The strange cannibal epidemic that wiped out entire villages in Papua New Guinea

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cannibal disease, cannibal prion disease, cannibalism epidemic papua new guinea
When people ate people, a strange disease emerged. Picture: Shirley Lindenbaum via NPR

Most of the world didn’t know anyone lived in the highlands of Papua New Guinea until the 1930s, when Australian gold prospectors surveying the area realized there were about a million people there.

When researchers made their way to those villages in the 1950s, they found something disturbing. Among a tribe of about 11,000 people called the Fore, up to 200 people a year had been dying of an inexplicable illness. They called the disease kuru, which means “shivering” or “trembling.”

Once symptoms set in, it was a swift demise. First, they’d have trouble walking, a sign that they were about to lose control over their limbs. They’d also lose control over their emotions, which is why people called it the “laughing death.” Within a year, they couldn’t get up off the floor, feed themselves or control their bodily functions.

Many locals were convinced it was the result of sorcery. The disease primarily hit adult women and children younger than 8 years old. In some villages, there were almost no young women left.

They were obsessed with trying to save themselves because they knew demographically that they were on the brink of extinction,” says Shirley Lindenbaum, a medical anthropologist with the City University of New York.

But what is causing kuru?

That answer eluded researchers for years. After ruling out an exhaustive list of contaminants, they thought it must be genetic. So in 1961, Lindenbaum traveled from village to village mapping family trees so researchers could settle the issue.

But Lindenbaum, who continues to write about the epidemic, knew it couldn’t be genetic, because it affected women and children in the same social groups, but not in the same genetic groups. She also knew that it had started in villages in the north around the turn of the century, and then moved south over the decades.

Sorcery or cannibalism?

Lindenbaum had a hunch about what was going on, and she turned out to be right. It had to do with funerals. Specifically, it had to do with eating dead bodies at funerals.

In many villages, when a person died, they would be cooked and consumed. It was an act of love and grief.

As one medical researcher described, “If the body was buried it was eaten by worms; if it was placed on a platform it was eaten by maggots; the Fore believed it was much better that the body was eaten by people who loved the deceased than by worms and insects.

Women removed the brain, mixed it with ferns, and cooked it in tubes of bamboo. They fire-roasted and ate everything except the gall bladder. It was primarily adult women who did so, says Lindenbaum, because their bodies were thought to be capable of housing and taming the dangerous spirit that would accompany a dead body.

So, the women took on the role of consuming the dead body and giving it a safe place inside their own body — taming it, for a period of time, during this dangerous period of mortuary ceremonies,” says Lindenbaum.

But women would occasionally pass pieces of the feast to children. “Snacks,” says Lindenbaum. “They ate what their mothers gave them,” she says, until the boys hit a certain age and went off to live with the men. “Then, they were told not to touch that stuff.

Finally, after urging from researchers like Lindenbaum, biologists came around to the idea that the strange disease stemmed from eating dead people.

The case was closed after a group at the U.S. National Institutes of Health injected infected human brain into chimpanzees, and watched symptoms of kuru develop in the animals months later. The group, which won a Nobel Prize for the findings, dubbed it a “slow virus.”

Kuru: a new infectious agent

But it wasn’t a virus — or a bacterium, fungus, or parasite. It was an entirely new infectious agent, one that had no genetic material, could survive being boiled, and wasn’t even alive.

As another group would find years later, it was just a twisted protein, capable of performing the microscopic equivalent of a Jedi mind trick, compelling normal proteins on the surface of nerve cells in the brain to contort just like them.

The so-called “prions,” or “proteinaceous infectious particles,” would eventually misfold enough proteins to kill pockets of nerve cells in the brain, leaving the cerebellum riddled with holes, like a sponge.

The process was so odd that some compared it to Dr. Jekyll’s transformation to Mr. Hyde: “the same entity but in two manifestations — a ‘kind’, innocuous one and a ‘vicious’, lethal one.

The Kuru epidemic

The epidemic likely started when one person in a Fore village developed sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a degenerative neurological disorder similar to kuru. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in a million people in the U.S. develop CJD – the difference is that others rarely come into contact with infected human tissue.

Though the Fore stopped the practice of mortuary feasts more than 50 years ago, cases of kuru continued to surface over the years, because the prions could take decades to show their effects.

According to Michael Alpers, a medical researcher at Curtin University in Australia who tracked kuru cases for decades, the last person with kuru died in 2009. His team continued surveillance until 2012, when the epidemic was officially declared over. “I have followed up a few rumoured cases since then but they were not kuru,” he wrote in an email.

Prion diseases are still around

But while they remain rare, transmissible prion diseases did not die out with the last kuru case, as people have found repeatedly in recent decades.

People have developed variant CJD after eating the meat of cattle infected with mad cow disease. Dr. Ermias Belay, a prion disease researcher with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says that’s the only scenario in which there is “definitive evidence” that humans can develop a prion disease after eating the infected meat of another species.

But, he says, there are still a lot of open questions about how and why humans get prion diseases.

Mystery of prion diseases

For one, it’s still a mystery why animals, including humans, have those proteins in the first place — the Jekylls that can be so easily turned into Hydes.

One leading hypothesis, described recently in the journal Nature, is that they play an important role in the protective coating around nerves.

But here’s the bigger question, says Belay: “How many of these diseases actually jump species and affect humans?

Kuru showed that people could get a prion disease from eating infected people. Mad cow disease showed that people can get a prion disease from eating infected cow. But what about other prion diseases in other animals? Could, say, hunters get sick from eating infected deer? That’s what researchers in North America, including Belay, are trying to find out right now.

Chronic wasting disease in North America is spreading fast,” says Belay. The disease causes infected wild deer and elk to starve to death.In early 2000, we had about three states that reported CWD in the wild in deer and elk. Today, that number is 21.”

Belay says the disease is “a little bit concerning” because, unlike mad cow disease and kuru, where infectious prions were concentrated in the brain and nervous system tissue, in an animal with chronic wasting disease, the misfolded prions show up all over the body. They can even be found in saliva, feces and urine, which could explain how the disease is spreading so quickly among wild deer and elk.

The CDC is working with public health authorities in Wyoming and Colorado to monitor hunters for signs of prion disease.

Unfortunately, because these diseases have long incubation periods, it’s not easy to monitor transmission,” says Belay. He says he and his colleagues have yet to find any evidence that hunters have picked up chronic wasting disease from the meat of infected wild animals.

But, as with kuru, it will take years — maybe even decades — before he can know for sure. This article was first published by NPR. More cannibalism news on Strange Sounds and Steve Quayle.

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15 COMMENTS

  1. second post infact i just killed a deer last saturday with a .338 weatherby magnum its the best rifle i have ever owned i cant seem to miss a shot with that rifle…so askimet wont let me make 2 post,s

    • I got a Weatherby in .245 Winchester, in a trade. They are pretty and do shoot great. Neighbors hate it when I zero that rifle. Also, it is a nice weight to carry.

      The old Weatherby Mark V Crowns are gorgeous. My pop had one from the mid 60s. He had it made for him. Left-handed bolt. Inlays, engraved, premium grade stock. My ma sold it when they divorced. Pissed me right off.

  2. second post infact i just killed a deer last saturday with a .338 weatherby magnum its the best rifle i have ever owned i cant seem to miss a shot with that rifle…

  3. infact i just killed a deer last saturday with a .338 weatherby magnum its the best rifle i have ever owned i cant seem to miss a shot with that rifle…

  4. how do you get tested my short term memory is gone and i have hunted killed and ate deer all of my life….my mother bless her soul died of a plaque problem in the veins of hear brain it took about 20 years to run its course…i cant tell you how many wild animals i have eaten over the years its in the 1000,s…

    • You can tell which animals have disease pretty easy. I’ve eaten plenty of wild game. No kuru face twerking like Hillary has. She eats Hatian baby brains. That’s why the Hatians hate her ass.

  5. Many years ago as a young RN, I took care of an anthropologist who had contracted Kuru.
    This anthropologist had contracted Kuru years earlier in New Guinea, when he attended a village “feast.”
    Other than witnessing a single case of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, this was my first experience with prion diseases.
    The neurological effects were truly horrendous to witness, and this man died a truly horrific death.

    What bothers me now, is that TV is attempting to normalize cannibalism.
    A number of articles have been published in mainstream publications that talk about “ethical cannibalism”, that is the eating of human flesh taken from the deceased who have agreed ahead of time to be eaten.
    There was also an article about a man who had had a below the knee amputation due to a motorcycle accident.
    He asked the surgeon to freeze the amputated leg, which was done, and sometime later, this man, along with 10 of his closest friends, one of whom was a chef, stripped the flesh off of the amputated leg, cooked it, and made tacos from the flesh.
    There was a museum exhibit in San Diego this year, that attempted to normalize cannibalism. Fortunately, the exhibit has been shut down due to Covid.
    God help us all, there is nothing ethical or normal about eating human flesh!

  6. We all become Cannibalism if the way things go . No food, 12 miles car lined up for food within hour everything are gone. We are away from mess riots 3 x3 meals away from it. Things will get harder as we told you. Indian army celebrating Dwali
    new year of India by sending cruise missiles at sea with tanks firing in the sea as well.

  7. That was not Cannibalism my friends. This was a ritual where they ate the brains of their died relatives. it was done because of a belief system, not because of tribal war. In humans Kuru is I believe referred to as Mad Cow Disease.

    This is from a google search: “Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) are a group of progressive, invariably fatal, conditions that are associated with prions and affect the brain (encephalopathies) and nervous system of many animals, including humans, cattle, and sheep

  8. That would explain the link between junk food and Antifa/BLM. But seriously, I think geo-engineering (spraying) has something to do with this. It has been reported that bio-material (blood and blood products) are in the chemtrail sprays along with aluminum, barium, and other nasty stuff. This kind of disease just doesn’t come from nowhere. What’s going to be in the fake Covid vaccine? Think about it…

  9. Good article!

    Have read other articles about kuru, and related prion diseases. This article was more comprehensive.

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