Mad cow disease and other ailments of the sort have become better understood by scientists as they investigated the dietary habits of a Papua New Guinea tribe, previously infamous for including human brain eating in their funerary rites.
A team from Papua New Guinea and British researchers have focused their attention on studying the members of the Fore tribe and found out their strange diet gave them an interesting upper hand.
As they used to eat human brains at their relatives’ funerals, the tribal population has become genetically resistant to kuru, a disease which is strikingly similar to the infamous mad cow disease. Their discovery might also help in the advancement of treatments for prion diseases – mental illnesses, dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
The world first found out about kuru after a medical officer working in New Guinea noticed that some of the people of the Fore tribe were victims of a mysterious and fatal disease. They would lose the ability to walk, followed by an inability to chew or swallow.
Eventually, these tribe members would lose a lot of weight and die. Kuru means “trembling in fear” and the disease would cause more than 2 percent of deaths per year. After extensive research, scientists discovered that some of the Fore funerary rites included some practices that sound at least strange for the occidental man.
At mortuary feasts, men who were related to the deceased would pay their respects by eating the flesh of the dead, while the women ate their brains. What they didn’t know is that a deadly molecule living in human brains can be fatal if eaten.
In the present, kuru has been joined by several other diseases caused by proteins called prions. These can reproduce and become contagious. Mad cow disease is probably the most well-known prion disease in contemporary times, which got its name after a breakout in cattle during the 1980s.
Mad cow disease ravaged and caused political turmoil all over Europe and beyond. By 1993, more than 120,000 animals had received this diagnose, which increased to 45 million cattle that needed to be put down in 1996.
Even though we can’t currently talk about a mad cow disease epidemic, there are still some local reports of animals dying of this ailment up until 2012.
Deformed prions, the proteins at the root of these diseases, are basically indestructible. Latest researches, however, show that genetic protection does indeed exist, but it also proves that – just like the Fore people – many more tribes used to see cannibalism as a universal practice.
After the kuru outbreak in the 1950s, human brains became a no-no for all the tribes in New Guinea. Slowly, the disease began to disappear.
Image Source: International Funeral News