The Strange Truth About The Earliest Cannibals In History

“Der Mensch ist, was er ißt. [Man is what he eats.]” —Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach

In A Nutshell

Cannibalism is one of those cringe-worthy practices that we all hope to avoid, even if we can sometimes understand why people are forced to do it to survive. However, researchers have found that the earliest common ancestor of both modern humans and Neanderthals were cannibals just because they wanted to be. They had plenty of access to other meat, but still regularly ate the flesh of rival families. Cannibalism was also practiced by Neanderthals, but more often it was out of necessity.

The Whole Bushel

There’s absolutely no way to look at someone the same once you know they’ve eaten the flesh of another person. There are times when we can understand why they had to do it—if it’s a matter of survival, that’s at least a rational explanation. But researchers have found that our abhorrence of eating human flesh wasn’t one that was shared by our earliest ancestors.

Homo antecessor is an early ancestor of modern humans, and the last fork in the tree before modern humans split from Neanderthals. They lived in Europe about one million years ago, and other members of the Homo antecessor group were a regular part of their diet.

The conclusion came from the excavation of a cave in Spain called “Gran Dolina,” which provided a largely untouched look at the life of our early ancestors. Showing that garbage can be very telling about the lifestyle of a group of people, the Homo antecessors’ garbage yielded not only broken tools, but the bones of animals and other Homo antecessor individuals that had been butchered in much the same way as the animals had been.

The bones of the other early humans didn’t just show signs of having died of old age, accidents, or death in battle. Long bones like arms and legs had been broken open so the marrow could be removed, and skulls had been smashed—presumably to get at the nutrient-rich brain. Marks on the bones matched those of the primitive tools and the marks on the animal bones.

The presence of these animals bones alongside the Homo antecessor remains is important for a couple of different reasons. Researchers were not only able to compare the damage that had been done to them to determine that they had been processed the same way, but it also suggests that they weren’t eating their neighbors just because they were starving. The regular, practiced signs of butchery and the number of bones found at the sight suggests that Homo antecessor ate their own kind simply because they were a good source of meat, like any other animal.

And it was a practice that was carried on by the Homo antecessors’ Neanderthal descendants as well. At another Spanish dig site, this one in the El Sidron caves, researchers from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona found a cache of Neanderthal bones that had been butchered and eaten. Ranging in age from young children to adults, the 50,000-year-old bones revealed that skulls had similarly been broken open, marrow extracted, and even the mouth broken open so the hunters could get to the soft parts of the mouth and tongue. The bones were unburnt, and the idea that they were eaten raw led them to believe that they had been starving.

That idea was further supported by examining the bones of the Neanderthal family that performed the cannibalism – along with other Neanderthal bones. The bones show signs of periods of starvation and malnutrition, suggesting that unlike their ancestors, these progressives only ate their fellow Neanderthals when it was absolutely necessary for their own survival.

Show Me The Proof

National Geographic: Neandertals Turned to Cannibalism, Bone Cave Suggests
The Independent: Cannibal Neanderthal gang in northern Spain ate 12 of their neighbours raw, scientists say
Discovery: First Cannibals Ate Each Other for Extra Nutrition

  • Lisa 39

    Eeewww, i’m so glad that i’ve never been in a position where i’ve had to eat human meat to survive, so far anyway, awesome article debra!

    • rincewind

      I’m pleased that you qualified your comment with “so far anyway”. It’s best to keep your options open. 😉

      • Lisa 39

        Well you never know what tomorrow will bring, like an airplane crash in the andes or a drifting lifeboat in the ocean, we have survival instincts for a reason 🙂

    • Scott

      Don’t go joining any Uruguayan rugby teams or wagon trains to Oregon country and you’ll probably avoid it.

      • Lisa 39

        Well scott, we are planning that expedition to mammoth caves to find argatha, anything could happen ;p

        • Scott

          That is true. I should warn you ahead of time I eat a lot of wild game, so I may taste a little gamey.

          • Lisa 39

            We’ll put you on the bottom of the list lol i don’t know about you but i’m suddenly reminded of “city slickers 2” when they think they’re going to die in the desert and phil says to his friends that if they need to they can eat him, i laughed so hard 😀

  • Nathaniel A.

    Perhaps the “Homo Anteccesor” practiced ritualistic cannibalism, a practice still seen today, seeing as the only victims were one of rival families?

  • percynjpn

    What’s this “we can sometimes understand”, eh? Perhaps the author wishes to avoid the self-incriminating “I” . . . rather suspicious, I’d say.

    • Nathaniel A.

      SOME of the TIME cannibalism is in the interest of survival and we can understand that.

  • Robert

    Food for thought (pun not intended but welcome) the rich sources of protein spurred the evolution into what we are today? The jump came from something and the current theory was muluscs… This seems plausible to say the least.

  • Scott

    I eat my girlfriend all the time. What’s the big deal?

  • Clyde Barrow

    Two cannibals were eating a clown. One said to the other: “Does this taste funny to you?”

    LOL, sorry, couldn’t resist.

    • oouchan

      lol!

    • Check

      The cannibal came home really late one night, so his wife was pissed. When he asked what was for dinner, she gave him the cold shoulder.

      *Badum Tiss*

    • lonelydisco

      Well, he was on crack.

  • oouchan

    Suddenly thought of BBQ. Not sure if I’m hungry or disgusted by that. mmmm….Either way, not something I would choose to do, but if you are in a desparate situation and are starving….your ass is on the menu!

    Gross, but interesting.

    • Clyde Barrow

      Served with some fava beans and a nice chianti?

      Just repeat to yourself…”cold roast beef…cold roast beef.”

  • edzyl blane

    My grandfather once told me a story that was also told to him by his friend. In World War II, famine was widespread. People mostly die because of hunger and not because of the war itself. My grandpa’s friend, having no other choices have to eat his comrade’s flesh to survive. Of course he cooked it first and his comrade is dead anyway. He said that It was the tastiest meat he has ever tasted. It was soft and juicy. I understand that the cannibalism is because of survival. But I was not really surprised by the ” eating cuz that the way I like it ” thing while reading this article