Analytic Theology

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Why It’s Not a Good Idea to Eat Your Enemy’s Brain

November 30th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

DAVID KRONEMYER: It used to be standard procedure to eat your enemies after you’ve killed them. A variety of reasons have been adduced for this, including: (1) to obtain some attribute they possess, such as bravery or knowledge; (2) for moral edification; (3) it’s a religious ritual; (4) you’re hungry and it’s a good source of protein; and (5) it tastes like pork. Over time, different cultures from around the world have engaged in this practice, all the way from the Aztecs and the Anasazi, to a Japanese soldier who was tried for cannibalism at the end of World War II.

Far from being a “rare” or “abnormal” kind of behavior, it now appears it was practiced widely, Diamond, J., “Talk of cannibalism,” 407 Nature 25 – 26 (2000). In fact, a recent study analyzing molecular genetic variation in contemporary populations concludes there was widespread prehistoric cannibalism, Mead, S. et al., “Balancing selection at the prion protein gene consistent with prehistoric kuru-like epidemics,” 300 Science 640 – 643 (2003). “There is now strong evidence for widespread cannibalistic practices in many prehistoric populations: for example, telltale scratches and burn marks on Neanderthal bones and biochemical analysis of fossilized feces,” wrote the authors.

The way they did their study is interesting. They observed that genes protecting against brain diseases that can be contracted by eating contaminated flesh long have been spread throughout the world. The discovery of this genetic resistance, which shows signs of having spread as a result of natural selection, supports the physical evidence for an earlier, wide-spread stage of cannibalism. Said co-author Simon Mead: “We don’t in fact know that all populations did select. The selection may have occurred during the evolution of modern humans before they spread around the world.” Such mutations, or “polymorphisms,” could have provided prehistoric humans a better chance of surviving epidemics of prion diseases. “What we’re showing here is evidence that selection for these polymorphisms has been very widespread or happened very early in the evolution of modern humans, before human beings spread all over the planet,” said another author, John Collinge. “We can’t say which of those it is; but the obvious implication is that prion disease has provided the selection pressure.”

Much of the research in this area centers on the Fore, a primitive tribe of Papua New Guinea that took to eating their dead. They suffered from a mysterious ailment they called “kuru,” which means “fear,” or “trembling,” in their language. Hmmm, isn’t that the title of a book by Kierkegaard? Seems unlikely there’d be a connection. Another name for kuru was “negi nagi,” meaning, a silly or foolish person, so, you never know.

Interestingly, eight times more women than men contracted the disease, since women were the ones responsible for butchering the corpse. In a new twist on the concept of the “family dinner,” different parts of the body were assigned to different family members. The deceased’s brain was thought to be a special delicacy, which was fed to the children. For the Fore, cleanliness does not seem to be next to godliness; the women scooped the brain tissue out with their bare hands and, thereafter, didn’t wash them for weeks. During this time, of course, they still were caring for their children, enhancing the prospect of infection for those children who preferred, say, thigh meat over brain.

The anthropologist Shirley Lindenbaum wrote:

“When a body was considered for human consumption, none of it was discarded except the bitter gall bladder. . . . [The corpse was] dismembered . . . with a bamboo knife and stone axe. They first removed hands and feet, then cut open arms and legs to strip out the muscles. Opening the chest and belly, they avoided rupturing the gall bladder, whose bitter contents would ruin the meat. After severing the head, they fractured the skull to remove the brain. Meat, viscera, and brain were all eaten. Marrow was sucked from cracked bones, and sometimes the pulverized bones themselves were cooked and eaten with green vegetables. In the North Fore, but not in the South, the corpse was buried for several days, then exhumed and eaten when the flesh had ‘ripened’ and the maggots could be cooked as a separate delicacy.”

Lindenbaum, S., Kuru Sorcery – Disease and Danger in the New Guinea Highlands (1979). Here’s a helpful household hint: typical cooking techniques heated the meat no higher than 90-95 °C, and you were supposed to cook it only for about a half an hour. So, next time you’re out and about and in the mood, be sure to order it “rare.”

Kuru killed thousands of the Fore. Because it has an incubation period as long as 50 years, they’re still dying from it (although they no longer are cannibals). At first, it was thought to be an hysterical psychosomatic reaction to sorcery. Later, scientists hypothesized that, because it ran in families, it may have been a genetic disorder. Then along came a flamboyant physician, Carleton Gajdusek. After winning a Nobel Prize for his work, he became an ardent pedophile, with a preference (not surprisingly) for Papuan boys.

Gajdusek got the idea to inject brain tissue taken from kuru victims into chimpanzees, upon which they contracted a kuru-like disease called simian encephalopathy. From this, he reasoned that kuru was transmittable, and probably caused by eating infected human flesh.

Initially, it was thought this was caused by some weird kind of protein. In 1982, Stanley Prusiner identified the prion protein as the infectious agent responsible; he subsequently was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work. “Prion” (pronounced “pree-on”) is an abbreviation for “proteinaceous infectious particle. In its ordinary form, it’s responsible for regulating brain activity. When infected, its molecules become folded and misshapen; they clump together and accumulate in brain tissue. These faulty prions are so similar to normal brain protein, that they simply slip through the victim’s immune system. Further research has shown misshapen prion proteins can cause other, normal neighboring proteins, to morph into defective prions, too. [The story of how scientists reached these conclusions is related at Rhodes, R., Deadly Feasts: Tracking the Secrets of a Terrifying New Plague (1995).]

Prion diseases often are called “spongiform encephalies” because they cause the brain to become spongy, and riddled with holes. All known prion diseases are fatal. The victim passes through three stages. (1) The ambulant stage is characterized by unsteadiness of stance, gait, voice, hands, and eyes, deterioration of speech, tremor, shivering, and slurring of speech. (2) In the sedentary stage, the patient no longer can no longer walk without support, has more severe tremors and ataxia (loss of coordination of the muscles), shock-like muscle jerks, outbursts of laughter, depression, and mental slowing. (3) In the terminal stage the patient is unable to sit up without support and experiences severe ataxia (loss of muscle coordination), tremor, slurring of speech, urinary and fecal incontinence, difficulty swallowing, and deep ulcerations. Lindenbaum, S., op. cit.

Prions cause more than kuru; for example, there is a rare genetic disorder called fatal familial insomnia, meaning, you literally can’t fall asleep, so after staying awake for what must seem like a very long time, you die, Max, D. T., The Family That Couldn’t Sleep (2006). Other prion diseases are bovine spongiform encephalopathy (“mad cow disease”), Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker (“GSS”) syndrome, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (“CJD”).

For me, at least, all of this research provides good evidence for not eating your enemy’s brain. It’s true we may have built up some genetic resistance to brain diseases over the years, as a result of earlier cannibalism. But, why take the chance? It should be sufficient simply to contemplate the way that cannibalistic practices still infuse our modern culture. Consider Western Europe, for example, that cradle of civilization, which strangely substitutes food names for former adversaries. The French, for example, call the English “les bifteks” (beefsteaks), while the English refer to the French as “frogs” (or “frog legs”), and the Germans as “krauts” (cabbage). These jocular epithets are doubtless anthropophagous echoes of a forbidden taste from our Paleolithic heritage.

And then there’s that peculiar Christian institution of communion, during the course of which Christ’s body and blood are transubstantiated into bread and wine. Perhaps this too is an artifact of our former cannibalistic past.