Kuru and it's Effects on the Fore People of Papua New Guinea

August 9, 2010
By maggiemar14 GOLD, Arlington Heights, Illinois
maggiemar14 GOLD, Arlington Heights, Illinois
10 articles 0 photos 4 comments

The practice of cannibalism has been sprinkled throughout histories across the globe, but rarely is so obvious a consequence seen as in the case of Kuru. Kuru is a neurological disease, specifically a spongiform encephalopathy, borne of cannibalistic practices. The disease has only occurred in one place on earth, Papua New Guinea, a large island near Australia. In the highlands of Papua New Guinea (or PNG), between dense rainforests and isolating mountains resided the Fore tribe in a series of similar communes. Endocannibalistic rituals were a defining characteristic of Fore culture. As opposed to commercialized beliefs about cannibalism, the Fore people did not eat their enemies but their naturally deceased family and friends. It is unfortunate that so harmless a practice could produce as catastrophic an event as the Kuru outbreak of the 1950s. The deaths were so numerous that word of the event traveled all the way to the Americas, inspiring many promising young epidemiologists (Epidemiologists are a branch of scientists who focus on epidemics and the spread of diseases.) and anthropologists to journey nearly halfway around the world to investigate this new outbreak, in the process exposing the nearly untouched people of PNG to their western culture.
The Fore people were positively affected by the discovery of Kuru because it stopped people from dying, modernized the culture of the island, and introduced a new category of pathogen to modern epidemiology.

Researchers walking into a Fore community would find themselves surrounded by women wearing babies toes around their necks and men sprinkling bone powder over their lunches of native fruits. Though, if the researchers were well informed, they would not find this intimidating. As stated above, the Fore were a moderately peaceful group (technically not a tribe because the term implies a form of government, which was lacking in this case. They had no chiefs; but they did have a slight development of class, meaning that the strongest and swiftest hunters were recognized as being more valuable than less skilled hunters.) who did not eat their enemies or unfamiliar foreigners. Dead kin were eaten as a sign of affection; in the belief that, once consumed, the deceased would stay forever with his/her family. One woman of the tribe was quoted saying “Now my mother will always be inside me.” Fore people did not wish to give their enemies the honor of becoming eternally one with the community, though not all members were consumed. Dying family members were given the choice of whether they wanted to be eaten or buried, most choosing eaten. Some members even assigned certain body parts to certain individuals with whom they held close relationships on earth. They also believed that after death, the deceased would join the Fore ancestors (or Maselai) lived in the forests near the water, watching their descendants and determining their destinies.
After a member of the group past away (of natural causes, like disease), a large feast (comparable to western funerals) would be planned. When preparing the body, every part was used, including grinding up bones to sprinkle over food as a calcium supplement. (Bone powder is said to taste similar to salt.) The women of the tribe would cut and cook the body (Men were never included in any part of the post-mortal preparation.), reserving the lean muscles for the mightiest male members of the community. After the muscles and organs were claimed and eaten by the men and boys of the group; the brain of the deceased was given to the closest woman to the deceased (mother, wife, etc); finally, the other women and younger children chose their entrees. Mostly they consumed nervous tissue, which was most strongly infected by Kuru, in infected cadavers. (This is why it was mostly women and children who were affected by the outbreak.) The origins of the disease are unknown; but once it had started, the cannibalistic rituals were what spread it around. Of course, not everyone who was consumed had been infected with the disease (Though infected bodies were prized above healthy ones, it is said that infected bodies were leaner.); but as time rolled farther into the outbreak, more and more of the deaths were caused by Kuru, meaning that more and more of the feasts became doomed rituals of exposure. Once a body infected with Kuru was consumed, anyone who had participated in the post-mortal feast would be exposed to the dangerous pathogen (infectious agent) associated with Kuru. If the exposed then fell ill and died, they would most likely be consumed by more Fore people and would continue to spread the disease; and it was only a matter of time until the number of exposed rose exponentially, and more and more people would die off until there were none left. Seeing as most Fore members attended countless feasts in their lifetimes, the exact source for each case is extremely difficult to identify. Also, consumption wasn’t the only mode of transportation the deadly prions used. Fore women rarely washed their hands when preparing the bodies, so they could have passed the disease onto their children by touching them with bodily fluids from the corpse they had been preparing.
Though bodies were eaten, they were not part of everyday diet. Commonly, Fore people ate local birds, fruits, vegetables, and nuts (all sprinkled with salt and bone powder). Though PNG is an island, the Fore were not fishers, being completely blocked from the ocean on all sides by mountain. All up and down the mountainsides was rain forest. The rainy season in PNG lasted virtually half the year; Fore people were used to waking up to the morning rains pattering on the thatched roofs of their round huts, made of tough sugar cane stalks, mud, and other plants. Being completely surrounded by dense forest, each individual Fore community was very isolated, leading each to evolve its own unique language. Even today, over 750 languages are spoken on the island. Even so, nearly everyone on the island understood Pidgin, a blend of French, German, Dutch, English, and Malay. Pidgin is only spoken; they had no written language, hieroglyphics, or visual art of any kind. That’s not to say they didn’t express themselves visually. Fore people often painted their faces and bodies with dyes, and women decorated themselves with dried baby hand necklaces. Men also wore beaded, feathered headdresses and “penile sheaths”. This was totally acceptable while going without any clothes at all would be extensively humiliating.
The Fore people are very similar to commercialized “savages” in their social structures. Besides the absence of a singular chief, power was distributed as one would expect, the wisest elders and strongest, swiftest hunters at the top of the social ladder. Women were considered property of their husbands, and children were property of their parents. Three times as many women as men attended the missionary-sponsored Christian churches. Often, the only time women had together was church on Sundays. The rest of their time was spent tending to their children. Family was very important.
Before the first westerners arrived in 1930s, the Fore people had been completely without metal, electricity, and running water. Even after the first Australian expedition in 1930, they went without most of that. When new westerners arrived in the village, the locals would jump, wave, and shout, welcoming the party to their village, even though not all of their visits were pleasant. Technically speaking, the first “owners” of the island were the British, who claimed it as part of their imperial empire in the 1880s. The island was invaded again during World War II, this time by the Japanese. Fighting consumed the land, and many planes crashed into the rough terrain over the course of the war. Eventually, they were assimilated into the government of Australia. In the 1940s, right before the outbreak was discovered, the Australians brought in steel axes, sodium salt, and cloth for more modern clothing. However, it was not until after the western researchers and missionaries showed the locals how to use the cloth that it did them any good.
Right in the middle of that timeline, around the turn of the century, was when the Fore first started their cannibalistic practices. They began in an attempt at imitating their northern neighbors, trading traditions as tribal cultures often do.
Most simply put, before the outbreak and subsequent Cultural Revolution, the Fore were a stone age-like society, alone in the mountainous rainforest.
Kuru is believed to have existed for only ten to twenty years before its discovery in 1957. It is unknown who discovered the disease; the first known (and perhaps most widely celebrated) researcher to study Kuru was Carleton Gajdusek, who came to PNG in 1957, after hearing about the illness from an unknown source. At the very beginning of the epidemic (when Gajdusek began recording data), the incidence (new cases of the disease divided by those exposed to the disease) was one case in 100 exposed. By the height of the outbreak, one in every 50 villagers was infected. As above stated, most were women and children (In fact, 89.1% of all cases throughout the outbreak were female.). Part of the reason for the high fatality rate was the skeptical attitudes of the locals. As the outbreak grew more and more serious, the villagers came up with more and more mystical theories as to the origin of the disease and how to expel it from the infected persons. One theory said that the disease was a very strong curse any man could place on any woman. Very often after being diagnosed by western physicians, Kuru patients went to local doctors to try their magic cures. Despite the use of many experimental methods on both sides of the cultural divide, no cure was found; and though researchers and physicians examined as many patients as possible, there was often nothing they could do but confirm the existence of infection. However, this lack of cure did prove the Fore’s loyalty to Gajdusek and the other westerners. Shown by the act of bringing their sick in for “treatment” even knowing that there was no cure. Patients also tended to openly accept their fates, laughing at their own involuntary muscle spasms and loss of mobility. Families of the ill stayed with their infected relatives even as they were dying because they saw themselves as obligated to care for their kin. Fore people were strongly opposed to the idea of “prolonging life” and preferred to die a quiet death at home. This belief lead to “treatments” including starvation and neglect, to speed up the death. Usually, the infected person appreciated this treatment. The infection was fatal within six months to two years of the first symptoms. Unfortunately, the deaths did not deter the Fore in their practices of endocannibalism. Rather, it was the missionaries, researchers, and other westerners enforcing the laws of the Australian gvernment that finally stopped the practices.
In order to save the dwindling populations, 50 to 60-year-old men began to take 12 and 13 year-old girls as wives. At times, other tribes needed to be bribed to hand over girls to keep the population growing. Unfortunately, when the Fore married into the surrounding tribes, they spread their Kuru infected bodies into the other tribes’ post-mortal feasts, exposing the other tribes to infection.
Some people still believed the sorcery causation theories by the end of the outbreak. After the end of the outbreak, there would be long breaks before a big group of Fore people would die, suggesting similar exposure, probably at an illegal feast held after the act of cannibalism was banned in Australia. In an attempt to salvage and educate (and by doing so progress the modernization of) the population, Carleton Gajdusek brought many Kuru orphans back to America for schooling.
The Kuru epidemic was so influential to the area; there is now a mountain in PNG named after the disease. At the height of the outbreak, one side of Kuru Mountain was abundant with illness while the other was completely void of infection.
One thing about Kuru that puzzled epidemiologists was the long incubation periods (the time the pathogen spends in the body without causing any symptoms). Most infections incubate for a few days, or in some cases, hours. On the other hand, Kuru has an incubation period of 40 years or more. They still do not know what causes the long incubation period or what the pathogen is doing in the body for all that time. Epidemiologists did notice the similarity between Kuru and recent outbreaks of mad cow disease, Scrapie, and Creutz-feldt Jakob disease. These three diseases have one thing in common; they are all in a special category of neurological diseases called spongiform encephalopathy. Until the discovery of Kuru, the pathogen behind these diseases was unknown. It was along with the discovery of Kuru that the pathogen was found. Kuru, mad cow disease, Scrapie, Creutz-feldt Jakob disease are all caused by prions.
Prions were also called slow virus diseases, transmissible dementia, infectious proteins, unconvential slow viruses, infectious amyloids, and crystal proteins. It wasn’t until Stanley Prusiner won the Nobel Prize for research on the new pathogen that his name, prion, was accepted as the official name. Though Prusiner swears the title came from “protein”, some argue it is reflective of his own name.
One unique characteristic of prions is that they do not carry any genetic information in the form of DNA or RNA, the way all other known organisms do. Because prions do not have this data, they are unable to multiply, which rules out the mode of infection most other pathogens take (entering the blood stream and then multiplying until they are eliminated by the immune system). Because they can’t multiply, scientists have concluded that prions must already exist in the body. Kuru simply convinces the prions already residing in the body to go rouge, meaning they start building up protein folds that eventually get big enough to kill brain cells. By the time a patient dies, his/her brain resembles a sponge, hence spongiform encephalopathy.
Because the prions are not foreign to the body, a patient’s white blood cells will not fight them, making vaccines and other such medications totally ineffective. Also, unlike other pathogens, prions do not die under extremely hot or radioactive conditions. Seeing as most cures rely on these two weaknesses in other pathogens, no cure has been found for Kuru or any other prion disease, meaning that all of the diseases caused by this rare pathogen are 100% fatal.
Seeing as both mad cow disease and Scrapie are caused by cannibalism, the cannibalism causation theory was an obvious leap for scientists to make. (The first researchers to link Kuru to cannibalism were Shirley Lindenbaum and Robert Glasse in the 1960s.) In order to test this theory, infected brain tissue was injected into a chimpanzee that later contracted the illness. Based on this establishment, a set of diagnostic criteria (more commonly referred to as a case definition) was formed. Physicians decided that in order to be diagnosed with Kuru, a patient must have a history of consuming brain or nervous tissue from a human. Also included in the case definition was the progression of symptoms, listed here: shaking (worsened with stress and anxiety), patient needs assistance walking, patient becomes bedridden, patient loses ability to swallow, sometimes includes progressive dementia.
Often when trying to determine if a patient (whom they had already determined had consumed the required bodily organs) had really contracted the disease, physicians used a series of simple coordination tests (stand on one leg, close your eyes and touch your nose, etc.). If the patient failed the tests, the physician knew they were indeed infected with Kuru.
One very rare and obscure occurrence in the outbreak was the existence of a mutated heterozygote gene in some patients, extending incubation periods indefinitely and therefore making the patient virtually immune to the build up of proteins in the brain.
Two Nobel Prizes have been awarded related to the discovery of Kuru, one to Carleton Gajdusek in 1976 for finding the disease and the other to Stanley B. Prusiner in 1997 for the discovery of prions, the cause of all spongiform encephalopathy diseases.

In 1957, the Kuru Research Center opened to study the disease. Cannibalistic practices had all but disappeared, helping the death rate to fall to about 200 per year to less than 10 per year. After the outbreak was finally eliminated, it had left the rainforests of Papua New Guinea; and all their inhabitants drastically changed. Since the mid-1960s, the Fore have completely modernized their culture; building schools, hospitals, and Christian churches and developing a local government under the nation of Papua New Guinea. The outbreak had drawn many missionaries to the island including one Lutheran mission introducing garden crops (which ended up growing very successfully in the foreign climate and continuing for generations), domesticated animals, western clothing (which was infinitely different from what the Fore had worn previously but eventually became the norm), and other manufactured goods. In 1956, the Australian government passed a law specifically prohibiting any cannibalistic acts, endo-, exo-, or otherwise, leading the way for the Fore to abolish the practice among themselves, virtually eliminating the disease. The Fore people were also introduced to the idea of America, a land of opportunity, liberty, wonder, and possibility. Many of the villagers immigrated, receiving American education and further modernizing their culture. In 1955, the Fore men began to leave their isolated community as migrant workers; and the first coffee seedlings were planted. Nowadays, the fore descendants still residing in PNG are mostly coffee farmers and commuting businessmen, continuing the process begun in the 50’s. They maintain contact with researchers on the study of Kuru and other spongiform encephalopathy diseases, helping as best they can with the search for a cure to the disease that nearly wiped out their people. The Fore people are extremely grateful to the western researchers for their interference, for they surely would have ceased to exist without the help that westerners provided.

The author's comments:
this was my research paper for the end of 8th grade. the assignment was to pick an historical topic that interested you, research it indepth and write a paper that expressed an opinion on it.

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This article has 3 comments.

Kuru said...
on May. 20 2014 at 9:36 pm
They didn't only eat the nervous tissue. Because of the gender inequality in the "primitive" society of PNG, men got the choice cuts when eating their deceased relatives. Women and children were thus left with the worse portions, like the brain (full of Kuru prions).  Hope that helped

Kuru said...
on Oct. 7 2013 at 2:02 pm
This is a good article. However, without sources to cite it's just another story without proof. I read other cited sources that state contradictory views to your "story." Please provide your sources. What source did you site for women and children only eating the nervous tissue? Please advise! Seiki 

hitherto said...
on Apr. 4 2011 at 2:49 pm
What are your sources?


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