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May 13, 2011 / sarbrown

Smart cannibals don’t eat brains!

by Bronwyn Parks

 He checked carefully that no one was watching and released his bowels into the bushes,

This sounds perfectly normal right? Clearly he didn’t want others to see him relieving himself.

he then collected his faeces, wrapped it in leaves and took it back to the village.

Not what you were expecting? While it is true he did not want anyone to see him relieving himself, it is our culture that suggests this is due to him being embarrassed.

Where as he was being secretive in order to prevent sorcerers from using his body parts (even external ones are counted as a body part) against him, as was his cultural belief.

Without an understanding of the culture involved, everything is interpreted differently and can easily lead to miscommunication.

As the title suggest, the story is about cannibalism, or more specifically, scientists and the Fore in Papua New Guinea, who were dying of Kuru, a neurological disease caused by cannibalism. Although they didn’t actually eat the brains.

“When they practiced cannibalism, Fore did not esteem this organ [brain].”
Maternal kin of the victim, tended to favour other parts of the corpse.”
Why would he eat these people[strangers]? He hardly knew them.”[1] pg 23

In order to conduct studies on those sick with kuru, the scientist Gajdusek had to receive samples from the Fore, something which proved difficult considering their attachment to every part of themselves and fear of sorcery. Therefore it became imperative to demonstrate that this was science, aiming to cure kuru, and not sorcery. Gajdusek had to get the Fore to understand science from their cultural perspective.

The scientists had the challenge of receiving blood and specimens to study from the Fore, an exchange society which gives and expects something in return and places a lot of respect on blood. Normal ethical issues needed to be altered and the cultural expectations needed to be taken into consideration.

Blood is respected in many ways; women, while they are menstruating are sent to an isolated cave; young boys have to have a blood nose in order to become a man, but most importantly; giving blood is giving a sense of self.

The scientists therefore had the ethical consideration of achieving what they wanted, without losing the trust of the Fore. So, they exchanged goods for the blood, and always let the Fore know where their blood was, in order to relieve their anxiety about sorcery.

The story is written from whiteman’s point of view. The article focuses more on the scientists’ frustration at the Fore not understanding science than the Fore’s frustration at a cure not being found. With no cure for kuru being found they become reluctant to continue to hand over their specimens for study, instead realising they can be sold at the market and bartered. The scientists did their best to study the disease, and give autopsy’s within the respective time frame, while the Fore are patient for as long as they can be, but yet a cure is not found.


[1] Anderson, W. (2008). The scientist and his magic. In The Collectors of Lost Souls (pp 91-100). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Image credit: Brain,



Leave a Comment
  1. alyssaw1 / May 14 2011 6:13 am

    Hi Bronwyn!

    This is a really interesting topic, and you’ve capitalised well on it with your clever title! I also liked your opening – this combined with the title really draws the reader in. The quotes also work well, they add credibility – which is important when you have a radical topic such as cannibalism. I agree with your comments on the text focusing mainly with the difficulties faced by the scientists in dealing with the Fore, as opposed to the Fore having difficulties dealing with the scientists. However the Fore’s point of view is not totally ignored, the beginning of the chapter relates the exchange of a body from the point of view of Andemba, a tribeswoman. Lastly, perhaps you could have linked the image to the text more strongly? Having read the text the importance of the brain is clear, however it it is not as relevant to your blog as it is to the text.

    Overall an interesting read =)



    • sarbrown / May 20 2011 7:04 am

      You are right, the fore’s point of view isn’t entirely ignored, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that the ending was still very focussed on the scientist’s frustration, instead of the Fore’s desperation to have this disease cured.

      Also, very true, the image isn’t the best. I wanted a picture of a brain showing all the inside parts, I was trying to suggest that this is full of so many things that you wouldn’t wanna eat. Although these are all abstract concepts so it doesn’t work too well.

  2. madeleinegordon / May 15 2011 10:11 am

    Hey Bronwyn,

    It’s hard enough to communicate science to people of the same culture, who speak the same language let alone trying to communicate to a population so different from my own.
    I think the big thing about cross-cultural communications is an understanding of the people and practices whom you are communicating to. If you don’t know that then the chance of you getting your message across is slim to none.
    The scientists in this example obviously had some understanding of the culture of the Fore as they altered their collection mechanisms to fit in with their spiritual beliefs.
    However through their frustration at the lack of understanding of the Fore it’s obvious that the scientists didn’t try and communicate the science behind what they were doing.
    As for how they could have done it better, I’m not sure. I have been sitting here for the past hour trying to think of an answer but I can’t so I’m handing the batton over and asking- does anyone else have any ideas?


    • sarbrown / May 20 2011 7:05 am

      Having had a lot of experience living in other countries, and among very different cultures, I know exactly what it’s like trying to explain things that are so different. On top of that, being someone that practises science, I know how hard explaining some things can be. Then incuding one team using their second language, about a difficult subject, misunderstandings can become very common.

      I don’t think enough information is provided in this one chapter about the Fore’s culture for us to then be able to say what would have been the correct way to act. I like the fact the scientists did try but I’m sure there could have been more done.

  3. melody68 / May 27 2011 3:02 pm

    Hi Bronwyn,

    It is an interesting article. I am attracted by the title at the first glance then decide to click in and have a look.

    After I read your article, I cannot understand why you use such picture in the article. Because in my opinion, this picture maybe not appropriate here.

    It is a good idea to use quote at beginning. I am attracted by the opening sentence and curious about what are you going to talk about. And you use some words like “This sounds perfectly normal right?”, it makes me feel friendly, just like you are talking with me.

    Then in the body of this article, you put your word in several paragraphs. Explain your idea to reader step by step. It is clearly and easy to be understood.

    In my view the best way to solve the problem of cross-cultural communication is learning. By learning other culture, we can understand people from that culture. We should learn without discrimination. Everyone is equal in the world.

    Anyway, it is an interesting article. I have enjoyed it.

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