The Laughing Death

The Laughing Death


In the 1950s, indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea suffered from a rare brain disease called Kuru due to the ritual of cannibalism. One of the most distinctive features was uncontrollable laughing fits.


share Share

Most of the world didn't know anyone lived in the highlands of Papua New Guinea until the 1930s when Australian gold prospectors surveying the area realized there were about a million people there. When researchers made their way to those villages in the 1950s, they found something disturbing. Among a tribe of about 11,000 people called the Fore, up to 200 people a year had been dying of an inexplicable illness. They called the disease kuru, which means "shivering" or "trembling."

Once symptoms set in, it was a swift demise. First, they'd have trouble walking, a sign that they were about to lose control over their limbs. They'd also lose control over their emotions, which is why people called it the "laughing death." Within a year, they couldn't get up off the floor, feed themselves, or control their bodily functions. Many locals were convinced it was the result of sorcery. The disease primarily hit adult women and children younger than 8 years old. In some villages, there were almost no young women left.

"They were obsessed with trying to save themselves because they knew demographically that they were on the brink of extinction," said Shirley Lindenbaum, a medical anthropologist with the City University of New York. After ruling out an exhaustive list of contaminants, researchers thought it must be genetic. So in 1961, Lindenbaum traveled from village to village mapping family trees so researchers could settle the issue.

But Lindenbaum, who continues to write about the epidemic, knew it couldn't be genetic because it affected women and children in the same social groups, but not in the same genetic groups. She also knew that it had started in villages in the north around the turn of the century, and then moved south over the decades.

Lindenbaum had a hunch about what was going on, and she turned out to be right. It had to do with funerals. Specifically, it had to do with eating dead bodies at funerals. In many villages, when a person died, they would be cooked and consumed. It was an act of love and grief. As one medical researcher described, "If the body was buried it was eaten by worms; if it was placed on a platform it was eaten by maggots; the Fore believed it was much better than the body was eaten by people who loved the deceased than by worms and insects."

Finally, after urging from researchers like Lindenbaum, biologists came around to the idea that the strange disease stemmed from eating dead people. The case was closed after a group at the U.S. National Institutes of Health injected infected human brains into chimpanzees, and watched symptoms of kuru develop in the animals months later. The group, which won a Nobel Prize for the findings, dubbed it a "slow virus." But it wasn't a virus or a bacterium, fungus, or parasite. It was an entirely new infectious agent, one that had no genetic material, could survive being boiled and wasn't even alive.


Rinsing Nose

Rinsing your nose with salt water can help keep you healthy and ward off allergy symptoms.

Read More
Benefits of Exercise

A lack of exercise is now causing as many deaths as smoking across the world.

Read More
Laughing

Laughing is good for the heart and can increase blood flow by 20 percent.

Read More
Afternoon Nap

Afternoon naps make you smarter.

Read More