Is it OK to Eat Neanderthals?

In a recent article in The Observer the publication of a scientific article presenting evidence in favour of a new theory about the fate of the Neanderthals was reported (See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/may/17/neanderthals-cannibalism-anthropological-sciences-journal). According to this new theory, modern humans ate the Neanderthals!

 

Neanderthals flourished in Europe and Western Asia between 130,000 years and 30,000 years ago. Homo Sapiens are believed to have moved into Europe approximately 30,000 years ago, so it is certainly possible that the two overlapped and that the reason that there are no more Neanderthals is that they ended up in our stomachs. On the other hand it is also possible, as competing theories have it, that the Neanderthals interbred with modern humans and were assimilated into the larger group and it is also possible that Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens had little or no interaction and that the Neanderthals died out as a consequence of the changing climate and other environmental factors. Much remains unknown about the Neanderthals. We do not know how many of them there were and we do not know whether it was actually possible for them to interbreed with modern humans.

 


 

The consumption of Neanderthals by Homo Sapiens is described as ‘cannibalism’ in The Observer and in other news outlets. Indeed, the term is used by Fernando Rozzi, the leader of the research team that discovered evidence in favour of the theory. It is not agreed whether Neanderthals were a subspecies of Homo Sapiens or a separate species. On the view that they were a subspecies, the use of the term cannibalism is appropriate, but on the view that they were a separate species this term would seem to be somewhat out of place. Cannibalism involves eating members of one’s own species, rather than a different species. Cannibalism is widely believed to by particularly wrong, although it is difficult to capture what is particularly wrong about cannibalism, as distinct from killing and eating a member of a different species. A further problem is that many human communities have practiced some or other form of cannibalism, so presumably these communities do not share the belief that cannibalism is particularly wrong.

 

The thought of being able to eat a form of human, which is a distinct species from Homo Sapiens (if Neanderthals turn out to be a sub-species of Homo Sapiens then just substitute Home Erectus, Homo Habilis or any other form of early human), raises a tricky ethical issue. Killing (and eating) members of our own species is widely believed to be particularly wrong, much more morally significant than killing and eating other species. But what are we to make of borderline cases involving species that we have much in common with? I find it very hard to know what to make of such cases.

 

We don’t usually consider the killing of a chimpanzee to be more morally significant than the killing of a sheep or a cow, even though we share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees. It is estimated that we shared somewhere between 99.5% and 99.9% of our DNA with Neanderthals. Is this enough to make it especially wrong to kill and eat Neanderthals or is it no more problematic to kill and eat Neanderthals than it is to kill and eat sheep and cattle? But if it is especially wrong to kill and eat Neanderthals, is it as morally wrong as killing and eating other Homo Sapiens or does the degree of wrongness of killing and eating of Neanderthals lie somewhere between killing and eating other Homo Sapiens and killing and eating species that are significantly less related to us.

 

It is very hard to know how to go about answering the above questions. It seems to be an accident of history that we do not share the planet with any other species of human, so fortunately we do not have to make moral decisions about the rightness or wrongness of killing and eating them. If our ancestors really did kill and eat the Neanderthals then they did us a strange sort of a favour. By eliminating the Neanderthals they enabled us to avoid having to face up to the problem of figuring out the moral status of Neanderthals.

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6 Responses to Is it OK to Eat Neanderthals?

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    Neanderthals were tool-users, used animal skins, buried their dead and likely had language. This suggests that they were not just human-like but probably had some level of thought and rationality. Could the wrongness of cannibalism stem not from species membership but that it involves eating a sapient being, or a being that holds moral status? One could probably run a Kantian/human dignity argument that eating such a being would be disrespectful.

    Some people might still think there is an additional problem with eating members of our own species or species very close to it, perhaps akin to a kind of “incest”: we were not “meant” to eat them. But it seems to me the moral status approach is already enough to preclude eating neanderthals, visiting aliens and maybe even chimps.

  • Dennis Tuchler says:

    I have a broader view of the injunction not to kill — one having nothing to do with rights, but rather centered on what the right thing to do is. Why not kill a human? We take it to be wrong because it tends to wreck a social system based on consent and agreement. It also makes killing easier for the killer and others who see it and thereby devalue the lives of other humans. That is, the prohibition directs itself to setting people on the right path with respect to recognizable humans. Killing (not to mention eating) creatures like us has a similar effect on us insofar as it makes us less unwilling to kill humans.

    As to tool- users and such like, I am indifferent to what the potential victim can do or what the relatives of that potential victim can do. Moreover, I am indifferent as to species or even genus. I am more concerned with looks.

    Complete idiots can’t do much, but we don’t kill them. Why not? Many of us have little trouble aborting an eight-cell embryo, but blench at doing so to a six-month fetus (who looks like a human being!). Looks are alot. If we have a totally deformed human being before us, with little in the way of mental capacity, are we willing to kill that creature? I don’t think so, because it nevertheless reminds us by its form that it is human.

    Human and humanity are social concepts, not biological ones or anthropological ones. We value human life because, well, we hold it valuable. That begged question as to value supports our liberal democracy and the peaceful social system.

  • Tomasz Wegrzanowski says:

    “We don’t usually consider the killing of a chimpanzee to be more morally significant than the killing of a sheep or a cow”

    Are you sure? I find eating chimps extremely icky, and I would guess most people feel the same way.

  • David E says:

    I’ll second Dennis on that one. The great apes are more than close enough relatives to us for me to consider it highly objectionable.

  • David E says:

    Or rather, Tomasz.

  • Herbivore says:

    It’s not OK – or necessary – to eat anyone who doesn’t’ want to be eaten. We simply don’t need meat. Since we wouldn’t accept anyone eating us (especially if they didn’t need it for survival), why would it be OK to kill and eat someone else?

    The very idea that we can eat someone based on how different they are from ourselves is merely based on egocentrism/human-centrism. Would we eat a chip if it had a vocabulary of 3000 words? Due to our self-centrism, we probably wouldn’t, because it was “too close” to yourself.

    Would you eat your own cat or dog, or your won chimp, if you had one? Probably not – for the same reason.

    More about Ethic of reciprocity: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethic_of_reciprocity

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