Are Humans Nutritious? Cannibalism Study Wins Ig Nobel Prize

Many scientists dream of winning a Nobel Prize. The parody Ig Nobel Prize, on the other hand, doesn't quite have the same gravitas but is recognition nonetheless. And that's what Dr James Cole, the author of a study exploring the nutritional value of a human corpse, will have to make do with for now.

Dr. Cole, a lecturer in archeology at the University of Brighton, U.K., was awarded the Improbable Research IG Nobel in the category of nutrition for his work showing human meat has significantly lower caloric content than other animals commonly eaten by our Paleolithic ancestors. For his efforts, he was given a heart-shaped statuette, a deification signed by 4 real Nobel Laureates, and 10 trillion Zimbabwe dollars (a demonetised currency).

The main criteria for an Ig Nobel is producing research that makes us laugh, then think. And Cole was entirely serious when he conducted his research, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

"I felt very honored to win an Ig Nobel prize," he told Newsweek. "It is a great forum to capture people's imaginations about the variety and diversity of science. It is also a great way to show how scientists tackle problems from different angles and how even though some methods may sound quirky there is always a bigger picture or reason why the work was done."

Dr. James Cole at the University of Brighton has won an award for a study detailing how little nutritional value a corpse contains. Getty images

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Among modern humans, cannibalism is practiced for motivations ranging from survival to ritual or warfare, said Cole. Less is known about the motivations of our pre-historic ancestors, such as neanderthals or homo erectus. Populations in France, Spain, U.K. and Belgium, for instance, are believed to have been cannibals.

"We know Neanderthals for example may have produced rock art, certainly produced jewelry, used ochre, had complex societies, and we mated with Neanderthals in the past, it should not be a surprise that our ancestors may have had as a complex relationship with cannibalism as our species does," Cole explained.

Prior studies which tried to explain this phenomenon suggested corpses were an easily accessible source of nutrients. But Cole found little the evidence to back this view. There are few Paleolithic cannibal fossil sites for archeologists to investigate. That makes it tough to conclude whether hominins rarely ate other hominins, or if it was a common behavior from which little evidence remains.

For his study, Cole worked out the calorific content of every part of the body, from the head to fat and skin. Using what we know about the animals paleolithic humans might have eaten, Cole calculated the calories in those, too, and crunched the numbers.

Based on the chemical composition of four males, he found a human weighing 65kg (143.3lbs) contained around 32,000 calories in their muscle tissue. That stands in contrast to the 163,000 calories in the muscle tissue of deer, and 3.6 million in a mammoth.

Dr. James Cole, who studied the calorific content of a human body. Mike Porter, University of Brighton

Cole acknowledged this approach isn't watertight, as non-Homo sapiens were likely different among themselves, and almost certainly when compared with modern humans. Nevertheless, Cole's work indicates that, considering the calorie content of faunal species such as bison, cow, bear, and horse, our ancestors likely didn't eat fellow humans because they were packed with energy. They may have eaten human flesh because dead bodies were an easy source of food that didn't require hunting.

"My study suggested that humans fall where you would expect for an animal of our size, however we are just not that large when compared to a horse or cow for example," he said. "This even holds true when multiple individuals (four to six) do not return as many calories as some single large game (like an auroch.) I would therefore suggest that the motivation for prehistoric cannibalism may not just be about the meat or the calories all the time, and archeologists should consider social or cultural reasons if we can."

And however bizarre his research may seem at first glance, his motivations are earnest. "My hope would be that the work would start a discussion around exploring the behavioral complexity of our human ancestors and we should embrace that past complexity. By doing so, we will be closer to fully understanding the range of behaviors of our ancestors, and in turn get a better understanding of ourselves. This understanding will help us all to build a better and more inclusive future."