In the 1950s and 60s, strange things were happening among the Fore people in Papua New Guinea. Suddenly women and children were beginning to tremor, shake, slur their speech, and walk in an unsteady manner. It would seem the Fore people were witnessing the first signs of the zombie apocalypse; or were they? In order to understand what was actually happening to these members of the community, scientists delved into the history and culture of the Fore people. Who were they? Why did this secluded tribe, of all people, suddenly develop such a bizarre disease?
Two main scientists are credited with uncovering the truth behind the disease plaguing the Fore tribe. Dr. Alpers lived among the Fore people in the 1960s and worked alongside Dr. Carleton Gajdusek. Living in New Guinea gave Dr. Alpers an inside look at the traditions of his host tribe. One striking cultural identifier of the Fore people is that they practiced ritualistic cannibalism. When a loved one passed away, the tribe would feast on the body; the men would eat the preferred portions of the deceased (muscle, skin, etc), while the women and children often got the less desirable brain matter. After much research, the doctors were able to link Fore cannibalism to the strange illness developing in the community.
It turned out that by eating the brain tissue of dead tribe members, women and children were being exposed to a prion disease. Similar to Mad Cow disease in cows, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, the zombie like symptoms, now referred to a Kuru disease, belong in the class of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (prions). Prions are considered infectious particles (believed to be proteins) in the brain. A prion is a misfolded protein that, when in contact with other “pre-prion” proteins, can change the pre-prion to a prion thus spreading infection. Kuru is a neurodegenerative disease that eventually causes death. Just like in mad cow, the disease is transmitted by eating contaminated meat (brain or spinal matter). Currently there is no cure, and death occurs about one year after symptoms begin to show.
After it became known that Kuru was being caused by contaminated brain matter, the Fore people were urged to drop the practice of funeral cannibalism. In the later 1960s they complied yet cases of Kuru were still cropping up. Unfortunately, the disease has an incubation period of about 10-13 years, and one case of 50+ years incubation has been reported! So even after humans were no longer being consumed, people were showing signs late into the 1970s and 80s because of the incubation time. Luckily, few cases of Kuru are reported today, though this does not mean it has become safe to indulge in a nice plate of human brains; eat at your own risk.
to learn more about kuru and the Fore people, click here!