James Cole, Ph.D., entered the realm of legends on Thursday when he received a coveted Ig Nobel Prize for his work on cannibalism. In his work published in the journal Scientific Reports in April 2017, Cole, who is a professor of archaeology at the University of Brighton in the United Kingdom, outlined how little nutritional value a human cadaver has. While Cole’s work may not have earned the attention of the Nobel Prize committee, it changed what we know about cannibalism in the Paleolithic era, and it was determined to have the right combination of the bizarre and brilliant to win an Ig Nobel Prize in the field of nutrition.
The prize, given to the weirdest scientific research each year, recognizes the work of researchers who, “first make people LAUGH then make them THINK.” It’s not all jokes, though. “The Ig Nobel awards are arguably the highlight of the scientific calendar,” wrote Helen Pilcher in Nature in 2004.
In his winning paper, Cole argued that cannibalism among Paleolithic humans most likely occurred due to societal or cultural reasons, as opposed to nutritional ones.
Previous researchers had asserted that cannibalism was probably nutritional in nature. For example, in a 2010 paper published in Current Anthropology, a team led by Spanish archaeologist Eudald Carbonell, Ph.D., argued that the number of cases of cannibalism in the archaeological record suggested that humans were hunting other humans were food. A paper published in 2016 in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory also echoed this point, but it admitted that researchers were divided on the idea.
Cole undertook his 2017 research after realizing that there wasn’t actually any empirical evidence to support the hypothesis that ancient humans ate each other out of necessity. To see how humans measured up to other available sources of meat for Paleolithic humans, he broke down how many calories would be available from the protein contained in a human’s muscles, bones, lungs, liver, brain, heart, and other tissue. Cole calculated that a 145-pound human could provide around 144,000 calories, whereas a mammoth could have provided up to 3,600,000 calories, a horse 200,100 calories, and a red deer 163,000 calories.
“When you compare us to other animals, we’re not very nutritional at all,” he told National Geographic. And it wasn’t just a total calorie difference. Of course, a horse or mammoth, being bigger than a human, would yield more calories overall. But pound-for-pound, Cole estimated that humans are not as calorie-dense as the animals that were available for our early human ancestors to hunt. Moreover, any humans targeted as food would have the ability to hunt too, rather than just waiting around to be eaten.
“You have to get together a hunting party and track these people, and then they aren’t just standing there waiting for you to stab them with a spear,” he said.
Nonetheless, there’s ample evidence that ancient people ate other ancient people. Cole suggests that, rather than a habit of survival, cannibalism was cultural. In fact, we still see evidence of it in our nonhuman primate relatives, such as chimpanzees.
“Such behaviors clearly form something like a behavioral ritual — an unconscious act that stemmed from common activities central to group behavior like eating meat,” Paul Pettitt, Ph.D., a professor of archaeology at the University of Durham who wasn’t involved in Cole’s study, told The Guardian. “Somewhere along the line of human evolution this behavior turned from behavioral rituals to ritualized behavior, and as Coles shows very well, evidence does clearly reveal that eating human meat was not exclusively about survival.”
If not survival, then what was it about?
“Undoubtedly, each episode of Palaeolithic cannibalism would have had its own specific cultural context and reason for consumption,” wrote Cole. “In some instances, this may represent a more practical or opportunistic approach to food procurement, for example, the consumption of individuals who die of natural causes within the social group.”
Ancient humans may not necessarily have sought out human flesh, but they didn’t turn their noses up at it either.