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.
Down in the garden in the flaring firelight, the dead woman’s daughters ringed her wrists and ankles, sawed through the tough cartilage, disjointed the bones and passed the wrinkled dark hands and splayed feet to her brother’s wife and the wife of her sister’s son. Slitting the skin of the arms and legs, the daughters stripped out muscle, distributing it in dripping chunks to kin and friends among the eager crowd of women. They opened the woman’s chest and slack belly and the smell of death wafted among the sweet-potato vines. Out came the heavy purple liver, the small green sac of the gallbladder cut carefully away from the underside and its bitterness discarded. Out came the dark red heart gory with clotting blood. Out came the looping coils of intestines, dully shining. Even the feces would be eaten, mixed with edible ferns and cooked in banana leaves.
The crowd of women and children got busy at collecting and chopping as the body of the dead woman diminished. (Her name survives as a discreet abbreviation in a medical thesis: Tom. Tomasa?) One of the daughters doing the butchering cut around the neck, severed the larynx and esophagus, sawed through the cartilage connecting the vertebrae, disjointed the spine and lifted the head aside. The other daughter skinned back the scalp skillfully, took up a stone ax, cracked the skull and scooped the soft pink mass of brain into a bamboo cooking tube. Their cousins, the North Fore, cooked bodies whole with vegetables in steam pits lined with hot stones, but the South Fore preferred mincing the flesh of the dead and steaming it with salt, ginger and leafy vegetables in bamboo tubes laid onto cooking fires. They ate every part of the body, even the bones, which they charred at the open fires to soften them before crumbling them into the tubes. The dead woman’s brother’s wife received the vulva as her special portion. If the dead had been a man, his penis, a delicacy, would have gone to his wife.
…the isolated highlanders…wore beaded and feathered headdresses, nose bones, necklaces of pig tusks and aprons of woven bark or grass and smeared their bodies with fire char and rancid pig fat against the insects and the cold. Men carried stone axes or longbows. Some of them affected phallocarps instead of aprons — braggadocio penis sheaths made of great curving hornbill beaks or ornate sea shells traded up from the unknown coast. Women wore grass skirts and went bare-breasted. They cut off finger joints in mourning, wore mourning necklaces of the dried hands of lost babies, carried a husband’s rotting head in a woven bag, a bilum, on their backs for months after his loss, suffering the stink.
Eating the dead was not a primordial Fore custom. It had started within the lifetime of the oldest grandmothers among them, at the turn of the century or not long before. They learned it from their neighbors to the north. It spread to a North Fore village and word got around. “This is sweet,” an anthropologist reports the Fore women saying when they first tasted human flesh. “What is the matter with us, are we mad? Here is good food and we have neglected to eat it. In future we shall always eat the dead, men, women, and children. Why should we throw away good meat? It is not right!” The meat was sweet and so was the revenge the women took thereby against the men who claimed the best parts of pig — pigs the women had sometimes suckled at their own breasts. They did not eat lepers or those who died of diarrhea, but the flesh of women killed by sorcery they considered clean. Dying Fore asked to be eaten and assigned their body parts to their favorites in advance.
The Fore admitted their cannibalism freely to the first Europeans who questioned them, though they gave it up when missionaries and Australian police patrols pressed them to do so in the late 1950s — Sputnik was beeping overhead — and deny it today. Whatever its connection with ritual, cannibalism in New Guinea was also a significant source of protein, two American anthropologists have calculated: “A local New Guinea group of one hundred people (forty-six of whom are adults) which obtains and eats some five to ten adult victims per year would get as much meat from eating people as it does from eating pork.”
The women at their mortuary feast butchered and cooked down in the garden, but they ate in private, carrying the steaming bamboo tubes back to their separate women’s houses, sharing the feast with their children. A young American doctor who came a few years later to live and work among them thought their eating habits almost as surreptitious as the toilet habits of Westerners. It wasn’t that they were ashamed of eating the dead — they were just as surreptitious with pig. Eating meat was orgiastic. The men said that the women were insatiable, wild, like the forest. When the men pulled the wild grass at the edge of the forest they said it was women’s pubic hair. Marriage barely tamed them.
Lately, more and more Fore women had been dying of sorcery, which only men practiced, a fatal bewitchment they called kuru. Kuru meant shivering — with cold or with fear — and by 1950 it was claiming women in every Fore village. The Fore men earned a fearsome reputation across the highlands as sorcerers. Once the shivers of kuru began, the bewitchment progressed inexorably to death. Women bewitched with kuru staggered to walk, walked with a stick and then could no longer walk at all. Before losing the ability to swallow they got fat and the flesh of those who died early of pneumonia was rich meat.