Kuru: How One Rare Illness Reflects Gender Inequality

It was the winter semester of my sophomore year of high school when I first heard of the rare, brain ravaging illness known as kuru. I had been working on a research paper on prion diseases for a science class when I stumbled upon an article about the disease, and was instantly very interested in it because of its rarity: kuru can only be found in one very specific part of the world, and only among one specific group of people. It is a fatal disease that causes a misfolding of proteins in the brain has only ever existed among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea. The only way to acquire this devastating illness is through the cannibalistic consumption of brains. Up until now, these few facts were all I really knew about kuru, and I had never given any thought to the idea that the disease could reveal a disturbing truth about not only the Fore people, but nearly all of society, as well.

After reading anthropologist Barbara Andersen’s article “Thinking with Kuru”, I became very intrigued by the idea that the way kuru is acquired can serve as a prime example of gender inequality. The majority of the Fore that acquired and were killed by the disease were women. This fact reveals that it was women who were primarily given the brains of the deceased to eat, while men often kept the other, less dangerous body parts to themselves. Although cannibalism has become increasingly less common and the last person to have kuru died nearly ten years ago, women that Andersen came into contact with during her time in Papua New Guinea explained to her that women are still expected to serve the better, more nutritious food to the men. This unequal distribution of resources between the sexes remains a very common cause for illness among women in Papua New Guinea.

While women all over the world might not be finding themselves inflicted with kuru (in order for that to happen, we’d all have to be eating brains), there are still prevalent examples of men taking the very best resources for themselves. Women are left with the leftovers, or much less than what the men receive, and are made to suffer from it as a result. One example is the pay-gap issue that exists in the United States today: men receive much more money than women, although both genders are carrying out the same kind, and same type of work. While this example is very different than what happens when a women finds herself dying from kuru, it is representative of the fact that women are still expected to receive less in life than men.

Andersen, Barbara. “Thinking with Kuru.” Anthropology News. Web.


2 thoughts on “Kuru: How One Rare Illness Reflects Gender Inequality

  1. I like that you connected this issue that only exists in a small area of the world to the greater global community. This widespread global issue can be hard for us to see through this example of a disease due to cultural relativism. We fail to understand the logic behind cannibalistic behavior and find it difficult to relate it back to our own lives. As you demonstrated, this example of the Kuru disease is a clear example of unequal access to resources. Women can not feed themselves as well because they don’t have equal access to resources as men do. This is similar to an example we look at in class that the poor living in the low elevation levels of New Orleans, with out access to a car, were the ones to die during Hurricane Katrina because they didn’t have the same access to resources to leave as the upper class did. This piece also reminded me of the article “The Secrets of Haiti’s Living Dead” by Gino Del Guercio where zombification, an ancient voodoo practice, was used as a way of maintaining order because zombification was a form of capitol punishment. The lack of resources available to women places them at the bottom of the social hierarchy and establishes a social order in most societies.

Comments are closed.