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Did our ancestors develop appetites for other species of people? New research by scientists at the National Museum of Natural History may suggest so. A study published in the journal Scientific Reports describes the oldest convincing evidence that our close evolutionary relatives dissected and likely consumed each other.

“The information we have tells us that hominins were probably eating other hominins at least 1.45 million years ago,” said Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History. “There are numerous other examples in the human evolutionary lineage of species that ate each other for food, but this fossil find suggests that our kin ate each other much further in the past than we realise.”

The research is based on analysis of a 1.45-million-year-old left tibia found in northern Kenya. Nine cutting marks on the fossil’s surface suggest they were made by stone tools — the oldest known evidence of this behavior. Paleoanthropologist Pobiner first came across the fossilized tibia in the collections of the Nairobi National Museum in Kenya. “It seems most likely that the meat was eaten from this leg and that it was eaten for nourishment and not for ritual,” Pobiner explained.

In addition to the cut marks, two other marks were detected that are likely bite marks from a big cat – most likely a lion. It remains unclear whether the animal scavenged the leg after being stripped of flesh by hominins, or whether it was the original predator driven off by the hominins.

Was it maybe even cannibalism? “There isn’t enough evidence for that,” Pobiner explained, “because cannibalism requires that the eater and the eaten be of the same species.”

The researchers are not quite sure which type of prehistoric man the tibia belongs to. It could be a Homo erectus, but also a Homo habilis or Paranthropus boisei. Neanderthals probably developed later in Europe from Homo erectus. It is believed to be the first human species to use fire, as modern humans could walk and hunt. Homo habilis had a significantly smaller brain than Homo erectus. Paranthropus boisei was a thought to be plant-feeding species with a brain only slightly larger than that of modern-day chimpanzees.

However, it is known that hominins have been eating hominins for more than a million years. However, this may be the earliest evidence of this, says University of Brighton archaeologist and anthropologist James Cole, who was not involved in the new research, told National Geographic. The earliest clear evidence to date of battle marks on hominin bones comes from the Atapuerca archaeological site in Spain, according to Cole. The finds are estimated to be more than 800,000 years old.