Inglorious16 August 2008
In conversation last night or this morning, the Woman of Interest noted that cannibalistic killers are at elevated risk for brain disease, whence we got onto the subject of kuru.
Many people have heard or read of kuru, a form of prion disease noted amongst a people of Papua New Guinea, as a result of cannibalism, but I noted to her that there are a few twists to the story which which most people are not now unfamiliar.
The south Fore people, who were the people in question, seem to have picked-up the practice of eating the dead from a neighboring people who did so for religious reasons. But the Fore only adopted the practice, not the religion. The women were just having a little nosh as they prepared the bodies, and were sharing with the children.
An acknowledgment that kuru was caused by cannibalism — which acknowledgment later helped scientists and policy-makers to recognize how other prion diseases spread — was impeded because, in the 1970s and '80s, an anthropolgist, William Edward Arens, had with remarkable success made politically correct the denial of culturally based cannibalism. That is to say that the existence of cannibalism wasn't altogether denied, but it was claimed to be always an extraordinary act of deviance or of desperation. (On at least one occasion, Arens took a researcher to task for noting the physical evidence for cannibalism amongst a vanished people, instead of working to promote the virtues of their extinct culture.)
Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on identifying the cause of kuru, was in Papua New Guinea largely for the boys. He was a child molestor.