1.5 million-year-old bone cuts may be earliest cannibalism proof

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Eat the Flintstones?

Cannibalism has been practiced long before Jeffrey Dahmer or even the Aztecs were having old friends for dinner.

Mysterious marks on the bone of a human ancestor suggest that we could’ve been eating each other as early as 1.5 million years ago, per a gruesome study published in the journal “Scientific Reports.”

“The information we have tells us that hominins [a homo sapien ancestor] were likely eating other hominins at least 1.45 million years ago,” Briana Pobiner, a paleo anthropologist with the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, told Phys.org of these so-called prime-eval leftovers, which could be the world’s oldest evidence of cannibalism.

Pobiner explained, “There are numerous other examples of species from the human evolutionary tree consuming each other for nutrition, but this fossil suggests that our species’ relatives were eating each other to survive further into the past than we recognized.”


The tibia in question juxtaposed with the magnifying area showing the cut marks.
“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,” pustulated Pobiner.
Jennifer Clark

She found these traces of supposed caveman-eating serendipitously while poring over the National Museums of Kenya’s Nairobi National Museum fossil collections.

Pobiner was trying to glean insight into which types of prehistoric predators were preying on human ancestors.

While examining the left tibia (shin bone) of a 1.45 million-year-old hominin — an unidentified extinct relative of ours — the researcher discovered suspicious slice-like marks that she believed to be signs of human-on-human butchery.

To determine if this was the case, Pobiner made an impression of 11 of the cuts using a material utilized by dentists to construct teeth molds.

She then sent them to study co-author Michael Pante of Colorado State University, who made 3D scans of the supposed slices and cross-referenced them with a database featuring 898 models of individual tooth, butchery and trample marks.


The slices were consistent with marks made by a stone tool.
The slices were consistent with marks made by a stone tool.
Briana Pobiner

Their fossil forensic work revealed that nine of the marks were consistent with wounds created by stone implements.

“The V-shape of these marks and their straight trajectories are strong indicators that they are cut marks,” the authors wrote in the study.

They noted that they were deep and fine unlike damage inflicted by a “sedimentary abrasion,” and didn’t look similar to linear marks created by other sources such as “insects, plant roots, or raptor beaks.”

Meanwhile, the remaining two incisions were likely inflicted by three different types of saber-toothed cats that roamed the region during that epoch, according to Pobiner.

The scientist postulated that the feline could’ve either scavenged the remains of a hominin’s kill or conversely killed the victim before possibly getting seen off the carcass by other enterprising hominins.


A 3D model of two of the marks identified as slices.
A 3D model of two of the marks identified as slices.
Michael Pante

These cut marks don’t definitely prove that the culprit was trying to butcher said hominin’s leg a la Hannibal Lecter.

However, their location where a calf muscle was attached to the bone — a prime spot for flesh removal — along with the fact that they’re oriented in the same direction led scientists to believe that they’re signs of intraspecies meat processing.

“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.”

Interestingly, many past instances of cannibalism were performed ritualistically with people ranging from 18th-century Fijean tribes to aristocratic Italians during the early-modern period (1500-1700) consuming enemy flesh to harness to their power.

Meanwhile, the Fore of Papua New Guinea reportedly ate their dead as a sign of love and respect as it prevented them from decaying or being eaten by insects.


A closeup of the nine slices identified as cut marks.
“The information we have tells us that hominins were likely eating other hominins at least 1.45 million years ago,” said Pobiner.
Jennifer Clark

If the aforementioned din of the flesh was real, it was likely an anomaly.

Of the 199 fossilized bones Pobin examined in the collection, the aforementioned tibia was the only one with slice marks.

This suggested that eating others was not widespread and was rather done out of necessity during lean times, the Washington Post reported.

As multiple species of hominins existed 1.5 million years ago where the fossil was found, more research is needed to determine if it’s evidence of cannibalism or simply a case of one species eating its ancestors, said Pobin.

To shed more light, the researcher says she plans to study another potentially-butchered bone: A 1.5-2.6 million-year-old skull discovered in South Africa in 1976 that could also be the world’s oldest cannibalism evidence.

The cranium bears similar markings to the shin bone, although scientists aren’t sure whether they were caused by stone tools or rather carved by sharp rocks that were resting against it.

It’s also yet unclear if hominins would’ve harvested the flesh given the lack of muscle groups in the skull.

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