Cannibalism is a practice 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.
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.
This 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.