Zombies – You may be thinking, “Bullshit –fun to write about but it could never happen.” Not only could this happen, it already has happened early in the twentieth century in Papua New Guinea.
A case study:
It seemed the entire village of the Fore tribe came out for the wake. The sun’s shadows stretched from the trees to drape the still body resting on the table. Although lifeless, he looked like a fit man in his mid-30s. He was brought down by a mysterious disease they called, “Kuru,” the Trembling Disease. It was only recently that the dead man had contracted Kuru and began shaking, unable to keep his balance. Shambling through the village just days before, the children knew that he was a dead man walking. His personality had faded, he seemed dead inside long before his heart had stopped. On his “deathbed” he could only babble his goodbyes, if they were goodbyes at all. Most times he became enraged when others would show concern. Then, the Fore tribesman was dead. Along with nearly 200 other villagers struck down by Kuru that year.
His wife approached the ice-like body, accompanied by a half dozen other village women. From her side she raised a knife over his head and brought it down on his forehead with a thud. A few more whacks and his brain was exposed. The other women dug into the skull cavity scooping brain matter with their fingers. Oozing out like jello, they shoveled the grey cortex into their mouth. The men began hacking muscle from arm and leg bones. They continued the wake until every bit of the deceased had been consumed. All of the organs, brains, muscle and even the feces, gone. Later, they would burn the bones and crush them for salad sprinkles.
The Fore tribe continued their cannibalistic mortuary wakes until the 1960s when western immigrants forced them to stop.
Here comes the science:
[Editor's note: this particular contributor is a neuroscientist working in a research lab.]
The human disease is called, “Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.” Most people know CJD’s bovine cousin, the Mad Cow Disease. Guess how the cows got it: They were fed spinal cord and brain matter mixed in with their feed. Just like the Fore tribe’s memorial luncheons and maybe our South Beach Zombie’s nom-noms from earlier this week.
CJD happens because of some misshapen proteins called prions. Those misshapen prions will then misshape other proteins which were fine before. The prions aren’t a virus, protozoa, or bacteria, the protein itself is the infectious agent. It can be any protein type and no one really knows how they form. It only takes one prion to cause a cascade of flipping millions of others. They are nearly indestructible because their contorted form is very stable. Ultraviolet light, irradiation, boiling, dry heat, freezing, drying, changes to PH: nada, nothing, these babies keep on ticking. No medicine can help, there is no known inactivation of a prion in a living host. Once a patient is infected they will always die. The bitch of the matter is that it can take years for a person to die, maybe as long as ten years.
The disease can attack proteins in the nervous system and the patient would display the symptoms of Ataxia (funny walking gate), speech impairment, hyper-aggression, disorientation, loss of personality and memory loss. Sound familiar? However, these are just the “common” symptoms. From my own research, I believe any protein could be misshapen into a prion. This means any receptor in the brain. (For example, the THC compounds in pot affect one type of receptor.) If any receptor in the brain can be affected, this could mean profound shifts in behavior from we would deem “normal” –hello, face-eating!
Some origins of prion-spread have been linked to genetics and cannibalism, but (and here’s the kicker) most prion occurrences have no known origin and could possibly be transmitted by blood or other means like saliva.
Will the first-world inhabitants ever become neighbor-eating zombies like the Fore tribe? Who knows, but what we do know is that because of CJD it’s definitely possible.