There is a lot of negativity towards cannibalism. There is scant mention of it on TV cookery programmes, either as a totemistic or nutritional diet choice.
By clumsy chance, as I write this, I am sucking blood, my own, having gashed opened my finger while rummaging for my laptop.
There was the gory news story a few years back, of a German man who advertised for someone who would volunteer to be eaten. I am not sure what magazines accept classifieds from hungry human flesh eaters, these are the loneliest hearts columns. Apparently, the volunteer started to experience regret when the chef and he partook of his flesh together. I don’t know if this was an issue over seasoning, or the realisation this is was less glamorous way to die than he had imagined.
It was while I was in Germany last month that my thoughts turned to the more positive sides of cannibalism. In Leipzig, I learnt of what a boon it can be for the curious evolutionary geneticist. The biologist Svante Pääbo is a founder of paleogenetics. He has led a team that has sequenced the Neanderthal genome and so led the way in understanding Homo Sapiens interbreeding with Neanderthals. Headlines appeared when suppositions were made that our inheritance from the Neandethal included allergies, incontinence and depression, but also immunity.
But what has all this got to do with cannibalism? One of the major problems of sequencing DNA of extinct creatures, or any elderly relic, is the degradation over time. It is hard to find specimens untainted by bacteria, human touch or the multitude of other ways that nature can maul a bone.
A large cache of Neanderthal bones were discovered in the El Sidron cave in Northern Spain. The bones had cuts and marks across them that suggested they had been sliced into to remove flesh and muscle for the purpose of a meal. The archeological belief was that the bones of this particular family showed they were victims of survival cannibalism, which means they were eaten out of necessity rather than desire (dietary cannibalism) or for mystical reasons (symbolic cannibalism).
This terrible act of survival now gives geneticists 40,000 years on a great advantage. Without tasty sinews, the bones were far less appealing to bacteria, wild dogs or anything else that might scavenge or burrow. All these things would further damage the integrity of the neanderthal DNA.
Samples find themselves taken from a cave of death and destruction to the remarkably and vitally clean basement of the Max Planck Institue of Evolutionary Anthropology, where amongst tupperware and UV light, the grail of DNA is sought.
Within some of these pecked and sucked at bones will be gene sequences that will further enlighten us about the relationship and inheritance from the coupling of Neanderthal man and European homo sapiens. Accounts have been written of tribes that ate the brains of their wise men, believing that digesting a smart brain might pass on the knowledge. Unfortunately, far from making the mind wiser, it may have made it deteriorate via the disease Kuru. In seventeenth century Europe, human remains would be ingredients in medicine, such as Charles II’s tincture, The King’s Drops, which contaned human skull. Powdered human and brain snacking may not have done much for the human consumers. Only now are we discovering what wisdom may be a bi-product of cannibalism and how the sad necessity of it 42000 years ago is helping us to discover why we are who we are and via gene sequences we may discover new ways to health without munching on a still beating heart.
Dead Funny Encore – a new collection of horror stories by comedians (Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Alice Lowe, James Acaster, me…) and Alan Moore is out now
Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles new series includes Alan Moore, Noel Fielding, Sarah Bakewell, Nick Offerman… they are here