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News: Research
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Skull cups were found in a Somerset cave. The skulls were scrupulously cleaned of any soft tissues soon after death. Photograph: Derek Adams/Natural History Museum/The Guardian.
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by Archaeology Newsroom

Cannibalism among prehistoric humans was not driven by the need for survival

A new research analysing the nutritional value of humans suggests

A new research, comparing the nutritional value of humans and other animals, suggests that cannibalism among prehistoric humans was perhaps also due to social reasons.

The research, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports performs an analysis of the nutritional value of the human body, comparing it to other animals that Palaeolithic humans would consume. It demonstrates that it is significantly lower to the fauna available to humans at the time.

James Cole, author of the research, said that the analysis was based on a small group of modern humans, while Neanderthals were more muscular. However, it would have been much easier to hunt an animal than a human, which is one indication that the motives behind cannibalism were perhaps not nutritional. Surely, in times of hunger, prehistoric humans would consume their own species. But, also, they could turn to cannibalistic practices for other reasons, such as territorial defence, or even individuals would be eaten when they died of natural causes.

The matter has caused a debate among scientists for some time. The new research has been supported by Paul Pettitt, professor of Palaeolithic archaeology at the University of Durham, and Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum.

Pettitt argues that other primates, for instance bonobos and chimpanzees, also show evidence of cannibalism. He supports that cannibalism among prehistoric humans was more of a behavioural ritual.

Bello also says that cannibalism was perhaps more of a choice rather than a need for survival. But she adds that the actual motivations cannot be yet defined with certainty.

NOTES