by Genese Sodikoff
The story of kuru is a classic one in anthropology and medicine. Called the “laughing death” in the Australian newspapers, the disease swept over the Fore population of Papua New Guinea's eastern highlands over the course of the 20th century, peaking in the late '50s and early '60s.
Victims experienced body aches and instability at first. They'd become emotionally labile, trembling and laughing involuntarily. Gradually, they lost control of bodily functions and the ability to swallow or stand. Their bodies wasted away, immobile until death, which could occur anytime between six months to a year after the onset of symptoms.
For decades, scientists were stumped as to how it spread. The usual signs of an infectious agent were not apparent, yet people were dying by the hundreds every year. The disease struck mostly adult women and young children. Women died of kuru at approximately three times the rate of men, leaving hamlets bereft of mothers and wives. It was a “demographic emergency,” explains anthropologist Shirley Lindenbaum, who began research among the South Fore people at the height of the kuru epidemic in the early 1960s. As she describes in her 1979 book, Kuru Sorcery: Disease and Danger in the New Guinea Highlands, the Fore blamed the deaths on malevolent sorcery. They believed sorcerers were pushing them toward the brink of extinction.
I have been writing here about the anthropology of zoonosis, disease that spills over from animal to human. Zoonotic diseases interest me in part because they trouble our sense of species boundaries, or reproductive and even immunological divides. The lines of class difference (Mammalia, I mean) sometimes seem thinly sketched.
Kuru was not zoonotic–-quite the opposite. It was a disease borne of cannibalism.
We now know that kuru was a prion disease, akin to Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a human variant of “mad cow.” Outbreaks of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease have come from eating infected beef. Cattle have gotten Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy from eating infected offal—that is, beef body tissues.
The ultimate source of kuru may have been nonhuman, but it's equally possible the disease manifested spontaneously in a human being. In this regard, kuru, like mad cow disease, suggests the good of imposing a taxonomic order and establishing rules to avoid danger: like ought not eat like.
The story of kuru has all the elements of page-turning novel: A mysterious disease ravages a “Stone Age tribe” in a colonial outpost; Western scientists endure harsh conditions sleuthing for answers; medicine advances by leaps and bounds. And cannibalism!
Medical research on kuru earned Nobel Prizes for two distinguished scientists. Carleton Gajdusek, in 1966, successfully inoculated chimpanzees with biological matter from human kuru victims, showing that the disease was transmissible via an infectious agent and that it had a long incubation period. Stanley Prusiner isolated and identified the infectious agent, a misfolded protein he dubbed a “prion” in 1982.
Here's the problem. The way the kuru story has usually been told in popular media and scientific publications has been misleading with regard to an important fact. That this fact is not well-known beyond the insular world of academe annoys me enough to state it outright. It has to do with the suppression of anthropology's role in cracking the kuru case. What do I mean?
Take a look at Carleton Gajdusek's (sadly ignominious) Wikipedia page. It states, “Gajdusek connected the spread of the disease to the practice of funerary cannibalism by the South Fore.”
This claim appears frequently in popular and scientific accounts. And Gajdusek has not been the sole kuru researcher who has either taken ownership of the discovery that cannibalism spread kuru, or has had the discovery attributed to him by others.
To put it bluntly, Shirley (Glasse) Lindenbaum and her late husband Robert Glasse were the ones who found compelling evidence that cannibalism caused kuru, and scientists have been taking credit ever since.
I met with Shirley Lindenbaum in her Upper West Side flat a few weeks ago. She served me tea and biscuits (she is Australian), and we sat down to discuss her fieldwork among the South Fore, and the reasons why anthropology has been shortchanged in the public history of kuru.
Gender partly explains the skewed coverage of who discovered what in New Guinea in the 1960s. I can attest that Shirley Lindenbaum is not one to muscle her way into the limelight. She is generous and unassuming, a believer in collaborative knowledge, a data-sharer. She has not made a fuss about others taking credit.
Disciplinary cultures also come into play. The world of hard science is male-dominated and cutthroat competitive. Well, that is the view from anthropology. Hard science offers high-stakes rewards (social scientists do not win Nobel Prizes).
Scientists, in turn, have often regarded cultural anthropology as soft, “unscientific.” Many don't have a clear idea what cultural anthropologists actually do. We do not dig up artifacts and skeletons or analyze the shards of Homo's progenitors. We do ethnography. We talk to people in their own language on their own turf, living amongst them, asking questions, having conversations, participating in their lives, and taking copious notes.
To be fair, not every popular account of kuru ignores the anthropological contribution to kuru research. Last year, NPR did a broadcast on Lindenbaum's kuru research, and Bill Schutt's excellent new book, Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History includes a chapter on kuru that gets the story right. He describes the insights of the Glasses and other anthropologists in the region, including Ronald and Catherine Berndt and Jerome Whitfield.
Lindenbaum admires Schutt's book and only takes issue with a minor error. That is where Schutt writes that he was struck, and somewhat troubled, by an analogy Lindenbaum made during their conversation together, an analogy between sex and cannibalism that he had encountered many times before.
The analogy is a response to skeptics who doubted the existence of cannibalism because no anthropologist had ever witnessed it firsthand. The retort then goes: “There's a lot of things we haven't seen firsthand—sexual intercourse among them.” Which is to say, just because you don't see something, does not mean it isn't going on.
Curious about where this dictum originated, Schutt traced the first use of this analogy back to an article by Jared Diamond in 2000 (who is not an anthropologist but a geographer). However, Lindenbaum had actually used it in her 1982 review of William Arens' influential 1979 book, The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy.
Arens' book discredited the scholarship of cannibalism, so Lindenbaum, who worked among people who practiced cannibalism and died from it, was making a rejoinder to Arens' baseless attack. He was vocal in his skepticism of the Glasses' kuru discovery, certain that mortuary cannibalism in Papua New Guinea was a myth.
Arens argued that cannibalism had never been a custom in any society and occurred only in rare, extenuating circumstances. He believed cannibalism to be a convenient lie invented by Westerners about exotic “natives,” as well as by different ethnic or cultural groups denigrating their enemies or other groups. Anthropologists, he claimed, were gullible. They believed the insults that various societies hurled at others were true.
The acceptance of Arens' argument by scholars and the public put anthropologists in a difficult position. Anthropologists were already reluctant to talk about the practice of cannibalism for fear of casting a bad light on the people they studied. Anthropology's code of ethics involves protecting the people we study from harm. Scholarship on cannibalism was attacked from without by the Arens camp, and within, by anthropologists' inner qualms about reinforcing Westerners' prejudices against remote indigenous societies. Cannibalism, Lindenbaum explained, “has a flavor of primitivism about it that [anthropologists] didn't want to acknowledge.”
Arens was not only wrong in saying that cannibalism had never existed. He also wrongly claimed that no outsider had ever witnessed it. The Glasses, it was true, did not observe cannibalism because it had ended by the time they got to the South Fore territory. The Fore talked about it though as a tradition of their own. The practice had been outlawed by the colonial state in 1959 but continued clandestinely to some degree for a couple of years.
But Carleton Gajdusek witnessed it and had photographs to prove it.
Lindenbaum saw his pictures at a kuru conference held in London in 2008. Both Lindenbaum and Gajdusek had invited a group of Papua New Guineans they had known in the ‘60s to attend the event. During his presentation, Gajdusek showed slides of his earlier research days among the Fore. At the time, he had stumbled into group of people “just half-way through the consumption of a human being.” Lindenbaum recalls a couple of the color slides.
They showed “pieces of the corpse still left over, and there was just shock in the room among the Papua New Guineans there. These were people who knew their parents had consumed, and that they had a bad name among people as cannibals. It's not true that nobody ever saw it.”
Given what he witnessed, it's curious that Gajdusek was ever resistant to the possibility that cannibalism transmitted kuru. He was initially partial to Henry Bennet's genetic hypothesis, which held that Fore women had a dominant gene for kuru. Bennet, from the University of Adelaide, was the one who sponsored the Glasses' research on Fore kinship.
Lindenbaum and her husband often saw Gajdusek during their research in the eastern highlands. They spent many enjoyable hours together socializing and debating kuru's cause. Gajdusek rejected their cannibalism hypothesis, and by then he also doubted the genetic hypothesis. He believed kuru to be infectious, caused by a “slow and unconventional virus” transmitted through infected bodily fluids that got into open cuts and wounds. Gradually he would come around to accept the cannibalism theory wholeheartedly.
The Glasses' use of ethnographic methods illuminated details about Fore society and their complex kinship organization that Gajdusek could not have perceived. They also mapped the direction of kuru's spread over the landscape.
The Glasses collected data about marriages, separations, births, deaths, and adoptions, the dates of life events, and the sex of offspring. They compiled the data in detailed kinship charts (see image), which put into sharp relief kuru deaths by gender and over generations.
What the Glasses could see on their charts was that no one born after 1960 acquired kuru, but many who had eaten infected human flesh as children got kuru as adults. As Gajdusek thought, the disease could remain latent for many years; its manifestation in adulthood appears to have been tied to how much infected meat was eaten in one's lifetime.
The Glasses' kinship chart shows the disproportionate number of adult female deaths. Females are represented by circles, males by triangles, and the filled-in shapes depict death by kuru. Over time, looking at the chart from top to bottom, you can see the equalization of death by gender and then the fading out of kuru deaths.
How was it that male and female deaths by kuru equalized over time? Lindenbaum explained that young girls and boys between the ages of 5 and 10 years old would have consumed equal amounts of infected meat (unwittingly given to them by their mothers) just before the end of cannibalism. I should say that for the South Fore, eating one's kin was an act of care and affection, a means of protecting their spirits.
At the age of 10, boys were obliged to move out of their childhood home and into the “men's house,” at which point they no longer ate human flesh. Men did not partake in cannibalism. But girls remained home, helping their mothers with domestic labor, attending funerals, and eating people. They therefore received higher doses of infected meat, resulting in higher rates of kuru infection later on.
Arens' book, The Man-Eating Myth, essentially denied the validity of the data linking cannibalism to kuru. He endlessly attacked Lindenbaum for being gullible. Lindenbaum concedes that he was indeed correct in saying that people have historically called others monsters and cannibals. But then he “overdid it,” seeing every expression of cannibalism in the anthropological literature as false.
Knowing the specifics of South Fore's expression of cannibalism—all the social and cultural details of who consumed or did not consume whom, and how, when, and why—were not incidental to discoveries about transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Scientists had pointed the anthropologists toward Fore kinship in search of an elusive gene. What the Glasses then discovered about kinship in all its specificity, including the responsibilities of kin toward the living and the dead, oriented the gaze of the scientists, enabling the scientific breakthroughs that followed.