The Laughing Death

Igor Rudan
21 min readApr 27, 2021

I could tell you a story that features an exotic location, a plane crash, an isolated cannibalistic tribe, gold-diggers, a bizarre disease, experiments on chimpanzees, tribal wars, the transmission of brain proteins like infectious agents, allegations of child abuse, mad cows, imprisonment of the main character, his exile within the Arctic circle, as well as the two Nobel Prizes in medicine. You could then say: “Sure, anyone can just make anything up”. And that’s fair enough, but… what if this was a true story?

The Fore tribe lives in the Okapa area of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Their habitat is formed by about a thousand square kilometres of pristine forest, with the rainy season occurring between December and March. Their population size may be reaching about twenty thousand and their people are separated by the Wanevinti Mountains in the northern and southern regions. They survive thanks to farming, they’re polytheist, and they use three different dialects of their language. The Fore tribe intrigued the international public between 1957 and 1960, as they recorded about 1,000 deaths from a new and unknown disease — Kuru disease, named after their word ‘’kuria’’, which meant “shake/tremble.” The disorder has also become known as “the laughing sickness”, due to the pathological attacks of laughter that accompany the condition.

Up until the 1950s, the Fore tribe managed to avoid any contact with the rest of the world. It was noted only that one plane had crashed into the area in which they lived during World War II. With the establishment of the Okapa police station in 1951, by order of the Australian authorities, law enforcement officials visited the villages of the Fore tribe, explaining to them the importance of hygiene and road construction. They also sought to dissuade them from three traditional tribal practices — constant warfare between villages, witchcraft and cannibalism. The officials explained their economics and trade, based on money, and taught them the so-called “pidgin” variants of the English language. The younger members of the Fore tribe embraced these innovations more readily than the older members, especially as it gave them an excuse to stop participating in the constant battles between the villages, into which the older leaders have often pushed them.

The Fore tribe believes in the existence of five souls, each of which should end up in the correct place following death. Based on this belief system, they conduct cannibalistic rituals, eating their dead to ensure that…

Igor Rudan

Director, Centre for Global Health at the University of Edinburgh, UK; President, International Society of Global Health; Editor, Journal of Global Health;