Could Tribal Cannibalism Offer the Key to Treating Deadly Diseases?

Papua New Guinea’s Fore people ate human brains for centuries. Their DNA may now help treat conditions like Parkinson’s and Mad Cow?

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

Back in the 1950s, colonial officials and European scientists working in the vast, underexplored interior highlands of Papua New Guinea noted the spread of a strange disease amongst the southern Fore people. Locals called it kuru, the shaking death, as it usually started off as uncontrollable tremors, progressing into dementia and mood swings, and finally over the course of six to 12 months developing into an always-lethal coma. At its height, from 1957 to 1968, kuru killed over 1,100 people, or up to two percent of the population per year, and seemed to hit women, children, and the elderly especially hard. At first, the disease perplexed observers and the Fore alike, leading people to attribute it to anything from a slow-moving virus to a psychosomatic illness to black magic. But eventually, even if the mechanics of the disease remained obscure, the cause revealed itself: Kuru was the result of cannibalizing human brains.

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