The Reason Early Humans May Have Practiced Infant Cannibalism

Back during the Early Pleistocene era in Europe, there lived a now-extinct subspecies of humans called Homo antecessor. Archeological evidence indicates that this species practiced cannibalism — and that they preferred the meat of young children. The question now being asked by anthropologists is why. The answer, it would seem, may lie in the cannibalistic habits of chimpanzees — a species that eats the young of its rivals to protect its territories.

H. antecessor dates back to about 800,000 years ago, and they're one of the earliest known hominids to have lived in Europe. Some anthropologists believe that they practiced cannibalism; their remains feature bones with fine cuts etched into them — an indication that flesh had been flensed from the bones. And because no other hominid lived in Europe at the time, it must have been H. antecessor doing the eating.

The Reason Early Humans May Have Practiced Infant Cannibalism

At the same time, anthropologists studying remains found in Spain's Gran Dolina cave noticed that they belonged primarily to young children and pre-adolescents (nine out of 11). Not satisfied that these were ritual killings, or signs of desperation (like starvation), a team of researchers started to consider a potential link to this behavior and that of chimpanzees — a line of inquiry that led them to conclude that the cannibalism was part of an effort to defend and expand territories.

In a study conducted by Palmira Saladié and Eudald Carbonell, the anthropologists observed that female chimps who ventured too far out of their territory made themselves highly vulnerable to rival groups at the edge of the boundary. Or more accurately, they made their offspring more vulnerable. Rather than attack or threaten the females, rival chimps attack and steal their offsrping — an act that sends a message and provides for a great meal.

Consequently, the researchers argue that Homo antecessor was doing the exact same thing: mounting low-risk attacks on members of other groups to defend access to resources within their own territories, while simultaneously expanding their boundaries at the expense of rival groups.

That said, the researchers offer no evidence that the H. antecessor cannibalism came from a different group than the victims. It's also inconsistent with other observations about hominid behavior, in which males actively defend territory while females often forage alone with their infants.

So we'll have to wait and see if more evidence comes out in the future, to solidify these disturbing claims.

Read the entire study at The Journal of Human Evolution.

Top image via Inset image via Jose Luis Martinez Alvarez from Asturias, España.