An Ancient Ritual and a Deadly Disease

Anita Durairaj

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There was an ancient ritual practiced a long time ago from the Fore people of Papua New Guinea which involved eating the brains of the dead. In the strange ritual, the men would eat the flesh of the dead while the women and children would eat the brain. The act of consuming dead flesh was meant as a sign of love and respect to the dead.

…the mortuary practice of consumption of the dead and incorporation of the body of the dead person into the bodies of living relatives, thus helping to free the spirit of the dead; this practice had deep significance for the Fore people and their neighbors. — Alpers, 2007

The ritual has now been abolished but the consequences still linger.

The Ritual

The Fore people had a choice when a member of their tribe died. They could either choose to bury or eat their dead. The dying person was also given the choice as to whether they wanted their bodies to be eaten or buried.

After the death, the family would first mourn the dead for 2–3 days. When the body was ready to be eaten, it was taken on a stretcher to a sugar cane or bamboo grove. These sites were chosen because they provided shade to the mourners and the dead.

The body was then laid on a bed of edible greens. When the body was cut up, the mourners would make sure that no remains of the flesh could be lost to the ground as this would have been disrespectful.

Children were not allowed to witness the ritual of cutting up the body. The cutting was usually done by an elderly and respected woman of the tribe. During the cutting of the torso, the older women would form a wall around the body so that younger women and children could not see the ritual being performed.

As the body was being cut, the pieces of meat were put in piles for each recipient on a banana leaf along with bone parts. Certain body parts would only be eaten by close female relatives of the dead.

For eating the brain of the deceased, the head was burned to remove the hair and then defleshed. A hole was made in the skull to remove the brain which was then cooked with ferns. The brain was always considered to be a delicacy for the Fore people.

This cannibalistic ritual was eventually abolished in the 1950s due to the incidence of a rare epidemic disease called Kuru which arose from eating the brains.

The Disease Called Kuru

Kuru is a disease that is caused by an infecting protein in the brain called the prion. It only occurs when humans consume human brain in their diet. It was first investigated in 1958 and it was found to be epidemic among the Fore people and their neighbors. The epidemic killed 2% of the population of the Fore people every year.

Symptoms of Kuru include leg and arm pain, coordination and walking difficulties, headaches, tremors, and muscle jerks. It is also incurable and causes fatalities. Death occurs within the first year of symptoms showing up.

Although the Fore people stopped the ritualistic practice of cannibalism, the effects of the disease remained in the population long after. This is because Kuru has a long incubation period which means symptoms can occur long after being exposed to the prion that causes the disease. In some cases, symptoms could occur 50 years after exposure to the prion.

In a surpising twist, scientists found that eating human brains had some benefits. Some members of the Fore people were found to be resistant to Kuru as well as to similar diseases such as mad cow disease and dementia. In this case, a segment of the population seemed to naturally obtain some sort of genetic immunity.

Scientists were even able to identify the exact prion-resistant gene that was responsible for the protection against these diseases. They are continuing to conduct research into these prion-resistant genes and its effects on diseases like dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Today, there are approximately 20,000 Fore people. Kuru no longer exists. While the Fore people have abandoned their cannibalistic rituals, they still believe in the practice of rituals and sorcery.

Sources: MedlinePlus, Live Science, The Guardian, Wikipedia, Philosophical Transactions B Journal

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Trained with a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Cincinnati, I write unique and interesting articles focused on science, history, and current events.

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