How Nutritious Is Human Flesh?

By Charles Choi | April 5, 2017 8:00 am

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Ancient cannibalism may not have been as nutritious as previously thought, a new calorie-counting study finds, which means ancient cannibalism may have been more complex than often thought.

Nowadays cannibalism is associated with fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter or by desperate souls as a last resort, such as the Donner Party or the survivors of the Andes flight disaster. But studies suggest cannibalism was practiced since prehistory, and even performed by extinct human lineages. For instance, at Neanderthal sites, researchers discovered unmistakable signs of butchery on human bones and found scraps of human remains in fossilized excrement.

Archaeologist James Cole at the University of Brighton in England investigated cannibalism to learn how extinct human lineages might have behaved or thought. He found prior research that suggested occurrences of Stone Age cannibalism were frequently interpreted as “nutritional” in nature, but they didn’t indicate just how nourishing man-eating actually was. As such, he sought to elucidate the nutritional value of cannibalism.

“Having some time to reflect on it, it was quite a weird thing to think about how calorific I am as a person,” Cole admitted.

Part by Part

Cole calculated calorie values of the fat and protein in each human body part, based on data on four adult human males collected by four different past studies.

“Those studies were interested in the construction of the human body, in what elements we were made up of,” he said.

Based on these past data, Cole estimated that there were roughly 1,300 calories per kilogram of modern human muscle. Although Cole would ideally have included data from women and juveniles, he could not find any published scientific reports on their chemical compositions, and collecting such data himself “was outside the ethical (and legal) scope of this study,” he wrote online Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

Cole noted these calorie estimates might not pertain to extinct human lineages—Neanderthals, for example, were beefier than modern humans. As such, Cole stressed that his estimates should be taken as minimum values. He also cautioned that he only had data from a few people, and “given the nature of this study, it was not possible to conduct analyses on cooked human flesh.”

Given these caveats, all in all, when compared to animal species whose remains were also unearthed at sites of Stone Age cannibalism, the nutritional value of human flesh is broadly similar to beasts of a similar weight and size, such as an ibex. However, snacking on humans pales in comparison to meals comprised of larger animals. For instance, mammoths are estimated to have supplied about 2,000 calories per kilogram of muscle; woolly rhinos, 1,750; the extinct oxen known as aurochs, 2,040; bears, 4,000; and boars, 4,000.

Cannibalism: It’s Complicated

“I went in with the preconception that we humans would’ve been very nutritionally viable animals, but compared with other animals humans ate, we aren’t terribly nutritious at all,” Cole said. “That makes me think that if, say, six of us are not as nutritious as a single horse or bison, it doesn’t really make sense to cannibalize people simply for their nutritional value.”

This suggests that the motivations for cannibalism in ancient human lineages “may have been as complex as they potentially are for our own,” Cole said. In addition to nutritional value or psychosis, modern humans have historically engaged in cannibalism during warfare, and for rituals such as “eating a recently deceased member of your family to carry them as part of you as you continue your life,” Cole said.

“We can’t limit our understanding of ancient cannibalism to just that one interpretation of nutrition, since it implies a lack of complexity on the part of those groups,” Cole said. “We should embrace complexity.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology
  • YouAreWrong

    Tastes like chicken

    • aka darrell

      There always has to be one….

  • Uncle Al

    Long pig, naked goat, Andes boar…were highly esteemed by First Americans: Montagnais, Algonkin, Armouchiquois, Iroquois, Micmac, Assiniboine, Cree, Foxes, Chippewa, Miami, Ottawa, Kickapoo, Illinois, Sioux, and Winnebago, Tonkawa, Attacapa, Karankawa, Caddo, Comanche, Thlingchadinneh and other Athapascan tribes,Tlingit, Heiltsuk, Kwakiutl, Tsimshian, Nootka, Siksika, Ute. Hopi, Mohawk, Attacapa, Tonkawa. Low in calories, high in nutrition; abundant and easy to catch.

  • OWilson

    Mention cannibalism, and for all those other than Kardashian worshipping air heads, cannibalism does not mean a Hollywood movie character from 30 years ago.

    However it’s not politically correct to mention that it is still practiced today, so I will leave off the list which was originally appended to a Sun article.

    Those daring to risk alienation can look it up for themselves! :

    “”WE all know that life is dog-eat-dog but in some pockets of the globe things are more man-eat-man.

    Cannibalism is very much still alive today despite being considered repulsive by the vast majority of societies.

    There are, however, areas where eating human flesh is ingrained in tradition and a part of the culture.

    People turn to cannibalism for a number of reasons, ranging from religious ceremonies to an extreme, desperate need.

    Whether legal or otherwise, the practice continues and here are the nine hot spots where cannibals can dine among friends: ….””

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    • Courtney Schumacher

      It is scientifically ACCURATE to mention that it is still practiced today, just not at McDonald’s (hopefully).

  • Mongoose

    Life was hard, so if an opportunity presented itself, it was probably used.

  • Suzanne

    When my son had his tonsils taken out, they wouldn’t let him leave the hospital until he threw up. Patiens are given water until they empty their stomach to rid the body of human blood swallowed during surgery because “it’s unhealthy for humans to swallow human blood”. I always thought it was like feeding cows with cow meet, etc… Am I wrong?

    • Phil D Nice

      Sounds like bullshit to me. I doubt very seriously I will get sick swallowing my own blood.

      • OWilson

        It appears natural to stick a a cut or pricked finger in the mouth.

        But, I’m not sure blood can be fully digested (blood in the stool, etc)

        And why does the gut, which can digest the toughest steak, not digest it’s own stomach?

        So many questions, so little time! :)

        • Simba

          Blood can be digested- blood in the stool comes from the gut. The more of the gut it passes through the more ‘processed’ it is. So if it’s from higher up in the gut it will be black, if it’s from lower down it will be red.

          The stomach doesn’t digest itself because the walls secrete a mucus filled with bicarbonate ions, which lines it.

          • OWilson

            Meat is meat!

            It would have to “recognize” and differentiate, and actually “turn off” the digestive enzymes?

  • OWilson

    I had no idea!

    Chemistry is obviously not my strong suit :)

    Thanks for the link!

  • Миша Роснач

    That’s… stupid. People are still edible, no? I mean, if you don’t mind eating people, and you have a dead guy, why not eat him? What the hell does bison nutrition have to do with this?

  • Maron

    The Neanderthals are our closest relatives, seen on the scale of evolution.
    people allways say:
    “It’s just natural. We have eaten meat sinds the beginning”.
    And now, everybody is shocked,
    because they also DID eat theire own kind to!!
    And that of course, must be natural to than. LOL
    James Cole is guessing why .
    In my opinion there is no why. They where just killing and eating because they felt like it.
    Not much different than to day.
    Or, We let another kill for us, so we can feel a bit better about oureselfs.
    Oww, are WE evolved :’)))))

  • bwana

    Cannibalistic tribes today often eat parts of their enemies to gain their strength and courage. Nutrition probably doesn’t even come into the equation.


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