In 1890, a tribe living in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea were starting to see their people violently shake, suffer, and die from a new, unknown disease.
One of the anthropologists who discovered the correlation between cannibalism and the epidemic is now living and teaching in the Covid-19 hot zone of New York City and is presenting a series of talks comparing that terrifying illness to today’s formidable pandemic.
The anthropologist, Shirley Lindenbaum, knows that when diseases do not yet have a medical solution, we are forced to rely on behavioral changes and cultural shifts to survive.
In spite of public health officials’ recommendations to the contrary, most of us are still sneaking off to visit family and friends, many refuse to wear masks on the streets and even some are still not wearing masks in stores. You would be hard-pressed to find a person on the planet who isn’t somewhat troubled by the pandemic, and yet beaches and parks are packed on sunny days while some states in the US are even starting to re-open.
So, what is going on with everyone?
Disease is incredibly hard for the human mind to understand. Unlike most other dangers, the pathogens that threaten our lives and well-being are invisible to the naked eye which simultaneously creates:
- A feeling of panic, (because we can’t immediately know when we are in danger) and
- A tendency to disregard restrictions (because we struggle to believe in hazards that we cannot perceive).
You, dear reader, likely already know this because you’re probably spending this pandemic oscillating between a place of anxiety-ridden terror and complete indifference. Don’t worry, me too.
Humanity vs. disease
Like us, pathogens evolve and multiply to survive which is why new diseases stump us. Pathogens are under no obligation to exist in forms that we are prepared to understand. So, we fill in the blanks of our understanding with disbelief, paranoia, and often superstition.
This new virus is not yet fully understood, and the confusion augments our existing skepticism toward authority.
Around 1890, something strikingly similar happened in the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea. An entirely new disease emerged and stumped both researchers and community members for decades while the population dwindled. The fatal disease affecting those people:
- Had a long incubation period which made it difficult to track
- Was transmitted mysteriously in a manner never before seen by researchers
- Threatened one demographic far more than the rest of the population
That disease, known as kuru, impacted a people called the Fore (pronounced for-ay). The mystery was solved by a now-famous team of anthropologists, Shirley Lindenbaum and Robert Glasse, who arrived in the region in 1961, lived among the Fore, and closely examined their way of life.
The similarities point to our shared humanity and common fears. Closely examining the two cases alongside one another highlights elements of the human condition that are not otherwise obvious.
First, a little bit about cannibalism
The Fore practiced cannibalism or, more specifically, endocannibalism (the eating of one’s own community members) after their loved ones had already died. This particular ritual of endocannibalism was an integral part of their traditional life (explained below).
It’s important to pause here and remind the reader that cannibalism does not, itself, cause disease. But, similar to the danger of eating beef from a cow with Mad Cow Disease, eating diseased human flesh can infect those who consume it. The Fore are a people who believed that a person’s soul can best move onto the afterlife if it’s family members lovingly cook and mournfully eat their flesh after they have already died (Whitfield, Pako, Collinge, and Alpers; Lindenbaum 2015).
To the Fore, converting your remains into nutrients and energy for your loved ones assured that you would live on through them. A publication on the matter explains,
“In the kuru-affected region, all methods of disposal of the body involved being eaten. If the body was buried it was eaten by worms; if the body 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. (Whitfield, Pako, Collinge, and Alpers 3722).”
To the Fore, funerary cannibalism was a sacred ritual.
Unfortunately, the new, fatal disease was caused by a protein in the body that infects others when a loved one’s diseased body is ingested. While cannibalism does not cause the disease, the sacred cultural practice did spread the illness. The Fore were asked to abandon a traditional element of their culture in order to stop the infection and their reactions are strikingly similar to our own:
- We don’t trust the authorities
- We are willing to die for what we love
- We don’t believe in what we can’t see
We don’t trust the authorities
In 1962, the Fore turned to conspiracy theories to explain what was happening in their community. At the peak of medical and anthropological research, the Fore were studied extensively by medical researchers, doctors, missionaries, government officials, and anthropologists. Each group provided their own explanations to the local people — not unlike our experience in the internet age — causing a collapse of trust between the Fore and the authorities. Americans facing Coronavirus are starting to do the same.
In the United States, we may be politically polarized, but we share a common distrust of authority. In fact, our belief that the authorities are misleading and manipulating us dates back to the very beginning of our nation. Conspiracy theories fueled the American Revolution when revolutionaries spread the idea that the British were actively seeking to enslave the American colonists (see Jesse Walker’s, “The United States of Paranoia”; Throughline’s Episode, “Conspiracy Theories). And who can blame us? For 40 years, the Public Health Service claimed to be treating black men for syphilis in Alabama while actually offering them no treatment and, rather, recorded the inevitable deterioration of their health (and loss of life). And, the FBI poisoned alcohol during prohibition to prevent Americans from drinking it (killing an estimated 10,000 in the process). Our authorities cannot always be trusted, and Americans are unable to forget the times when we were betrayed by our government.
In times of crisis, human beings use storytelling to explain what is otherwise unexplainable. When we find ourselves in the dark, we use narrative to shed light on the situation. The magnitude of conspiracy theories swirling around in response to Coronavirus reveals the intensity of our utter confusion and anxiety.
Many of us prefer to believe that 5G is causing the virus, or that our own government has planted the virus to force us into vaccinating ourselves because admitting to ourselves that the natural world is this formidable is the most terrifying truth of all.
In December 1962, a missionary working among the Fore sent a desperate plea for help to the government authorities because she was witnessing conspiracy theories take a powerful hold over the Fore’s understanding of kuru. The missionary, Mildred Cervinka, wrote that tribal leaders among the Fore were reporting that,
“[The authorities] were [going to] kill and eat all the women…then men and boys only would be taken in an airplane by [the government] to a new locality where they could have a fresh start” (Lindenbaum 2015, 104).
This conspiracy theory refers to a feeling among the Fore that the government was, at worst, planting the disease in order to control the people or, at best, exploiting the people’s suffering for the government’s own benefit. Again, none of these ideas are outside of our own consideration when we are staring down a fatal, generation-ending pandemic.
We are willing to die for what we love
People who contract kuru slowly deteriorate, shake violently, and ultimately die from neurodegeneration. The Fore were presented with a choice: give up a key component of their culture or die out as a people. The Fore were facing the possibility of giving up a part of their traditional life in order to prevent the spread of disease. The consumption of the dead helped maintain family ties, ancestral lines, and community ties. All of this would be transformed with the ending of funerary cannibalism. This is a difficult choice that is not altogether foreign to us, anymore.
On April 20, 2020, Texas’ Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick stated on Fox News,
“There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for my children, and my grandchildren, and saving this country for all of us. And I don’t wanna die. Nobody wants to die. But we gotta take some risks, and get back in the game, and get this country back up and running.”
As human beings, we have a propensity to be willing to die for our beliefs. While America means different things to different people, to many, economic strength and competition are the very core of this nation’s identity. On April 20th, Lieutenant Governor Patrick was speaking to his sacred value system and to his willingness to die in order to protect his state’s economic development. Unfortunately for the Fore, the introduction of a fatal disease threatened the continuation of their sacred culture. And, unfortunately for Americans, the introduction of a fatal disease is threatening our economic strength (which, for many Americans, is quite sacred). Both communities have struggled to grasp and act upon how to prevent the spread of a new disease while scientists scramble to comprehend the infectious agent.
It’s important to pause here to note that, in reality, it will not be the most powerful members of our society who pay the price for our resistance to preventative measures. While Lieutenant Governor Patrick’s explanation reflects a willingness to die for his beliefs, he is unlikely to be the one to actually lose his life in the name of economic progress. We already know that our previously under-appreciated essential workers are more exposed to the disease, that black Americans are most vulnerable to exposure and lack of access to healthcare, and that the majority of healthcare (and other essential) workers are women. Here, we see another tragic similarity with the Fore’s struggle against Kuru which affected almost exclusively women.
Within traditional Fore society, the eating of a loved one’s flesh was viewed as a gift to the deceased who would ultimately experience a successful journey into the eternal afterlife. And yet, the Fore also believed that human flesh was not fit for human consumption (Whitfield, Pako, Collinge, and Alpers 3724). As a result, the Fore women — who were viewed as second class citizens — were expected to make the sacrifice of cooking and eating the flesh of lost loved ones. By engaging in this practice, the Fore women maintained the people’s ancestral line and then, tragically, were the ones to die from Kuru. Although disease is a natural force, it can never be separated from the cultural practices that design and reinforce inequality among us — one group will always pay a higher price for the behaviors and beliefs of the rest.
In a recent presentation to the New York Academy of Sciences, Shirley Lindenbaum offers the possibility that, by clarifying these inequalities, our society may transform. She explained,
“Historians tell us that extreme economic inequality has never shrunk in a meaningful way without a major crisis. In the context of the current crisis, it may be possible to do something about our current social inequalities — many of the overlooked people are now called ‘essential workers’ who keep all of us safe, and who also keep the economy afloat.” (Lindenbaum 2020)
We don’t believe in what we can’t see
I recently surveyed 122 people experiencing lockdown across the United States and asked them, “What is the most confusing part about Coronavirus?” One particular response seemed to encompass the concerns of the rest:
“How can something so microbial have us trapped in our homes?”
Indeed, this is the problem with infectious diseases; we cannot see when they are spreading and then we struggle to track when the infection occurred.
Among the Fore, the disease that was ravaging their community was so uniquely different that researchers could literally not comprehend it based on the epidemiological knowledge of the time. In general, we know that the most common infectious diseases are caused by viruses, bacteria, worms, parasites, fungii, protozoa, or viroids. All of these contain genetic material. Extensive research was conducted on the victims of kuru but there wasn’t any evidence of the aforementioned pathogens. As a result, the researchers started to design explanations to fill the void of knowledge. Some proposed that kuru was caused by hysteria because the disease impacted women more often than men (Lindenbaum 2015, 96). Others argued that the disease was psychosomatic, or in other words, that the people were literally frightening themselves to death (Ibid 98). Overall, the researchers were trying to understand the disease within a framework of language that they already had — a framework that was simply not sufficient.
It wasn’t until UCSF’s Dr. Stanley Prusiner emerged on the scene that any progress was made toward discovering the actual infectious agent. Prusiner discovered that kuru, unlike any other disease, was caused by an entirely new type of pathogen called a “prion.” A prion is a protein that does not contain genetic material like a virus or bacteria does. Prusiner’s research was shocking to the scientific and medical communities because it demonstrated that an entirely new form of disease was killing people at an alarming rate.
This is, perhaps, the most fascinating part of the kuru story: medical researchers struggled to accept the science of the disease almost as much as the local Fore population did. Both community’s culturally-specific understanding of the world limited their ability to understand and address the fatal illness (Lindenbaum 2015 110; UCSF).
Anthropologists Rebecca and Phillip Stein reflect on this,
“Think about how difficult it would be for the doctors to convince the Fore that Kuru was caused by tiny prions that nobody could see. One might as well be talking about tiny evil spirits that also cannot be seen.”
We no longer have to imagine the difficulty; we are experiencing it firsthand. We’re asked to believe in a magical 6-foot bubble of protection and in the power of an everyday bandana to protect our loved ones from death. Coronavirus allegedly can infect and kill some while infecting others with absolutely no symptoms at all. Some anecdotal evidence shows Coronavirus’ incubation period can extend beyond two weeks which is far longer than other diseases that the public is accustomed to facing.
The mysteries surrounding Coronavirus compound the anxiety that we feel while we simultaneously give up nearly everything during lockdown. In an email exchange, Lindenbaum pointed out an exceptionally important similarity between Coronavirus and Kuru,
“In the case of Kuru, medicine did not bring about the end of the epidemic. This took place when the government and missions said people should stop fighting and stop eating the dead. So, Kuru ended with a behavior change. With COVID-19, medicine so far has had little impact on those who are infected (although some recent data suggest that the time in hospital can be shortened) and a vaccine is also a possibility in the future. But right now, changing behavior is the only thing to do.”
So, what can we learn from cannibals?
Interestingly enough, it wasn’t medical treatment or even scientific education that directly saved the Fore from their epidemic. By the time researchers arrived in the region, the Fore had already been reached by missionaries who brought them into the Christian tradition. It was actually the missionaries who facilitated the end of cannibalism because it was not compatible with their faith (Lindenbaum 2015; 2016 180–182). In this case, however, Christianity was compatible with the science behind the necessary cure.
The Fore adapted to the change and continue to practice many elements of their traditional, sacred mourning rituals today (without endocannibalism). Today, the men and women in the community continue to reinforce community ties by fulfilling the most important rituals in their sacred mourning practices, and they’ve incorporated elements of their new religious tradition.
In lieu of a cure, it was the Fore’s resiliency and ability to adapt to cultural shifts that kept them alive and protected the most vulnerable members of their community. Shirley Lindenbaum still communicates frequently with some Fore members via email. The Fore are preparing for the inevitable arrival of COVID-19. In a fascinating twist, some of the Christian elements of their modern mourning rituals (including taking communion) will no longer be possible because these practices will spread Coronavirus. More changes are coming for the Fore and, indeed, for us all.
The Fore have already survived a tragic and fatal epidemic which sets them up to teach us the most essential lesson of survival: we must adapt and transform the parts of our culture that harm the vulnerable, and then be prepared to do so again, and again.
For more information, see:
“Conspiracy Theories.” Throughline, NPR, 28 Nov. 2019.
Lindenbaum, Shirley. “An Annotated History of Kuru.” Medicine Anthropology Theory | An Open-Access Journal in the Anthropology of Health, Illness, and Medicine, vol. 2, no. 1, 2015, p. 95., doi:10.17157/mat.2.1.217.
Lindenbaum, Shirley. Kuru Sorcery: Disease and Danger in the New Guinea Highlands. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016.
Lindenbaum, Shirley. “What Can We Learn From Other Epidemics? .” 20 Apr. 2020, New York.
Ray, Rashawn. “Why Are Blacks Dying at Higher Rates from COVID-19?” Brookings, Brookings, 19 Apr. 2020, www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2020/04/09/why-are-blacks-dying-at-higher-rates-from-covid-19/.
Robertson, Campbell, and Robert Gebeloff. “How Millions of Women Became the Most Essential Workers in America.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Apr. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/04/18/us/coronavirus-women-essential-workers.html.
Stein, Rebecca L., and Philip L. Stein. The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft. Routledge, 2016.
Whitfield, Jerome T, et al. “Mortuary Rites of the South Fore and Kuru.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 363, no. 1510, 2008, pp. 3721–3724., doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0074.