Cannibalism: A health warning

Heart on a plate with cutlery]Although the knee-jerk reaction to eating human flesh is strong, the actual morality and ethics behind those feelings aren’t as simple as they first appear.

Cannibalism occurs in many species and has been a part of human culture for thousands of years.

Sometimes, cannibalism would take the form of eating parts of one’s enemies in order to take on their strength. In other tribes, the consumption of human flesh had a more ritual significance.

In desperate times, people have fallen back on cannibalism to survive; for instance, there are reports of cannibalism during the North Korean famine in 2013, the siege of Leningrad in the early 1940s, and China’s “Great Leap Forward” in the late 1950s and 1960s.

In Europe, up until the early 18th century, human body parts were knowingly sold and purchased as medications, particularly bones, blood, and fat. Even priests and royalty routinely consumed human body products in an effort to stave off anything from headaches to epilepsy, and from nosebleeds to gout.

In some cultures, once a loved one has died, parts of them are consumed so that they, quite literally, become a part of you. To “civilized” minds, this seems disturbing, but to the minds of those that entertain these “transumption” rituals, burying your mother in the dirt or leaving her to be entirely consumed by maggots is equally disturbing.

Once we start to strip away at cannibalism’s ability to make us instantly recoil, we see that our feelings aren’t quite as clear-cut as they seem. For instance, many of us still eat our fingernails, and some women eat their placenta after giving birth. The lines are, perhaps, slightly more blurred than our initial reaction might infer.

For the purpose of this article, we do not need to wade into the interplay between instinctive gut feelings and cold, hard logic. Here we will focus on the negative health ramifications of cannibalism.

In most civilizations, cannibalism is the last port of call, used only if the alternative is certain death. But what are the potential health consequences of eating one’s neighbor, if any?

The health implications of eating colleagues

Although it seems “wrong,” the good news is, consuming cooked human flesh is no more dangerous than eating the cooked flesh of other animals. The same goes for the majority of the human body; the health implications are similar to that of eating any large omnivore.

However, there is one organ that should be avoided at all cost: the brain.

The Fore people of Papua New Guinea, until relatively recently, practiced transumption – eating deceased relatives. It is this isolated group that demonstrated the very serious ramifications of eating another human’s brain.

Kuru is a unanimously fatal, transmissible spongiform encephalopathy; it is a prion-based disease similar to BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), also known as mad cow disease.

Prion diseases are associated with the accumulation of an abnormal glycoprotein known as prion protein (PrP) in the brain. PrP occurs naturally, particularly in the nervous system. Its functions in health are not yet fully understood; however, PrP is known to play a role in a number of diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease.

The Fore people are the only known population on earth to have had an epidemic of kuru and, at its peak in the 1950s, it was the leading cause of death in women among the Fore and their nearest neighbors.

The word “kuru” comes from the Fore language and means “to shake.” Kuru is also known as “laughing sickness” because of the pathologic bursts of laughter that patients would display.

The first report of kuru to reach Western ears came from Australian administrators who were exploring the area.

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