James Cole constructed a nutritional template for the human body by using the total average weights and calorie values (fat and protein) for each body part from chemical composition analyses of four male individuals. The data obtained pertains to modern humans. Although it is unknown how these values would vary for non-Homo sapiens species, James Cole suggests that in the case of Neanderthals, the values for skeletal muscle may be higher given their greater muscle mass.
By comparing the calorific values calculated to those for animal species whose remains have been identified at sites of Palaeolithic cannibalism, Dr Cole found that human skeletal muscle has a nutritional value broadly in line with species of a similar size and weight. However, it produces significantly fewer calories than most of the larger animals, such as mammoth, woolly rhino and species of deer, which are known to have been consumed by hominins.
Undoubtedly, each episode of Palaeolithic cannibalism would have had its own specific cultural context and reason for consumption. In some instances, this may represent a more practical or opportunistic approach to food procurement, for example, the consumption of individuals who died of natural causes within the social group.
Such an interpretation cannot be entirely dismissed given that the nutritional value of the human body is not particularly high, and hominins regularly exploited faunal remains that were lower in calories with no cultural influence. However, the similarity of demographics across Palaeolithic cannibalism episodes (adults to infants) may indicate that the motivations followed the inter- and intra-group dynamics involving resource and territory defence. If this is the case, it would suggest that pre-Homo sapiens Pleistocene hominin social structures and interactions within and between groups may have been far more complex than currently estimated.
Recent palaeo-genetic studies have already hinted at a more explicit and active degree of social interaction between hominin species than was previously thought possible. In addition, the recognised complexity within Neanderthal societies with distinct cultural and symbolic traditions illustrates a hominin that is more behaviourally similar to our own species. We know that modern humans have a range of complex motivations for cannibalism that extend from ritual, aggressive, and survival to dietary reasons. Why then would a hominin species such as the Neanderthals, who seem to have had varying attitudes to the burial and treatment of their dead, not have an equally complex attitude towards cannibalism? As such, social motivations behind acts of Palaeolithic cannibalism should not be readily discounted when examined within the broader behavioural context of the hominins under study.
The use of the human nutritional template from this research highlights that humans (and by inference hominins) fall within the expected range of calories for an animal of our average body weight. We are, however, significantly lower in calorie value when compared to single large fauna (such as mammoth, bison, cattle and horse) that have a much greater calorific return per individual than many of the groups of cannibalised human remains.
This return must therefore question the viability of hunting and consuming hominins for strictly nutritional reasons. It is recommended that the data and methods from this research form part of a holistic approach to the definition of episodes of prehistoric cannibalism, with a stricter use of terminology when describing episodes of prehistoric cannibalism beyond the ambiguous and leading terms ‘nutritional’ or ‘symbolic’.