The Japan Times, August 18, 1997
By ROBIN McKIE
Cannibalism an ancient human heritage
LONDON—Cannibalism has been a feature of human life for the past million years, scientists have decided.
At archaeological digs all over the globe, researchers say they are finding evidence which points to one simple conclusion: We were cannibals.
At one 800-year-old settlement in the Four Corners region of southwest United States, archaeologists have found thousands of human bones that had been cracked open and dumped on floors.
"People were being systematically captured, killed and eaten," says anthropologist Dr. Tim White, of the University of California, Berkeley.
"Thigh and arm bones were broken open for their marrow, and smaller fragments were boiled in pots to extract the last fatty residues."
Other sites include several inhabited by our evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals, as well as an 800,000-year-old settlement at Atapuerca in Spain, where our early ancestors clearly lunched on each other with relish.
"The evidence is strong," says Dr. Yolanda Fernamdex-Jalvo of Madrid's Natural History Museum. "Human bones found at Atapuerca have cut marks and had clearly been stripped of their flesh. They were also mixed up with the bones of animals that had been eaten."
Other examples include the Aztecs, who are now thought to have eaten thousands of prisoners of war, and modern cases that include China's Red Guards, who were recently accused of eating prisoners during the Cultural Revolution. Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic was said to have had his political opponents cooked for dinner. Until very recently, Papua New Guinean tribesmen ate the brains of their relatives as a mark of respect.
The idea that humans munched their fellow man (and woman) throughout history was widely held by scientists earlier this century, but fell out of favor when archaeologists and anthropologists decided that most evidence was unreliable or circumstantial. Cut marks on bones were attributed to preburial cleaning. Cannibalism, it was decided, was rare and had only been practiced when starvation loomed.
This view is now being challenged.
"There is no doubt that cannibalism was a common practice," says Professor Chris Stringer of London's Natural History Museum.
"The question is: What sort of cannibalism was it? Was it ritual cannibalism, like that carried out in New Guinea? Or was it to obtain nutrition, and if so was it simply to avoid starvation—like the survivors of the 1972 Andes air crash—or was it a widespread business in which victims were captured and cooked?
"Being a pessimist about human behavior, I think the last scenario is probably the most likely one."
As an example, Stringer pointed to recent excavations at Gough's Cave in Cheddar Gorge, southwest England. The dig uncovered 12,000-year-old skeletons that had been scalped, beheaded, had their tongues cut out and their main arm and thigh bones smashed open to extract marrow.
"Cannibalism was certainly commonplace throughout much of America," says White. "It used to be thought that the Spanish made up all the stories of Aztecs eating their prisoners, as propaganda to justify their own cruelty. But now excavations in Mexico City are finding evidence, such as carefully splintered human bones, that the Aztecs really were cannibals."