The author of Kuru Sorcery: Disease and Danger in the New Guinea Highlands, Shirley Lindenbaum, is a cultural anthropologist and professor in the Ph.D. Program in the Department of Anthropology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. In addition to her ground-breaking research in Papua New Guinea - studying the prion ailment called "kuru" (explored in depth in this paper) and linking cannibalism to kuru - Lindenbaum has conducted extensive research (and published books and scholarly articles) on cholera in Bangladesh, and on AIDS and HIV in the U.S. And elsewhere. She also has published books titled The Education of Women and the Mortality of Children in Bangladesh, and Knowledge, Power and Practice: the Anthropology of Medicine and Everyday Life, according to her bibliography in the City University of New York Web pages for faculty members (www.gc.cuny.edu/anthropology/fac_lindenbaum.html).
The Kuru and Shirley Lindenbaum's Impact on Research
To say that Lindenbaum's anthropological work in Paupa, New Guinea, in the early 1960s and in 1970, had a constructive and lasting impact on science, is truly an understatement. Indeed, twenty-four years after Lindenbaum published Kuru Sorcery, scientists studying diseases are using key portions of her research results to positive ends. For example, an article in the Nutrition Health Review (Spring, 2003) suggests that there could be a link between meat-eating by humans and Parkinson's disease; this research is based on initial work Lindenbaum conducted in the 1960s, linking the cannibalistic eating of human brains and the resulting kuru disease which killed large numbers of natives. And in Science News (Bower, 2003), researchers believe that "Cannibalism among prehistoric humans may have left lasting genetic marks," and they base their assumptions on studies of kuru, a "prion ailment" which Fore natives contracted between 1920 and 1950 as a result of "eating human brains and other tissue during funeral rituals." Those early kuru studies by Lindenbaum contributed to today's research and knowledge.
And, twenty-two years after her book was published, Lindenbaum published important research on the origins of epidemics (Annual Review of Anthropology, 2001), based, again, in part, on initial work she conducted in New Guinea, and on previous - and subsequent - research done by other scientists. So, the work continues, on new and higher levels of scientific importance, as researches try to solve mysteries about disease.
Meanwhile, in the Introduction to Lindenbaum's Kuru Sorcery book, the author describes the Fore - pronounced "FOR-AY" - peoples as 14,000 "slash-and-burn horticulturalists" (page 3) living in the forests of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. The "South Fore" (hereafter referred to as "Fore") raise sugar cane, bananas, corn, sweet potatoes, and pigs; and they hunt mammals, reptiles, birds and cassowaries (large birds that do not fly but can actually attack and kill humans with slashing blows from its feet; its middle "toe" has a dagger-like nail). Lindenbaum describes the rainforest in which the Fore thrived as rich in edible vegetation, and stunningly colorful with ferns, tall fruit trees, and "Red, white, and salmon-colored impatiens" which "sparkle in the shafts of sunlight" which are filtered through the rainforest canopy. These are Stone Age peoples, real-life cannibals that she reports on through her investigations; and the incidence of deaths among these peoples is shocking. Since 1957, when records began being kept, and 1968, over 1,100 people died of kuru, and that is out of a Fore population of 8,000 people.
The early 1960s were crisis years for the Fore," Lindenbaum writes on page 7. "They hunted for sorcerers and consulted curers," basically because their culture was being decimated by a disease they did not understand, and they knew of no cure; and, too, the disease was particularly devastating because women were "the prime victims," and hence, reproductive capacities of the culture were largely decimated.
How Kuru Attacks Humans
The way the "first stage" affects the victim is, the patient initially feels unsteady, and the hands and eyes and voice have a tremor. There is a slurring of speech, and eye movements become "ataxic" (page 11), another word for the involuntarily shifting and twitching of eyes, as though from a nervous disorder. The eyes in a short time are crossed, the patient "shivers inordinately," and a lack of coordination progresses from "lower extremities" to "upper extremities" (page 12). And while attempting to keep one's balance, the patient's toes "grip and claw the ground more than usual." In the latter part of the first stage, the victim walks about the village with a staff, or rod, as a support to prevent falling.
In the "second stage" of the kuru disease, the patient no longer can walk without complete support from other persons. The tremors and ataxia mentioned in the first stage are "more severe" and there are "widespread repetitive muscular spasms, or sometimes shock-like muscle jerks and occasionally coarser [irregular, involuntary] movements, especially when the patient is thrown into an exaggerated startle response" (page 14). Another manifestation of the second stage is emotional in nature: "outbursts of pathological laughter [is] frequent...and smiling and laughter are terminated slowly." In this second stage, occasionally younger people become depressed, and even may develop a "pathological belligerence [in response to] disturbances by family members or others." One thing that does not normally happen in the second stage is a condition of "severe dementia," according to Lindenbaum.
The "third stage" is also known as the "terminal stage," and in this stage the patient is unable to sit without being supported. The tremors and ataxia become "progressively more severe" (page 14), and the patient suffers from urinary and digestive tract incontinence. Moreover, the patient has difficulty swallowing, becomes "mute and unresponsive," and suffers severe ulcerations of the skin "over bony prominences." Also, pneumonia sets in and the patient dies, "usually emaciated."
Original Theories as to the Cause of Epidemic Deaths in Fore Society
Western researchers initially believed the kuru was due to a "psychosomatic phenomenon" associated with "the threat and fear of what was believed to be a particularly malignant form of sorcery" (page 14). An example of that view was reflected in a medical diagnosis from a 1955 case sent to an Australian hospital in Kainantu, New Guinea: "acute hysteria in an otherwise healthy woman." But by 1957, Drs. Vincent Zigas and Carleton Gajdusek became the first Westerners to launch an in-depth study of kuru - Zigas with the New Guinea health department and Gajdusek representing the U.S. National Institutes of Health - and they came to the conclusion that kuru "cannot by any stretch of the imagination be identified with hysteria, psychoses or any known...psychologically-induced illnesses" (page 15).
Cannibalism becomes a likely Answer to the Puzzle
By 1962, anthropological evidence was gaining some momentum, as the author and Robert Glasse traced the kuru's movement through a "specific" route, and interviewed many members of the Fore communities. But more importantly, author Lindenbaum and her colleague, Glasse, began to form a cannibalism hypothesis, which "seemed to fit the epidemiological evidence" (page 19).
The high incidence of kuru in the early 1960s "was related to the cannibal consumption of deceased kuru victims," she writes. She learned that not all bodies of dead Fore peoples were eaten - those with dysentery or leprosy or yaws were not consumed. The author goes into great detail of how dead bodies were dismembered for cooking and eating on page 20. One body part that the Fore avoided was the gall bladder, whose "bitter contents would ruin the meat." Otherwise, marrow was "sucked from cracked bones, and sometimes the pulverized bones themselves were cooked and eaten with green vegetables." If that sounds a bit gross, imagine what the dead bodies smelled like in North Fore, where the corpse was "buried for several days, then exhumed and eaten when the flesh had 'ripened' and the maggots could be cooked as a separate delicacy" (page 20). There were some rituals for who ate what: the buttocks of Fore men "were reserved for their wives, while female maternal cousins received the arms and legs."
When the new information about kuru's likely causes became published, a great deal of attention was paid to the disorder. On page 25 Lindenbaum brings the "scrapie" disease into the picture; scrapie is a "degenerative disease of the central nervous system of sheep," and like mad cow disease (to be later "discovered"), there were "remarkable similarities" between the clinical and pathological features of kuru and scrapie. Given that connection, Dr. Gajdusek (National Institutes of Health) injected chimpanzee brains with "brain material from Fore patients who had died of kuru." It took up to 50 months, but the chimpanzees developed a "clinical syndrome astonishingly akin to human kuru," Lindenbaum writes. That was in 1966; and the findings gave credibility to Lindenbaum's earlier hypothesis that kuru was in fact caused - and spread - by people eating the brains of deceased community members who had been infected.
In Chapter 3 Lindenbaum discusses other diseases which are common to the Fore peoples, and in…