What Cannibalism Can Tell Us About Coronavirus

Amanda Zunner-Keating
12 min readMay 6, 2020
Photo by Adolfo Félix on Unsplash

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:

  1. A feeling of panic, (because we can’t immediately know when we are in danger) and
  2. 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…