Early cavemen in Europe ate human meat as part of their everyday diet, new research suggests.
A new study of fossil bones in Spain shows that cannibalism was a normal part of daily life around 800,000 years ago among Europe’s first humans.
Bones from the cave, called Gran Dolina, show signs of cuts and other marks which will have been made by early stone tools.
Among the bones of bison, deer, wild sheep and other animals, scientists discovered the butchered remains of at least 11 human children and adolescents.
The bones also displayed signs of having been smashed to get the nutritious marrow inside and there was evidence that the victims’ brains may also have been eaten.
Striek marks on the bone at the base of the skull also indicated that the humans had been decapitated according to the study’s co-author José Maria Bermúdez de Castro.
Bermudez de Castro, of the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain, told National Geographic: ‘Probably then they cut the skull for extracting the brain. The brain is good for food.’
Scientists believe that early man ate fellow humans both to fulfill his nutritional needs and to kill off neighbouring enemy tribes.
Bones of humans that had been eaten spanned a period of around hundred thousand years, indicating that the practice was not just confined to times when food was scarce.
And the fact that the bones were discarded with those of other animals suggests that there was no religious significance to the practice.
Archaelogists work on the dig in Sierra de Atapuerca where many bones from early humans have been found since the early 90s
The ‘defleshed’ bones were found in excavations in the Sierra de Atapuerca in the north of Spain
Because human and animal remains were tossed away together, the researchers speculate that cannibalism had no special ritual role linked to religious beliefs.
Bermudez de Castro said that the area surrounding the caves would have been a rich source of food so there would have been little need to turn to cannibalism as a last resort.
Instead the practice was probably more widely used as a way of dealing with competition from neighbouring tribes.
Children will have been targeted as they would have been less capable of defending themselves, the study suggests.