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Why were our ancestors cannibals ? The answer is more complex than you think

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Briana Pobiner is a paleoanthropologist specializing in the study of the evolution of man's diet, and particularly his meat consumption. She is one of those researchers who continue to investigate the dietary practices of our ancestors. Among these practices, cannibalism is one. For quite a long time, we only analyzed this practice under the specter of survival and lack of food. In reality, our ancestors from distant times ate their fellow humans for many other motivations than this.

Surviving in a hostile world: cannibalism of necessity

In 2017, Briana Pobiner thus brought to light, during&# 8217;an examination of the characteristic markings on a Paleolithic tibia bone, revealing that this bone had not only been cut up, but also consumed by prehistoric men. Across the Channel, the Magdalenian culture (a prehistoric period in Western Europe, dating from around 17,000 to 12,000 years BCE) offers similar evidence, with 42% of fossil human remains displaying traces of teeth and tools, thus showing a deliberate cutting of the flesh.

These macabre marks date back 1.45 million years, indicating that this practice is much older than previously thought until then.

Certainly repulsive from our current point of view, this anthropophagic practice nevertheless had its roots in an imperative for survival. While we talk all the time about global warming these days, those bygone times were marked by ice ages. Periods when food shortages were not rare; demographic growth and the hazards of nomadic life very often forced the tribes to fall back on this solution of last resort.

An observation confirmed by James Cole of the University of Brighton. He was one of the first archaeologists to prove that cannibalism was not just a matter of survival. This reminds us that, moreover, cannibalism remains a widespread phenomenon in the animal kingdom, observed in more than 1 500 species, including primates. Rodents, in particular, can resort to devouring their sick or dead offspring, while chimpanzees sometimes cannibalize newborns to stock up on protein. These behaviors highlight how, in animal evolution, cannibalism can then become a survival strategy in response to environmental pressures.

From survival to culture: the evolution of motivations

Over the course of time ;evolution of human societies, the motivations underlying cannibalism have changed considerably. As early as 200 BC, for example, in China, criminals were sold for consumption. Anthropologist Francis Edgar Williams documented the Orokaiva tribe in Papua New Guinea, who decapitated and consumed specific parts of their defeated enemies, a practice symbolizing victory and intended to intimidate their rivals.

For James Cole, this transition towards “cultural cannibalism” testifies to a progressive shift, where survival was no longer limited to the sole fight against natural elements. This also included strengthening cohesion within close-knit groups, maintaining social control and dissuading warlike neighboring tribes.

A phenomenon that can be closely linked to a wide range of cultural markers: worship of ancestors, respect for tribal totems or help given to the deceased to facilitate their transition to the afterlife by cutting their earthly ties. Practices clearly demonstrating that cannibalism was no longer simply a survival tactic, but also corresponded to a manifestation of spiritual and social beliefs deeply rooted in these societies.

The different facets of cannibalism

Cannibalism could also be deeply linked to the supernatural fears of humanity. For certain civilizations, the consumption of human flesh symbolized prosperity, health and protection against misfortune. Beliefs called apotropaic, where ritual practices are supposed to ward off evil and bring benefits.

This practice, which now appears to us to be necessarily morbid, has marked History across cultures and continents. From Paleolithic Britain to the pharaohs, from the Guineans to the Aghoris and Tibetan monks, anthropophagy has taken on multiple roles: imperative for survival, affirmation of social domination or even religious ritual. A recurrence which testifies to the visceral anchoring of this taboo in the human psyche.

Although completely immoral and frightening for our modern sensibilities, cannibalism has been, depending on the times and contexts, a fundamentally useful practice for certain societies. Hence the importance of not projecting our current values ​​and norms onto societies of the past which operated according to very different moral codes and belief systems. Understanding cannibalism in its historical and cultural context does not necessarily mean approving or justifying it; it is rather a matter of seeking to consider it as a complex phenomenon with many facets.

  • Cannibalism emerged 1.45 million years ago and was driven primarily by a desire for survival.
  • It gradually mutated into cultural cannibalism.
  • This practice could witness many different cultural markers.

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Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116