Ritual Consumption of Relatives

Over at The Global Mail, Jo Chandler has posted an amazing story about a decades long medical-sleuthing mission in the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea. The goal: to unravel the terrifying mysteries of kuru, the inaptly named laughing disease, that was afflicting and killing the locals. When all was said and done, the kuru cipher led to major medical advances, scientific discoveries, and Nobel Prizes.

But its most important achievement was to largely eradicate the disease. This was no simple matter, as it involved changes to cherished mortuary practices and funerary feasting. Kuru, it turns out, is transmitted by consumption of infected (neurological) tissue:

In each case, it is believed the victim had incubated the disease for an astonishing 50 years or more, having been exposed to infection as a child when participating in mortuary feasts that were an intrinsic part of Fore culture: that is, the cooking and consumption of the dead, every last piece of them, in order to hasten the journey of the departed loved-ones to the land of the ancestors.

Much later, Alpers, who had always felt discomforted by the term cannibalism — “you don’t like to call your friends cannibals” — would invent a new term for the Fore ritual: “transumption”. It borrowed from the lexicon of Catholic doctrine around the Eucharistic transubstantiation of bread into the body and blood of Christ. He defined the Fore custom as “incorporation of the body of the dead person into the bodies of living relatives, thus helping to free the spirit of the dead”. It was a final act of love by the grief-stricken.

The Fore’s complex eschatology declared that each individual had five souls; that after death they travelled the land on a kind of farewell tour from which ultimately — assuming various rituals over a period of years were honoured — they would be reunited in the land of the ancestors. The most efficient path to this hereafter was for the body to be eaten.

These excerpts, while not particularly appetizing at this time of year, shouldn’t prevent you from reading the whole story. It’s powerful.

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