A: You are what you eat, right? So it stands to reason that if youâ€™re a cannibal, and you eat a diseased dead guy, youâ€™re going to be a diseased dead guy. But the cannibalistic Fore people of New Guinea found that out the hard way. For most of the 20th century, the Fore were plagued by a disease called Kuru, also known as the laughing death. Kuru, a relative of mad cow disease, paralyzes its victims and causes dementia by turning the brain into something resembling Swiss cheese â€“ literally creating holes in the brain.
Fascinated by what he thought was a genetic disorder, scientist Daniel Carleton Gajdusek traveled to New Guinea in 1957 to study the Fore. While there, however, he discovered that women made up the vast majority of Kuru victims. He also noticed women and children were the ones ceremonially eating the brains and intestines of dead relatives. Putting two and two together, Gajdusek deduced the Fore were ingesting the prions, or misshapen proteins, that caused the disease. Gajdusek received a Nobel Prize for his work, and today, cannibalism and Kuru are all but wiped out in New Guinea.