Each year, as many as 200 people of the 11,000 Fore tribe in Papua New Guinea died from a strange disease called ‘kuru’, where the victims began to lose control of their limbs and emotions, and within a year, they would become bedridden and eventually die.

Many of the villagers in the remote highlands saw this epidemic as the work of sorcery.

The disease primarily hit adult women and children aged eight years old and below. In some villages, young women became non-existent.

This haunting epidemic started when one person in the Fore tribe developed sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), a degenerative neurological disorder similar to kuru, which could not be traced to genetics.

With further insights by medical researchers, biologists concluded that the disease stemmed from the ghastliest ritual of mortuary feasts, where humans consumed the dead, an act that demonstrated the enigmatic entanglement of love and grief.

It was customary for the Fore to cook and consume the dead. Women removed the brain, mixed it with ferns, and fire-roasted it in tubes of bamboo. They ate all parts of the body except the gall bladder.

One medical researcher described, "If the body was buried it was eaten by worms; if it was placed on a platform it was eaten by maggots; the Fore believed it was much better that the body was eaten by people who loved the deceased than by worms and insects."

"So, the women took on the role of consuming the dead body and giving it a safe place inside their own body – taming it, for a period of time, during this dangerous period of mortuary ceremonies," says Shirley Lindenbaum, a medical anthropologist with the City University of New York.

In 1962, a local leader in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea asks Fore men to stop the sorcery that he believes is killing women and children. Photo credit: Shirley Lindenbaum/NPR
In 1962, a local leader in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea asks Fore men to stop the sorcery that he believes is killing women and children. Photo credit: Shirley Lindenbaum/NPR

Crippling disease linked to prions which could take decades to show effects

Scientists uncovered the infectious agent that consumed those who feasted on human flesh -- twisted proteins or prions -- capable of triggering normal proteins in the brain to fold abnormally. The process is essentially two polarised manifestations of the ‘kind’ and the ‘vicious’ in the same entity, very much like the strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The prion disease has taken a different form as in the mad cow epidemic, when people developed variant CJD after eating the meat of cattle infected with the disease.

Dr Ermias Belay, a prion disease researcher with CDC, says that's the only scenario in which there is "definitive evidence" that humans can develop a prion disease after eating the infected meat of another species.

As bizarre as it sounds, the fatalities of the Fore have not curbed the act of feasting on humans even in the modern era. Today’s cannibalism has shifted from the mode of selfless love to self-preservation.

Call it fad or a return to nature, modern women consume placentas. They are willing to fork out USD400 just to have their placentas rinsed, dried and grounded into powdered capsules.

A review in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology reported that some women eat slices of placenta raw, directly after childbirth, while others choose to deep-freeze the organs for later consumption.

The placenta trend – fuelled by Alicia Silverstone, January Jones and the Kardashians – claims consuming the placenta after childbirth alleviates hormonal swings.

Placenta is a ‘waste product’ posing health risks

Mothers are taking the placenta home as it is hailed as a
Mothers are taking the placenta home as it is hailed as a "superfood" for its reduced risk of postpartum depression and increased energy though doctors say the benefits remain unknown.

However, doctors say women who eat their placenta are flirting with cannibalism for unproven benefits, and it could prove to be deadly.

Though considered as a pricey “superfood” for many, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has cautioned mothers on the dangers associated with placentophagy. The death of a new-born baby in Oregon was linked to the mother’s contaminated placenta pills.

Other studies have highlighted the presence of cadmium, a heavy metal found in low but detectable amounts in placenta pills.

"Placenta ingestion has recently been promoted to postpartum women for its physical and psychological benefits, although scientific evidence to support this is lacking," the CDC reported.

Dr Alex Farr, from the Medical University of Vienna, and colleagues argue none of the placental nutrients or hormones are likely retained in sufficient quantities after processing to be of any benefit to a human mother.

“Middle to upper class white women with relatively high incomes and education are among the most frequent consumers of placenta,” Dr Farr said.

“This might be due to the fact that these women have access and frequently follow (pseudo) fashionable trends and often prefer esoteric and alternative medicine.”

A Singaporean mother, Roshni Mahtani, said, “If it's good enough to take care of our child, then why can't we consume it ourselves?”

"Medically speaking, the placenta is a waste product," said Dr Farr.

“One concern is that bioactive hormones like oestradiol, an oestrogen, may survive the encapsulation process. While those hormonal effects might, theoretically, lower the risk of post-partum depression, they could also increase the risk of stroke or heart attack from blood clots,” he explained, adding that it remains unknown whether the intake of these additional hormones can cause harm.

As for Dr Farr, it is up to every individual whether he or she considers eating human genetically-different tissue as cannibalism or not.

“From a medical perspective, the placenta carries the foetal genome and therefore it belongs to the baby.” MIMS

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