As a cultural practice
Herodotus (3.38) mentions funerary cannibalism among the Callatiae, a tribe of India. Also, the Aghoris of northern India consume the flesh of the dead floated in the Ganges in pursuit of immortality and supernatural powers.
It is believed that some South American indigenous cultures, such as the Mayoruna people, practiced endocannibalism in the past. The Amahuaca Indians of Peru picked particles of bone out of the ashes of a cremation fire, ground them with corn, and drank as a kind of gruel. For the Wari' people in western Brazil, endocannibalism is an act of compassion where the roasted remains of fellow Wari' are consumed in a mortuary setting; ideally, the affines would consume the entire corpse, and rejecting the practice would be offensive to the direct family members. Ya̧nomamö consumed the ground-up bones and ashes of cremated kinsmen in an act of mourning; this is still classified as endocannibalism, although, strictly speaking, "flesh" is not eaten. Such practices were generally not believed to have been driven by need for protein or other food.
Kuru is a type of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) caused by prions that are found in humans. Human prion diseases come in sporadic, genetic and infectious forms. Kuru was the first infectious human prion disease discovered. It spread through the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, in which relatives consumed the bodies of the deceased to return the "life force" of the deceased to the hamlet. Kuru was 8 to 9 times more prevalent in women and children than in men at its peak because, while the men of the village took the choice cuts, the women and children would eat the rest of the body, including the brain, where the prion particles were particularly concentrated. The kuru epidemic, which is recorded to have begun in the 1920s, is believed to have been started by the consumption of a single individual with kuru, which then spread through the population. Oral history records that cannibalism began within the Fore in the late 19th century. Recent research at University College London identified a gene that protects against prion diseases, by studying the Fore people.
Currently there is no treatment to cure or even treatment to control kuru, but there are numerous programs being funded by universities and national institutes, such as the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). This institute is currently funding research into the genetic and cellular process behind the development and transmission of kuru and other TSE diseases.
Prehistory of endocannibalism controversy
Whether or not endocannibalism was commonplace through much of human prehistory remains controversial.
A team led by Michael Alpers, a lifelong investigator of kuru, found genes that protect against similar prion diseases were widespread, suggesting that such endocannibalism could have once been common around the world.
However, a later study by Simon Mead et al. of the University College London  has since shown that the protective G127V variant of the prion protein gene PRNP is only commonplace in the areas with the highest incidence of kuru; it is not commonplace in the global population. The relatively rare (but widespread) occurrence of G127V in the global population could therefore be explained as random mutation. This is evidence that cannibalism may not have been widespread among humanity, as the kuru disease is the only known prion disease that spreads by human cannibalism. Were cannibalism widespread, G127V would have to be commonplace by evolutionary necessity – but it is not. The only way by which cannibalism could have been widespread would be if kuru was not the only prion to spread by human cannibalism.
List of cultures known for endocannibalism
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- South America
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- Metcalf, Peter (1 January 1987). "Wine of the Corpse: Endocannibalism and the Great Feast of the Dead in Borneo". Representations (17): 96–109. doi:10.2307/3043794. JSTOR 3043794.
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- Wadsworth, J. D. F.; Joiner, S.; Linehan, J. M.; Desbruslais, M.; Fox, K.; Cooper, S.; Cronier, S.; Asante, E. A.; Mead, S.; Brandner, S.; Hill, A. F.; Collinge, J. (2008). "Kuru prions and sporadic Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease prions have equivalent transmission properties in transgenic and wild-type mice". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105 (10): 3885–90. Bibcode:2008PNAS..105.3885W. doi:10.1073/pnas.0800190105. JSTOR 25461336. PMC 2268835. PMID 18316717.
- Haïk, Stéphane; Brandel, Jean-Philippe (1 August 2014). "Infectious prion diseases in humans: Cannibalism, iatrogenicity and zoonoses". Infection, Genetics and Evolution. 26: 303–312. doi:10.1016/j.meegid.2014.06.010. PMID 24956437.
- Diamond JM (1997). Guns, germs, and steel: the fates of human societies. New York: W.W. Norton. p. 208. ISBN 978-0-393-03891-0.
- Kuru at eMedicine
- "A Tribe In Papua New Guinea Reveals The Upside Of Cannibalism". 11 June 2015. Retrieved 1 September 2015.
- "Kuru Information Page: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)". www.ninds.nih.gov. Retrieved 1 September 2015.
- "A life of determination". Med.monash.edu.au. 27 February 2009. Retrieved 31 March 2010.
- Mead, Simon; Stumpf, Michael P. H.; Whitfield, Jerome; Beck, Jonathan A.; Poulter, Mark; Campbell, Tracy; et al. (2003). "Balancing selection at the prion protein gene consistent with prehistoric kurulike epidemics". Science. 300 (5619): 640–3. Bibcode:2003Sci...300..640M. doi:10.1126/science.1083320. PMID 12690204.
- Danny Kingsley (11 April 2003). "Genes suggest cannibalism common in human past". ABC Science Online. Retrieved 31 March 2010.
- Mead, Simon; Whitfield, Jerome; Poulter, Mark; Shah, Paresh; Uphill, James; Campbell, Tracy; Al-Dujaily, Huda; Hummerich, Holger; Beck, Jon; Mein, Charles A.; Verzilli, Claudio; Whittaker, John; Alpers, Michael P.; Collinge, John (2009). "A Novel Protective Prion Protein Variant that Colocalizes with Kuru Exposure" (PDF). New England Journal of Medicine. 361 (21): 2056–65. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa0809716. PMID 19923577.
- Liberski, Pawel (2013). "Kuru: A Journey Back in Time from Papua New Guinea to the Neanderthals' Extinction". Pathogens. 2 (3): 472–505. doi:10.3390/pathogens2030472. PMC 4235695. PMID 25437203.