Technically It’s Not Cannibalism If They’re Not the Same Species

And now, the real reason there are no Neanderthals today: They were tasty!

One of science’s most puzzling mysteries – the disappearance of the Neanderthals – may have been solved. Modern humans ate them, says a leading fossil expert.

The controversial suggestion follows publication of a study in the Journal of Anthropological Sciences about a Neanderthal jawbone apparently butchered by modern humans. Now the leader of the research team says he believes the flesh had been eaten by humans, while its teeth may have been used to make a necklace.

Fernando Rozzi, of Paris’s Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique, said the jawbone had probably been cut into to remove flesh, including the tongue. Crucially, the butchery was similar to that used by humans to cut up deer carcass in the early Stone Age. “Neanderthals met a violent end at our hands and in some cases we ate them,” Rozzi said.

I suspect very strongly that they did not taste like chicken.

This incidentally brings up an interesting and currently (for humans) untestable question of where the dividing line for cannibalism is. Neanderthals were in the genus “Homo,” but were another species therein. So is it cannibalism when we eat them? As you might suspect from the entry header, I say no: Not of the same species, not cannibalism.Not that the Homo sapiens of the day were rationalizing it on these particular grounds.

Which isn’t to say it was a nice thing to do. Even if it wasn’t cannibalism, I would still call it murder, since “murder” in my book (that book being a science fiction book) involves killing sentient creatures, whether they’re of the same intelligent species as you are or not. This is why one needs science fiction, incidentally: to model such legal conundrums. You’re welcome.

67 Comments on “Technically It’s Not Cannibalism If They’re Not the Same Species”

  1. Wow. I always thought that the cannibalism taboo was hard-wired really deep in our consciousness, rather than just a social norm. I’d say this suggests otherwise – if you experience deep revulsion at the thought of eating your neighbors, I would think it would apply when those neighbors are only mostly human.

  2. Also, I thought that I had heard at one point that blade marks on neanderthal bones were considered a sign that neanderthals had complex burial rites – maybe that’s what the scientist means by “For years, people have tried to hide away from the evidence of cannibalism”

  3. No, PJ the cannibalism tabo is cultural and every race of man has cannibals in their ancestry.

  4. Considering most Neanderthal fossils found to date have shown no evidence of cannibalism, I don’t know if this one discovery necessary proves anything about why they died out. Maybe our ancestors ate one and then spread the word that deer meat was tastier.

  5. “I suspect very strongly that they did not taste like chicken.”

    Well, of course not. They’d be red meat.

  6. Cannibalism taboos are technically a survival trait, which is why we do see it develop spontaneously (as opposed to something like the alphabet, which only popped up twice that we know of and spread). Obviously when you have other tribes around you, being known cannibals tends to put a dampener on trade, and it’s easier to spread disease when it doesn’t have to jump species.

    But when there’s not enough protein to go around, cannibalism becomes a survival trait as well. There’s a point where protein is plentiful enough that cannibalism taboos start being developed, but it’s a social construct because it’s hard to be in a scenario where being a cannibal means you don’t get to pass on your genes, and it’s still a useful reflex, as the Donner party proved.

    This is, incidentally, why many island nations practiced cannibalism until visited by Europeans. It is lucky for all concerned that the Europeans brought rich sources of protein along with their taboos.

  7. “Hold on there my new island pal, if you think _I_ would be delicious, just wait until you try this bacon, which comes from porky right here…”

  8. I was given to understand that, in certain situations, chimpanzees practice cannibalism; specifically, that they do it when members of another band invade their territory. They attack the invading band and, assuming they catch one, beat it to death, rend it limb from limb, and eat it. Then they leave the carcass at the site as a ‘marker’ of sorts.

    Two questions:

    1.) Can anybody confirm or refute this information? And,

    2.) Might this situation be analogous? In other words, chimps being our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, can we say that one reason Homo Sapiens might have done this to Neanderthal Man was possibly as part of a dispute over territory?

  9. Obviously you need to read the Yoo-Bybee memos on cannibalism to help resolve the moral implications.

  10. Patrick W at #9, I saw a documentary on Animal Planet or Science Channel that *showed* a big group of chimpanzees attacking a smaller group of interlopers on their territory, and then catch and eat a young chimp of that smaller group. So yes, it does happen, and it’s been caught on film.

    They’re not sure if that behavior is species-wide, however, or limited only to that group of chimpanzees, or that area.

  11. So clearly we need an science fictional term for “eater of other sentient species.”


    The problem is, these words could mean dumb animals (or carnivorous plants) who happen to eat sentients. And what we mean is a sentient being who eats other sentients, despite or because of their shared person-i-ness.

    Any suggestions?

  12. JM @ #12: Thank you. I thought that was the case, but wanted to be sure I wasn’t talking out my butt.

    Scott @ #14: How about “Cenosententiaphiliac”? Literally, “Loves to eat sentient beings.” A bit unwieldy, but hey… It’s Latin.

  13. I say yes, it is cannibalism.

    Cannibalism was originally the eating of human flesh. It has subsequently grown to include the eating of one’s own species, but from what I can find on the etymology of the word, this is a modern development.

    This is the natural development of the word since we’re humans, the only other sentients around are humans, and there’s no reason to define more broadly. Of course, this leaves us without a word that means “the eating of a sentient by a sentient.”

    Well, cannibalism is the best nominee for that linguistic niche. I vote we go with it.

  14. Scalzi said “This is why one needs science fiction, incidentally: to model such legal conundrums.”

    Back during the 90’s Clinton was dithering over human cloning. And he said that had been no writings/investigations on its ethics, so he would appoint a panel to discuss. And of course the panel had no SF authors on it. Making him wrong twice on one subject.

  15. Patrick at 17: Just to clarify what you said: “cannibalism” didn’t just mean “eating human flesh,” it meant “humans eating human flesh.”

    But I take your general point, that “cannibalism” was strictly about humans, with the attendant moral issues, before scientists applied it to chimps, spiders, etc.

    However, if we use “cannibalism” for eating any other sentient, then that leaves us without a word for “eating your own (sentient) species.” Which is a different thing than me, a human, eating a sentient Martian.

    So I still want a new word, regardless of where it sits in the semantic Venn diagram.

  16. Tangentially, I think chimps will eat people, too. I remember reading something about Jane Goodall being very careful about making sure her baby was watched at all times, for fear that the chimps would take it away, kill it, and (I’m pretty sure), eat it.

  17. I’m reminded of the film version of The Addams Family, who apparently had the family motto Sic gorgiamus allos subjectatos nunc which is Latin (of a sort) for “We gladly feast on those who would subdue us.”

  18. I recall a NOVA, or some such, that presented the notion that Homo sapiens and Neanderthal occasionally did the two bear mambo, with results. Shall we redefine cannibalism to include the eating those of those we knock up? Also where does Valentine Michael Smith fall into all of this deity, Dahlmer, or just another episode of “Good Eats”.

  19. john, i really like your definition of cannibalism including sentient species. which begs the question, how far do we extend the definition of “sentient”? mammals? chordates? plants? i’m curious to hear what you and others think….

  20. Also where does Valentine Michael Smith fall into all of this deity, Dahlmer, or just another episode of “Good Eats”.

    Picturing Alton Brown going over the history and science of cannibalism/cenosententiaphilia…

  21. I thought it was generally accepted that humans taste like pork. Long pig and all that. What surprises me is that, given the prevalence of sentients eating other sentients in Scalzi’s work (and every now and then, I really do wonder about the psychology of that), anyway, what surprises me is that he hasn’t already given plenty of thought to this question and already come up with a term for it.

  22. I’ve heard of people referred to as “long pork,” so it’s no surprise that German guy said people taste like it.

  23. ADM–

    I am pretty sure that JG was the first to document that chimps ate meat *at all*. She observed them catching and eating monkeys on occasion.

    JG probably didn’t think that chimps would make any distinction between monkeys and her offspring.

  24. The Kzin enjoy eating other sentient species.

    Pigs will eat people, you learn quickly on a farm to not turn your back on them.

    And I’ve heard volunteer fireman say that burning human flesh smells like pork.

    Never did like Farnham’s Freehold.

  25. One example doesn’t make a rule for me. I have to be remain skeptical until there is some more supporting information. Not that cannibalism couldn’t have happened, too much supporting data to say that, but I think you could say the cuts on the jawbone and tongue removal were made as a warning to others to stay off the turf of the (insert favorite gang or illegal operatives here). Grisly killing as warning instead of lunch…

    As an aside, when I saw this post, I immediately thought of the Salong from OMW. Reverse venison indeed.

  26. This is just begging for a movie adaptation in which a frozen caveman is reanimated in the present by an evil entrepreneur with a taste for exotic meats.

    The caveman will accidentally escape, befriend a hapless loser, help the hapless loser get a girlfriend, and teach us all valuable lessons about life… before being shot to death by police for flinging his feces at people inside a Walmart.

  27. Really not that surprising that humans ate Neanderthals. Chimps eat red colobus monkeys all the time. Since Chimps are our closest living relatives on the evolutionary tree, only makes sense that we may enjoy a little sub-species primate meat too. Besides maybe Neanderthals were jerks. No ethical questions when you eat a jerk… right?

  28. “No ethical questions when you eat a jerk… right?”
    Hmmm, we may need some sort of flow chart for this.

  29. I think eating within the same genus should be called cannibalism. Can anyone give me a decent argument why not? (And “because then our H. sapiens ancestors would be cannibals!” isn’t a decent argument. I think they were.)

  30. rys@23: How are you using ‘sentient’? I ask, because this word has endless potential to cause confusion; science fiction people use ‘sentient’ where philosophers would use ‘intelligent’, i.e. having the power of thought (not ‘intelligent’ as opposed to ‘stupid’.) Philosophers, on the other hand, use ‘sentient’ to mean ‘having the power of feeling/sensing’. So from their point of view it’s generally accepted that most animals are sentient, though it’s still a rather extreme view that plants are. In the science fiction sense, on the other hand, I’d have thought sentience was very restricted (among earth-based creatures we are familar with) – one could argue for some apes, and dolphins, having it, but nothing beyond them

  31. “Not that the Homo sapiens of the day were rationalizing it on these particular grounds.”

    Maybe they were. Humans and neanderthals were socially very sophisticated animals, even when they were off their rockers. But to tell you the truth, the conclusion that neanderthals were hunted to extinction seems more like a hypothesis than a tested result. The authors colleagues on the same dig did not agree with his conclusion based on this single jawbone. I can immediately think of two fishy things about it, myself. For one thing, this jawbone was found in the midlle of a large pile of human bones. Humans didn’t tend to bury their own among the offal. For another thing, let’s say that the jawbone, instead of being leftovers, was decoration on the wardrobe of a decedant – there’s only one. A single bone in a site that’s been well-preserved and then studied by arhcaeologists for quite a while. If humans were eating them left and right and then either dumping or wearing the bones, I would expect to see a little bit more. I’m just saying.

  32. Sihaya @38: There’s also the possibility that all those human bones were /also/ garbage from a cook-up. If you’re going to eat neanderthals, there’s not a hell of a lot stopping you from eating humans; as we all know, the tribe from across the valley do not practice the making-the-sun-come-back rite properly, and are not *proper* humans.

    Hugh @36: Butter would almost certainly not be involved, as neanderthals died out long before the domestication of the goat, cow, or other animals which might provide cream for churning.

  33. hugh @40: um, you volunteering to milk the local mammoth cows to make the butter?

  34. another andrew #37 — it is i who was asking the question, not answering it.

  35. Fletcher #39: Not saying they didn’t, though it would be interesting to read if the author brings up the incidence of tool marks on the human bones. I’m not saying it’s a bad hypothesis to test. But it’s going to take some time – and more bones. It’s a sweeping conclusion to make from very little, that’s for sure.

    By-the-by, modern-ish cannibals attach ritual significance to their practice to rationalize it, rather than the “less-than-human” rationale. It’s still a social rationale, of course, and another possibility. But it doesn’t sound like an extinction event.

  36. I have to say, this was the first thought that popped into my head when I read the article. Not “ewwww” or “neat” or even “huh.” But rather, a pedantic reaction to the word cannibalism used to apply to the eating of other species.

    I don’t know, but I rather suspect that seals my utter writerly nerditity.

  37. I guess Geico had better expand into life insurance for its spokespeople. Actually, I think if this was widespread then surely more Neanderthals would show signs of being butchered. On another note, I think there’s another writer in whose universe all sentient beings are classified as “human.” In that case, one would assume the definition of “cannibalism” would be expanded beyond our immediate species. Otherwise, you might have to call eating another sentient species something stupid like xenosentientphagy.

  38. Oh yes – one more thing: I suppose your definition of cannibalism depends on who or what you consider to be human. I think it’s more of a semantic than scientific classification – I am thinking of how the other side gets dehumanized in wars – krauts, gooks, etc. How much further is it from killing to eating if the other side really isn’t considered human? Damn, that’s a disturbing question.

  39. Joe Haldeman once said in his SF-writing class that burning human flesh smells like pork. Since he was, IIRC, a demolitions expert in Vietnam, I assume he is a reliable source in this matter.

    Getting back to, umm, consumption of fellow-sentients, I am reminded of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.

  40. A coprolite is fossilized poop. I had a high-school science teacher who loved to pass one of these around, then tell the class what it was, and then watch everyone wipe their hands on their shirts.

  41. Neanderthals were human, genus Homo. It’s not even certain that they were a different species, maybe just a subspecies.

    Dress a neanderthal in modern clothes, he’d probably draw no more comment on a city street than, “Someone fell out of the ugly tree.”

    Even Homo habilis, could probably pass for modern human, given the right clothing and a hat.

    So, yeah, eating one of them would be cannibalism, if any survived.

    Homo floreziensis, the little hobbit-like islanders, would probably look like human defectives. But it would still be cannibalism to eat one.

  42. I just saw a National Geographic documentary about cannibalism. I forget the exact dates, but it was somewhere around 1500-1600s, I think, that eating human bodies was still popular even in Europe. Only it wasn’t considered as cannibalism, but different parts of the human body were used for medicinal purposes. Apparently people even came to executions with cups, so they could get some blood to drink. Ground up mummies were particularly favorite for many illnesses.

    Modern day cannibalism exists in the form of some people eating the placenta after birth. The documentary showed an American woman frying up a cut up placenta and saying it smelled just like liver. Ugh. I guess she eating her own placenta would not technically be cannibalism, but then there were other people there who also wanted a taste…

  43. I think I heard or read somewhere that the reason why we smell (and supposedly taste) like pork is that both pigs and humans eat…. everything!

    Don’t know how I feel about that…

  44. I’d be inclined to say that yes, that was cannibalism. You can either define cannibalism as Homo sapiens sapiens eating Homo sapiens sapiens, or as humans eating humans. I’d be inclined towards the latter definition, since both “cannibalism” and “human” are words that pre-date the scientific binomical “Homo sapiens.”

    Whether Neandertals were a separate species of Homo or a subspecies of H. sapiens, they were clearly human by all but the most narrow definitions of the word.

    I’m not surprised that evidence of cannibalism has been found, since H. sapiens sapiens will eat pretty much anything that holds still long enough. Occasional cannibalism is a long way from systematically eating them to extinction, though.

  45. Since the Chinese believe that they are descended from Homo erectus which left Africa 2 million years ago, rather than from Homo sapien which left 70 thousand years ago, they would technically be a separate species. So it’s not cannibalism to eat a Chinese person?:-)

  46. So, if you encounter a species that is likely sentient but which shares very few, if any, cognitive structures or moral imperatives with humanity, is eating it cannibalism? In short, something likely sentient, but too alien to communicate in any manner?
    How about an individual non-sentient member of a sentient hive-mind? Cannibalism, or no more odd than drinking human milk would be? (I.e, odd but not abyssmally odd)

  47. Once, I had a job in a lab where we worked with a large volume of HeLa cells. That’s about 100L of cervical cancer cells, which are by definition, human. We used the cells to make viruses and… it’s complicated.

    On Fridays we would empty the 100L of dead cells though a large paper filter. It was then my job to steam-clean this filter. It had a very peculiar smell; hot paper and something vaguely savory, but not a bad smell.

    Friday evening I go out to dinner and am halfway through a BLT when I realize what that savory smell in the filter was. I very nearly threw up my sandwich right there in the restaurant. It took weeks for me to be able to eat bacon again.

    So yes, people taste like pork.

  48. During my wife’s c-section closure the unmistakable smell of steak on the barbie pervaded (cauterizing needle). I have had disturbing thoughts ever since…tsk tsk, dry rub or marinate.

  49. This might be akin to Bush Meat, where humans eat other great apes, like chimps and gorillas. It’s in that gray area of not really cannibalism but still squicky enough to be taboo, except in certain regions where they clearly don’t read enough science fiction.

    Also, Bush Meat is one of the theories as to how HIV was first transmitted from chimpanzees to humans. Tainted meat from jungle poachers.

  50. One thing about the ‘people taste like pork’ thing — AFAIK that comes from Polynesian accounts of cannibalism, and the Polynesians of the time only ate one mammal, pig. (Well, dog as well on some islands, but mostly pig). They didn’t have beef or mutton as a comparison. So I’m not sure that means more than “Tastes more like pig than it tastes like fish”.

    My sister the surgeon describes the smell from an electrocautery device that sears human flesh as appetizing, but I seem to remember her saying it smelled like burgers rather than particularly porky. (Also, exposed human fat laced with blood vessels? Apparently, if you went into surgery hungry, looks surprisingly like cherry cheese danish filling.)

  51. Hilary @ 62 – Of all the ways to want to eat your wife…

    Dry rub can be painful; definitely marinate.

    D – “I go there so y’all don’t have to.”

  52. 2014 now, and we have discovered that 5% of us (humans) still carry Neanderthal genes.

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