Few topics cause more intense feelings of revulsion than cannibalism. To Western sensibilities, the consumption of another human’s flesh seems abhorrent, vile, and morally wrong. However, is cannibalism bad for your health?

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Cannibalism: not the healthiest option. Spauln/Getty Images

Although the knee-jerk reaction to eating human flesh can be strong, the actual morality and ethics behind those feelings are not as simple as they first appear.

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

In some cultures, cannibalism involved eating parts of one’s enemies to take on their strength. Elsewhere, the consumption of human flesh had a more ritual significance.

In desperate times, people have also 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, from the 12th century up until the early 18th century, people knowingly sold and purchased human body parts 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 person has died, their loved ones consume parts of their body so that they, quite literally, become a part of them. To Western minds, this might seem disturbing, but to those who entertain these 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 eat our fingernails, and some people 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 ramifications of cannibalism for human health.

In most societies, 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?

Although it may seem “wrong,” the good news is that consuming cooked human flesh is no more dangerous than eating the cooked flesh of other animals. This is true 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 people should avoid eating at all costs: the brain.

Until relatively recently, The Fore people of Papua New Guinea practiced transumption — the ritual of eating deceased relatives. This isolated group demonstrated the serious ramifications of eating another human’s brain.

Kuru is a unanimously fatal transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE). TSEs are rare degenerative brain disorders or prion diseases. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease, is another of these conditions.

Prion diseases are associated with the accumulation of an abnormal glycoprotein called prion protein (PrP) in the brain. PrP occurs naturally, particularly in the nervous system. Its functions in health are not yet fully understood. However, scientists believe that PrP plays a role in a number of illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease.

The Fore people are the only population who have experienced a documented epidemic of kuru. At its peak in the 1950s, it was the leading cause of death in females 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 people with the illness would display.

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

“The first sign of impending death is a general debility, which is followed by general weakness and inability to stand. The victim retires to her house. She is able to take a little nourishment but suffers from violent shivering. The next stage is that the victim lies down in the house and cannot take nourishment, and death eventually ensues.”

– W. T. Brown

At its peak, around 2% of all deaths in Fore villages were due to kuru. The illness predominantly struck down females and children. In fact, some villages became almost entirely devoid of females.

This sex difference in the impacts of kuru appears to have occurred for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Fore males believed that consuming human flesh weakened them during times of conflict, so females and children more commonly ate the deceased.

Also, females and children were predominantly responsible for cleaning the bodies of the dead, leaving them at an increased risk of infection via any open wounds.

Kuru has a long incubation period where there are no symptoms. This asymptomatic period generally lasts 5–20 years, but it can extend to more than 50 years in some cases.

Once symptoms do appear, they are both physiological and neurological and split into three phases:

Ambulant stage

Symptoms at the ambulant stage include:

Sedentary stage

Symptoms at the sedentary stage include:

  • the inability to walk without support
  • loss of muscle coordination
  • severe tremors
  • emotional instability, including depression with outbursts of uncontrollable laughter

Terminal stage

Symptoms at the terminal stage include:

  • being unable to sit without being supported
  • having virtually no muscle coordination
  • an inability to speak
  • incontinence
  • difficulty swallowing
  • being unresponsive to surroundings
  • ulcerations with pus and necrosis, or tissue death

Generally, the affected person will die between 3 months and 2 years after the first terminal stage symptoms appear. Death usually occurs due to pneumonia or infected pressure sores.

Kuru has almost entirely disappeared. During the 1950s, Australian colonial law enforcement and Christian missionaries reduced the funerary cannibalism of the Fore people.

Once the practice significantly reduced, the illness could no longer spread. Researchers believe the last victim of the disease died in 2005.

Although kuru is never likely to be a major health issue for the majority of humanity, the outbreak has proven useful to medical researchers. The relatively recent concerns around BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease spawned a resurgence of interest in kuru.

Kuru remains the only known epidemic of a human prion disease. By understanding this condition and how it works, scientists might design treatments to prevent, or at least reduce, the chances of future neurological prion-based epidemics.