Anthropology, without a doubt, was my first love. Learning about other places and people was never work to me. I’ve always remembered vividly an anecdote a professor told us in my first anthro class when I was 18 – almost 12 years ago now. Anthropologists began studying a population on an island where the women and children were contracting a neurological disease. It was discovered that protein was scarce – the primary source was pigs, which were only eaten by men. On the other hand, women and children were responsible for mortuary practices. This led to the consumption of the dead as a way for the women and children to have enough protein in their diets.
I’ve searched often over the years since to try and find more about the story and read up on it. I’d never been able to and began to wonder if it was true after all. That was until today, when I came across an article, The Last Laughing Death on Longform, one of my favorite sources for things to read. It is about a prion disease called kuru, in Papua New Guinea. While it mentions nothing of pigs, it describes the cultural practices of the Fore people and that the disease afflicted women and children in particular:
In each case, it is believed the victim had incubated the disease for an astonishing 50 years or more, having been exposed to infection as a child when participating in mortuary feasts that were an intrinsic part of Fore culture: that is, the cooking and consumption of the dead, every last piece of them, in order to hasten the journey of the departed loved-ones to the land of the ancestors.
Much later, Alpers, who had always felt discomforted by the term cannibalism — “you don’t like to call your friends cannibals” — would invent a new term for the Fore ritual: “transumption”. It borrowed from the lexicon of Catholic doctrine around the Eucharistic transubstantiation of bread into the body and blood of Christ. He defined the Fore custom as “incorporation of the body of the dead person into the bodies of living relatives, thus helping to free the spirit of the dead”. It was a final act of love by the grief-stricken. Yes, as anthropologists had insisted, there was a gastronomic element: people had given ready testimony that humans were delicious, especially their brains. But this was a perk, not a driver, of the practice, Alpers insisted, in papers citing the secrets shared with him and others over decades.
The Fore’s complex eschatology declared that each individual had five souls; that after death they travelled the land on a kind of farewell tour from which ultimately — assuming various rituals over a period of years were honoured — they would be reunited in the land of the ancestors. The most efficient path to this hereafter was for the body to be eaten.
As Alpers, with Jerome Whitfield and other colleagues summarised in a recent paper: “If the body was buried it was eaten by worms; if it was placed on a platform it was eaten by maggots; the Fore believed it was much better that the body was eaten by people who loved the deceased than by worms and insects. By eating their dead, they were able to show their love and express their grief.”
It was the women’s responsibility to eat the dead, grinding the bones and cooking the flesh, indulging their children along the way with the tastiest bits. Particular body parts were given to particular female kin. Although small boys joined in the feasting, they were generally excluded after about age 10.
I know this can seem rather gruesome (can’t say the story of Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t make me cringe uncontrollably), but I never found it anything other than fascinating – especially the possibility that it was actually protein scarcity that had such an impact on cultural practices. It’s an incredible illustration of the interplay between culture and environment and one of the most fascinating articles I’ve read recently. In addition, there is a more anthropological and just as fascinating source on the topic available at google books: The Anthropology of Health and Healing, in which is revealed an ironic twist:
For women, kuru victims were the most desired source of protein: “the layer of fat on those who died rapidly [heightened] the resemblance of human flesh to pork, the most favored protein” (1979:20).
The research chronicled on kuru has had implications for more familiar diseases to us, Mad Cow Disease and Alzheimer’s. Without a doubt, a highly recommended read.