“Nibbled bones”: cannibalism among ancient human relatives

Recently published research has shown that hominids, our ancient relatives, could have eaten each other more than 1.45 million years ago. This was made possible by the analysis of a tibia bone found in Kenya that had been slaughtered and eaten. The marks on the bone were made with stone implements, as if stripping the flesh before eating.

A team led by paleoanthropologist Briana Pobiner of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History conducted the study. She conducted a detailed three-dimensional analysis of the cuts on the bone and conducted experiments on the bones to see what they were made of. Their findings show that the marks were made with stone implements, like ripping off flesh before eating.

According to Pobiner, “The information we have tells us that hominins probably ate other hominids at least 1.45 million years ago. There are many other examples of how species in the human evolutionary tree consumed each other for food, but this fossil suggests that relatives of our species ate each other to survive in the more distant past than we realized.”

Ancient Anthropophagy

Anthropophagy, the eating of human flesh, is found not only in hominids but also in other animals. In the case of hominids, however, this phenomenon is of particular importance. This is due to the fact that hominids are our ancient relatives and ancestors.

Cannibalism among ancient humans has long been studied. However, it is not easy to prove its existence. The purpose for which the bone was processed could have been misinterpreted in the absence of other evidence. Nevertheless, there are some Pleistocene bones for which the interpretation of cannibalism or anthropophagy is undeniable.

According to Michael Pante, a paleoanthropologist at Colorado State University who studied the traces on the bone, “We know that humans and their relatives have occupied a fairly paramount position in the food chain over the last couple of million years. However, hominids sometimes become branchers for something with sharper teeth.”

History of Anthropophagy

Anthropophagy was common in different cultures and eras. In some cultures anthropophagy was part of religious rites, in others it was connected with rites of burial of the dead. In some cases, people carved decorative objects, such as combs, pendants and other jewelry, out of other people’s bones.

However, anthropophagy was condemned and forbidden in most cultures. Today, anthropophagy is banned all over the world and is a criminal offense.

James O’Connell, professor of anthropology at the University of Yukon in Canada, believes that the evidence for anthropophagy among hominids is not new, but it is still an interesting fact. He also notes that anthropophagy was common among ancient humans, but was not a major source of food.

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