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How Cannibalism Caused a New Guinean Epidemic

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Vojtech Novotny is Professor of Ecology at the University of South Bohemia and the Head of the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology at the Biology Center of the Czech Academy of Sciences in the Czech Republic. Novotny is currently directing the New Guinea Binatang Research Center, in Papua New Guinea, where an international team of scientists is studying the relationships between plants and insects in tropical rainforests. In the original post below, translated by David Short, Novotny looks at how tradition can cause epidemics.  Be sure to check out the other posts in this series, which will continue all week, here.

Today Mr. P. of the Fore tribe is a university student, but his grandfather was a great warrior. His aggression had earned him numerous enemies among the neighboring tribes. They had failed to kill him in battle, so it was the turn of magic. But even this has its technical limitations, since the magician’s task calls for some material from the body of an intended victim – uneaten bits of food contaminated by saliva, a snippet of hair, a nail trimming, some feces or blood; in modern terminology a DNA sample.

Grandpa was well aware of the magicians’ interest and kept a close eye on all his bodily waste products. Of course, his wife was incautious, as all women are, and so the magicians were able to obtain some biological material at least from her. They wrapped it in a rolled-up leaf, which they then buried in a secret spot. As the leaf gradually degraded, so the woman began to ail, losing her muscular coordination until she lost all control over her movements and died. Thus, Grandpa lost his first wife, then his second, and finally the third as well. Only the fourth survived the snares of the magicians and lived to a ripe old age, caring for fifteen children, her own and those of her three less fortunate predecessors.

The machinations of the magicians survived into the next generation. Mr. P.’s father died in middle age and of no apparent cause, so it must have been through magic. Ten years later, in 2006, his uncle also died. As one of the guests, already suspect, arrived at the funeral, the coffin took to shaking and so the deceased provided evidence of the culprit’s guilt. The others were ready for such an outcome and using a home-made rifle put a bullet through the magician’s head without ado. His brother made to flee the feast, but the person sitting closest to him wasted no time and slashed his Achilles’ tendon with a machete while another of the guests shot him through the chest with an arrow.

In the 1950s, a time when Mr. P.’s grandmothers were being bewitched one after another, the land of the Fore was reached by doctors from the Australian colonial administration, who discovered that the tribe was dying out from a previously unknown neurodegenerative disease, known locally as kuru. Further research showed that this is an infectious disease caused by prions, defective proteins that gradually accumulate in the patient’s nervous system.

Prions used to be transmitted through cannibalism, especially through eating a dead person’s brain. Within the Fore tribe, this was reserved to the womenfolk, which is why the disease spread preeminently among them. The brain of a dead man would be eaten by his sister, maternal aunts and daughter-in-law, a woman’s by her daughter-in-law and her sisters-in-law. It was usually mixed with the leaves of ferns, which are to this day used as a vegetable, and steamed over a fire inside hollow bamboo canes.

Kuru remains an incurable, fatal illness, though its single known epidemic ended spontaneously once the Fore gave up their cannibalistic funeral rites. This came about under pressure from the Australian colonial administration, though the people themselves never believed in the link between cannibalism and the disease and continued to hold black magic uniquely responsible for kuru. A headcount of patients carried out in 2004 revealed that there were now a mere eleven with the disease, all of whom had been infected way back in childhood, some as long as fifty years previously or more. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the identification and description of the disease a monothematic issue of the Transactions of the Royal Society came out in 2007 under the optimistic theme The End of Kuru: 50 Years of Research into an Extraordinary Disease.

The rapid spread of prions among the Fore fifty years ago brought about a change in the entire tribe’s thinking, which centered on black magic. The only way they could account for the large numbers of people affected and their unhappy demise was a massive and merciless application of black magic. While perhaps only the last dozen brains on the planet are now infested with actual kuru prions, the stereotypes they gave rise to, which would see some magician responsible for each and every death, live on in the heads of successive generations of hosts with far greater resilience.

Seen from the perspective of modern medicine, of which there are barely any exponents at all among the Fore, this tribe has been through a major, almost fatal epidemic, from which it has now fully recovered. The Fore people themselves, however, see the event in different terms, as a crazy episode of mutual mass murder, the course and consequences of which are still being resolved. The seeking-out and punishment of those held responsible, and the never-ending chain of reciprocal acts of retaliation go on and on.

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