Stories tagged spongiform encephalopathy

Mar
02
2008

Oh my God! She's doing it right now!: Each to their own, but...
Oh my God! She's doing it right now!: Each to their own, but...Courtesy wallyg
According to a new paper in the journal Medical Hypotheses, cannibalism and its associated neurodegenerative diseases may have contributed to the extinction of Neanderthals 30,000 years ago.

The cause of the Neanderthals’ extinction has long been something of a mystery to science. Even the rate at which they disappeared is unclear—some scientists believe that their extinction as a species was gradual, and due to an inability to adapt to changing environmental conditions, or because of interbreeding with Cro-Magnon people over an extended period of time. Others believe that the extinction was relatively rapid, and could have been caused by direct, violent confrontation (or at least competition) with the Cro-Magnon, or by a strong susceptibility to certain diseases.

The new cannibalism theory fits in with this last idea to some extent. Combining fossil evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism with ethnological data on the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, the author of the new paper thinks it’s likely that some form of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (or TSE, brain mushing diseases like Mad Cow Disease) could have greatly reduced the Neanderthal population and contributed to their ultimate extinction.

The Fore people were known to have practiced cannibalism to some extent for some time, but beginning around 1900 anthropologists began to observe a neurodegenerative condition called “Kuru” taking hold among the Fore. By the 1960’s, Kuru had reached “epidemic levels” and killed over 1,100 people. Eventually it was discerned that Kuru was a type of TSE, contracted by eating the brains or nervous tissue of other infected individuals, or even by using reusing the tools employed for this type of butchery (even mdern sterilization techniques don’t always remove the prions that cause TSE’s from surgical implements.)

Some fossil evidence in France seems to suggest that Neanderthals, on occasion at least, consumed the flesh of others of their species, including their brains. If cannibalism were prevalent among Neanderthals and a TSE was introduced into the food chain, as it were, the effects could have been devastating on the population.

Which brings me back to my titular point: the major hole in this theory is that no one in their right mind (although TSE’s probably redefine “right mind”) would want to eat a Neanderthal, even other Neanderthals. I mean, they look so… lumpy. Yuck. Of all the primates, extant and otherwise, Neanderthals are probably the least appetizing to me. Would I eat an orangutan? I certainly would. Java Man? In a heartbeat. And, really, the only thing keeping me from eating bonobos is geography. But a Neanderthal? Bleh. Their brains probably taste like wet towels and fish aspic.

I suppose the author of the paper has a response to this not covered in the article I saw (paprika, maybe?), but, as far as I’m concerned, a recipe can only take you so far. Next theory, please.