Kuru came to worldwide attention in the 1950s when it was discovered by western scientists among the people of the Fore tribe, who live in the jungle highlands of Papua New Guinea. Symptoms start with joint pains but progress to dementia, trembling, uncontrollable laughing and paralysis.
Originally researchers thought that the condition might be hereditary as they didn't detect any classic signs of infection such as inflammation, fever or raised levels of antibodies. But then Dr Carleton Gajdusek, an American physician had an inkling that the disease might have something to do with the tribe's eating habits. One of their funeral rituals was to eat the body of the recently deceased. Men would get the meaty parts, the best cuts in other words whilst the women and children were left with the brain tissue which they scooped out of the skull with their bare hands. The ritual was to honour the departed and to return his or her life force to the community.
Autopsies of those who had died from the disease revealed that their brains had small cavities, like holes in sponges. To Gajdusek this looked like the effects of CJD. His next step was to inject brain tissue of Kuru disease victims into monkeys. After two years these primates developed Kuru symptoms and Gajdusek came to the conlusion that Kuru was caused by an infectious agent, though he was unable to determine which. Further research by others discovered the cause of the disease to be prions.
This idea that a disease could be caused not by a virus or a bacteria, but by a misshapen protein that contained no DNA or RNA was a scientific revelation. For his work on Kuru Gajdusek was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.