You may be a vegetarian, but your ancestors not only ate meat, they occasionally ate each other. Cannibalism was common among our prehistoric ancestors, according to a new study of the Fore, an isolated tribe living in Papua New Guinea. Researchers Simon Mead and John Collinge found DNA evidence that a gene variant protected some of the Fore against a deadly prion disease related to Mad Cow Disease, that’s transmitted by cannibalism. The Fore used to practice cannibalism, but don’t anymore. Next they found that this protective gene variant is present in people all over the world, leading them to conclude that it evolved when cannibalism was widespread, in order to give protection from prion diseases. This also means that some people (those without the gene variant) are more susceptible to the human form of Mad Cow than others.

Until the late 1950s, many Fore died from Kuru, a prion disease similar to vCJD, the human form of Mad Cow. Kuru was transmitted at funeral feasts where women and children ate the flesh of their dead relatives. The practice finally stopped when scientists proved the ritual was to blame for Kuru. When scientists visited the Fore recently, they took blood samples from 30 women over 50 years old who had never gotten Kuru, despite attending many funeral feasts. They discovered that 23 of the 30 survivors had inherited a particular combination of “prion” genes called MV from their parents. Collinge says most women and children who died of Kuru probably inherited only MM or VV genes, not the protective combination of both.

“The MV combination dominates the populations surveyed from around the world,” says Mead. In othe words, you’re alive today because your ancestors developed genes that helped them survive the cannibalism of prehistoric times.

Speaking of eating practices, check out Lilith. She eats a unique diet, and is still going strong.

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