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The Frightening Science Behind the Cannibalism on Yellowjackets

6 minute read

The cruelty of teenage girls can often feel like life-or-death—but in Yellowjackets, Showtime’s hit series about a New Jersey girl’s soccer team that gets stranded in the wilderness, it really is. Starving, freezing, and with no animals to hunt and little else to lose, the teens have slowly transformed from classmates into cannibals.

It’s not an unrealistic scenario—the show’s creators have referenced the real-life catastrophes that inspired it, many of which devolved into cannibalism. But with a dozen mouths to feed, it seems like an unsustainable dietary strategy for the show’s survivors. The show’s creators are planning for three more seasons, so viewers are left to wonder: How can any of the Yellowjackets stay alive until their rescue?

What we know so far about the Yellowjackets timeline

The team’s plane seems to crash in the spring, and they make it through the summer fairly easily by hunting animals. But once it starts snowing, the Yellowjackets—now a team of a different sort that includes their assistant coach Ben and their head coach’s two sons, Travis and Javi—run out of food. After queen bee Jackie discovers that her best friend Shauna slept with (and got pregnant by) her boyfriend, but fails to make the group turn against her, Jackie retreats alone into the cold, where she freezes to death in an early-winter snowfall. Jackie becomes the first team member consumed around late November, after the team has been hungry (and storing her body) for about two months.

Sheer desperation is what first pushes the group to cross the line into eating one of their own, which aligns with what we know about the long history of human cannibalism. “We’ve seen cut marks and tooth marks on bones going back about a million years,” says James Cole, a principal lecturer in archaeology at the University of Brighton in England. Eating animals has always been preferable to eating people, in part because humans have less meat on their frames compared to creatures like cows or mammoths. But when animals were scarce, due to disease, weather, or competition, people did resort to it, Cole says.

Jackie’s ostracism from the group before her death may have made the act of eating her easier to sit with emotionally, says Cole (who does not watch the show). “Because she’s no longer seen as an integral member of the group, their empathy is degraded,” he says.

Probably a month later (judging by the length of Shauna’s pregnancy), the team is again desperately hungry. Because we know the team ultimately spends 19 months in the wilderness, that leaves 10 more months between the meal they made of Javi in the season finale and their far-off rescue.

The terrifying science behind real-life cannibalism

So how much sustenance could a human body provide? Cole’s 2017 paper published in Nature Scientific Reports, which explores cannibalism in Paleolithic times and how many calories the practice would likely render, offers some clues. Cole analyzed the total chemical breakdown of the human body and estimated that a Paleolithic man’s skeletal muscle would contain 32,375 calories. Adding in the organs, skin, marrow, and other body parts that would likely be consumed in a survival situation would increase the count to about 125,822 calories.

The standard Paleolithic man from Cole’s research weighed just 110 pounds, while the average weight of a 17-year-old girl during the Yellowjackets universe—set in the ‘90s—was 137 pounds, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of course, starvation can cause significant weight loss, the amount of which can vary greatly from person to person based on complex metabolic factors. Some data on formerly healthy hunger strikers suggest that severe medical issues begin when about 18% of body weight has been lost; though some Yellowjackets have surely crossed this line, using this as an approximation takes them down to 112 pounds each. Therefore, the average Yellowjacket (most of whom are high-school seniors) would yield about 128,109 edible calories. Because Travis and Coach Ben, two other survivors, are both male, they’d yield more calories: about 149,843 and 161,796 respectively, using the CDC’s average weights for a 17-year-old boy and a man in his late 20’s at that time and the same starvation-driven weight loss estimate.

Read More: How the Wild Yellowjackets Season 2 Finale Sets Up a Savage Path Forward

The worst-case scenario is that only Travis and the six girls we see as adults—Shauna, Natalie, Taissa, Van, Lottie, and Misty—survive, which would give them roughly four other Yellowjackets and Coach Ben to eat over 10 months, for a total calorie count of 674,235.

The Yellowjackets’ wilderness diet

Sydney Daley, a team performance dietitian at the University of Michigan (who hasn’t seen Yellowjackets), says that even athletes with high metabolic rates “can survive on very little food for quite some time.” Water, which the Yellowjackets do have, is much more necessary. While the team would probably consume about 2,000 calories each per day back in New Jersey, a number closer to 800 or so could keep them going in a survival situation, she says. “But without the right amount of certain nutrients, you might run into really severe health issues,” says Daley. Plus, after so many months, they’ve all lost weight and are running on empty.

We haven’t seen the Yellowjackets eat much foraged vegetation apart from some weak-sounding soup. But the fact that they’re all still alive after nine months in the wilderness, let alone healthy enough to run and try to hunt one another, likely means that they’re nibbling trace amounts of something that isn’t meat. “Strictly eating meat, whether it’s human meat or animal meat, can just cause a lot of distress,” says Daley, primarily “really horrible gut issues.” Assuming our survivors are getting about 100 calories a day of things like berries, ferns, and belt soup, that puts their long-term survival needs after those snacks at 700 per day.

So, assuming the number of people splitting each caloric load decreases by one each hunt (and that they’re only ever killing one teammate at a time), that means the seven surviving Yellowjackets would be able to last about 109 days on a diet of their teammates and meager foraged meals. But that’s just a little over three months, when they have 10 more months to go in the wilderness. In fact, according to our calculations, only two Yellowjackets could survive until rescue with this diet alone—and that’s even if they minimize sharing by saving Ben and Travis for last.

How will the show sustain the Yellowjackets through those remaining months? The stranded teammates could go back to hunting normal game when the snow melts and the animals return for the summer. Or maybe the wilderness has more surprises in store.

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