Smart Cannibals Don’t Eat Brains!

A deadly disease causes havoc in a population of aborigines, earns one man his Nobel Prize and revolutionizes the concept of infectious agents in the world of medicine.

Kigudu tried to balance the pot of water on his head, his slender fingers gripping it tightly as he climbed the narrow path towards the hut, swaying to and fro. He felt important performing the task, almost like a man. His father had left with other males of the tribe to hunt and collect water from the springs. He stumbled into the hut where his mother sat alone, shivering; a sunken figure with a scarf tied tightly around her forehead. Kigudu glanced sideways at her as he carefully placed the pot in a corner and hurried silently out of the hut, fearing the spirits that infested her.

Primitive land plagued with a mysterious disease

Kigudu’s account is timed around the mid 1950s, the location are the highlands of Papua New Guinea and the scenario is a population of aborigines whose world revolved around sorcery, cannibalism and mysticism. They were plagued by a mysterious ailment named kuru, which means to shiver in the native tongue. It had spread like wildfire, massive number of women and children had fallen prey to the disease, while mysteriously the majority of men remained immune. While the locals blamed it on sorcery, a young doctor from Harvard; D. Carleton Gajdusek; couldn’t disagree more and decided to set up his laboratory in this Flintstones land to unravel the mystery.

The doctor who came to the rescue

As the villagers indulged in sorcery and traditional rituals to ward off envious acquaintances and imaginary enemies from neighboring tribes, Dr. Gajdusek employed more medical methods to demystify the cause behind the disease. He observed that kuru had a cunning onset beginning with shivers and tremors, followed by a complete loss of motor functions, rendering the patient immobile and hallucinating, and death usually followed within a short span. However the patients showed neither any signs of fever or inflammation, nor a bacterial or viral agent was detected in either blood or urine. Moreover nothing came out of scrutinizing the aborigine lifestyle and no correlation could be established between kuru and factors like childhood ailments, environmental toxins and nutritional deficiency. In desperate hope, Gajdusek tried everything from antibiotics, steroids, hormones and even aspirin, but no vain. The genetic factor was also considered since the women who married into other tribes carried the disease with them, but such a high incidence of victims was hard to explain. Lost in a cloud of questions and disappointment, Gajdusek finally abandoned his lab and returned home.

A night of horrors

Meanwhile, back in the village the aborigines continued in their old ways by punishing innocent people in the hope to cure kuru victims. In one such attempt, Kigudu’s father organized a special feast to sentence the alleged sorcerer, assuming the act would lift the spells rotting his wife to death. Years later, only a waft of possum meat would tickle Kigudu’s spine with the horrors of that night. He and his friends had watched apprehensively from under a tree as the alleged occultist was struck repeatedly with a cane tied with possum meat and the victim’s hair clippings. The Chaldean was treated to tukabo – ritual death. His battered body was detained to the ground by placing heavy stones on his arms, thighs and loins. His genitals were later crushed and slivers of thorns thrust into his armpits and groin. With his windpipe smashed inside him, only his widened eyes expressed the excruciating pain. However, the fate inflicted upon the occultist was unable to reverse Kigudu’s mother’s condition. Her death merely added to the increasing number of kuru victims, which included little Kigudu himself.

Decoding the mysterious Kuru

However a breakthrough came in 1959 when a veterinary surgeon commented upon the similarities between kuru and scrapie – an infectious disease of the brain – prevalent amongst sheep. This edged Gajdusek back to Papua New Guinea to make a fresh attempt at unscrambling kuru. The necropsy samples he sent back home were used to infect chimpanzees and soon the first batch developed symptoms related to kuru. This confirmed kuru, as an infectious brain disorder but the agent behind the disease still remained a mystery.

The mad protein

The mysterious agent at last came into limelight when kuru was linked to two other diseases, Cruetzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD) in humans and Mad Cow disease in cows. All these diseases are brain disorders that literally eat away the brain, turning it into a sponge like structure. The infectious agent that causes this mayhem is neither a virus nor a bacteria but a seemingly innocent protein called a prion. It resides naturally in our nerve cells but it’s function is yet unknown. However we do know that due to some vague reasons the normal prion protein spontaneously changes its structure to develop into an abnormal disease-causing version of itself. This abnormal version is highly infectious and self-propagating as it further converts healthy prion proteins into abnormal versions, thus spreading the infection in the entire brain. As these abnormal prions increase in number they aggregate to form plaques in the brain, eating away the brain cells; slowly rendering the patient an invalid. The reason as to why these proteins’ structure suddenly alters is not fully known but some scientists believe that it might be genetic. This makes prion diseases both infectious and genetic, since consuming a prion-infected brain tissue (as in the case of mad cow disease) and inheriting the genes linked to this disorder can make you a victim. The phenomenon of an infectious agent, which is protein in nature, was a first and still remains controversial in some medical circles.

'I feasted on you when you died'

The disease had spread amongst the aborigines through cannibalism. They had a tradition of consuming their dead ones as a sign of respect. The ritual involved the putrification of the corpse for three to four days before being baked and consumed by the children and female relatives of the deceased. Traditionally, the mother and children dined on the brain, while the males from the tribe avoided it, believing it would hamper their fighting abilities. So the tribe’s fetish for their dead ones spread the infectious agent from the corpse’s brain to almost the entire population and as mostly women and children participated in the ritual it explained why most men remained immune. Hence by sheer luck the tribal men made smarter cannibals by avoiding feasting on their dead ones’ brains.



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