Cordyceps sinensis is a fungus known as dongchoong-hacho(동충하초, 冬蟲夏草) in Korea, with the same characters used in China and Japan. It literally translates to “worm in the winter, herb in the summer”. It is a peculiar fungus with an interesting life cycle. In the summer when the weather is warm, the fungus infects its host (usually ghost moth larvae) through spores. The infected caterpillar is slowly filled with mycelium (thready part of fungi), until it becomes mummified with only the shell remaining. The fungus keeps replicating until it bursts out of the caterpillar’s head with a club-like fruit body (which holds the fungus’ spores). This makes it look as if the caterpillar, which was an insect in the winter, turned into a fungus in the summer (technically it is at this stage, but the caterpillar is long dead). In English, it is also called caterpillar fungus or vegetable worm (which is a misnomer as fungi are not vegetables).
Cordyceps sinensis is an important ingredient in traditional Eastern medicine as it is believed to be a perfect balance between yin and yang due to it possessing both animal and plant (actually a fungus) properties. It is used to treat many diseases from fatigue to cancer.
Although Western medicine usually looks down on and ignores Eastern medicine, research shows that Cordyceps sinensis actually has medicinal properties. Cordycepin, a chemical extracted from the fungus, has been shown to inhibit the growth of viruses, fungi and tumours through its inhibitory actions on a certain protein. There is also research that suggests it can protect the body against radiation poisoning.
European explorers who visited the island of Papua New Guinea in the 1950’s noticed that the Fore tribe suffered from a strange disease. The patient would initially have headaches, joint pains and tremors. They then show signs of weakness and are unable to stand. The shaking of limbs, a classic symptom of the disease, becomes progressively worse as the disease progresses (“kuru” is a Fore word for “to shake”). In the late stages, the patient shows other neurological symptoms such as uncontrollable laughter and emotional instability. By this point, their tremors and ataxia (lack of coordination) is so severe that they cannot sit without support. They may also suffer from inability to speak or swallow, become unresponsive to their surroundings, develop ulcers on the skin and become incontinent (cannot hold urine/faeces). Within 3 months to 2 years after the symptoms develop, the patient dies.
Kuru is exclusive to the Fore tribe and medical researchers were puzzled by the nature of this disease. It is incurable and takes more than 10 years to develop (from the time of infection). In 1961, Dr Michael Alpers discovered that kuru was spread due to a certain cultural behaviour within the tribe – cannibalism. The Fore tribe had a tradition of eating the corpse of a deceased tribe member at the funeral as to return their life force back in to the tribe. Of course, this involved the consumption of the brain as well.
It was discovered that kuru is caused by a strange pathogen known as a prion. Prions are misfolded pieces of proteins that cause disease by converting the body’s proteins into “wrong” proteins. These new prions then convert more proteins until the body is filled with deposits of such proteins. Prions mainly affect the brain and cause spongiform encephalopathy – meaning that the brain becomes sponge-like and full of holes. The most famous example of prion disease is mad cow disease.
After colonists took over Papua New Guinea, cannibalism was banned and kuru faded away. This was proof that cannibalism was what spread the prion from one victim to another. It was also discovered that women and children had a higher incidence as men would have priority in choosing what part of the body to eat first. As with lions, the men always chose muscles first and women and children would often finish the organs such as the brain. As prions are indestructible, it cannot be treated, cured or prevented (other than not eating brains). It also means that it transmits perfectly from a dead patient to an unsuspecting victim who is feasting on the infected brain.
A disease that causes the brain to disintegrate, causing limb shaking and inability to walk, spread by the ingestion of brains. Is it possible that zombies are caused by eating brains and not the other way around?
Clairvius Narcisse died in Haiti on May 2, 1962. In 1980, he returned to his hometown. Alive.
How did a man who was dead and buried come back to life?
According to Clairvius, he was cursed by a bokor (sorcerer) to become a zombie but returned home after the curse was undone. The sorcerer had enslaved him in a sugar plantation for 16 years and many others were working as “zombie slaves” until they revolted, killed the sorcerer then ran away.
Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis studied and investigated this case extensively. According to his research, most “zombies” were placed in suspended animation to fake death and were then (often after being buried) put under psychosis by the sorcerer. Many Haitians believe in the ancient African religion of voodoo, where one legend says that when a sorcerer curses a person, they are revived after death to become the sorcerer’s slave. Thus, Haitians strongly believe in the legend of zombies. In reality, the sorcerer was using drugs to zombify people and Davis used his expert knowledge in botany to deduce what the chemicals were.
The so-called zombie powder was a combination of tetrodotoxin (TTX, blowfish poison) and datura (from the poisonous plant Datura stramonium). The TTX simulates death due to its paralytic effect and datura is a powerful hallucinogenic that causes the person to confuse reality and fantasy (dissociation). Also, it may cause memory loss which allows the sorcerer to easily manipulate the victim. Long-term maintenance of the datura dose could allow the sorcerer to enslave someone for a long period of time. However, the zombification is not the same as perfect mind control and more like a strong hallucination or hypnosis (as seen as the above mentioned revolution).
As it involves the handling of poisons, only an experienced sorcerer could give the right mixture of doses while avoiding the lethal dose. Although science has advanced greatly, there are still many things we can learn from magic and sorcery. The reason being, magic and sorcery are simply undiscovered science.