HUMANS ARE CANNIBALS
First it was vampires that got long in the tooth. Now it’s zombies. These fabulous creatures who feed on human tissue are fading from the cultural zeitgeist, according to Charles Bramesco at The Verge. What’s next? Trendspotter Bramesco cites current examples of popular entertainments that feature “the humble cannibal as the heir apparent to the horror throne du jour.”
If so, vampires and zombies are being nudged out of pop culture by a kind of human who is not fictional at all. Cannibals are an ancient human tradition. Cannibalism in the human line goes back more than 2 million years, and–given its ubiquity in the animal kingdom–probably far beyond.
If so, archaeologist James Cole’s timing is brilliant. He’s long been studying why people eat other people, a topic of some dispute in anthropology. Funerary ritual? Magic ritual? Simple hunger?
Cole hoped to clarify the reason(s) for people-eating by figuring out how much nourishment a human body contains. He published his results yesterday (April 6) in Scientific Reports (free to read), concluding that the reason was not always hunger.
That’s because humans yield about the same amount of nutrition, fats and proteins, as other animals our size, and even less per pound than beavers and other animals of moderate size. One horse can provide the same number of calories as 6 people and is a lot easier to hunt and catch, Cole said in a post at The Conversation.
So if hunting and eating people was less efficient than hunting and eating other animals, why was it done? There are several social and cultural possibilities, Cole says, but he’s pretty vague about specifics. His sole suggestion in the Conversation post is that cannibalism might have happened as a result of warfare over territory. Perhaps those killed in the dispute were also eaten.
To the victor belong the spoils.
“The issue is not one of nutrition as an alternative to large game,” anthropologist Erik Trinkaus told Erika Engelhaupt at Gory Details. “It is an issue of survival when there are no other food sources, members of one’s social group have died, and the surviving members consume the bodies of already-dead people.”
Cole seems to agree that could be one reason. He notes that humans are opportunists, so may have consumed any edibles they came across–including other humans, especially dead or dying humans.
That seems perfectly rational. It may make no sense to hunt humans when other animals are easier to catch and lots bigger. But the demographics of ancient human communities, where 30 was a ripe old age and death in infancy was not uncommon, could have generated a convenient source of nourishment for the rest of the group, at least occasionally.
Waste not, want not.
It’s easy to see how that practice could have acquired spiritual dimensions as well. Consuming the (naturally) dead might have honored their memory and perhaps made it seem possible to consume their virtues too.
CANNIBALISM BY THE BOOK
Another scientist with good timing on cannibalism is vertebrate zoologist Bill Schutt, author of the recently published book, Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History. Schutt’s accounts of like eating like range throughout nature.
He told Angus Chen at Salt, “My favorite is these legless amphibians, or Caecilians. The mother provides her skin to the young hatchlings, and they peel her skin like a grape.” The skin is full of fat, according to Schutt, and it grows back. So Mom lives to be eaten another day.
Chen’s favorites among Schutt’s stories of human cannibalism is something you might not think of as cannibalism: using human body parts as medicine. There’s a long history of European aristocrats eating human parts for medicinal purposes, a practice that sometimes involved grinding up mummies. It lasted until the end of the 18th century and probably persists elsewhere.
SCIENCE & POLITICS, CONT’D
Physicist to march for science
Now we learn that physicist Bill Foster will participate in the March. Lev Facher reported that as big news at STAT. The reason it’s big news is that Foster is not only a physicist, but also a Congressman from Illinois and, Facher says, the only PhD member of Congress.
Foster told Facher firmly that he’s marching as a scientist, not as a Democratic member of Congress. “[W]hen I see anti-scientific policies by any agency, any politician, I criticize the policy and don’t turn it into a partisan criticism.”
Scientists try to march into Congress
At Ars Technica, Tiffany Kelly told the aspirational tale of Tracy Van Houten, systems engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Van Houten just ran to fill an empty seat in California’s 34th Congressional District, situated in Los Angeles.
The primary was April 4, and Van Houton, a Democrat, got only 2.34% of the vote. Which put her in 11th place, but that’s not entirely shabby considering that the field of candidates numbered 24 and most were also Democrats.
A somewhat more prominent candidate scientist is Berkeley evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen, who is running for Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat. Eisen has appeared a number of times here at On Science Blogs because he blogs at It is NOT junk.
He says he wants to run as an independent. “There are not a lot of role models for scientists interested in politics,” Eisen told Kelly. “I hope I can help to change it.”
Eisen tweets @SenatorPhD (Liberty Equality Reality). Assuming Eisen is serious, he has chosen quite a challenge. It’s not at all clear yet that Feinstein, who is 83, really means to retire. In January she got a pacemaker installed and was back at work the next day. If she does retire, the candidates chasing her seat could well outnumber the crowd in the 34th Congressional District primary last Tuesday.
And then, last Saturday, political competition for Michael Eisen came from an astonishing quarter: his brother Jonathan, an evolutionary biologist at Davis, announced that he also would run for the Senate.
Why? “One of the reasons I am running against my brother for the US Senate is that we need to seriously battle nepotism in government,” he tweeted. @bettersenator (Liberty Equality Reality Fidelity) [Why not Fraternity?]
The next day, April 2, another astonishment from Jonathan Eisen, this time announcing that he was suspending his one-day senatorial campaign. “Very sad,” he tweeted. “Bigly sad.”
Fortunately for us all, he has Storified his original announcement and the responses.