Sunday, April 13, 2003
An article from the Straits Times in Singapore on the history of Iraq, sent to me I think because it talks about the Sandman book Fables and Reflections (and the Ramadan story) at Paradise lost - APRIL 14, 2003.

And this deserves to be put up in full...

The Fore, Kuru, anthropology and cannibalism!

You may or may not have been told this by others, but, well, you haven't posted anything about it, so I figured, why not send it in. This is in reference to your original post about cannibalism, of course, and the mention you made about a certain mysterious neurological disease.

The disease in question is/was called Kuru. The people who had it are called the Fore, and they lived, of course, in New Guinea. Point of interest: if you hear anything really strange as far as cultural practices/believefs go, chances are it is probably linked in some way to New Guinea. Including things like the idea that semen is not somethign the body gets baturally, and so it has to be passed along from older males to young boys by ritual insemination (One of the tribes in question there would be The Sambia, about which a lot has been published). But I'm getting distracted!

The Fore. What happened with them was kind of complicated.
basically, it went like this. Someone got the first case of Kuru, and died terribly from it. That village blamed sorcery from another village, and they went to war, and lots of young men got killed (well, a significant anount, anyway. Warfare in new guinea isn't waged in quite the same way, but some people died). Women and young children kept getting it, and so there were more accusations of sorcery, and so on. When people in other villages got it, the same accusations were made, and so on. And so on top of the peole dying of Kuru, lots of young, healthy Fore men were being killed in the wars. Since the Fore weren't an especially lage group to start with, this meant that their tribe was on its way to being wiped out!

Step in a medical researcher type, a Dr. Gadjusek. He starts investigating the Foreand Kuru. He realizes the disease affecte the central nervous system, and causes it to basically decay. Symptoms, for the record include a lack of fine muscle control and coordination, so that movements appear jerky and twitchy, as well as difficulty swallowing. Another doctor sees his work and notes the resemblance between this disease and scapies in sheep (and also makes Kuru the same *kind* of disease as Mad Cow. Grr *moooo* Grr). They do all kinds of crazy tests to try and figure out how people catch it. Eventually, they identify kuru as a brain effecting slow virus.

Enter a pair of anthropologists, Robert and Shirley Glass. They discover that the Fore claim to be cannibals, but that only women and children (the main victims of Kuru) participate! Once the link is made, the Fore are convinced to stop this practice, and Kuru ceases being such a problem. Gadjusek goes on to win a nobel prize!

But the story doens't quite end there. I don't remember all the details, and I don't have access to the notes from my Medical Anthropology class, so I'm nameless and sourceless at the moment.

First off, let me say this. In the early days of anthropology, there were lots of claims of cannibalism. Generally it si the sort of thing that is attributed to the people in the next village, sort of thing. But sometimes, people would claim to do it because it got interest from the researchers. It seems the Fore were one of these groups. Later anthropologist (or at least, different ones) have shown that the Glasses were, basically, lied to. Which is kind of an anti-climax to the story, I know. The funerary rites did involve brain *handling*, but not consumption. The virus is passed from the brain fluids, so handling was still enough to pass it along, it for example, the women didn't wash their hands before eating, or were wiping at their eyes, or noses, or the faces of their children, and so on...

And there is a half decent page that explains this stuff (or the medical parts of it, anyway, but leaves out most of the anthropology) here:

Anyway, um, that's all. Hope you find this interesting to read, at least ^-^

-Heather H

Fascinating... thanks.

I also found this which is useful for currently working doctors