Here’s a nice follow-up to my article about prion diseases. It’s an excerpt from Deadly Feasts: The “Prion” Controversy and the Public’s Health, by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Rhodes. The book documents the work of Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, the American physician who provided the first description of kuru. Gajdusek travelled to Papua New Guinea in the late 1950s and lived among the Fore peoples. He studied their culture and performed autopsies on kuru victims. William Arens, an anthropologist at Stony Brook University, notes that Gajdusek didn’t actually witness the Fore’s ritual first hand, and argues that the stories presented as evidence of cannibalism among them are racist and sexist, but this account is fascinating nonetheless:
Dark night in the mountains and no drums beating. No flute music like birdsong from the forest above the village — the men controlled the flutes and this was women’s business, secret and delicious, sweet revenge. In pity and mourning but also in eagerness the dead woman’s female relatives carried her cold, naked body down to her sweet-potato garden bordered with flowers. They would not abandon her to rot in the ground. Sixty or more women with their babies and small children gathered around, gathered wood, lit cooking fires that caught the light in their eyes and shone on their greased dark skins. The dead woman’s daughter and the wife of her adopted son took up knives of split bamboo, their silicate skin sharp as glass. They began to cut the body for the feast.
By the time Dutch, German and English ships began to anchor at the mouths of the island’s great tidal rivers, in the mid-nineteenth century, it was common knowledge among Europeans that the savages of New Guinea were cannibals. But there are cannibals and cannibals: warriors who eat their enemies, hating them, but also relatives who eat their kin in a mortuary feast of love. Fore women ate their kin. “Their bellies are their cemeteries,” one observer remarks. “I eat you” was a Fore greeting.