New Guinean Cannibals Evolved Resistance To Mad Cow-Like Disease

By Andrew Moseman | November 19, 2009 3:24 pm

Fore220Members of a tribe in Papua New Guinea has evolved resistance to a affliction similar to mad cow disease (called Creutzfeldt Jakob disease, or CJD, in people). How did they do it? Cannibalism, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The Papua New Guinea variant is called kuru, and it was a disaster there. When members of the Fore people in Papua New Guinea died, others would eat the dead person’s brain during funeral rituals as a mark of respect. Kuru passed on in this way killed at least 2500 Fore in the 20th century until the cause was identified in the late 1950s and the practice halted [New Scientist].

The scientists compared DNA samples of about 3,000 living Fore people, some of whom had participated in the old rituals, to 152 samples of stored DNA from Fore that kuru killed. They looked at the genes for prions, ordinary brain proteins that take on a misfolded shape in prion disease such as CJD and kuru. They found a mutation called G127V that protected people from kuru. Only people who ate brains and survived have it, they found [Reuters].

The discovery excited scientists with the possibility of understanding and even treating other prion diseases, like CJD. And British neurologist John Hardy exemplified the scientific glee at seeing human evolution happen in such a short time. “It’s fantastic demonstration of natural selection… In Papua New Guinea kuru became the major cause of death, so there was a clear survival advantage and the selection pressure was enormous” [BBC News].

Related Content:
Discoblog: For Early Europeans, Cannibalism Was One Perk of Victory
Discoblog: Mad Cow Fears Keep Euro Sperm Out of U.S.
80beats: Female Tarantulas Devour Extra Suitors to Benefit Their Young

Image: D. Carleton Gajdusek

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • bigjohn756

    I wonder if eating babies counts… I’d better ask Hemant.

  • Jumblepudding

    Brains are a rich source of omega-3’s. Was the selection pressure magnified as more funerals occured resulting in more brains eaten as more people died of kuru? what a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Bob Snyder

    I couldn’t help but notice that the grammar in the first sentence is terrible.

  • Em


    Ha, okay so I wasn’t the only one.

    It is an interesting find though.
    Would they treat the other diseases by having the afflicted persons eat some brain tissue?

  • http://none Nalani

    Something’s missing here, I’m sensing: the logic, as presented, is incomplete. I’m a BIG longtime supporter of evolution and science – so I want to FEEL the logic working out and fitting in.

    My QUESTION would go something like this: HOW LONG WERE THE FORE PRACTICING CANNIBALISM THAT INCLUDED EATING BRAINS? WHEN DID THIS PRACTICE BEGIN? How can this mutation be evaluated scientifically without this information included? How can “fast” OR “slower” evolution be inferred, without knowing how long the practice had continued? And if that timeline squares with a determination of genetic clock data on this mutation? AND, if possible, on the prion DNA as well. When did THIS protein anomaly first appear in the Fore population? I read some several decades back I think (’80s?), that generally only the women were given the brains to eat, while the men reserved the tastier muscle parts for themselves – and that scientists then found that, sure enough, mainly only their women were dying of Kuru. True? Relevant? Genetically, to producing these findings now? (I can’t imagine how, but would like to see some expert opinion.)

  • Amtak

    @Nalani: During my year in Papua New Guinea I was led to believe that this practice dates back to earliest known records and folklore. Also, I heard that men did eat the brains of vanquished enemy warriors, so as to acquire by ingest their bravery and skill. Of course, word of mouth has its own evolution as well, particularly over the course of decades and centuries. And often when I asked PNG people about it, they merely giggled and said, “You know, we don’t really do that anymore”.

    The scientist who conducted the critical research on this subject lived close-by my Washington DC home, but by the time I caught up with him, he was in deep do-do for having more than platonic relations with some of the young PNG boys he brought home for their “educational” opportunity, at which point he was of no help at all on the subject.

  • Luke Thomas

    Where do you think the term “long pork” comes from. They eat more than just human brains :-)

  • Claudia

    You can get the whole story of Gajduseks research back in the 50`s on the Fore people in an interesting book about different Prion diseases. the book is “The family that couldn`t sleep” by D.T. Max.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar