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