You could make any number of arguments against eating other human beings – moral, societal, sanitary – but you really only need one:
Eating human flesh is really, really bad for our brains.
It’s been difficult to study the effects of cannibalism, since the stigma against eating other people is and always has been strong in almost every known society. It wasn’t until 1961 that the effects of cannibalism could be studied, though even then it was practically an accident. That year, researcher Michael Alpers headed into Papua New Guinea to study a largely untouched tribe – the Fore – who were dying from a mysterious condition at an alarming rate.
The Fore called the condition “kuru,” and around 200 people – women and children only – died every year after experiencing tremors, an impaired ability to work, a total loss of bodily function, depression, and emotional instability.
Alpers investigated, but could find no virus, bacteria, fungus, or parasite causing the mysterious deaths, which led him to wonder whether the consumption of human flesh had anything to do with it.
The tribe practiced cannibalism as part of their funerary rights. The women and children would prepare the body, eating the brain of their departed loved one out of love and appreciation before passing the rest of the flesh onto the other members of the tribe for consumption.
View this post on Instagram
Alpers gave an interview about his experience to Cosmos Magazine in April, 2016:
“The argument for cannibalism – and I don’t use that term anymore, but it was used then – was compelling. Everything fitted. Why did women and children get the disease? Because they were the ones that carried out the practice – the men didn’t.”
By 1966, Alpers and his team had nailed down the culprit behind kuru: a prion.
Prions are versions of proteins that occur normally in the body, but have become twisted and malformed. They are dangerous because they cause the proteins around them to refold abnormally, as well.
Aside from kuru, prions cause Mad Cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, both of which are degenerative brain disorders that come with similar effects.
All prion disorders are always fatal.
While this is definitely one more argument for not going full zombie on your neighbors, the Fore people continue to provide information that confounds modern science – the people who regularly ate the brains but did not succumb to a prion disease show a resistance to kuru and afflictions like it.
The discovery is helping medical workers understand degenerative brain diseases and even dementia, none of which would have been possible without the cannibalism.
I’m not sure what to do with that information except put it out there to confuse all of us.
So there you go.