Scientists have discovered that some cavemen in Spain may have been cannibals. The new research adds to previous anthropological and biological evidence of recurring cannibalism in ancient humans.
Introduction to Homo antecessor
The extinct human species known as Homo antecessor lived in caves in ancient Spain roughly 800,000 to 1.2 million years ago, during the early Pleistocene epoch. This would make this species of caveman one of the earliest known types of human living anywhere in Europe.
The taxonomy is not certain. Many scientists think this species of caveman may be the same as or an intermediary species to Homo heidelbergensis, the immediate ancestor of both European Neanderthals and African Homo sapiens, and possibly the ancestor of Asian Denisovans as well.
So far, H. antecessor has shown a slightly smaller brain size than the average brain size of H. heidelbergensis. However, brain sizes of known H. heidelbergensis fossils covers a range from slightly less than H. antecessor to more than modern humans. Thus, the smaller brain size of H. antecessor could simply be a side effect of a limited fossil sample.
In general, H. antecessor was probably hardy and strong for his size. Males weighed roughly 200 pounds, and were between 5-1/2 and 6 feet tall. They may have also been right-handed. Most primates do not show handedness.
So far, the only known fossils of H. antecessor have been found at the Gran Dolina and Sima del Elefante sites in northern Spain. Fossils of H. heidelbergensis have been found in many sites, ranging from Germany to England.
Evidence of cannibalism
Human bones at the Gran Dolina site have shown marks which are consistent with butchering and chewing. These marks match the teeth and tools which would have been used to scrape flesh from bones. The skulls show percussive marks which indicate that the brain was eaten. Some of the bones were also smashed in a way consistent with accessing and eating the marrow.
The human bones which are marked in this way are mixed in with those of game animals, such as bison, deer and wild sheep. (Sheep were not domesticated until roughly 10,000 BC.) Every human who was eaten this way was either a child or an adolescent. None were fully grown humans. It is not yet known if the cannibalized individuals belonged to the same clan as those doing the cannibalizing. DNA testing is planned for future research. However, it is extremely difficult to analyze DNA which is so old.
These were not isolated incidents. Human bones which showed these kinds of marks were found at different cave layers. In general, lower cave layers are older than higher cave layers. Altogether, the total period of time represented by these cave strata lasted roughly 100,000 years. This shows that cannibalism was a consistent practice among H. antecessor.
However, it was not a practice that was necessary for survival. During this period of time, there was no shortage of food in the area. Cannibalism was part of the culture, but as yet, no signs have been found either of food shortage or of ritual consumption.
Independent research supporting a human history of cannibalism
Prions are infectious agents which consist entirely of protein. They are spread by consuming contaminated flesh, but they can also be inherited.
The best-known disease which is caused by prions is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease. When that prion infects humans who have eaten infected cows, it expresses as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). However, the most effective way for prions to infect humans is through cannibalism, which can transmit diseases such as kuru.
Today, large parts of the human population carry mutant versions of prion protein genes, which act as protective genes against prion infection. The most likely way in which these protective genes could have spread so far is if prehistoric man regularly engaged in cannibalism. This kind of exposure to potential prion infection could have caused ancient epidemics, which left the survivors with a long-lasting genetic resistance to prion diseases.