While not exactly common, the practice of eating a member of one’s own species isn’t a rare occurrence in the animal kingdom. However, modern humans have pretty much agreed that cannibalism is wrong. Prior to a current-day, universal stance against cannibalism, a few societies still practiced eating human flesh.
Papua New Guinea is known for being unknown. It has always been isolated and up until the early 1900s, much of the world was unaware of the one million people who lived there. In the 1950s, it was discovered that one particular tribe known as the Fore suffered from a strange illness known as Kuru.
Kuru translated to “shivering” and had a number of odd symptoms. Those with the disease would lose control of their body, starting with their limbs, then their emotions, then death would occur. The disease affected women and children the most and the people of the tribe believed the disease was due to magic.
In the 1960s, researchers began looking into the cause of Kuru. They deduced that it was not due to contaminants and hypothesized that genetic factors had a role. However, this was soon discovered not to be the case. The disease had spread from northern villages to southern villages, and it did not seem to affect via genetic relation; instead, those in the same social circles appeared to have more overlap in infection.
Eventually, the researchers found the answer: the people of the Fore ate dead bodies at funerals, and that was the cause of Kuru. Kuru was a prion disease and it was spread by the cannibalistic practices of the tribe. When a member of the tribe passed away, his or her remains were cooked and eaten usually by women and children. They believed that being eaten by humans was preferable to being eaten by worms and maggots. The entire body (excluding the gall bladder for some reason) was consumed, which allows for the spread of prions since they are found in the brain.
The discovery of prions did not come until later. At the time, researchers only knew that Kuru was spread via cannibalism and Kuru was very slow acting. Kuru was also very good at surviving; boiling and cooking did nothing to remove the harmful effects.
The strange thing about prions is that they are not living things; they are not alive. They do not experience evolution, they had no goals to reproduce, they are not fighting to survive. They simply exist and spread at an alarming rate. Prions convert healthy proteins into more unhealthy misfolded prions, and there is no known way to change back. The accumulations of misfolded proteins damage the brain and impair neurological functions and eventually cause death.
Upon discovering the harmful effects of cannibalism, the Fore stopped this practice. However, people still seemed to get affected by Kuru. This was due to the long incubation period of Kuru; it can take a very long time for symptoms to show up. 2009 was the last year that someone died of Kuru and the disease seems to be under control.
Kuru is out of the way for now. However, we are still not safe from prion diseases. Mad cow disease happened quite recently and there were a few jumps from cows to humans. Chronic wasting disease is currently a huge problem right now and seems to be spreading faster than ever; deer can spread this disease through saliva, feces, and urine, not just by consumption of brain tissue. Although cannibalism is not a common practice in the United States right now, hunting deer and eating it is. We should be cautious moving forward in order to minimize the risk of being exposed to the terrifying threat of prions. Also, don’t go back to cannibalism because that wouldn’t help either.
A tribe leader preaches against the sorcery killing women and children. He does not suspect cannibalism as the cause of Kuru.