"In a Revolution"

The Kuru Desease Phenomenon

In Anthropology, Medical Sciences, Psychology, Social Problems on May 16, 2009 at 9:27 pm

kuruHave you ever heard the kuru desease? Only a few of you have ever heard of it. However, more have heard of cannibalism.Cannibalism is a phenomenon where an animal eats another member of the same species, for example: the dog eats the other dog or the people eats the other people. Sometimes this phenomenon is said anthropophagus (From the Greek anthrôpos: people and phagein: eat). As the short story that I had written about prion before, the kuru desease certainly related to the prion. If you are anxious to find out this kuru desease, now please join me in the kuru desease phenomenon investigation!

Understanding Kuru

Kuru is a fatal culture specific disease of the brain and nervous system that was found among the South Foré people of the eastern New Guinea Highlands. Evidence now points to prions as being the cause. The symptoms include palsy, contracted face muscles, and the loss of motor control resulting in the inability to walk and eventually even eat. Kuru victims become progressively emaciated. The South Foré called this disease “trembling sickness” and “laughing sickness.” The latter description was due to the fact that the face muscles of victims were constricted in a way that looked like a smile. Death almost always occurs within 6-12 months of the onset of symptoms.

Kuru was first recorded among the South Foré at the beginning of the 20th century and it progressively became more common up through the 1950’s. At its peak, it mostly afflicted women in their 20’s and 30’s. This caused major social problems. Normally, men had several wives and children were taken care by women. Now, however, there were too few marriageable women, and men were left with the child care duties. Men were resentful and confused by their situation. Since the South Foré had a personalistic explanation for illness, they logically assumed that Kuru was the work of witches who used contagious magic. As a result, people became very careful at cleaning up their house sites to make sure that witches could not obtain any of their hair, fingernail clippings, feces, or personal belongings. Back at home, the sick women sometimes revealed the identity of their aggressor, said to have come to them in a dream. With the women present, men also conducted divination tests to reveal the sorcerers’ identities, which often led to new tensions when the tests suggested that the sorcerers might be close neighbours and relatives. Witch hunts were organized and former witches were forced to confess and then join anti-witch cults. None of these steps slowed the rate of increase in the number of Kuru victims. Local leaders proposed that they would tell the kiap (the colonial government officer) that men were killing their women. They would also ask him to take all the men away to a ‘place nothing’, leaving only women and children behind. After some time in this remote place they would then return and see if kuru had finished or not. Angry men should kill just one man, destroy his dog or cut down his banana trees. One thing was enough. Kuru attacks were excessive.

In the early 1950’s, a team of Australian doctors began working to discover what caused kuru in hopes of finding a cure. Anthropologists traced cases of the disease in family lines to see if it was hereditary. Other field workers collected water, soil, plant, and animal specimens to test for environmental toxins. All of these attempts failed to discover the cause. In the late 1950’s, an American pediatrician named Carleton Gajdusek came to Papua New Guinea to try to solve the problem. Through the microscopic examination of tissue from people who died of kuru, he discovered that the disease organism was carried in the blood and was concentrated in brain tissue. The means of transmission was cannibalism. The South Foré ate their dead relatives as part of their funerary practices. Women butchered the corpses and were the main cannibals. They also gave this meat to their children. Men generally thought that it was unmanly. They had pigs to eat, while the diet of women and children was normally animal protein poor.

In the early 1960’s, cannibalism was outlawed in Papua New Guinea. Since then, the kuru rate has dropped off significantly but has not yet disappeared because of the very long incubation period for this disease. Between 1996 and 2004, 11 people were diagnosed with kuru. Apparently, all of them were born before 1950 and had contracted kuru before the end of cannibalism. This meant that the incubation period was 34-41 years in these cases.

The Culture Behind The Kuru Desease

It apparents that many of the kuru victims were not closely related biologically, but were kin in a non-biological sense.

The Fore named large regional clusters to which they believed they belonged (Ibusa, Atigina, Pamusa), but these district associations were misty entities with small differences in dialect and custom. The more meaningful units were smaller political entities, which we called parishes, consisting of one or several adjacent hamlets, the members having corporate interest in a defined territory and sharing a ‘spirit place’ or sacred grove. Ideally, these units joined for defence and settled internal quarrels peaceably. In the South Fore population of approximately 7000 in the early 1960s, 39 such units ranged in size from 41 to 525, with a mean of 180. The smallest parish subdivision was the Fore lounei, the line, a group of people who thought of themselves as descendants of a named patrilineal ancestor, who usually resided together and were exogamous, with a preference for men to marry their mother’s brother’s daughters. Allied lines were subject to a single incest taboo. They joined also in assembling bride price and in giving their own deceased kin to be consumed by the ‘line’ of their mothers’ brothers, reinforcing the customary exchange of other items of value (pigs, shells, bodily substance) between kin related by kinship and marriage.

Unity and harmony within the political units, however, was tenuous. Immigrant lines formed enclaves and enjoyed dual rights as long as they continued to visit and maintain an interest in their original group. The acceptance of immigrant groups solved a problem facing colonizing populations, especially the Fore at that time—the shortage of marriageable women. The burden fell on newcomers whose incorporation into the group depended on demonstrated loyalty and observance of their new kinship obligations. These political units were said to possess ‘one blood’ and to stem from a common ancestor, conveying the idea of unity of those who reside and act together, and who also share the bodily substance of those who eat food grown on their land. In time, individuals who demonstrated continued commitment to their adopted group came to occupy the kinship status of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ that these titles signified. Reference to common ancestors and common substance defined kinship status and provided a moral guide for living, but were not reliable statements of genetic relationships.

Fore genealogies were short, no more than five generations deep, two above and two below the young or middle-aged adult who provided the information. Instead of depth, the Fore relied on lateral expansions of relatedness. They readily permitted adoption, finding substitute parents in the father’s line for children orphaned by the death of their mothers by kuru and, in the past, the loss of their fathers by war injuries. Newly married couples were ‘lent’ infants by close kin, and adoptions took place also among less closely related people, gifts of fertility and labour eliciting a reciprocal exchange of wealth that underwrote the bond between the two parties.

One additional relationship concerns wagoli (‘base’ or ‘root’ men), war allies and trade partners whose territories were in the past considered places of refuge. Wagoli received a portion of their partner’s death payment. Each of them provided the other with elaborate hospitality, sisters of the host wagoli became kagisa sisters of the visitor and the host’s children his ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’. Some wagoli relationships were inherited from their parents, some they established themselves.

Over time, commitment to group defence and the sharing of resources tended to outweigh distant origin. The genealogies indicated that the Fore had ‘made invisible’ the origin of several adult men who were said to have belonged to a population that once lived south of Purosa, and who spoke Pawaian, a language not related to the East New Guinea Language Stock. Following a period of apparently harmonious interaction between the Fore and the Pawaians, the relationship had soured. The Fore burned down Pawaian houses and shot most of those who attempted to run away. The survivors, now adults, ‘became Fore’, and although we were told who they were, we were advised not to identify them. Our genealogical research thus indicated that the Fore definition of relatedness included people said to possess ‘one blood’, many of whom had acquired the status of close kinship by social means.

Fore kinship can best be described as formed by webs of attachment based on lateral extension rather than vertical depth, on optional bonding not simply biological ascription. This is a form of social organization suited to a mode of agricultural subsistence in which fields are frequently relocated, the population is relatively mobile, and groups fragment and recombine in new alignments.

Much has changed in the South Fore since the early 1960s. The Fore no longer consume deceased kin and kuru is thus no longer transmitted. With the waning of the epidemic, and public health services that have reduced infant mortality, the population has increased rapidly. The shortage of women is no longer a concern, most people have abandoned pig keeping, and wage labour and markets have supplanted the indigenous trade networks that provided access to resources. With the suppression of warfare (and the creation of refugees), as well as the production of coffee as a cash crop (tying people to their plantations), the Fore population is now less mobile. A kinship system fashioned to meet the social conditions that existed 50 years ago may no longer be entirely relevant. It is probable that some features that once characterized Fore kinship, such as the ready incorporation of immigrants, practices of adoption and the widespread creation of kagisa kin, may not be well suited to the current needs. ‘Wantoks’ (friends) seem to be a supplement to wagoli.

The Conclusion

Kuru is one sample of disease that related to the culture: there are many examples from other cultures. So, it’s very important for medical staff to think holistically in resolving an epidemic because there could be many possible factors that shape disease transmission vectors.

Written by: Catherine Maname Uli

The References :

  1. Foto Kebiadaban Korban Kanibal. Available from the URL: http://andidwih.blogspot.com/2008/12/foto-kebiadaban-korban-kanibal.html
  2. Culture Specific Deseases. Available from the URL: http://anthro.palomar.edu/medical/med_4.htm

Understanding Kuru: The Contribution of Anthropology and Medicine. Available from the URL: http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/363/1510/3715.full

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