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Cannibalism is not uncommon; almost every documented culture has done it. In the cave dwellings of Homo antecessor, the common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals, anthropologists have discovered defleshed, processed human bones dating back 600,000 years ago. And there’s even evidence that is has been done as recently as documented ‘ritualised cannibal feasts’ among soldiers in Liberia in the ’00’s.

Since it crosses time, space and culture, cannibalism has no single, ubiquitous meaning, either. For the Pharaohs it was eternal afterlife whereas for Druides for agricultural prosperity in this life. But one thing is certain, cannibalism is a taboo. We are morbidly fascinated with the concept. But is it nutritionally worth it?

From 'Le Livre des merveilles de Marco Polo'. Courtesy Biblioteque Nationale, Paris

From ‘Le Livre des merveilles de Marco Polo’. Courtesy Biblioteque Nationale, Paris

A paper published in Nature Scientific Reports this week documents such how nutritious human flesh is. Using published chemical compositions of four adult male Homo sapiens (65kg average) the study calculates the average total calories from fat and protein in every bit of the human body. The new study counted up the calorie content of human flesh, and the rough estimates of eating all the skeletal flesh off a human—not including the organs—would provide about 32,376 calories, which would feed one meal to 25 people. But a boar or cow provides at least three days’ worth of meals out for the same group size.

If the entire human body was consumed, from the muscle to the lungs, bones, and skin, the yield is around around 143,771 calories. Fatty tissue was unsurprisingly the most calorie-rich portion, weighing in with 49,939 calories. A meal of human liver, sans chianti and fava beans, offers about 2,570 calories—that would be a nice day’s worth of calories for the average modern adult male, who eats about 2,400 calories a day. As if not morbid enough, the study goes on to calculate the caloric content of babies which for those curious is 12,823 calories, since the archaeological record from the 14,700 year old Gough’s Cave site in England, shows two adults, two teens, and an infant were eaten.

If we consider the cost benefits, the effort of hunting down humans doesn’t seem worthwhile when bigger, potentially “easier game” of mammoth (3.6 million calories), bison, cattle and horse offered so much more calories total. Author, James Cole of University of Brighton, interprets this,

“Rather, given the apparent scarcity of cannibalistic behavior in the archaeological record within individual hominin populations, coupled with a picture of increasing social complexity from hominins during the early Pleistocene onwards, it is more likely that the motivations for cannibalistic episodes lay within complex cultural systems involving both intra-and inter-group dynamics and competition.”

Some anthropologists argued that food shortages must have been a factor. But based off this study alone, I don’t think people in the past were simply consuming humans for the calories alone, but off course, there’s no accounting for taste!

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