antecessor hunters targeted prey based on the most expected calories for the least effort spent to get it.

A PHYS article quotes Rodríguez saying”

Our analyses show that Homo antecessor, like any predator, selected its prey following the principle of optimizing the cost-benefit balance, and they also show that, considering only this balance, humans were a “high-ranked” prey type. This means that when compared with other prey, a lot of food could be obtained from humans at low cost.

Earlier studies reported in The Guardian had concluded that cannibalism was unlikely just for the calories, as other animals were more highly calorific. But this takes into account not just the calories gained but those lost in the chase, with eating your fellow man amounting to an aggregate win of energy.

Ancient Hunter Greed And Need For Nutrition 

The study demonstrates that human bones accounted for “less than 13% of the hunters' caloric requirements” and that they mostly ate “rhinos, deer and horses.” But those animals sometimes required several days to exhaust, at a very high energy cost. I use the word “exhaust” because while movies depict ancient people leaping about mammoths with spears, in reality, people worked out that by simply chasing animals and prohibiting their eating and drinking they would eventually collapse making for easy pickings. Compared to days of stalking, human meat was regarded as even easier to obtain, at “low cost.”

The scientists paper adheres to academic scientific standards and of course they don’t actually illustrate what they mean by “low cost”, but without such literary constrictions, in this news article I will attempt do that for you.

In some cases, maybe after three days chasing a massive animal a team of six hunters started to get ratty as the weather turned bad. At 3 am, the hunter with the highest IQ maybe woke up startled having realized that they might have to spend two or possibly three more days tracking a strong healthy animal, but the team only had food supplies left for half a day.

He may have nudged his two brothers gently and sneaked to the little brook beside the hunting camp. As two of them washed sleep from their smoke crusted eyes the oldest brother, with an air of solemness, selected three fist-sized stones, blunt and heavy. Returning to the camp the brothers might have quietly aligned themselves at the heads of their sleeping ‘cousins’ and having no notion of the concept of ‘relatives’, on the nod of the biggest hunter; snap, crackle and pop! The hunters became the hunted, and food was procured for the ‘sharpest’ three.

Reconstruction of the "Boy of Gran Dolina" cranium (Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya, Barcelona)

Reconstruction of the "Boy of Gran Dolina" cranium (Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya, Barcelona) (Public Domain)

What became of such victims? Well, after decades of hunting the same area, as they watched animal populations begin to thin out, such scenarios as described above must have happened more frequently, and these cannibalized remains lay in heaps beside hunting camps for almost a million years, until Jesús Rodríguez rolled into town with his microscope.

Top image: Reproduction of a prehistoric cave painting showing hominins hunting               Source: ramirezom / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie



This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Our ancestors were looking for easy calories and if they found them in hunting weaker or wounded members of their own species, why wouldn't they take advantage of this? No one should be shocked by this. It's a completely natural progression in evolutionary terms. Look at all the other animals who take advantage of anything they happen upon. Good article.

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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