Post-Mortuary Cannibalism and the Case of Kuru in the Fore Tribe of Papua New Guinea

Cannibalism, the act of consuming one’s own species, has been a long-winded, ethical debate between cultural anthropologists and Western ethics for centuries. The act of eating one’s own kind, not only creates the notion that individuals who practice cannibalism have unethically committed “the ultimate betrayal of humanity” [i], but additionally, raises several health concerns surrounding the cleanliness of consuming human flesh. These concerns have been amplified with the outbreak of kuru, a disease categorized by “’shivering’ or ‘trembling,’ [ii] in the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea and its relationship to cannibalism, specifically as a funeral practice. Though the Fore tribe hasn’t practiced cannibalism in more than 50 years, Western views continue to challenge the value of their culture, raising questions that target our own cultural beliefs and practices: Why are our cultural practices valued while others’ are ridiculed as ‘outlandish’ and ‘disturbing’? How can the cultural mourning practice of cannibalism in the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea be justified when examining our own Western cultural practices? Not only do cultural factors come to play, but additionally, ethical and scientific factors and effects are necessary to analyze and fully answer these questions. Looking at post-mortuary cannibalism through multiple lenses reveals new perspectives on the motivations and lasting effects that cannibalism as a funerary rite creates.

Before they ceased in the late 1950s, the Fore tribe used cannibalism as a funeral practice to honor the dead. When a member of the tribe died, the men “consumed the flesh of their dead relatives, while women and children ate the brain” [iii]. The Fore tribe believed that “it was much better that the body was eaten by people who loved the deceased than by worms and insects”[iv]. Due to this belief, utmost care was taken in order to prepare the body for consumption. While the men consumed the flesh, the women of the tribe “removed the brain, mixed it with ferns, and it cooked it in tubes of bamboo. They fire-roasted and ate everything except the gallbladder”[v] The roasting and consumption of the brain was typically completed by women because “their bodies were thought to be capable of housing and taming the dangerous spirit that would accompany the dead body” [vi]. However, what the Fore tribe didn’t expect was the ‘dangerous spirit’ of kuru that resulted from their cultural mourning practice.

This map outlines the location of the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea.

The Fore people in Papua New Guinea practiced cannibalism traditionally until the mid-to-late 1900’s when this practice attracted international attention due to the discovery of kuru as an endemic disease within Papua New Guinea[vii]. Cannibalism, practiced less from a nutritional standpoint, was considered a way of forming social and familial ties and is known as endocannibalism.

The kuru disease is a “degenerative disease of the central nervous system” that “reported annual mortality rates of 1.6% and 0.8% for the South and North Fore respectively” [viii]. The disease is so deadly because it “can remain clinically silent for incubation periods as long as several decades” [ix]. Kuru begins with muscle coordination failure “and a tremor involving the trunk, extremities, and head” [x]. In a few months, the individual infected is “no longer able to walk or stand, and speech becomes unintelligible. As death approaches, the victim becomes completely incapacitated and is unable to eat, urinate, or defecate” [xi]

Kuru belongs within a disease classification of spongiform encephalopathies, all diseases caused by prions, misfolded proteins resulting in degenerative bodily effects. Similar diseases include Scabies and Mad Cow Disease. However, unlike Scabies and Mad Cow Disease, kuru is not seen to originate in any other hosts but humans[xii]. Kuru was once considered to be an unconventionally slow virus resulting in neural degeneration. However, after further research on affected brain tissue, kuru was shown to result from infectious particles called prions. These perpetrators of disease are proteinaceous particles that induce normal proteins to change shape, thus converting once healthy proteins into dangerous molecules. Because these infectious agents can be recycled, they begin a domino effect that ultimately creates holes in neural tissue in the brain leading to neuro-degradation and loss of muscular control [xiii]. Many scientists have tried to trace the origin of kuru in attempt to understand the pathology, spread and treatment of this disease. It was found that the Fore people had high frequencies of a certain codon coding for an allele that predisposed them to the mis-folding of the proteins specifically the PrP protein[xiv]. In a study conducted on the brain tissue of affected individuals, 38% of those affected by kuru carried this allele, where this allele was absent in all 129 survivors of the disease[xv]. After these findings, the allele in question is thought to harbor an unknown gene or mutation the predisposes a susceptible population to kuru.

This graph shows the trend of deaths caused by kuru that increased in the 1950’s and decreased around the 1980’s. This steep decline was caused by the halt of cannibalistic activity within the Fore tribe.

The genetic transfer and biological spread of kuru are widely questioned and highly speculated to have resulted from the Papua New Guinea’s common practice of cannibalizing the dead. Where some deceased were discarded and considered unclean, due to death by diseases like leprosy or dysentery, those who died from kuru were most likely to be consumed as their muscles atrophied making their body’s meat tender. It has been assumed the consuming of prions through cannibalism resulted in a cyclical reinfection of the disease in the consumer. This theory aliens with the historical observation of parallel the decline of cannibalism and kuru in the 1900’s. However, kuru cases emerging in the early 2000’s questioned this theory and some suggested non-oral transmission of the disease was possible[xvi]. Anthropologist Gajdusek suggested that kuru may have spread through the ceremonial cutting up and laying out of the deceased body in preparation for eating[xvii]. Regardless of the direct cause or transmission of the disease, the idea that kuru has been perpetuated by the practice of cannibalism in Papua New Guinea is accepted by the majority of scientists and anthropologists today. This notion is supported especially by kuru endemic amongst the Fore people as they practiced Cannibalism, not only as a post-mortuary practice, but as a social entry into kinship

Due to the recent kuru epidemic in Papua New Guinea, when one thinks of cannibalism, it evokes elements of disgust, terror, and vile behavior. Western societies have been engrained with these feelings of repulsion towards cannibalistic behavior for centuries, despite the overwhelming amount of cannibalism that occurs in the natural world in order to promote survive[xviii].  In some cases, we see cannibalism as “justified,” as in the case of survival or necessity. But where do we draw the line? For some cultures, cannibalism is a way of life. The necessity is drawn at a different spot in the sand, but the idea is the same- this type of cannibalism brings about good.

From a Western world perspective, cannibalism is justified only in extremely rare cases, such as survival. When cannibalism becomes a necessity to survive, it is not looked upon as an inherently bad thing. For example, in 1972 when a plane had crashed into in the Andes Mountains, the survivors had to consume the bodies of the already deceased as a means of survival[xix]. Due to the presence of a moral decision between life and death, the individuals involved believed that their actions were justified. The ethical principle of utilitarianism was in place, as the act itself would not necessarily be considered good, but became good because of the help that it provided. However, justification goes on a case to case basis for different groups.

This photo depicts the Wari’ people of Papua New Guinea. This tribe was one of many in Papua New Guinea to engage in cannibalism as a post-mortuary practice.          

For some cultures, although cannibalism is not based on survival, the reasons for the performance still justify the act itself. In the former tradition of the Wari’ people, cannibalism was also a matter of life and death, simply for the consumed rather than the consumer. As a funeral rite, people close to the recently deceased would consume almost the entire body[xx]. To the tribe, this act would be justified as a means of doing good for the deceased because friends and relatives are performing these actions rather than enemies. The Wari’ view cannibalism as a means of helping the soul of a deceased individual pass into the next life [xxi]. In a similar vein to the Western world, this form of cannibalism is viewed as just.  By performing this act of post-mortuary cannibalism, the Wari’ see themselves as “saving” the souls of those gone before them.  Cannibalism, once again, becomes an act that is providing good rather than evil, exemplifying the action itself as considered right by those acting.

The justification of post-mortuary cannibalism is not always completely felt while performing the act. Those who have participated in Wari’ mortuary cannibalism rituals have described the most difficult moment being when the deceased is initially taken away from mourners to be dismembered[xxii]. This is because the feelings of mourning are amplified and the loved one is appearing dehumanized while being cut up. The consuming, then, becomes the saving grace. The cannibalism, itself, is what really saves the individual, which is why it is looked at as the healing part of the process. This aspect is, once again, proving it a just action.

Differences exist within circles of cannibalism as a form of mourning, however.  In some groups, instead of the entire body being eaten, only parts are consumed.  The purpose of this cannibalism is not to benefit the eaten, but the eater[xxiii]. It is thought that the person consuming the body receives part of the spirit of the deceased. Although the reasoning for this post-mortuary cannibalism is different, the theme of justification is the same: the person believes that there is good coming from this act, so the act itself is right.

Post-mortuary cannibalism is practiced in different ways in different social groups, but the ethics of justification transcend those differences. In every circle, there exists a certain moral line where the consuming of the dead becomes justified. The differences are vast, ranging from absolute life or death to self-improvement, but each storyline carries a similar motive. When the actions bring about good in the end, the means of cannibalism is right. The folklore and fear that surrounds cannibalism cannot truly represent it, only a simple question can: When is cannibalism “OK?”

From a Western perspective, cannibalism is rarely accepted because it clearly diverges from our cultural norms. The main reason Western culture is so appalled by the practice of cannibalism is the fact that our culture loathes it [xxiv]. In Western culture, any outside practice or belief that does not line up with eurocentrism is distinctly ostracized as ‘unrighteous’ or ‘sinful.’ Despite the reasons justifying cannibalism as a funeral practice in both the Fore tribe and Wari’ people of Papua New Guinea, this symbolic rite does not line up with Western culture, thus creating issues surrounding its legitimacy and value in the world.

This photo depicts a drawing by one of the Wari’ people describing their mourning process involving cannibalism.

Culturally, we reject anything that diverges from our concept of the values of Christianity. When Western civilizations imposed their religion and its practices onto a group of indigenous people, they simultaneously condemned and destroyed that culture’s practices because they did not line up with the Western Christian lens. This rejection of differing cultural practices resulted in creation of the social stigma surrounding the practice of cannibalism.

Interestingly, though the West readily accepts it, the Western Catholic ritual of communion mirrors that of cannibalism. During the Eucharist, the technical term for the practice of communion, Catholics believe in the symbolic consumption of the body and blood of Christ. They do not believe that this is an act of cannibalism because “Christ is symbolically present” [xxv]rather than physical there. Using the word ‘transubstantiation,’ meaning “transformation of the substance,” [xxvi] Catholics ensure that the bread and wine transform into the body and blood of Christ respectively, justifying their belief that the ritual diverges far from the physical action of cannibalism.

We only devalue the Fore tribe’s cultural mourning ritual of cannibalism as barbaric, while simultaneously valuing Western Catholic transubstantiation as sacred, because “it has historically been convenient for Westerners to stigmatize cannibalism” [xxvii]. The act of condemning ‘outlandish’ and ‘barbaric’ behavior, such as consuming one’s own species, justifies Western colonization. During his conquest in 1492, ‘Western hero’ Christopher Columbus used the word “cannibal” to describe the “fascinating New World Natives” [xxviii]. In his journal, he writes of his concern over the ‘exotic’ behavior of the Caribe people by stating that he wishes “to send to Spain men and women from the islands which they inhabit, in the hope that they may one day be led to abandon their barbarous custom of eating their fellow-creatures” [xxix]. This statement excuses the further persecution of indigenous people because it labels groups of people who exhibit ‘exotic’ behavior as projects that need to be both Christianized and Westernized, rather than human beings that practice their own unique rituals and customs.

Practices of grief and mourning surrounding death largely vary across cultures, and though some practices may seem abnormal or foreign to an outsider, they serve purposes beyond what the eye can readily see. Cannibalism, a practice frowned upon by many cultures, is one such tradition arousing skepticism and discussion, ultimately leading to the degradation of this practice in many parts of the world. The Fore people would have non-kin consume their dead as a ritual to symbolize outsiders entering into kinship.

From the outside looking in, the practice of cannibalism arouses several questions from scientific, ethical and cultural perspectives that ultimately result in undefined answers. From an anthropological perspective, it is important to look into such topics with a prospective free of ethnocentricity. For the Fore people, their practice of consuming the dead was not done to meet nutritional need or out of mal intent, but rather it was seen to create bonds of “one blood” through a common ancestor, in this case the dead[xxx]. Without first knowing the significance of practices like cannibalism within a culture, it would be unsound to draw conclusions regarding the ethical or social intentions of such a practice. Understanding the reasons behind culture and custom is the appropriate way to address any issue at hand. This rings true in the case of Papua New Guinea where the cultural practice of cannibalism lead to an endemic of kuru within the region.

Kenzie Chasteen, Emma Uhrlass and Dominic Antonietti   

 

References:

[i] Worrall, Simon. “Cannibalism-the Ultimate Taboo-Is Surprisingly Common.” National Geographic. February 19, 2017. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/02/cannibalism-common-natural-history-bill-schutt/.

[ii] Bichell, Rae Ellen. “When People Ate People, A Strange Disease Emerged.” NPR. September 06, 2016. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/09/06/482952588/when-people-ate-people-a-strange-disease-emerged.

[iii] Kaplan, Sarah. “How a History of Eating Human Brains Protected This Tribe from Brain Disease.” The Washington Post. June 11, 2015. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/06/11/how-a-history-of-eating-human-brains-protected-this-tribe-from-brain-disease/?utm_term=.3233958108ae.

[iv] Refer to Footnote [i]

[v] Refer to Footnote [ii]

[vi] Refer to Footnote [ii]

[vii] Kusinitz, Marc. “Kuru.” In The Gale Encyclopedia of Science, 5th ed., edited by K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2014. Science In Context (accessed April 5, 2019). http://link.galegroup.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/apps/doc/CV2644031265/SCIC?u=unc_main&sid=SCIC&xid=55b40db8.

[viii] Steadman, Lyle B., and Charles F. Merbs. “Kuru and Cannibalism?: Kuru: Early Letters and Field-Notes from the Collection of D. Carleton Gajdusek . Judith Farquhar, D. Carleton Gajdusek.” American Anthropologist84, no. 3 (1982): 611-27. doi:10.1525/aa.1982.84.3.02a00060.

[ix] Refer to Footnote [viii]

[x] Refer to Footnote [viii]

[xi] Refer to Footnote [viii]

[xii] “kuru.” In The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide, edited by Helicon. Helicon, 2018. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/heliconhe/kuru/0?institutionId=1724

[xiii] Liberski, Paweł P., Agata Gajos, Beata Sikorska, and Shirley Lindenbaum. “Kuru, the First Human Prion Disease.” Viruses 11, no. 3 (2019): 232.

[xiv] Wadsworth, Jonathan D. F., Susan Joiner, Jacqueline M. Linehan, Emmanuel A. Asante, Sebastian Brandner, and John Collinge. “The Origin of the Prion Agent of Kuru: Molecular and Biological Strain Typing.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363, no. 1510 (2008): 3747-3753.

[xv] Liberski, Pawel P., Beata Sikorska, Shirley Lindenbaum, Lev G. Goldfarb, Catriona McLean, Johannes A. Hainfellner, and Paul Brown. “Kuru: Genes, Cannibals and Neuropathology.” Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology 71, no. 2 (2012): 92-103.

[xvi] Refer to Footnote [xv]

[xvii] Refer to Footnote [xv]

[xviii] Baggini, Julian. “Eating Humans.” TheTLS. May 05, 2017. Accessed April 07, 2019. https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/eating-humans-cannibalism/.

[xix] “Death and Dying.” Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. Accessed April 07, 2019. http://www.deathreference.com/Bl-Ce/Cannibalism.html.

[xx] Conklin, B. (1995). “‘Thus Are Our Bodies, Thus Was Our Custom”: Mortuary Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society.” American Ethnologist, 22(1), 75-101.

[xxi] Conklin, Beth A. “Hunting the Ancestors: Death and Alliance in Wari Cannibalism.” The Latin American Anthropology Review 5, no. 2 (2008): 65-70. doi:10.1525/jlca.1993.5.2.65.

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[xxiii] Conklin, Beth A. Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011, 27.

[xxiv] Diamond, Jared M. “Talk of Cannibalism.” Nature407 (September 7, 2000): 25-26. September 7, 2000. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.nature.com/articles/35024175.

[xxv] Staples, Tim. “Are Catholics Cannibals?” Catholic Answers. November 7, 2014. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/are-catholics-cannibals.

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[xxvii] Mufson, Beckett. “Everything You Know About Cannibalism Is Wrong.” Vice. June 21, 2018. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/evk9ke/we-asked-an-expert-why-you-think-cannibalism-is-gross.

[xxviii] “How Columbus Created the Cannibals.” How Columbus Created the Cannibals. Accessed April 08, 2019. http://hartzog.org/j/cannibals.html.

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[xxx] Refer to Footnote [xiv]

8 Comments

  1. It is really interesting to see a culture so different from ours be broken down in such a logical and scientific way. I think a lot of times in American culture, topics such as cannibalism are talked about as an exotic, barbaric almost impossible idea and more people need to understand that cultural traditions such as this are no less valid than ours.The idea behind this cannibalism is also very similar to traditions in American culture. The Catholic church communion is mentioned and this also is very similar to the division of a person’s belongings to those closest to them after their death. I would be curious to see the Fore tribe’s current mortuary traditions post-cannibalism and how they made that transition to protect the health of their people.

  2. This was a well researched and thought-out post, I enjoyed reading it and learning more about the cultural practices of the Fore people. This post is much needed because many people, especially in Western culture, categorize cannibals as savages and the act as disgusting, no questions asked. This post allows for people to see that there is a significant cultural value to cannibalism for the Fore people, and they see it as helping their loved ones who have passed, which is a beautiful thing. Western culture immediately puts traditions and values that do not align with theirs in a box, which is not right. It is interesting to see that one culture practices cannibalism while another shuns it (except in the case of communion, in a way) is there a specific reason why this came to be for one group of people and not the other? The science behind cannibalism was also interesting to read about, especially with the outbreak of kuru from eating or handling the deceased. It is important to raise these health questions in regards to cannibalism too.

  3. This post easy to understand and well written. I actually researched prion caused diseases for an infectious disease class, and we briefly discussed kuru. I don’t think y’all touched on this in the post, but if I remember correctly, it was an anthropologist that discovered kuru was thr result of cultural practices surrounding death. His discovery really highlights the importance of looking beyond science and studying cultures as well.

  4. This was a very interesting article, especially because of the unique topic! What I found most interesting was the discussion of the Kuru disease and its relation to cannibalism. It is shocking that a protein can be infectious and cause so much damage! I also like how you incorporated the idea of communion and how it mirrors the practice of cannibalism. I would have never connected those two practices. I agree that one of the reasons cannibalism is seen as such as barbaric and outlandish practice is because it allows Western society to create an barrier between other cultures and themselves. It also allows them to think of themselves as more “civilized” and this belief is one of the ways they justified Western colonization. I would be interested to see other cultures that commonly practice cannibalism and their reasoning behind this practice.

  5. This post was incredibly well written and I learned a lot through reading it! I find it interesting how the United States so vehemently rejects cannibalism as a form of mourning while, at the same time, engaging in embalming and intense cosmetic funerary preparation. As you pointed out, cannibalism is used as a funerary practice that benefits both the living and the soul of the deceased. Embalming benefits only the living, making the dead body more palatable for public viewing. The processes of dismembering bodies also occurs in the United States during autopsies, organ collection, etc., so it feels hypocritical to justify those American practices while also condemning the practices of the Fore Tribe. I agree with the assessment that this stigma against cannibalistic practices stems from white colonialism and the policing of black cultures worldwide.

  6. This subject reminds me of the reading we had to do about the Wari tribe from Brazil who also practiced post- mortuary cannibalism. I am really happy you also chose to mention them in this post because there are some interesting parallels. This really peaks my interest because I am fascinated by this subject since it is so different from our mortuary traditions and expectations. It was also interesting to read about how this disease of Kuru ended the Fore’s tradition and now evokes opposite feelings with the members of the tribe. This group also di da great job going in depth when explaining Kuru and its effects which is important as it really changed an important aspect of culture.

  7. Reading about post-mortuary cannibalism was incredibly eye opening, as I had never heard of this practice until taking this class. This class, along with this post, have made me open minded to death and dying traditions. To know that cannibalism has been referred to as “the ultimate betrayal of humanity” and can cause disease is alarming. The kuru epidemic lead to societies engraining the practice of cannibalism as vile, but still justify cannibalism for survival, and that is fascinating to me. It raises the question of whether or not we should set conditions on other cultures’ practices?

  8. This was always an interesting topic to me because I was so unfamiliar with it, and it showed me the differences in many cultures. The fact that cannibalism was so widely accepted in these societies despite the risk of disease makes me wonder more about their cultural backgrounds and upbringings. I also wanted to know the impact the disease had on the minds of those who practiced cannibalism since it was heavily used as a way to express grief and mourning. I also wish this was more widely accepted by Western society’s because its unfair to call other people “uncivilized” “barbaric” etc.

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