By Jean Balchin 16/04/2017

Human cannibalism is a deliciously fascinating topic. Identifying the motivations for human cannibalism remains a contentious issue.

A recently-constructed nutritional template for the human body suggests that prehistoric human cannibalism was most likely motivated by something other than nutritional needs.

Human flesh may have been cooked for greater calorific value.

James Cole, from the University of Brighton found that the nutritional value of the human body is not particularly high, thereby implying that early humans potentially ate each other for social reasons. Cole constructed a nutritional template for the human body by using the total average weights and calorie values (fat and protein) for each body part from chemical composition analyses of four males.

This template provided a proxy calorie value for the human body that was employed to compare the dietary value of prehistoric cannibalism with that of other animal species whose remains have been identified at sites of Palaeolithic cannibalism. Cole found that human skeletal muscle has a nutritional value roughly the same as species of a similar size and weight. However, human flesh produces significantly fewer calories than most large animals known to have been consumed by hominins, such as mammoth, woolly rhino and species of deer.

How accurate is this nutritional template?

One must consider that the data obtained relates to modern humans and it is unknown how these values would vary for non-Homo sapiens species. Neanderthals possessed greater muscle mass and thus the values for skeletal muscle may be higher than those presented in this study. Moreover, the data produced from this nutritional template applies to raw meat only; cooking can increase the calorie value retrieved from meat. Given the nature of this study however, it was not possible to conduct analyses on cooked human flesh.

These findings question the viability of hunting and consuming hominins strictly for nutritional reasons. The number of Paleolithic cannibalism fossil sites over the globe remain relatively few, supporting the notion that the practice of hominin cannibalism may have been an infrequent activity. However, given the sparse and sporadic nature of the hominin fossil record, the fact that we have evidence for cannibalism at all suggests that the behaviour was perhaps more ingrained within prehistoric populations than the number of archaeological sites suggests.

This study was published in Nature this month. Read more about the research on

Featured image (don’t worry, its actually beef): Flickr / Alpha. 

0 Responses to “Counting the calories of cannibalism”

  • The accounts I’ve read suggest psychological warfare cant be discounted. Thinking here also of crucifixions and Vlad the impaler