We all know that many species of our ancient ancestors were quite archaic, and did numerous things we might think of as wrong or “backward.” While this may have been the result of the ancient and archaic times they lived in – some millions of years ago – we do know there was a reason for their actions. However now, a new study has proposed a new reason for ancient cannibalism. Apparently, our ancient ancestors may have had a profit motive of sorts.
According to the study, Homo antecessor, a species that existed between 1.2 million to 800,000 years ago, may have committed cannibalism for profit. For its cost-benefit ratio to be exact.
Our ancient ancestors used cannibalism as a means to survive, and for cultural and social rituals. But as theories go, this one is quite interesting. They took the Optimal Foraging Theory (OFT) to ask the question as to whether it could explain the cannibalistic behavior. The OFT means:
“…When confronted by several options [while foraging for animals] calculate what provides the most benefit for the lowest cost, energy-wise…”
The same researchers used the OFT to calculate the cost-to-benefit ratio to hunting our ancient ancestors, including humans and found that cannibalizing their own and hunting humans for consumption was a more profitable practice for survival. Of course, this would depend on the populations available as opposed to the large game in the area.
Cannibalism was a practice that many of our ancient ancestors took part in. More recently, we know that the Aztecs used cannibalism as one of the many ways to punish the conquistadors they captured around 1520. In the nineteenth century, the gruesome act was practiced in Fiji, among other southern Pacific nations.
Most notably, just as recently as 2006, Korowai tribal peoples from Papua New Guinea claimed to still practice the gruesome act. But, they don’t believe they’re eating humans, apparently. One reporter trekked through the villages, he spoke with a Korowai, asking whether they “eat people for any other reason or eat the bodies of enemies they’ve killed in battle.”
The villager answered:
“Of course not. We don’t eat humans, we only eat khakhua.”
Khakhua, according to the villager, is something that comes disguised with the intent to kill a friend of a relative of “someone he wants to kill.” The khakhua ritual is quite complex, ending with the victim getting his or her revenge on the khakhua with the victim’s relative cannibalizing it. Although the reporter’s story was harshly criticized, it is possible those critics misconstrued or mischaracterized, as the same reporter spoke at length in a full on interview.
In another Papua New Guinea tribe, the Fore, the women once cannibalized their loved ones at funerals. Interestingly, studies on the tribe showed that doing so allowed them to develop resistance to dementia and other diseases.
The newly released study isn’t the first that studied cannibalism. According to a 2017 study, cannibalizing humans would result in consuming a specific number of calories for each size human, depending on which body part was eaten, but that doing so wouldn’t be enough to be a “staple diet.”
However, when available in large populations, or where deaths occurred, such as in the Fore tribe, it would be easier to cannibalize humans than it would other prey. So no matter what we may think about cannibalism in our modern society, sit back and think about what it might have meant for our ancient ancestors – the very survival that led to our species to begin with.
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