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The Stone Age isn’t quite as nasty as people picture. Ancient humans took care of each other, used medicine, and made art. There were cannibals though. Oh boy was there a bunch of cannibalism, stretching all the way back to ~0.9 million years go.
And to make things worse, research suggests these cannibals were chomping on their chums.
Who were the first cannibals?
It turns out cannibalism has a long history in our family. Both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals did it, with the latter even turning their victims into tools. However, neither was the first to realise other humans are made of meat. That honour goes to Homo antecessor, a human species living across Europe around 1 million years ago1.
Given their age they had smaller brains than later species, clocking in at around 1 litre in size. Accordingly, they also used simple Oldowan technology as well. This date also places them around the time our lineage split from the Neanderthals and Denisovans, raising the possibility they could represent our last common ancestor with those other humans2.
However, whilst their place in the family tree might be uncertain, they do have one other claim to fame: being the first cannibals.
Specifically, the first cannibals were the Homo antecessor living at the Spanish site of Atapuerca, 0.9 million years ago. Archaeologists have found 146 human bones at the site, of which nearly half (44%) have cutmarks indicative of being chopped up for dinner. This represents at least 7 individuals1. Some even feature human tooth marks, proving they were actually chomping on their chums3.
Obviously, they weren’t only eating other people. Archaeologists have found 9 other animal species with cutmarks as well, including deer, bison, and horses1.
It was this animal data that allowed Rodríguez, Guillermo, and Ana from the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) to figure out who these people were eating.
You see, there is this general premise in behavioural ecology that animals aren’t dumb.
As such, their food choice follows certain, logical rules. For example, how often will you encounter this food? How much effort will it take to catch/extract it? How much food will I get back from all this work? Effectively, food gets ranked based on this rate of return, with animals prioritising the stuff they get the most food out of for the least amount of effort1.
This is called “optimal foraging theory” and it turns out the Homo antecessor from Atapuerca were following these rules. Rodríguez et al. found that the frequency these humans picked prey followed these OFT rules. The chart below documents this, showing how the most common animal at the site are also the most common species in the environment1.
However, there is one exception to the Atapuerca humans’ logical diet: other humans. They’re the triangles on the chart, revealing they make up a much bigger part of their diet than they should1.
Either the Atapuerca people broke their logical rules, hunting down other humans even when it made no sense. Or, they were encountering edible humans more often than expected. Rodríguez, Guillermo, and Ana reckon it was the latter1.
So who did the cannibals eat?
Now, there are several reasons why Homo antecessor could be encountering other people more frequently than anticipated. Maybe human population densities were higher than expected. Or perhaps the Atapuerca chaps stumbled across a dead tribe, slashing the cost of acquisition.
But perhaps the most likely explanation is that the Atapuerca people weren’t eating other human group. They were eating members of their own group, who they’d obviously encounter much more frequently. The cost of acquisition would drop, and eating them becomes the logical thing to do1.
Now, eating your mates might seem harsh. However, it is worth noting that the ages of the cannibalised corpses matches a natural mortality profile. Most of them were sub-adolescent, who have the highest rate of mortality in hunter-gatherer societies. In other words, it seems likely eating members of their own group who had died of natural causes1.
A similar phenomenon has been seen at the Neanderthal site of Baume Moula-Guercy in France. There, cannibalised remains also match the natural mortality profile, suggesting the Neanderthals were eating members of their own group who died of natural causes. The archaeologists who made this find attributed it to poor climate limiting other food sources, forcing Neanderthals to take unsavoury actions to survive4.
But for the first cannibals at Atapuerca, eating your mates was just the smart thing to do.
- Rodríguez, J., Guillermo, Z.R. and Ana, M., 2019. Does optimal foraging theory explain the behavior of the oldest human cannibals?. Journal of human evolution, 131, pp.228-239.
- Martinón-Torres, M., de Castro, J.M.B., de Pinillos, M.M., Modesto-Mata, M., Xing, S., Martín-Francés, L., García-Campos, C., Wu, X. and Liu, W., 2019. New permanent teeth from Gran Dolina-TD6 (Sierra de Atapuerca). The bearing of Homo antecessor on the evolutionary scenario of Early and Middle Pleistocene Europe. Journal of human evolution, 127, pp.93-117.
- Saladié, P., Rodríguez-Hidalgo, A., Huguet, R., Cáceres, I., Díez, C., Vallverdú, J., Canals, A., Soto, M., Santander, B., de Castro, J.M.B. and Arsuaga, J.L., 2014. The role of carnivores and their relationship to hominin settlements in the TD6-2 level from Gran Dolina (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain). Quaternary Science Reviews, 93, pp.47-66.
- Defleur, A.R. and Desclaux, E., 2019. Impact of the last interglacial climate change on ecosystems and Neanderthals behavior at Baume Moula-Guercy, Ardèche, France. Journal of Archaeological Science, 104, pp.114-124.