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Human flesh isn’t very nutritious

Hannibal Lecter may have eaten a census taker’s liver
with fava beans, but according to a new study in the journal
Scientific
Reports
, it wasn’t for the calories. The study found
that
humans are far less nutritious
(as defined by energy bang
for your buck) than mammoth, boar, or even a modest beaver.

The study’s goal wasn’t to assess if cannibalism is a
great dietary choice (which, for the record it generally
isn’t—cannibalism is associated with prion diseases, which
are debilitating and incurable). Rather, the study aims to
better understand the role of cannibalism in early hominid
societies (a group that includes humans and our extinct
relations).

Archaeologists know that prehistoric hominids practiced
cannibalism because of evidence left behind in the
archeological record. These clues include a missing skull base
(to allow ease of access to the brain, yum), an absent
vertebrate (because of boiling or crushing to get to the bone
marrow and grease, also yum), cut and chop marks, and
butchering techniques on hominid remains that mirror those
found on food animal remains, among other things. Together,
these pieces of evidence signal that early hominids at least
occasionally turned their kin into comestibles.

According to study author James Cole, an archaeologist at the
University of Brighton in the United Kingdom, most studies
theorize that they did it for nutritional reasons—surely humans
made a nutritious (and perhaps delicious) snack. This theory
isn’t without modern precedence. The infamous Donner party may
have resorted to cannibalism to stave off starvation.
Armin Meiwes
, who is currently serving life in a German
prison for killing and eating a man he claims begged to be
devoured, says that human flesh is “quite good” and tastes like
pork. Given that hominids have been known to eat far more
pungent
foods
than a pork chop (rotted, poisonous shark anyone?),
human meat could seem downright delectable in comparison.

The problem with this narrative, Cole wrote in the study, is
that, “Episodes of Paleolithic cannibalism have frequently been
defined as ‘nutritional’ in nature, but with little empirical
evidence to assess their dietary significance.” In other words,
we have no idea if cannibalism could actually support a healthy
human. There’s no proof that eating one’s neighbor (or enemy)
is better, nutritionally speaking, than eating any of the many
species of animals that early humans had already domesticated.
Figuring out how nutritive humans actually are would shine a
light on whether cannibalism was about calories or something
else. So, Cole quantified how many calories your average human
body contains.

He found that when it comes to calories per kilogram of muscle,
humans are firmly in the middle of the pack. Musk ox (which, if
you’re curious, tastes like beef), fish, cows, birds, bears,
and beavers all contain more calories per pound of muscle than
humans do. We have more calories per kilogram of muscle than
some species—like reindeer and horse. But those animals are
much larger than humans. A reindeer has literally twice the
muscle of your typical human male, so you’d have to kill more
people than reindeers to stay well fed.

This, in conjunction with growing evidence that early hominoids
had complex societies, points to motivations for cannibalism
beyond a full belly. Cole suggests that it could be that some
incidences of cannibalism were simply pragmatic—eating someone
who dies of natural causes is an efficient way of supplementing
one’s diet—but that the consistency of the practice across
distinct Paleolithic societies suggests something more complex.
Maybe cannibalism was part of a funeral rite, or some other
ceremonial process. Whatever the reason, when you order fava
beans, ask them to hold the hominid.

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