i-5 - A strategic plan for the future of PNG’s industrial city
I am your angel

Why didn’t the Pharaohs build pyramids in Papua New Guinea?


'King' of KiriwinaI ONCE GOT STUCK out in the middle of the Great Victoria Desert north of Maralinga in central Australia when a power grid, represented by the lines of standing stones that I had come to survey, overnight sucked the juice out of both batteries in my diesel Landcruiser.

According to thewriter and airline pilot Bruce Cathie the stones had been set up by Roman legionnaires transported to the site by aliens in flying saucers.

The police from Coober Pedy who rescued me (there was just enough juice in the batteries to raise them by radio) told me about other strange things they’d heard about in the desert, including ancient Dutch settlements and even more ancient Chinese ones.

There seems to be a plethora of this stuff in Australia.  I’ve heard about stone harbours in Queensland built by ancient Phoenician seafarers but I’ve never heard about similar things in Papua New Guinea.  At least not until I read Gordon Saville’s 1974 book, ‘King’ of Kiriwina (Leo Cooper Ltd, London).

Saville was a quixotic Englishman who spent nine months on Kiriwina in 1943 as the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) kiap.

He was there when the Yanks landed in June of that year to build the airfields and base that changed Trobriand life forever.  As he points out, it is ironic that by the time the massive base was fully operational the war had moved on and it was obsolete.

The Americans landed unannounced in the middle of the night at low tide during a tropical downpour and got hung up on the reef until dawn.  Luckily no stray Japanese aircraft noticed what they were doing.

During his stay, Sergeant Saville patrolled the island and some of its coral-fringed satellites.  On one patrol down the coast to Sinakata he was shown something that might qualify as an ancient mystery.  I’ll let him explain.  He was following some village guides.

They came to a clearing in the bush on the edge of the mangrove swamp, gloomy and evil-smelling, screened with shadows, pierced by shafts of sunlight.  There were derelict remains of an old village in the clearing and the ruined huts were built of a sort of stone.  They were the first stone buildings I had seen on Kiriwina.  All the huts and yam houses I had examined until then were entirely built of mangrove wood and sago leaves.

In the centre of the ruins there were the remains of an exceptionally large building.  The roof and walls had fallen but the wall at one end was almost intact, and rose to the prodigious height of about forty feet.  It was a Gothic-like structure made of some sort of coral cement, since there were no stones or chunks of coral of that size on the island.  All around the enigmatic erection were the ruins of smaller coral huts.  I searched through the rubble, rubbed at the structure to see what it was made of and concluded that it must have been built of coral carried from the lagoon and mixed with an adhesive into a kind of mortar.

I was puzzled and excited, and only wished that I had a camera with me.  The natives were pleased with the effect of their secret and said they had something else to show me.  Further through the bush skirting the lagoon we came to another clearing.  Here there was another cluster of slabs, also made of thick coral concrete lying on the ground, and looking uncommonly like a neglected suburban graveyard in England.  Who built these structures and what were they used for?  The natives chorused that nobody knew.  They had always been there, for as long as the oldest inhabitant could remember or the stories that his grandparents said they had heard from their grandparents.

…. I told Waru (the station interpreter) to ask whether they would dig under one of the slabs of coral to see what lay underneath, busily imagining treasure that might be hidden there.  The natives were not offended by the suggestion.  The place was not taboo or sacred for them, just mysterious.  So they levered one of the slabs aside and dug down, entering into the spirit of a treasure hunt.  At a depth of about four feet they scrabbled into a layer of silver sand.  The boys shovelled the sand away with their hands and disclosed a human skeleton lying on its side, folded up in the foetal position.  Evidently the body had been carefully buried in a layer of sand brought from the beach.  The skeleton was intact and very small; the complete grave was no more than four feet long.

Urged on by me, the natives exhumed another skeleton buried in exactly the same way under a slab on the other side of the clearing.  They had no explanation of what these burials meant . . . . What the origin of this strange site may be remains a mystery.

I haven’t yet found an explanation for Sergeant Saville’s ‘discovery’ but it would be interesting to know whether the place is still there.  Saville and his helpers carefully reburied the skeletons and replaced the headstones.

Perhaps the Tokwai, the little spirit people who live in the bush, know.


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Robin Lillicrapp

One possibility is the lack of suitable building material.

Such a statement presupposes methodology native to Egypt but impractical in the outposts of culture.

This four minute clip from YouTube offers good intel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znQk_yBHre4

Merolyn Boyama

It would be nice if your could send me or let me know some more detailed stories of Cyril B Cameron (King Cam of Kitava) as addressed.

Caroline Cameron

Postscript re Stow.
His description of Cam is pretty true on most points.
Stow was hallucinating while suffering malaria during his brief stint in the Trobes, and it no doubt enhanced his imagination. A writer is completing a biography on Stow which will be published next year.

Peter Kranz

Can any Simbu angra na ambai add to the Gilk folklore? We are working on a children's story based on this legend.

Wakai wei.

Peter Kranz

The Oracle has declared - the little magic forest people are known in Kuman as gilk masalai. (Gilk is as close as I can come to an English version).

Only a few people can see them, they can come and help plant food in the garden, and are friendly if you are good to them.

They can turn rotten food into edible, and give you presents of food and money, but only if you are a special 'masalai' person on your own.

They live in the Baiyer River, are ugly, but can be friendly. The are frightened by bright colours, and can even harm you if angry.

Thus says Rose (dredging up such knowledge from childhood beliefs).

Peter Kranz

The Tardis has a famous, and oft-remarked "chameleon circuit" which can disguise it's outward appearance. Unfortunately it was broken in around the first series, and got stuck as appearing to be a MET Police box circa 1930's/'40's/'50's.

I actually remember seeing these on the streets of London. Sadly now just a bygone memory, but they played an important role in police communications before the advent of widespread public telecommunications devices (ie. phones.)

The Doctor visited PNG several times in his Tardis (as the Who cognoscenti will remember.) It appears that the Doctor of the time had managed to temporarily repair the chameleon circuit whilst in Papua New Guinea. So thus the description of the alien craft by Father Gill matches the contemporaneous disguise of the Tardis as it thought appropriate for 1959.

The Tardis (as I'm sure you will know) is a sentient combination of intelligence, extra sensory perception and highly-advanced technology, so after examining human artefacts of the time, it had fixed on disguising itself as a "craft shaped like a disc, perhaps thirty to forty feet across, with smaller round superstructures, and had on the underside four legs pointing diagonally downwards. Uppermost on the disc was a circular bridge, like the bridge of a ship, perhaps twenty feet in diameter" as being most suitable for human perception.

Unfortunately the Tardis was mistaken (It was running Windows 8), and then reverted to its default police box appearance with the chameleon circuit irreparable broken after some sad interference by a combined sonic screwdriver, coconut scraper, and crab-flesh scourer - the Doctor's customised Special Model Kunai 6A.

The Doctor - and the Tardis - lived to regret this.

Enough Dr Who - KJ

Peter Kranz

Michael - I think quite a few readers would be grateful if you didn't get me started again. Anyway, Holmes and Watson are off on a voyage on the Titanic. Mind you they could be rescued - but by Who? (or should it be Whom?)

Peter Kranz

More on the Father Gill incident here -


And on the rockets over Port Moresby (correction, this was in 1953), Bill Chalker has this account -


Admittedly these are from UFOlogy sites, but are at least a good basis for some fun fiction.

And there are legends of 'the little forest people' found throughout PNG. In Simbu they have a special name (which I've forgotten) and seem to have a similar role to leprechauns or trolls. Mischievous and sometimes dangerous, but not really interested in causing harm to humans.

Peter Kranz

Phil - Yes the Father Gill experience remains a mystery to this day and has been subject to investigation even by the RAAF. Veteran UFO expert Dr. J. Allen Hynek thoroughly investigated the Papua events, and concluded that they were genuine.

No alternate explanation has been offered to explain what happened, except that when Holmes was whizzing around in the Tardis, Doctor Who asks his assistant Rose to look out the door and wave to the locals, which she duly does "thus starting a legend." Seems as good an explanation as many.

Would make a good Dr Who episode. Where's Stephen Moffat when you need him?

PS. There are also eye-witness reports of rockets being seen travelling over Port Moresby at high speed in roughly the same time period.

This was of course at the height of cold war hysteria and British rocket launches from Woomera, although I believe the Australian and UK authorities say no rockets were launched in the times recorded, and none could have reached PNG.

PNG Attitude published a thrilling article on this in September 2011, 'Papua or bust - the Boianai UFO sightings' - http://asopa.typepad.com/asopa_people/2011/09/papua-or-bust-the-boianai-ufo-sightings.html - KJ

Phil Fitzpatrick

'Sherlock Holmes and the Aliens of Boianai?

Here is Stow's prologue:

"On June 26th, at Boianai in Papua, visitants appeared to the Reverend William Booth Gill, himself a visitant of thirteen years standing, and to thirty-seven witnesses of another colour. At 6.45 p.m. Mr Gill, an Anglican missionary, glanced at the sky to locate the planet Venus. He saw instead a sparkling object, "very, very bright," which descended to an altitude of around four hundred feet. The craft was shaped like a disc, perhaps thirty to forty feet across, with smaller round superstructures, and had on the underside four legs pointing diagonally downwards. Uppermost on the disc was a circular bridge, like the bridge of a ship, perhaps twenty feet in diameter.

Behind this bridge, and visible from the waist up, human figures emerged and proceeded to busy themselves with some operation on deck. They bent and straightened from time to time, occasionally turning in the direction of the onlookers, but showed on the whole no interest in anything but their machine. The focus of activity appeared to be a thin blue spotlight directed at the sky. This was switched on at irregular intervals, each time for the space of a few seconds. The figures, seemingly four in all, continued preoccupied with this work for the rest of the night.

On impulse, as one of the figures leaned forward over the bridge, the clergyman saluted him by waving a hand over his head. The figure replied in kind, like a skipper on a boat (said Mr Gill) waving to someone on the wharf. Then a Papuan teacher called Ananias waved with both arms and the two other figures returned the greeting. Encouraged, Mr Gill and Ananias began to wave a good deal, and were acknowledged by all four visitants. The watching Papuans were "surprised and delighted". Small boys called out, everyone beckoned the "beings" to come down. But there was no audible response, and the faces and expressions of the figures remained obscure: "rather like", as Mr Gill said, "players on a football field at night."

The tenuous contact ended with a display of technology by the groudlings, and wistfully on their part. They signalled to the disc with a flashlight. "The object swung like a pendulum, presumably in recognition. When we flashed the torchlight towards it, it hovered, and came quite close towards the ground . . . and we actually thought it was going to land, but it did not. We were all," said Mr Gill, speaking for the thirty-seven witnesses to his testimony, "very disappointed about that."
The craft, after floating above Boianai for two nights, ascended to a great altitude and vanished."

There is an interesting discussion of the incident by Jacques Vallee in his 1965 book, 'Anatomy of a Phenomenon'.

Michael Dom

The plot thickens. Sounds like a movie in the makings.

How about a call for scripts, Keith? The name Peter Kranz comes to mind.

Phil Fitzpatrick

I rather like Randolph Stow’s take on the strange standing stone slabs found around the Trobriand Islands in his 1979 novel 'Visitants'.

He makes a connection between the stones and the visits of aliens in sardine tin-shaped spacecraft.

Stow was a kiap (another one Keith) and, like ARM Leo Austen, had formal anthropological training. He didn’t let that get in the way of his story however.

'Visitants' is set on Kailuana (Kaileuna), which is just west of Kiriwina, but in reality his setting is Kitava, to the east. King Kam of Kitava, Cyril Cameron, appears as the old plantation character, MacDonnell, in the novel.

Stow got his inspiration from the 26th June, 1959, appearance of a spaceship to the Anglican Missionary, the Reverend William Booth Gill, and thirty seven Papuan witnesses, including a teacher called Ananias at Boianai, near Rabaraba.

According to Gill and Ananias figures on the bridge of the spaceship waved to them and they waved back. The spaceship came back the next night and did the same thing but despite Gill and the Papuans offering invitations failed to land on either occasion.

This incident didn’t come from Stow’s imagination and was widely reported in the press in 1959. Stow heard a similar story on Kitava.

I’m not sure how Gill explained the aliens to his parishioners.

Randolph Stow was an acclaimed writer and poet who died a few years ago.

Yeah, I forgot the celebrated Stow and, most egregious error this, J K McCarthy - KJ

Jerry Drawhorn

When I first heard the story, I immediately thought of Nan Modol on Pohnape in Micronesia (also the source of tales about Atlantean races establishing a civilization far in advance of what the locals could ever accomplish).


The thing is about Nan Modol is that they used basaltic crystalline columns quarried from nearby sources as blocks to build their structures. They didn't need to hew the stones into these long hexagonal pillars. They simply had to break them, transport and stack them. Amazing what one can construct with naturally pre-formed materials, and to recognize their value.

BTW I recall an earlier claim of a crossing of Papua and the finding of Shangri-La like peoples (and strange beasts) in the centre that came out in the 1880's or so.

Phil Fitzpatrick

I read your article in 'Una Voce' Caroline. I didn't realise that Cyril Cameron was once a kiap. If he set up his plantation on Kitava in 1912 he must have been among the Kukukuku very early in the century. Is there more information about him anywhere?

I picked up quite a few errors of fact in Sergeant Saville's account; the radar unit didn't arrive by Catalina, for instance, but came on the 'MV Oomoobah', which had been bought from the Arnotts family of biscuit making fame.

I also didn't realise that the book was so popular.

Isn't it strange that the facts are just as intriguing as the fiction.

I visited Kiriwina a few times in the 1970s and by then most people I met spoke English. As part of Papua, Police Motu was probably in use prior to that Michael; although the missionaries used the language from Dobu in their work.

'Sivarai' is such a nice word that I imagine it appealed to Chips, just like the pretty girls in the photograph, who still often dress that way I'm told. Chips is a very fluent Motu speaker by the way.

Caroline Cameron

Philip Howard was commissioned to ghost Saville's memoirs. He interviewed G.S. then, "being a conscientious young hack", went to British Library and read Malinowski's books.

"I was shocked to read that G.S. had experienced exactly the same wild adventures as M. 20 years before him....identical in detail....

"G.S. was treading too damned precisely in the footsteps of the master. I did not want to take responsibility for such a dodgy dossier. So I inserted into the text hints and disclaimers....in order to distance the ghost from his text."

P.H. was paid off and the publisher hired "a less priggish hack". King of Kiriwina was a success - "Only readers who had read Thurber smelt a rat in the mangrove swamps."

And Hank Nelson: (email 9/2/2010) "I think Saville's claims are fantasy....There are obvious errors of fact in Saville."

In other words, folks, the book is in the Boy's Own Adventures genre and its rightful place is on the fiction shelves in libraries.

Michael Dom

Phil, on Chips' book, I was not impressed with the Motu title above the lovely Trobriands' ladies.

Culturally incorrect and perhaps insulting to both groups, my one.

Bernard Yegiora

Robin, I hope these books are on Amazon or Google books.

I will order them for the Divine Word Library.

Thank you.

Robin Hide

A footnote to Andrew's comment.

Updating Austen and other 1930s accounts is this useful article:

Ollier, C.D., Holdsworth, D.K., and Heers, G. (1970). "Megaliths of Kitava, Trobriand Islands". Records of the Papua and New Guinea Public Museum and Art Gallery, 1(1), 5-15.

and the more recent work cited by Andrew:

Burenhult, G. ed. 2002. The archaeology of the Trobriand Islands, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea : Excavation season 1999. Oxford, Archaeopress, 158 p.

And for the region:

Bickler, S.H. (2006). "Prehistoric stone monuments in the northern region of the Kula Ring". Antiquity, 80(307), 38-51.

Phil Fitzpatrick

This article was a bit of a fishing expedition Andrew and you've provided a nice catch.

My suspicions about Saville started with his account of being parachuted onto Kiriwina from a Hudson Bomber armed with a revolver and twelve rounds of ammunition. I thought, why on earth wasn't he just dropped off by boat.

I suppose his book is just another cockeyed account that places like the Trobriands, and indeed PNG, have been subjected to for years.

I'd be interested in your take on Chip's Mackellar's book. He's been criticised in the past by the old colonial blimps in the PNGAA for being too 'imaginative'.

Bernard Yegiora

Andrew, thank you for your comment.

Michael Dom

Thank you Andrew Connelly, the facts are just as intriguing as the fiction.

Andrew Connelly, Pacific and Asian History, ANU

Sorry for the typos- that's Bob Fullenwider; and Burenhult 2002.

Andrew Connelly | Pacific and Asian History, ANU

Thanks Phil, for a provocative piece. I have some answers for you regarding these monoliths, but first a word on the book in question:

I don't go in much for book burning, but if I did, Saville's 'King of Kiriwina' would be the kindling. Yes, Saville was posted to the Trobriands as an ANGAU officer, but the accuracy of the book mainly stops there. Ironically a fairly popular read, with plentiful copies to be found including Braille and cassette versions, it was ghostwritten some 30 years after the fact, and renders up half-truths and fiction in equal measure.

Rather than 'King', Saville was one of several patrol officers seconded to the formidable ANGAU Capt Ernest Whitehouse. Another officer kept a journal, edited by Hank Nelson and published as 'The War Diaries of Eddie Allan Stanton', that offers a much more accurate picture of the time and place. Two other good books on WWII in 'the Trobes' are, like Stanton's, sadly rather rare: RAAF chaplain Gordon Powell's 1945 'Two Steps to Tokyo' and Norm Smith and Frank Coghlan's 1989 'Secret Action of 305', about the first RAAF (radar) unit to arrive on the island.

See Caroline Cameron's excellent piece in the PNGAA archive, 'The War on Kitava' (http://www.pngaa.net/Library/WarKitava.htm) for US Army Lt Bob Fullenwilder and RAAF Air Commodore Gordon Steege's fulsome critiques of Saville’s book. Steege's milder comment from 2010: "I regret my lifelong friend Bob Fullenwider and I have only now been introduced to Saville. If we had seen his account when it was first marketed it would have been a pleasure to expose him."

The two American/Australian airfields built on Kiriwina played a timely and important role in Operation Cartwheel, the 'reduction' of Rabaul.

Regarding the famous and enigmatic Trobriand monoliths, Saville's description is off the mark regarding location, size, layout and material. All are situated inland, are not the remains of stone 'huts' nor include 'headstones', and consist of slabs of solid 'foramiferous limestone' either levered off shelves on the beach and carried inland or excavated nearer the sites. While some slabs are prodigious, none approach forty feet. These sites have not been dated and their function remains unclear. The anthropologically trained Kiap Leo Austen published an account in the journal Oceania in 1939 ('Megalithic Structures in the Trobriand Islands') describing the sites in detail, speculating that they had astronomical and calendrical functions. More recent archaeological commentators (Burnhult 2002) suggest these ruins date from around 1200-1450 AD.

The megaliths are still to be found on the islands. Most are in the bush and many have fallen over. But there are two on Kitava still standing in the village of Okabulula, one of which consists of strikingly straight, square walls that really do look like modern concrete. When I saw them in 2010 I first assumed they were from WWII. One thing the book does get right is that Trobrianders today generally evince no cultural connection to the monoliths, although even here there is some evidence to the contrary that I can't address since this comment is beginning to rival the length of your original piece.

In fairness to Saville, his advanced age at the time of publishing of this ghostwritten book means he may not be fully to blame for its lofty flights from reality. It is a fun read but belongs in the fiction section.

Harry Topham

Phil - If you read Wilfred Powell’s book “Wanderings in a wild country” published 1883 one interesting fact emerges.

As Powell set sail for the Gazelle and his intended destination the Duke of York Islands he passed through Milne Bay and noted just how civilized things were in 1875.

Now this was well before Papua was annexed by Australia.
Wilfred Powell notes how the area had been subject to a long and extended period of exposure to the outside world in particular missionaries and traders.
Powell also notes that Britain at that time maintained a sort of unofficial stewardship over Papua and the NG islands through its Consul General in Fiji and when complaints were made reacted in good faith to bring any miscreants to justice.

It would seem that the burial practices mentioned in your article would seem to apply more to European rather than indigenous customs especially the placing of slaked lime/poorly consolidated concrete covers over the graves.

I guess if the graves could be rediscovered and the remains identified using DNA technology the answer to this puzzle could be resolved.

Would be an interesting job or some young budding PNG archaeologist?

As they say “The work of archaeologists never ceases”?

Darren Talyaga

Mysterious. An adventure if one would sought to seek the reasons why - at least someone in a generation knows - through a story exaggerated or even a chant or site. Just thinking.

Bernard Yegiora


Michael Dom


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