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Ancient humans used to butcher and likely eat their ancestral relatives, possibly practicing cannibalism

A shocking new study has found evidence that ancient humans butchered and likely ate their ancestral relatives. If both parties were from the same species, this would be considered cannibalism. The research team has unveiled the earliest and most conclusive evidence to date.

Our close evolutionary relatives engaged in behavior that might seem unthinkable today. They were butchering and possibly even consuming one another.

Published today, June 26, in Scientific Reports, the new study is turning heads. The leading author is Briana Pobiner. She is a paleoanthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History.

Together with her co-authors, they examined a left shin bone that dates back approximately 1.45 million years. Unearthed in northern Kenya, this bone once belonged to a relative of Homo sapiens.

How the study on ancient humans and cannibalism was done

Their investigative process involved an in-depth analysis of 3D models of the fossil’s surface. The results were startling.

They discovered nine distinctive cut marks that stone tools would likely have caused. This astonishing find marks the earliest known evidence of such behavior with an incredibly high degree of certainty.

In Pobiner’s words, “The information we have tells us that hominins were likely eating other hominins at least 1.45 million years ago.”

This revelation suggests that our evolutionary cousins might have had to consume each other for survival.

The journey to this groundbreaking discovery started innocently enough. Pobiner initially discovered the fossilized tibia while perusing the collections at Kenya’s Nairobi National Museum.

Equipped with a handheld magnifying lens, she meticulously examined the bone for any signs of bites from extinct creatures. But to her surprise, she found what appeared to be evidence of butchery instead.

Confirming suspicions of cannibalism from ancient humans

To confirm her suspicion, Pobiner created molds of the cuts. They created the molds with dental impression material. She then sent the molds to her co-author, Michael Pante of Colorado State University.

She gave Pante no context or information about the specimen. Pobiner just gave him a simple request to determine the source of the marks.

Pante used cutting-edge 3D scanning technology to examine the molds. He then compared these results with a comprehensive database. His database contained 898 different tooth, butchery, and trample marks from controlled experiments.

They identified nine out of the eleven marks as clear matches for damage that stone tools caused. The remaining two marks were likely left by a large predatory cat. They assumed this to be from a lion because it was the closest match.

The presence of these cut marks suggests the shin bone’s owner might have become someone’s meal. As Pobiner pointed out, the cut marks were located where a calf muscle attaches to the bone.

This would be an optimal place to cut if the goal was to obtain a substantial chunk of meat. The consistent orientation of the cut marks indicates that a stone tool could have made them in rapid succession.

“These cut marks look very similar to what I’ve seen on animal fossils that were being processed for consumption,” Pobiner said. “It seems most likely that the meat from this leg was eaten and that it was eaten for nutrition as opposed to for a ritual.”

Not “technically” cannibalism?

However, it’s crucial to clarify that this might not technically be a case of cannibalism. Cannibalism requires that both the eater and the eaten hail from the same species. In this instance, the shin bone’s original owner’s exact species is unknown.

Researchers initially identified the specimen as Australopithecus boisei and later reclassified it as Homo erectus in 1990. However, experts now agree that there’s insufficient information to definitively link the bone to a specific hominin species.

The use of stone tools also doesn’t help narrow it down. Recent research from the museum’s Peter Buck Chair of Human Origins, Rick Potts, is skeptical. He has challenged the long-standing assumption that only the Homo genus used stone tools.

This discovery leaves us with a tantalizing possibility. This could be an instance of prehistoric cannibalism. Or perhaps an ancient case of one species dining on its evolutionary cousin.

Determining the exact sequence of events is tricky. None of the stone-tool cut marks overlap with the suspected bite marks from a big cat.

The big cat could have scavenged the remains after hominins removed most of the meat. Alternatively, the big cat might have made the kill and hominins might have chased it away before taking over opportunistically.

Not the first time ancient humans linked to cannibalism

This isn’t the first time that researchers have debated potential cases of ancient hominins butchering each other. A fossilized skull, found in South Africa in 1976 and estimated to be between 1.5 to 2.6 million years old, has been the center of such discussions.

Two separate studies have disagreed on the origin of marks found below the skull’s right cheek bone. One study attributing them to stone tools and the other to sharp-edged stone blocks.

Pobiner expressed a desire to reexamine the South African skull using the same techniques applied in the current study. This new discovery, she explained, underlines the invaluable role of museum collections.

“You can make some pretty amazing discoveries by going back into museum collections and taking a second look at fossils,” Pobiner said.

“Not everyone sees everything the first time around. It takes a community of scientists coming in with different questions and techniques to keep expanding our knowledge of the world.”

This research was supported by the Smithsonian, the Peter Buck Fund for Human Origins Research, and Colorado State University.

More about humans and our ancient relatives

Human evolution is a complex field of study that spans millions of years and involves various species, not just our direct ancestors. There were many instances where different hominin species coexisted and interacted with each other.

These interactions encompassed not only competition but also cooperation, interbreeding, and even possible instances of violence or cannibalism.

Hominin Interactions and Interbreeding

There is genetic evidence that Homo sapiens, or modern humans, interbred with other hominins. These were most likely Neanderthals and Denisovans. These interactions had lasting effects on our genetic makeup.

Around 2% of the DNA of non-African modern humans comes from Neanderthals. Some Melanesian populations have up to 6% Denisovan DNA. This shows that our ancient human ancestors didn’t just compete with other hominin species. They also had intimate interactions with them.

Cooperation and Competition

Early hominins likely lived in groups, just as modern humans do. Living in groups allows for cooperation. This occurs through hunting, gathering, or child-rearing. However, competition would also have been a part of their lives. Competition for resources, mates, and territory. It’s likely that inter-group conflicts occurred.

Tool Use and Cultural Transmission

Evidence of stone tool use dates back millions of years. Early hominins like Homo habilis are known to have used stone tools. Even earlier species might have as well.

This ability to use and make tools would have been a crucial cultural element passed down through generations, suggesting some form of teaching and learning within these early hominin societies.

Cannibalism and Violence

As controversial as it is, there’s archaeological evidence suggesting that violence and even cannibalism were part of some prehistoric hominin interactions. Ancient bones with cut marks resembling butchery have been found.

This indicates that hominins may have sometimes resorted to cannibalism. However, the reasons for this are still unknown. It could have been due to social rituals, warfare, or survival during hard times.

Symbolic Behavior and Art

Neanderthals, a close relative of modern humans, were capable of symbolic thought. This is shown by their use of pigments and their creation of art. They also intentionally buried their dead.

This suggests some form of ritual or symbolic behavior. It also means that interactions between individuals and groups were probably more complex than we might assume. This probably derived from a purely survival-oriented perspective.

Migration and Interaction

Fossil and genetic evidence indicates that our ancestors migrated out of Africa in multiple waves over hundreds of thousands of years. Different populations of hominins would have encountered each other.

This would have lead to a variety of interactions. These could have ranged from the exchange of ideas and technology to conflict and competition.

To sum up, our ancient human ancestors likely led complex social lives with a wide range of interactions with each other. These interactions included cooperation and conflict, learning and teaching, symbolic behavior.

Even interbreeding with other hominin species. Understanding these dynamics helps shed light on our own evolution and the deep roots of human behavior.

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