Papua New Guinea: A Place Like No Other
“The people have been classified as Papuan, and all, except those under control, practice headhunting and cannibalism…Before a house can be occupied or a canoe launched, it is the custom to sprinkle the building or boat with human blood…. The heads of people are slain and collected….bodies are cut up, cooked in various ways and eaten. Thus the Government in its work of civilization is faced at the outset with the formidable task of suppressing a practice of homicide, which occupies a fundamental place in the social and religious fabric of the people… In October 1916, the villages of Moreri were visited for the first time. The people were living in one large house, which was entered by my party at dawn while the Moreri were eating the bodies of Irumuku natives they had killed.”
This an excerpt from a 1920 government patrol report on raids between different peoples in the Gulf Province of Papua New Guinea that I came across whilst doing some research for this post. In fact, the most recent instances of cannibalism recorded as part of the social institution come from Papua New Guinea, where allegedly cannibalism and headhunting was practiced in more remote areas well into the 60s and 70s. In modern times, however, such practices have been almost completely eradicated. I hope that this rather disturbing history of cannibalism and headhunting does not put you off from visiting this unique and welcoming country, one of the last bastions in the Pacific unspoilt by mass tourism. I spent two weeks in Papua New Guinea with Zegrahm Expeditions exploring this wonderful country, and it was certainly an adventure impossible to forget!
Papua New Guinea is a country that has a ubiquitous air of mystery and provides a fascination even to those who have visited it many times. Perhaps few travelers even know its exact whereabouts on the globe – I certainly did not until I actually travelled there. Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern half of of the island of New Guinea, the world’s second largest island, as well as a myriad of smaller islands surrounding it. New Guinea Island is located in the southwest Pacific ocean just north of Australia (Click HERE for a map). and is part of the Australian tectonic plate. In the past, when the sea levels were lower, it was connected to Australia itself.
What I found the most astounding about Papua New Guinea was the incredible diversity of traditional cultures. With the population of only just over seven million, Papua New Guinea has more indigenous languages than any other country in the world. Here, more than 800 languages are spoken, with at least as many diverse traditional societies; however, many have less than 1,000 native speakers. English is the official language, and yet it is not as widely spoken as one might expect. The majority of people live in rural areas, in traditional societies, practicing self-sufficient farming in order to survive. They grow yams, taro, sweet potatoes; they rear chickens and pigs. Fish and seafood also form a considerable part of their daily diet; I was particularly envious of large fresh lobsters that they could easily have for lunch!
This trip provided me with an extraordinary opportunity to immerse myself in a vast diversity of cultures: I found every single village visit enchanting, fascinating, and distinct. Some of the villages have not had foreign visitors for many years, some only once or twice in the past; not a single thing is contrived for tourists, and these communities feel very remote and authentic. The local people were amiable and greeted us enthusiastically, their excitement thoroughly infectious. In each village there were dozens upon dozens of children scampering around. They were everywhere, no matter where I looked. The children would often stare and point at us in great wonder because of our fair skin and hair, as if we were some fascinating exotic animals that they have never seen. If I tried to make contact with them, they seemed to be shy, and yet they had a playfully mischievous glint in their eyes. I would extend my arm to shake their hands. They would return the gesture with a timid laugh. I took countless photographs of these children; it was amazing just how much they loved posing for us, their manner so natural and nonchalant. Every time I showed them the photos on the back display of my camera, they would start to giggle. The local women would cook us delectable feasts, using the freshest produce: curries made with fish, pumpkin, sweet potato and cassava in a mouth-watering sauce of coconut milk and spices, freshly steamed lobsters and crabs, they would lay out huge fruit platters containing the ripest papayas and bananas, and serve us fresh young coconuts to quench our thirst. They would often put on their traditional dances and sing for us, trying to engage us as much as possible in their culture. One of the villages we visited was Pere, a small village on Manus Island, a place where Margaret Mead, one of the foremost figures in anthropology, settled for some time in order to conduct fieldwork concerning child psychology and mental development in preliterate societies in 1928. One of the things that was universally present throughout all the villages was betel nut, a natural stimulant whose users can be easily identified by the telltale permanently stained blood-red teeth; no matter how many times I saw a betel nut chewer smile, it would frighten me every time.
What I found particularly exciting about Papua New Guinea was the presence of real witchcraft, real in the sense that the local people are strong believers in it, and they do not dispute its existence. Despite the fact that Christianity has been the adopted official religion of Papua New Guinea for many years, it has not supplanted the beliefs of locals in magic and spirits. The two disparate sets of beliefs co-exist in harmony in the minds of the people of Papua New Guinea. The supernatural permeates their daily lives. Their belief in magic is fascinating to Westerners; their fear of magic can be rampant. There are both witches and sorcerers in PNG, the difference between the two stems from how the magic has been acquired. Witches are born with their powers; their magic is innate, whereas knowledge of sorcery is acquired through studies. There have been several reported witchcraft-related murders in PNG recently, demonstrating the people’s hysteria mixed with terror when faced with the maleficent powers of magic. Some people die of witchcraft, not because of the actual “witchcraft”; rather their beliefs are so strong and overpowering, their mind and bodies eventually succumb to them.
Biodiversity in Papua New Guinea, especially of the New Guinea island, is immense. However, it was not until I was there that I was able to appreciate its true extent. Regardless of its relatively small size – half a percent of Earth’s surface – New Guinea island contains between 5 and 10% of the world species, many of which are endemic. There are almost 700 resident birds, including 39 out of the 41 species of magnificent birds of paradise, and between 11,000 and 20,000 plant species. For a beginner naturalist like me, this trip was absolutely thrilling. Every day I had a chance to go snorkeling amongst stunning coral reefs with astoundingly rich underwater life; every other day I got up at the break of dawn to go bird-watching in lush emerald green rainforests; and on occasion we watched dolphins and whales from aboard the ship. What made this trip even more fascinating and educative was the fact that all of our wildlife activities were led by some very talented and experienced marine biologists and ornithologists, who were able to teach us about all the things that we encountered. Papua New Guinea provides some of the world’s best snorkeling and diving experiences. The waters are teeming with brilliantly-coloured fish; the luscious reefs are adorned with gorgeous soft and hard corals, big sea fans, pretty sea anemone and rather creepy-looking giant clams. My favourite fish to watch was the orange and white clownfish hiding in the turquoise sea anemone, a very picturesque and captivating sight. On one occasion, we spent a long time watching an octopus hiding under a rock, occasionally diving down to touch its soft, slippery arms with its suction cups, watching it change colour in a blink of an eye in order to blend with its ambient surroundings, as it briskly moved from one spot to another. On rare occasion that I got tired of snorkeling, I swam ashore and wandered along the white sandy beaches, or relaxed in the shade of a palm tree sipping sweet coconut water right out of a fresh coconut.
Birds in Papua New Guinea are striking and vividly coloured. They make it impossible for me to call bird-watching “dull” ever again. In Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital, I got a chance to see a cassowary, a large flightless bird, only smaller than the ostrich and the emu, and the only one known to on occasion fatally injure people. Papua New Guinea is home to the most stunning pigeons: Victoria Crowned Pigeon, a large blue bird with a stunning lace-like crest and maroon breast, named after Queen Victoria; and a very rare Nicobar Pigeon, another large bird with the most gorgeous iridescent plumage of gray-blue and metallic green and a pure white tail. On one of the islands, we came across a huge colony of red-footed boobies, with thousands of birds perching on trees and soaring in the air. I always find visiting large colonies of birds extremely overwhelming; being surrounded by countless birds is in a way an other-worldly experience. Then there was the largest butterfly in the world, Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, endemic to the forests in eastern Papua New Guinea; its wingspan is capable of reaching 31 cm.
You might have gathered from my reflections on Papua New Guinea that it is a country well worth paying a visit to, if such an opportunity comes your way. This country was like no other that I have ever experienced: a place with an incredible variety of cultures and peoples; a place of idyllic natural beauty with stunning and unique flora and fauna; and a place where the powerful belief in the supernatural still exists, and where cannibalism and headhunting was, up until recently, considered an accepted form of social behavior. Papua New Guinea is a country perfectly suited for an adventure you will never fail to remember.