Medicinal Cannibalism

Hearts can be sold for a million dollars, livers for half that price and kidneys are about $262,000 each[1], but did you know that British King Charles II paid £6000 for a recipe to distil human skull?

 

Several hundred years ago, many Europeans regularly ingested human viscera with the belief that certain body parts could cure ailments. Although this practice was not publicly flaunted, mummies were stolen from Egyptian tombs and graves were robbed for their contents—skulls and human fat were particularly popular, alongside with blood freshly collected at executions when one couldn’t afford it at the local apothecary.

 

These beliefs originated from homoeopathic ideas where “like cures like”—the skull was believed to cure headaches, nosebleeds and staunch bleeding, whilst human fat was believed to alleviate rheumatism and arthritis.[2] Blood was believed to cure epilepsy with some priests even going so far as to make a “marmalade” from it.[3]

 

Scientific research, however, has proven that these remedies do not actually cure any ailments (as previously believed) and that eating cooked human flesh is actually no more dangerous than eating the cooked flesh of other animals—moral and ethical implications aside.

The brain, however, is a different story. Kuru is a prion-based neurodegenerative disorder that originated in New Guinea from transumption practices (eating diseased relatives) and is similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease)[4]. Prion-based diseases are caused by a prion (an infectious protein) triggering normal proteins in the brain to fold abnormally, which then lead to clumping and brain damage.

 

Kuru is known as “laughing sickness” due to the pathologic bursts of laughter as a symptom of the disease[5] and the name was derived from the word "kuria", which means “to shiver” (as symptoms also include muscle twitching and poor coordination). Currently, there is no known cure and it is usually fatal within a year of contraction[6]. However, as it is relatively rare due to increased awareness of the disease and the conditions needed to contract it, the last victim of Kuru was thought to have died in 2005.

 

Although no longer relevant to the general public, Kuru lead to the creation of a whole new class of diseases and today, the study of Kuru still impacts research on neurodegenerative diseases.

[1] (The Medical Futurist, 2019)

[2] (Dolan, 2012)

[3] (Bethge, 2009)

[4] (Newman, 2018)

[5] (En.wikipedia.org, 2019)

[6] (Phillips, 2016)

Bethge, P. (2009). Europe's 'Medicinal Cannibalism': The Healing Power of Death - SPIEGEL ONLINE - International. [online] SPIEGEL ONLINE. Available at: https://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/europe-s-medicinal-cannibalism-the-healing-power-of-death-a-604548.html [Accessed 26 Sep. 2019].

 

Dolan, M. (2012). The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine. [online] Smithsonian. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-gruesome-history-of-eating-corpses-as-medicine-82360284/ [Accessed 26 Sep. 2019].

 

En.wikipedia.org. (2019). Kuru (disease). [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuru_(disease) [Accessed 26 Sep. 2019].

 

Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Prion Diseases. [online] Available at: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/prion-diseases#targetText=A%20prion%20is%20a%20type,%2DJakob%20disease%20(CJD). [Accessed 26 Sep. 2019].

 

Newman, T. (2018). Cannibalism: A health warning. [online] Medical News Today. Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/311277.php [Accessed 26 Sep. 2019].

 

Phillips, N. (2016). Kuru: Causes, Symptoms and Diagnosis. [online] Healthline. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/kuru [Accessed 26 Sep. 2019].

 

The Medical Futurist. (2019). How Much Is Life Worth? - The Medical Futurist. [online] Available at: https://medicalfuturist.com/how-much-is-life-worth/#targetText=If%20you%20want%20to%20legally,kidneys%20cost%20about%20%24262%2C000%20each. [Accessed 26 Sep. 2019].

Kuru : Laughing Sickness

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Article Written By

Jing-Wen Weng,

Grad 20 Student from Bangkok Patana School