What happened when we ate dead people?

Photo credit: José Ignacio Pompé — Unsplash

The famous evolutionary biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins in one of his interviews stated that, there’s nothing wrong with a person eating the meat of their dead relatives, although there should be prior agreement. Let us discard morality and prejudice for just a moment. And look at this problem exclusively from a scientific point of view. Is Dawkins’ advice really safe or would following his philosophy, threaten us with deadly ailments that could not be cured even in the foreseeable future?

To start off with, let’s go to Papua New Guinea. When the first scientists in the 1950s reached such a remote place, they discovered that something strange was happening with the local people among a tribe called Fore with a population of approximately 12,000 people, about 300 inhabitants died annually for unknown and mysterious reasons. But the symptoms were the same for everyone.

At first, there were problems with walking, people lost control over their limbs, patients couldn’t rise from a floor, they could not take food on their own control, their bodily functions nor their own emotions. As a result, everyone who got sick later died. The press called it the laughing illness and the locals gave it the name Kuru, which means trembling. Mostly adult women and children under 8 suffered from this ailment.

Kuru disease
Kuru disease
A victim of the Kuru disease; Image source: Wikimedia Creative Commons license

For decades, the cause of the disease remained unknown, but later it turned out that the whole thing had to do with a bizarre funeral tradition. Members of the Fore tribe would eat their dead.

First of all, women do this because local beliefs suggest that only a woman contain the dangerous spirit that accompanies a dead man. Also, women would sometimes give pieces of the human brain to their young children. The disease itself was caused by the proteins that make up each of us. Only, these are far from ordinary proteins, they are completely devoid of any carriers of genetic information, that is RNA or DNA. But despite this they’re capable of increasing the quantity of their own particles in the victim’s body in a way that’s unknown to science.

Scientists have called these proteins prions. They’re in the nervous system of all mammals, including humans. The molecules of this protein are twisted incorrectly. In their normal or alpha form, proteins are not dangerous on the contrary they help maintain the daily cycles of activity and rest throughout the body, and also positively affect the transmission of nerve impulses. If at the time of the formation of the protein, there’s a prion nearby with a different structure of molecules, then a dangerous beta structure can form.

The body doesn’t distinguish prions from ordinary proteins, so the immune system does not wage any struggle against them. Some scientists believe that dangerous prions constantly appear in our bodies, but are immediately eliminated in a biological process. Exceptions to this process lead to the fact that the growth of prions gets out of control and then a person is doomed.

Brain cells are gradually destroyed wreaking havoc on the rest of the body. This primarily concerns the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for coordination, it’s for this reason that the impairment of mobility appears as one of the first symptoms. Then the lesion spreads to the entire brain and as a result, it becomes covered with and turns into something that looks like a sponge.

The Fore tribe was a fairly isolated population, therefore, due to genetic degeneration, the mechanisms for the self-cleaning of cells from prions were disrupted in one of the local residents, which led to the emergence of another prion disease, Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, similar in symptoms to Kuru an infected person developed pathological prions. And after death passed them on to all the women and children who ate the brain of their dead relative. Each new infected person is likewise eaten after their death so the cycle repeats and the infection spreads.

The residents of Papa New Guinea were eventually told the reason for their suffering, but even after ending the tradition of eating their dead relatives cases of this fatal illness continued to occur. The fact is, that the incubation period of prion disease can last up to 27 years. All those who at least once consumed human meat in Papa New Guinea, at least 21 years later began to feel the symptoms of Kuru. And after the first symptoms, the disease develops rapidly and death occurs quickly.

Raw meat could contain infectious prions; Photo credit: Jez Mins -Unsplash

The last person with Kuru disease was reported in 2009. However, as it turned out, this prion disease can be picked up not only from eating human flesh, a steak with blood, under cooked or raw meat of mammalian animals, all this is a source of infectious prions.

In this case and amount of just a few molecules is enough even if you boil meats several times, this doesn’t guarantee safety. After all, prions can’t be killed. That is of course, if one can even call anything without a genome living. Boiling, drying, freezing, treating with alcohol and acids, ultraviolet and gamma radiation, none of these can destroy a prion. For this reason if an animal with prion disease is detected, it’s destroyed along with all the equipment used. In the case of a person, almost the same, people of course are not killed, but MRI machines in which patients were examined are destroyed.

Although Kuru is no longer found, about 300 people die annually from other manifestations of prion disease in the United States, there is no cure. In many other countries, not a single case has been recorded, but this doesn’t mean that there’s no disease. The fact is that many countries such as Russia don’t want to lose money on the loss of equipment. Therefore, if patients with prions are found, they’re given some other diagnosis so that there’s no legitimate need to dispose of expensive equipment. It may seem that this disease appeared only in the 20th century, but in fact, it’s as old as cannibalism itself.

Moreover, Simon Underdown from Oxford Brookes University believes that prions wiped out the Neanderthals, among the closest competitors of homosapiens. The tradition of eating their tribesmen and relatives was very common. According to Underdown’s estimates, if an infectious prion were to infiltrate a proposed group of Neanderthals consisting of 15,000 individuals, it would only take 250 years for this cannibalistic diet to cause the extinction of the entire group, given that the first symptoms do not appear immediately. The large brains of Neanderthals could not establish a causal relationship between their cannibalism and the disease.

However, as it turned out in 2009, some representatives of the Fore tribe, who had only recently eaten the dead, had immunity to the kuru disease. It was developed in an evolutionary way. Scientists confirm this by implanting the resistance genes into mice. Then they infected the rodents with all kinds of prions. The animals survived after all of the trials. But most people whose diet doesn’t include human beings are still very likely to be doomed to an agonizing death when the first symptoms appear.

Today, there’s only one organism that can resist these killer proteins. It’s present in your sandwich. More precisely, in the yeast used in baking the bread for the sandwich. You can even detect yeast infected with prions with the naked eye. Once in a yeast colony, prions deprived them of the red pigment and as a result, the entire colony becomes white. However, they’re absolutely not dangerous for yeast cells. And the prions in yeast are also not able to harm a human being. Moreover, they help yeast better adapt to constantly changing environmental conditions.

Stanley Prusiner is the man who discovered the prions and received the Nobel Prize for it. I’m sure that in the near future, humanity will be able to find an effective medicine. But until that moment there’s every chance that prion diseases might become a new plague of the 21st century, an epidemic that exterminates entire populations. This can happen, even if we don’t follow Dawkins’ advice on eating relatives. After all, prions are evolving and may soon find new ways to infect their victims.

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Arthur Undi is Founder of Gustlers, Undi Inc. He is a tech entrepreneur and serial blogger who writes about all things mystifying and downright weird and scary.