Your ancestor was a cannibal

The world was shocked when Armin Meiwes of Rotenburg, Germany admitted eating his pen pal, the more so when he convinced his trial jury that his friend was a willing menu item.  However, so bizarre was their mutual obsession that ordinary folk could rest easy that human cannibalism was an aberration or born of necessity; no need for nervous glances at your neighbourly gourmand.  Every time earlier human remains that show signs of cut marks or having been boiled in the proverbial pot emerge the “necessity” card or that of burial practices are played in the storm of controversy surrounding possibly unwholesome aspects of older cultures.  That is not so easy when forensic pathology is applied to cooking utensils and fossilised dung, spanning several hundred years, and finds traces of protein that can only have come from deep muscle tissue (myoglobin), as occurred in archaeological investigations in pre-Columbian Colorado.  But there is worse, as recounted by Richard Hollingham (Natural born cannibals.  New Scientist 10 July 2004, p. 31-33).  Hollingham reviews recent research that has cannibalistic themes.  The truly grim findings were made by a group at University College, London, who have studied a brain disease related to the variant CJD induced in humans who ate BSE-infected beef (Mead, S. et al. 2003.  Balancing selection at the prion protein gene centre consistent with prehistoric Kuru-like epidemics.  Science, v. 300, p. 640-643).  Kuru affected the Fore people of highland Papua New Guinea, who ritually ate dead relatives’ brains, before the authorities banned the practice, and is caused by rogue proteins known as prions.  In that respect it is similar to vCJD, BSE and a number of other mammalian brain disorders.  The UCL group studied the genetic effects of Kuru on the Fore, to see if any immune resistance to prion infections had developed.  There are two genes linked with prions, and people who possess both have greater resistance to vCJD, whereas people having only one are susceptible.  In the Fore study,  a surprising 75% of women (usually the main consumers of human brain tissue) had both, which the team put down to evolutionary pressure that had resulted from thousands of years of the practice.  Turning to genetic data from different ethnic groups world-wide, they found such heterozygotes were widespread, although with different proportions in different groups.  Even though these global populations do not generally eat other people now, there is a distinct possibility that their distant ancestors did, for a very long time.  That is welcome news that counters the fears of massive vCJD epidemics from eating animals unnaturally fed on animal protein.  What is wholly disturbing is that for much of human evolutionary history cannibalism was unnecessary for survival, and Miewes, in his initial police statement, claimed that there are around 800 cannibals in Germany alone…..

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