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Folia Neuropathol. 2009;47(2):138-44.

Cannibalism, kuru and anthropology.

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Department of Anthropology, Graduate Center, City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue, NY 10016-4309, USA.


This essay discusses the image and practice of cannibalism in a wide range of studies. It also presents the anthropological research on kuru which led to the proposal that cannibalism had enabled transmission of the infectious agent, as well as doubts about the hypothesis, and the assertion by some that cannibalism as a socially approved custom did not exist. The figure of the cannibal as an icon of primitivism took form in the encounter between Europe and the Americas. Cannibalism was to become the prime signifier of "barbarism" for a language of essentialized difference that would harden into the negative racism of the nineteenth century. Anthropological and medical research now challenge the derogatory image of the cannibal as we learn more about the many past consumers of human flesh, including ourselves.

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