Early Humans: Infanticide & Cannibalism

I’m watching a 1980’s documentary called ‘Magnificent Lives of the Chimpanzees’, and they showed a mothers infant being taken by a male, killed, and eaten by the community.

The narrator pretty much flat out says that humans did the same.

I did a quick Google search, but only found things things that were ritualistic or a means of survival.

I thought it might be more fun to ask you folks, before looking into even further.

Thank you so much.

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I don’t think the question is did it ever happen, but how widespread and common was it? I would argue, unencumbered by the thought process, that it may have been somewhat common in some tribes of early humans, but that it was farely rare in most tribes. If you routinely kill off a percentage of your young that makes is harder to sustain a viable population, which was hard enough given all of the challenges early humans must have faced, including disease, predation and intertribal warfare.

Killing off and eating young might not have been routine, but there’s a certain survival logic to doing that during famine when you can’t support everyone, the young (as well as the old) are likely to die off anyway, and maybe the eventual fate of orphans in such circumstances.

Which is not to be taken as me condoning anything of the sort, just that I could see where it might happen.

If you rule out “ritualistic” and “a means of survival”, what exactly is left?

Possible, but probably not routine. At any rate, there is not enough evidence from the fossil record to say. But our best insight is to look at extant primitive societies to see how common this is. None that I know of.


I believe there is one instance in the bible about the killing and eating of a infant, but during times of famine.

Killing a rival man’s child prior to impregnating the woman with your own.

That only makes sense if the man was aware that sex leads to pregnancy or if the behavior was instinctual. But The Master says the connection between sex and pregnancy wasn’t known until the Neolithic, c. 10,000 BC. And it seems unlikely to be instinctual since modern men (for the most part) don’t have such an instinct.

You don’t have to understand something to behave like it. For example, people have been leery about procreating with their siblings well before we understood the Westermarck effect.

First of all, that’s shear conjecture with no proof. Second, that’s about sex and procreation, not whether or not fathers knew who their children were.

The truth is, we have no way of knowing what went on with regard to this in pre-historic times. And the Westermak Effect is not without its critics. Evolutionary Psychology is hard. No, really it is!! :slight_smile:

Yes, that’s what I said. Behavior without understanding is instinct. How did we lose that instinct in less than 12,000 years?

What part is “shear [sic] conjecture”? That sex=pregnancy wasn’t known until the neolithic? Cecil explained the reasoning behind this in his article. Granted, it’s not “proven”, but nothing outside of mathematics is ever proven.

In most cases it’s true that fathers wouldn’t know who their children were. Even today fathers generally have no way short of DNA testing to know for certain who their children are. In a society with more limited phenotypic variation (hair color, etc) they’d have even fewer clues.

Every culture recognizes the same amount of phenotypic variation. In a culture where everyone has the same hair color, you just don’t pay any attention to hair color, and look for something else instead. If you can recognize different individuals, then you can also recognize that some individuals look similar. What you’re saying basically amounts to “all those neolithic people look alike”.

(As an aside, I don’t think ad hominem highlighting of a typo is your usual level of discourse.)

There are known examples of this behavior in several animals, including primates:

So far as I’m aware, there is no definitive research to show that chimp infanticide occurs for this reason, but it’s a leading hypothesis (although it would not be quite the same, since chimp social structure is different).

Since we know some closely-related species engage in this behavior, it’s certainly plausible that our ancestors did too. And I think the notion that we would require conscious analytical knowledge of reproduction to engage in this behavior is wrong. It’s the kind of instinctive behavior that could evolve quickly both into and out of existence, since the potential fitness advantage is large. On the one hand, in a dominance social structure, if the dominant male can get away with siring most of the children, aided by infanticide, his genes will spread fast. On the other hand, if a male misjudges the strength of his position, attempting to murder other males’ children is likely to met with a rather robust response.

I apologize for the snarky [sic] comment. You’re right, it was uncalled for.

I know that in many animals the males instinctively kill babies of females they mate with. My point, which apparently I’m not making clear, is if that were instinctive behavior in early humans, it would still be instinctive behavior today. 12,000 years is too short a time for evolution to get rid of an instinctive behavior. What other instinctive behavior has disappeared in such a short time frame? Even if there were selection pressure to eliminate that behavior, in only 12,000 years there would still be remnants of it. Men would have an innate aversion and hostility to existing children of a new mate and would constantly be fighting the urge to kill them. (Ok, I’m leaving myself open for wry anecdotes here, but this behavior isn’t universal.)

Well, I guess it depends what time period you want to consider in saying “humans” might have done this. Anatomically modern H sapiens has been around for something like 200,000 years.

I share your skepticism that any such thing was likely (at least as a routine social strategy outside of war) within relatively modern history, because it’s related to the whole social structure. But I’d hesitate to rule it out over the course of 100,000 years or more.

The Biblical account entered the Western/Christian mythos stemming from its citation in

…Josephus’s The Jewish Wars, originally written in Aramaic around 77 C.E.,
and then translated into Greek. Indeed, it might be possible to credit
Josephus with the creation of the character of Maria, although certainly
the motif of the starving mother under siege existed long before him,
even appearing in a context that would have been familiar to Josephus.
This is the account in 2 Kings 6:28–29 of the woman of Samaria during
the siege of that city by Ben-hadad, king of Syria. This woman complain
to the king of Israel after she and her neighbor have, between them, eaten
her son, not because of the state to which she has been reduced, but
rather because of the dishonesty of her neighbor in reneging on an
agreement to share her own child: “This woman said unto me, Give thy
son, that we may eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow. So we
boiled my son and did eat him; and I said unto her on the next day, Give
thy son, that we may eat him; and she hath hid her son.” The king rends
his garments in sorrow and despair. While it is not impossible, or even all
that improbable, given the exigencies of a siege, that an incident of the
kind Josephus describes actually took place during the siege of
Jerusalem, it seems more likely, then, that he included the melodramatic
and ritualized scene as a traditional trope of desperation.
From “The Maternal Monstrous: Cannibalism at
the Siege of Jerusalem” in Consuming Passions: The Uses of Cannibalism in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Merrall Llewelyn Price (Routledge:2003).

Well worth reading. As is: Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture, Louise Noble (Palgrave:2011).

Something of a side interest of mine…

The thing with us hoo-mans is that we have enormous cultural variation. It could be that certain tribes would take over another tribe’s territory and kill the babies. And other tribes might adopt all the babies. And the behavior might depend on how reliable the food resources were or what time of year it was. Saying that “early humans did X” is always fraught with danger when there is no fossil evidence of “X” behavior and we don’t know of any extant cultures that do “X”.

Interesting responses.

Thank you all again.

Baby back ribs for dinner?

There are many arguably “instinctual” behaviors (as I understand it, humans don’t actually display instincts as such, but there are certainly behaviors which seem fairly hardwired) that we don’t do anymore, or at least we’re not open about doing. Benign things like picking our nose, for example, are quashed by social conditioning to become either something we don’t do, or we don’t do in public, or we don’t admit we do. More serious things, like rape and murder, we make laws against.

I think the increased rate of physical child abuse in blended, foster, and adoptive households suggests that there is an “instinct” to harm the offspring of another person that still exists. We may not eat our young, but our unrelated adults too often hurt, injure, and even murder them at a rate higher than we do our biological children.