To eat hominoid flesh

By Razib Khan | March 5, 2006 11:47 pm

This story about the consumption of Bonobos is getting a lot of circulation today. Several years ago there was a book published on this topic, Eating Apes, so this shouldn’t surprise anyone. To some extent the “ape eating” stories are partly fueled by P.T. Barnum like fascination, I believe that ape consumption is cognitively redolent of cannibalism, without quite fitting the bill. The stories about ape consumption in Africa highlight two opposing tendencies, the first to treat apes as just another food source, and the second to consider apes a form of human. It seems likely to me that threats to biodiversity and “niche competition” are likely a greater threat to our sister species than primary consumption, nevertheless, what is happening today to the great apes is perhaps an echo of the past of our own species as it expanded throughout to the world. To make it explicit, it seems plausible that Homo sapiens simply ate our sister species when they were on hand. This might not have been the primary means by which the hominid bush of life was “pruned,” but it was probably one of the tools on hand.
Addendum: There is some genetic evidence for persistent human cannibalism as a common feature of our species’ behavior, though there have been recent disputes over the statistical methods used in the initial study.

  • petehenley

    Didn’t humans go thru a 5000 bottleneck? With such a little population, bonobos have an increasing tendency towards genetic disease?

  • razib

    Didn’t humans go thru a 5000 bottleneck? With such a little population, bonobos have an increasing tendency towards genetic disease?

    well…this is complicated, but yeah, the long term effective pop. was really tiny (some people push it down into the hundreds). i don’t think this is really right, i think the models are oversimplified, and i believe friends (eg., henry harpending) who tell me that uniparental lineages are giving us lowball counts for a variety of reasons.
    but, re: bonobos, if their population size shrinks than inbreeding is a serious problem. even if the census size is 5000, the breeding size is smaller (around 1/3 is a good rule of thumb). and, there is regional substructure, so you are talking about a lot of little inbred pools subject to local extinction threat….
    FYI, conserv. geneticists talk about a 50/500 rule where you need 50 for minimum genetic health & 500 for long term health (to buffer against swings). but that is probably a WAY low underestiminate, and 5,000 is more plausible. so we are probably on the border of a normal viable size as it is….

  • John Emerson

    There are stories (told by Chinese) about Chinese cannibalism during the wars in Taiwan against the native Taiwanese from as late as the XIXc. Getting statistics about something generally regarded as shameful and taboo is pretty hard — I don’t trust statistics about drug use and sexual practices either.

  • Joseph Hertzlinger

    Wasn’t something like this in The Onion?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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