Cannibalism and Kuru

Cannibalism, also known as anthropophagy, is the consumption of the flesh of one human by another.[7] While it may immediately bring feelings of sickness to most, is it actually an ethical practice? Before diving into the ethics of cannibalism, it is important to define the different forms cannibalism can take.

Because there are many types of cannibalism, it is necessary to divide them into two groups: active and passive cannibalism. Active cannibalism is killing someone with the intent to eat them. On the other hand, passive cannibalism is consuming someone that is already dead.[7] Jill Hobbs also divides cannibalism further into groups which focus on the reasons for cannibalism: religious/ritual, emergency/survival, and fetish.[7]

Religious/ritual cannibalism is also known as learned cannibalism because people learn about it from a previous generation. This type of human consumption is commonly used as a practice of respect for elders who have passed.[7] While this type of cannibalism is usually peaceful, violence is sometimes involved when looked at from a ritual angle of the culture. Motivators behind religious cannibalism can also include “the desire for revenge, to crush one’s enemy, to eliminate internal or external threats, to magically stave off negative forces, or simply to feast.”[7]

Ritualistic Cannibalism was practiced by all generations.

Survival cannibalism is defined as consuming the flesh of another human in an emergency to prevent death by starvation.[7] This type of cannibalism can be seen from an example including four Englishmen who were lost at sea in 1884. After their ship got destroyed and they were left with no supplies, three of the men decided to kill the fourth in order to eat his body. They decided to kill this man because he was very sick and death was said to be imminent. By doing this, there would be three survivors total rather than none, so the seamen decided it would be the best option.[6]

The final kind of cannibalism ­­­Hobbs discusses is fetish cannibalism. While many people tend to think of a fetish only as something sexual, this type of cannibalism is considered a fetish because the consumer is “fulfilling the desire to consume human flesh.”[7] This type of cannibalism is the least commonly practiced and discussed.

So, is cannibalism considered ethical or not? When arguing against cannibalism, one of the first arguments to be brought forth is the concept of natural law. Natural law is defined as the order of the world, and to break the natural law is to violate the order of the world. In this sense, many argue that consuming a member of your own species is wrong and immoral..[3]Another common argument against this practice is simply disgust – if the majority of people are disgusted by something then it must be morally wrong.[5] Evolution is also seen as a factor that does not support cannibalism because of the consequences it can have. One consequence involves putting the cannibal at risk of catching disease. If a cannibal does not know why the person they are consuming has died, they could contract a disease that will kill them as well. The more prominent consequence in society is ostracism – especially if violence was used to obtain the corpse.[5]

        Josh Milburn describes how cannibalism can be both ethical and unethical depending on the situation and whether or not consent is given. He divides cannibalism into three categories: violent, corpse interference, and waste.[5] All of these types of cannibalism can be completed with or without consent. Violent cannibalism is when a human is killed with the intent of cannibalism. Non-consensual violent cannibalism is usually seen as murder, a clearly unethical act. Though much less common, there are also instances of consensual cannibalism. The most well-known case of consensual cannibalism occurred in Germany when Bernd Brandes gave permission for Armin Meiwes to kill and eat him.[5]

Corpse interference cannibalism is very similar to passive cannibalism because the person being consumed is already dead. The famous example of the Donner Party is an example of non-consensual corpse interference cannibalism because the cannibals were eating members of the party who had already been killed because of the harsh weather and lack of supplies.[5] Corpse interference can also be consensual if a person gives consent before they die, usually in a living will..[5]

The third and final type of cannibalism Wilburn describes is waste scenarios – having a part of a body removed for a reason other than the sole purpose of cannibalism. The body part being removed is usually for medical purposes in order to save an individual’s life. If the body part being removed is eaten by another human being, it can be either consensual or not depending on the donor’s wishes.[5]

Others see cannibalism itself (only in the sense of eating human meat) as completely ethical and support passive cannibalism. William Irvine says “I will argue that when it comes to develop an ethics of eating, the stomach all too often triumphs over the mind,” when explaining why he believes it is ethical to consume someone who has already passed away.[12] He defends his argument by using the analogy of raising babies on farms and fattening them up to eat them like we do with other animals. He points out that we all see this is unethical to do and asks why it is okay to do this to other animals when there is good human flesh available from deceased bodies.[12]

Milburn had a similar idea to this when talking about LGF (lab grown flesh). By practicing this, no harm is done to either animals or people.[5] He states “we have a dearth of convincing rational arguments against cannibalism in-and-of-itself. Though we have good moral reasons to object to typical instances of cannibalism, these do not extend to LGF cannibalism… we should allow our feelings of disgust to give way to good ethical reasoning.”[5] Milburn argues that by eating LGF, there are no unethical circumstances or violence surrounding animals or people.[5]

Lab grown flesh is seen as alternative way of obtaining meat.

For those who practice cannibalism as a part of their culture, both historic and religious components come into play. B. Beau states “Men have always eaten one another; they will continue to do so in the future as they have in the past.”[2] As someone who participates in this practice himself, he points out that this is a tradition that is not an accident, people see it as a law created by the gods. He argues that not only is cannibalism ethical, it is beneficial to society. Because the old and sick are being eaten, it makes the population stronger as a whole and keeps the population at a level that can be sustained by the available supplies. Eating others after a war is also seen as a type of natural selection because those who do survive the war are “truly worth to live and perpetuate themselves.”[2]

Overall, there is no right or wrong answer to whether or not the consumption of one human by another is ethical. While many argue that it is not, there are arguments that support it based on the situation and type of cannibalism, especially when it comes to religious/ritualistic cannibalism.

Anthropologist tends to use subcategories of exocannibalism and endocannibalism when focusing on religious/ritual cannibalism. Exocannibalism refers to the consumption of members from a culturally established outside group and endocannibalism to refer to the consumption of members of one’s own group.[12] Exocannibalism is normally affiliated with the purpose of striking fear in the enemy as well as to engross the spirit of the enemy and involves killing. Endocannibalism is often seen as displaying respect for the deceased and correlated with an effort to maintain the group’s identity. It’s related to burial ceremonies and sometimes called “mortuary cannibalism” or “compassionate cannibalism,” endocannibalism rarely involves killing.[12] For example, the Fore people of New Guinea justified their mortuary cannibalism with the belief that when they consumed the corpse, the spirit of the dead is being protected in the bodies of those who ate them.[11]

Women preparing the food that will also be used while cooking their loved ones.

When researchers made their way to the villages in New Guinea during the 1950s, they found out that among a tribe of about 11,000 people called the Fore, up to 200 people, a year was dying from an illness called kuru. Kuru means “shivering” or “trembling.” Once the symptoms set in, it was sudden death. First, those affected with kuru would have troubles with walking and that was seen as a sign that they were about to lose control over their muscles and limbs. They’d then lose control over their emotions, which is why some people called it the “laughing death.” Within a year, they wouldn’t be able to control their own bodily functions, feed themselves, or even be able to get up off the floor.[1] Many locals were assured that it was the result of sorcery. The disease primarily affected adult women and kids younger than eight years old which resulted in having almost no young women left in some villages.[4]

This drawing is showing a women cooking their loved one’s body parts.

After discovering out that Kuru was not a cause of genetic mutations, medical anthropologists Lindenbaum was convinced that it had something to do with eating dead bodies at funerals.[13] In many villages, when somebody passed away, they were cooked and then consumed because it was seen as an act of mourning and affection. As one Fore villager explained, “when burying the body, it would be set on a platform to be eaten by maggots and worms. So it’s a better idea for the body to be eaten by those who loved the dead instead of various insects and worms.”[14] With this being said, women were tasked with removing the brain, mixing it with ferns, and cooking it in tubes of bamboo. Women then fire-roasted the body parts and ate everything but the gallbladder.[15] Women were tasked with eating the deceased body parts because their bodies were thought to be competent in housing and controlling the malicious spirit that accompanies a dead body. “Women took on the position of devouring the dead body and providing it a safe place inside their own body — taming it, for a duration of time, during the dangerous time of mortuary ceremonies,” stated Lindenbaum.[13] However, women occasionally pass pieces of the feast to children and they always ate what their mothers gave them without question. Interestingly enough, it was discovered that once sons reached a certain age, the moved to live with all the men in another location and they were then told: “to not touch that stuff.”[11] Finally, after some influence from researchers and anthropologists, biologists finally came around to the idea that the kuru originated from eating dead people. The case was concluded after a group of biologists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health inserted an infected human brain matter into chimpanzees, and observed Kuru symptoms develop in the chimpanzees months later.[4] Kuru passes between people this way because it belongs to a category of diseases known as prion diseases.

Prion diseases are caused by malformed prion proteins found commonly in the brain. These deformed proteins can lead to brain and nerve damage, as well as other symptoms.[12] Transmissible prion diseases can be spread by the consumption of an infected person’s organs, especially the brain, as that is where the greatest concentration of prion proteins are found.[9] While prion diseases are rare, they have no known cure and they are always fatal.[12]

Perhaps the most well-known example of a widespread prion disease is the kuru epidemic in Papua New Guinea. In 1957, “when it was first investigated…it was found to be present in epidemic proportions, with approximately 1000 deaths…[between] 1957-1961.”[13] In Papua New Guinea, kuru was transmitted through “the local mortuary practice of consumption of the dead.”[13] Even though the practice was prohibited in the 1950s, the long incubation period of kuru led to deaths caused by the illness happening years after practices of endocannibalism (the consumption of the body of a deceased relative) were outlawed. Kuru’s incubation period range from “34 to 41 years,” or up to “39 to 56 years” in men.[4] Kuru was found more often in children and adult women than in adult men, with “60 percent of cases in adult females…two [percent] in adult males and the remainder in children and adolescents of both sexes.”[1] This distribution was caused by the mortuary customs of the people living in the area. When an individual died, their “whole body was eaten by female relatives and their children of both sexes. Adult males…rarely partook of the body and never ate the brain or other organs.”[13] Because the women and children consumed the bodies and organs of their relatives, they were put at a much greater risk for contracting kuru than those who did not.

Graph showing the age distribution of kuru deaths in Papua New Guinea.

While prion diseases are the most well-known result of cannibalism in humans, there is also concern about the possibility of spreading other types of diseases or parasites. Studies have found that cannibalism in animals “[reduces] the prevalence of parasites…by both directly killing parasites in infected victims and by reducing the number of susceptible hosts.”[11] In humans, “because cannibalism is no longer a regular feature of human populations, it is impossible to assess the degree to which [diseases other than kuru] may have had this as a transmission mode.”[1] However, it has been suggested that tapeworms or certain blood-borne infections could be aided by cannibalism, even if that is not their primary means of transmission [13].
Cannibalism occupies a unique place in the world. There are those who believe that the consumption of human flesh is unethical and unsafe, pointing to prion diseases such as kuru that can be spread by cannibalism. On the other hand, there are many places where cannibalism is practiced and is a celebrated part of a culture and lifestyle, such as the Fore people of Papua New Guinea or the Wari’ of the Amazon. Cannibalism is often sensationalized and misunderstood, but because of its importance to various cultures and groups, it should be studied much more thoroughly to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions.

Grace Karegeannes, Hannah Brown, Charlotte Grush



1. Alpers, Michael P. “The Epidemiology of Kuru: Monitoring the epidemic from its peak to its end.” The Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363 (2008): 3707-3713.

2. Beau, B. “A Defense of Cannibalism.” International Conciliation, February 15, 1909.

3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Prion Diseases.”

4. Collinge, John, Jerome Whitfield, Edward McKintosh, John Beck, Simon Mead, Dafydd J. Thomas, and Michael P. Alpers. “Kuru in the 21st Century – an acquired human prion disease with very long incubation periods.” The Lancet 367 (2006): 2068-2074.

5. Haïk, Stéphane, and Jean-Philippe Brandel. “Infectious Prion Diseases in Humans: Cannibalism, Iatrogenicity, and Zoonoses.” Infection, Genetics and Evolution 26 (2014): 303-312.

6. Hansas, John. “From Cannibalism to Caesareans: Two Conceptions of Fundamental Rights.” Hein Online 89, no. 3 (1995).

7. Hobbs, Jill. E. “Canada, US-EU Beef Hormone Dispute.” Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics, 2012, 1-8. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-6167-4_358-4.

8. Hurd, Paul. “Art or Science? A Controversy about the Evidence for Cannibalism.” Scientific Controversies: Philosophical and Historical Perspectives 9, no. 5 (2011): 199-211. doi:10.2307/1292853.

9. Irvine, William B. “Cannibalism, Vegetarianism, and Narcissism.” Between the Species: An Online Journal for the Study of Philosophy and Animals 5, no. 1 (1989). doi:10.15368/bts.1989v5n1.2.

10. Lindenbaum, Shirley. “Understanding Kuru: The Contribution of Anthropology and Medicine.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B:Biological Sciences (2008): 3715-720. Accessed April 7, 2019. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0072.

11. Mathews, Jason. “Kuru Sorcery: Disease and Danger in the New Guinea Highlands. Palo Alto.” CA: Mayfield Publishing Company. Cult Med Psychiatry (2017) 41 (1979): 1-2.

12. Milburn, Josh. “Chewing Over In Vitro Meat: Animal Ethics, Cannibalism and Social Progress.” Res Publica 22, no. 3 (August 2016): 249-65. doi:10.1007/s11158-016-9331-4.

13. Rudolf, Volker H.W., and Janis Antonovics. “Disease Transmission by Cannibalism: Rare Event or Common Occurrence?” The Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 274, no. 1614 (2007): 1205-210.

14. Van Allen, Benjamin G., Forrest P. Dillemuth, Andrew J. Flick, Matthew J. Faldyn, David R. Clark, Volker H.W. Rudolf, and Bret D Elderd. “Cannibalism and Infectious Disease: Friends or Foes?” The American Naturalist 190, no. 3 (2017): 299-312.

15. Zigas, Vincent. 1990. Laughing Death : The Untold Story of Kuru. Clifton, N.J.: Humana Press.


  1. o Although uneasy to ready, I enjoyed this article thoroughly. I have to question William Irvine’s defense of cannibalism with the farm example. Raising animals and raising humans on a farm, fattening them up to eat them is not the same thing. Animals vary heavily from humans. I am not defending the slaughter of animals, but it is not on the same level as humans. Humans have a complex consciousness and will to understand and live the world in an intellectual way. Animals have this to an extent, but not like humans. Also, cows do not eat each other. Most other animals do not eat each other because it is not natural. It is in their instinct to not. They can come to that conclusion without an advanced reasoning like humans. So the farm example with cows was not good because it conflicts. Also, I have a question. Is LGF approved by the FDA?

  2. Prior to taking this class and becoming more educated as well as informed on the various topics surrounding death, I had always thought cannibalism to be very violent and only executed by those who were mentally disturbed. After discussing this matter in lecture and after reading your post, I now have a better understanding of the distinctive difference between active and passive cannibalism. Active cannibalism is relevant to what is often times portrayed in movies, with crazed humans like “Hannibal” killing people just to eat them. Passive cannibalism is a newer concept to me and the way I understand, people in other cultures do this as a practice that is normal and respectable in their society. I am curious as to whether or not you all were aware of the different types of cannibalism existed prior to lecture discussions and your selection of this topic? This post reminded me of the ideas discussed in “The Mournability of Death As It Pertains to Ethnicity or Nationality” website posting, as it is easy for cultures to make assumptions regarding how other society’s and parts of the world cope/deal with deal because they assume that other’s practices are in line with what is considered to be the American norm. This certainly is not always the case, as seen with how culture’s deal with the dead and coping with death itself.

  3. I learned about the Fore people and their practice in cannibalism in another Anthropology course, but this post allowed me to connect and better understand the ethical issues as well as the psychology portion mentioned in the post. I find it fascinating that a cultural practice in passive cannibalism can have detrimental health effects but also the fact that the practice itself can have ethical issues. Something new I learned from the post was about lab grown flesh, but I wonder if it is approved and used for what purposes? Things I would improve in the post is making sure all footnotes are hyperlinked, making sure the indentations of paragraphs is uniform throughout the paper, and would have even concluded with a statement mentioning the decline in the Kuru disease and the cannibalism practice among the Fore people.

  4. I believe this post was very informative on addressing whether cannibalism is an ethical practice or not and outlining arguments and reasoning on either for or against it. I better understand why some people would argue it as an ethical practice when the victim to be eaten is already dead, but when I think of cannibalism I usually associate it with the fetish mentality for eating another person, which they said is the least common form of cannibalism. I also thought it was very crucial to outlining the different types of cannibalism especially practiced in different cultures and an explanation to why they justify this act. By introducing the possible causation of the spread of diseases such as, Kuru, the post explains the very scary side effects of this cultural practice and can further death in some cases. Overall, I thought this post addressed a topic that isn’t commonly talked about and is widely something the public is disgusted by in a subjective and informative way to discuss this ethical dilemma of cannibalism.

  5. After reading this post, I now understand why cannibalism is both misunderstood by some cultures, but celebrated in other cultures. In regards to natural law, I believe there is some congruence between this taboo topic, and the topic I chose: physician-assisted suicide. Natural law is defined as “the order of the world,” and just like cannibalism, some see physician-assisted suicide as violating this order of the world. Some further argue that a physician aiding in the death of an individual is immoral and wrong. Additionally, I was very interested in learning more about the contraction of diseases, such as Kuru when consuming a body, and was very curious to know why only children and women ate the brain and not the men. After doing a little research, I learned that men did eat some of the body, for example the muscles, however, the infectious agent of prion is not in the muscles, and are commonly just found in the brain.

  6. This post is filled to the brim with information that is not commonly discussed due to the uneasiness that normally surrounds the topic. I learned a plethora of valuable information that I do not believe I would have had we not been given this project. The post clearly explains why cannibalism is shined in different lights in various cultures. I found it outrageous that there are people in the world, such as B. Beau, that believe cannibalism is beneficial to society. Additionally, I was completely unaware that there were subcategories to cannibalism and that some of these subcategories could be easily defended from an ethical perspective. Moreover, I was fascinated by the Fore culture and their belief that eating a loved one was intended to help protect the deceased’s soul. The implications (Kuru) caused by the cannibalism in the Fore culture also raised a question that leads me to think: Is there another reason that only women and their young children are being fed the deceased body? Is there a larger underlying social conflict or paternalism being carried out by men in the Fore culture?

  7. This is a VERY well-written article. You did a great job assessing the complex ethical questions surrounding cannibalism as well as addressing the taboo process itself. Prior to this course I’d never considered that cannibalism (endocannibalism specifically) could be framed as an act of kindness and compassion for the dead; I suppose that’s because the historical Western conception of what is kind, appropriate, and caring toward the dead and bereaved takes such different forms. I feel like cannibalism is an activity that is so prone to sensationalization in the media, and construing it as such a “taboo” topic inhibits people from seeing it as a viable act of respect in some cultures. We forget that lack of physical contact with the dead is a development of post-industrialized nations: contact has served as an expression of care, grief, and mourning historically! It will be interesting to see where / whether cannibalistic practices will manifest themselves in the future if others can come to this de-stigmatized understanding of the practice.

  8. After reading this posting, I’d be interested to see how much cannibalism exists in the United States. When I googled cannibalism in the US, many articles surrounding the title “List of criminals who ate victims in America.” Even though it is not unlawful to eat another human in the US, it is clear that as a society, we do have an aggressive viewpoint towards it.

    The explanation by one of the Fore villagers gave me a different perspective as to why an individual would resort to eating a body. It makes sense when it’s worded like “better idea for the body to be eaten by those loved the dead instead of various insects and worms.”

    Overall, I loved the story aspect of this posting!

  9. Gabrielle Geiger

    April 24, 2019 at 2:58 pm

    This article is very well written is is one of the most interesting ones I have read so far. I have learned about Kuru in another Anthropology course before but it was interesting to hear it from specific perspectives on cannibalism. The main thing that stands out to me it that when Kuru came about, it was automatically assumed that this disease was occuring due to sorcery. There was no connection made in the villages that the people who were participating in cannibalism (women and children) were contracting the disease. This is just an example of how traditions run very deep in cultures and how it is very hard to break that cycle sometimes. Cannibalism has its importance to many groups, so as stated in this post it should most definitely be studied much more thoroughly to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions.

  10. The definition of cannibalism closely links to the class reading “Thus Are Our Bodies, Thus Was Our Custom”: Mortuary Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society”, but mentions more types of cannibalism. I found that a lot of definitions, while from different sides, include similar elements. It seems that the ethical perspective against cannibalism is unreasonable, to some extent, which is surprising. I never thought that one can give living wills for another to eat his or her flesh. Maybe whether it is ethical or acceptable or not depends on different views of individuals, like a lot of other dilemmas. Lab grown flesh can be seen as a way to solve this dilemma, when explaining in an extreme style: if human continues to consume other animals, there is no problem for cannibalism. The example of Kuru gives another answer to cannibalism: disease can make the cannibalism unsafe. Well, if it is not culturally welcomed, people had better not do cannibalism, I think.

  11. This article provided a very evocative perspective on a subject that is generally taboo in American society. Furthermore, it challenged the notion of ethics themselves, and exposed the subjectivity of them. In the past, the only cannibalism I had seen in the media was in murder-cannibal cases or especially gruesome instances. However, this article brought to light the many different types of cannibalism, most interesting to me was ritualistic/religious cannibalism. This practice reminded me of the reading Grief and the Headhunter’s Rage as both displayed rites of mourning that seem barbaric or unusual in American culture. However, the notion discussed in that article that applies here is the ignorant overconfidence in our own cultural practices, and the lack of understanding we provide to customs we find foreign. Cannibalism is a practice that dates back to primitive times, and for that American society tends to denounce it as barbaric. But then again, there are many things that man has been doing for thousands of years that we do not condemn, for example murder, sex, or wage war. The strongest ethical argument against ritualistic cannibalism may simply be that it does not align with darwinism, and can harm those who take part in it. This evolutionary argument has a much stronger basis than simply our American discomfort to a mourning ritual that is different than ours.

  12. This article was very interesting to read. Before taking this class, I just thought of cannibalism as something that was very horrific. I now know that there is different types of cannibalism and it can be considered culturally acceptable. I did not know that cannibalism could be seen as an act of kindness towards the dead in some cultures. It was also very interesting looking at the ethical questions that come up with the topic of cannibalism. Finally, it was interesting to see how during the act of cannibalism there are specific rules that are followed, such as only women and children can eat certain parts.

  13. This article was extremely well written! Cannibalism is something that American society seems to find both fascinating and terrifying but you did a great job in providing definitions and examples in manners that did not shame cannibalistic behaviors. I was really intrigued by the role of women in preparing and eating dead bodies, specifically in relation to Kuru. There are many ethical considerations when thinking about cannibalism but I enjoyed reading about cannibalism from multiple perspectives. I found the section about how it is more respectful or honorable for loved ones to consume a dead body instead of maggots or worms particularly interesting because I had never previously considered this.

  14. I never really considered all the different types of cannibalism that there could be in throughout the world and this article really opened my eyes to that, Thank you? Anyways, I have to wonder how the people of Papua New Guinea would feel if western customs and laws were imposed on their practices of eating human remains. In the previous article I read about cremation, there was a lot of protest about the practice from some religious leaders, so I would like to see if the people of Papua New Guinea would have the same reaction to the people against cremation. It is very interesting to see how different traditions are seen an analyzed throughout the different cultural lenses of the world.

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