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If you are not genuine, keep out, & don’t call us cannibals

Old National Geographic magazineJOHN KAUPA KAMASUA

OF late, there have been reports of tourists and visitors labelling Papua New Guineans as “primitives” or “cannibals.” Certainly such labels hurt and anger our people.

Let it be known that such labels are deeply insulting, degrading, debasing and represent the worst form of racism.

Much of what people believe and say are fuelled by a lack of knowledge and understanding of PNG and its people. It is unthinkable ignorance still persists in the space age and with the opening up of global information superhighways.

Visitors and people who have been to this country many times, or have lived here, know that Papua New Guineans are not cannibals. Not in this age and time, not even further back in the distant past.

Those who enter this country as guests or visitors with preconceived notions about the people are dangerous. They are probably more damaging to our country’s image than threats from terrorism and other social ills.

If outsiders are merely here to exploit us, to make a name for themselves or to test some theories they have formulated about us, they are not welcome.

We may appear simple, ‘primitive’ and rudimentary on the outside, but within – as has been tested by time - we are a complex people with complex human systems and organisations.

It is no wonder that anthropological interest in the country was phenomenal after outsiders came to our shores.

World-renowned anthropologists and ethnographers like Mead, Malinowski, Strathern and many more lived and worked in our societies. They did not set out to prove that our people were cannibals. Instead they were genuinely interested in the complexities and dynamics of our people and societies, and the interactions between themselves and their environment.

We appear different only because we live in a different world – a world that suits our social institutions and way of life. But, today, Papua New Guinea has caught up with the space age.

And despite the problems that face our country, our people are progressive and forward looking.

For millennia, people in this country were farmers, domesticated animals and utilised often complex agricultural systems. Like many of the first peoples of the earth, our ancestors were been in exploiting their environment, innovative in their social organisations and humane in their relationships with their kind.

Scientific evidence of the earliest agriculture in this country dates back more than 9,000 years.

Of course there were wars and killing; they belonged to that time.

Let the world also know that our ancestors were not blood thirsty cannibals who fed on human flesh to survive.

During the opening ceremony of last year’s Pacific Games in Port Moresby, a young male athlete from New Zealand posed with some local dancers.  He posted the photo on social media calling those in the picture cannibals.

Immediately there was a backlash and he left for home the very next day.

In 1998 I was sent to Melbourne in Australia for a one week training course. The family I stayed with went out of their way to make me feel welcome and treated me to the best the city had to offer.

Over dinner one evening, the couple asked me innocently whether there were still cannibals in PNG. I was quite naïve at that time and simply said there was none according to my knowledge. Actually I had no idea what they were asking about.

I now see they were genuinely interested to find out, but not in a negative way. Looking back, I would have reacted differently if I was asked the question again. Like the couple, many people enquire or ask out of ignorance and curiosity.

In the past, there were exceptions in remote areas and in isolated cases of ritualised behaviour where head hunters would bring back the heads of their enemies as trophies. This does not mean they were cannibals.

It is encouraging to know that many people who have lived and worked in PNG come out against such labels. It is time to contribute to a greater and better understanding by others of our people in this country.

A contribution that we as Papua New Guineans can make to that greater understanding is to write more about our culture, our social organisations, our way of life and our proud heritage.

Tell the truth to the world that Papua New Guineans are not cannibals.


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Peter Kranz

Nice one Baka. And to close the account (hopefully) here are some stories of modern-day western cannibalism. Something to chew on.


Baka B Bina

A great great grandmother that we fostered in the village had a full set of dentures when she died. She was very old. she was the last one remaining when all the others had died.

Her reason for the non lose of teeth and her long life. She was a cannibal, well by a small bit. She professes to have been given a small piece of meat from the thigh of the man.

She participated in a feast of a deceased warrior who was their warring chief. He was killed by marauding enemy warriors. She never said who were the others that ate the man but I presume it was everyone and my parents too would have participated in it though they have not mentioned it one bit.

Like P. Ovasuru and those from the Biamas, I too from the Eastern Highlands am a descendant of cannibals and would have the propensity to become one if an opportunity presented itself.

Was that going to happen. Not by the long shot, that is unlikely to happen. Like the ancestors of the Druids of Stonehenge who no longer speared their enemies, we will eventually shed the tribal warfare when we have killed off the other tribesmen soon with rocket launchers, we will be like the developed nations neighbors.

Unlike these neighbors, we will live with our inglorious cannibal title and we will marvel all in out our song and dance.

It is something to wear with the apparel and in our stories of Yabba Dabba Doo and big boiler saucepans.
Those sensationalist are welcome. Please come with your name tag in bold print across your bros.

Francis Nii

Bottom line - calling or describing modern day PNGeans as cannibals is extremely insulting as there aren't any cannibals in PNG today.

History is history and tourists and foreigners coming to PNG must understand this fact.

Chris Overland

Phil, the bones in question actually hung along the thighs of the wearer, extending below the woven sporran.

I was told that, by wearing them in this way, the strength of the "donor" was added to that of the wearer.

The women folk were very shy but some of those I did see wore the little mummified hands of their deceased infants on a sort of necklace. This was apparently a type of memento mori for the little ones: infant deaths were very common.

As an aside, I brought a half a dozen of my erstwhile highway surveyors back to Kerema as they had expressed a wish to see the "big smoke".

They sauntered into town, complete with their bark cloaks, small 1 lb axes in hand and radiating a vaguely threatening attitude.

They cleared the main shopping area in record time even though they were on their best behaviour!

I was, at that time, entirely unaware of their well deserved reputation amongst the coastal people as raiders and head hunters.

My bad.

Phil Fitzpatrick

If those bones you are thinking about Chris were worn just above the men's grass sporran around their waist they were cassowary bones and they indicated the man was married. The Motu word for cassowary is 'kokokoko' - viz kukukuku. It was a name given to them by the people on the Papua side who they raided regularly. The little buggers ate people though.

But you are right - all of our ancestors had nasty habits and we are in no position to criticise what the ancestors of people in PNG did - even if it wasn't so long ago.

Anyway, I think we've had this conversation a couple of times on PNG Attitude. The last one, as I recall, was when Jeff Febi recounted how his grandparents ate part of a celebrated bigman in the EHP to gain some of his power. Jeff was brave to broach the subject.

Chris Overland

It seems that I must stand corrected about the incidence of cannibalism in the early 1970's.

That said, they seem to have been few and far between.

I do recall working with Kukukuku warriors in 1970 on a road survey, where many were still wearing the thigh bones of those they had killed in battle, so perhaps there was still a little bit of "free lancing" going on undetected in those parts of PNG that abruptly became "controlled" in the lead up to independence.

Despite this, John Kaupa Kamasua is right to complain about PNG being inaccurately and prejudicially stereotyped in the western media.

It makes just as much sense to allude to my Norse ancestors, who specialised in murder, rape and pillage as a vocation.

Or why not go back further to our collective Roman ancestors, who were experts when it came to highly organised, industrial scale murder, enslavement and genocide.

Imagine a press article starting "Angela Merkel, whose ancestors once terrorised northern Gaul, said today......". How well would that be received?

Peter Kranz

Phil - I suppose we could almost call them fine young cannibals?


(The song is rather appropriate.)

Phil Fitzpatrick

I don't think so Chris - there was another case the following year involving three men. Cannibalism was a regular occurrence at Nomad in the 1970s. This was when Gough Whitlam and Michael Somare were saying PNG was ready for independence - that struck me as somewhat ironic.

But now everyone at Nomad are good Christians, thanks to the SDA missionary Tom Hoey (who lives up the road from me in Hervey Bay). We used to make fun of Tom but without him things might not have changed.

With the collapse of government in rural areas some of these old customs are making a comeback, often in a bastardised form, to wit the witch killings in the highlands. Who knows what's going on out there in the back blocks.

But I agree with everyone else, sensationalising it is stupid and counter-productive. It was a custom, a ritualised thing. people weren't staggering around with blood stained mouths looking for people to eat as they are portrayed in the gutter press. The guys I arrested were nice people.

Phillipa Jenkins

A few years back there was an instance in Tabubil of a lunatic strangling his partner and eating a baby out the front of the courthouse/police station. The guy was convinced the baby wanted to kill him.

People were horrified and were trying to hit him with sticks to make him stop. He was subdued and arrested and sent to Ningerum Jail. He escaped and vanished into the bush.

Also, more recently, there were reports of a "cannibal cult" down in the Fly Delta running around chopping people to bits.

These instances have nothing to do with culture or ritual, they have to do with criminality and mental health problems - just like cannibalism everywhere else in the world!

A Faiwol friend of mine told me how at Cairns Airport he was asked if he was a cannibal and it upset him greatly. He is a Christian and well educated (and in Cairns on a work trip), and people repeatedly made racist remarks to him about how primitive Papua New Guineans were.

Once in a job interview I was asked about the "pygmy cannibals" in PNG - I said I was certain there were no pygmys in PNG (since they live in the Congo), and that there are probably more cannibals in Germany than PNG!

People in Australia are so willfully ignorant towards PNG.

Paul Oates

The essence of this discussion is that the sensationalized tabloid news can either be laughed off as populist stupidity or amplified by righteous indignation.

The people who are targeted by this sort of manufactured report probably believe in fairies and still read Superman comics. So what does that say about them?

To deny that some people practised cannibalism in the past for what ever reason, is to deny the factual evidence.

I can remember seeing a bloke walking around Wau proudly wearing a 'T' shirt with 'My father was a cannibal' printed on it. Humour is the way to defuse this subject.

At the risk of repeating myself, I can remember innocently asking at one village 'Yupla savi kaikai man pastaim a?'

'Nogat tru, tasol oli stap lo hap, (the village over there), Oli bin kaikai man lo taim bipo', was the answer.

So after a gut busting walk up and down the mountain sides and arriving covered in sweat with a red mist in my eyes I innocently asked: "Yupla savi kaikai man pastaim a?'

'Nogat tru,' was the reply. However then came: 'Tasol oli stap lo hap (pointing with their chins to back where I had just left hours ago), 'Oli bin savi kaikai man bipo'.

When I asked a very old man in a village once why his people pieced the septum in their nose and put decorations through it like pigs tusks etc. he told me that it was the equivalent of a dare for an enemy to take their head as this enabled to head to be easily carried back home.

Some North American native peoples (e.g. Iroquois) used to cut their hair in scalp locks as a similar dare to their enemies.

The truth is that we cannot be held responsible today for what our ancestors did. There were certainly isolated reports of cannibalism still being made in the late '60's and early '70's. It must be remembered that the full exploration and pacification of the island of New Guinea only happened in the mid to late 20th Century and irrespective of what some politicians might have had others believe, may not have been totally completed by 1975.

The other tragedy that this discussion highlights is the reported lack of any real history before 1975 apparently being taught at school. We Australians used to be noted for our 'cultural cringe' although this is fading somewhat these days. One should be proud of one's heritage even if this means accepting both the good and the bad and being able to learn from the full spectrum of historical facts.

Chris Overland

Phil may well have been the last Kiap to ever arrest anyone for cannibalism in PNG.

Perhaps the rich diet of tinned meat and fish while in the kalabus cured them of the desire to kai kai longpella pik?

John K Kamasua

Yes Phil if they are alive now..I bet they are not practising cannibalism anymore.

Arthur Williams

Phil - I think it was the legal lecturer at ASOPA in 1970 who remarked on a similar cannibalism case in the Western Province.

We were told that the alleged perpetrators had been taken down to Daru where they waited a long time for a proper court hearing.

When it came the gap in the Queensland Criminal Code was described and the men sent home.

Apparently they were quite happy with their months of holiday on 'One Square Mile Island' where they were fed 3 times a day with very little work required of them.

On a personal note one beautiful day I was sitting on a hillside overlooking Meterankang Bay with my wife's old grandfather. He would have been born around turn of 19th/20th centuries.

He related to me how he had been taken to an alleged peace ceremony of his dad's clan with neighbouring clansmen from the Tigak islands. Suggested the meet was in SW corner of the Lavongai.

Sadly it was a scam and when the islanders were sat down they were massacred...with usual luck for historical prosperity...of one only escaping.

My aged relative claimed he was given some human flesh to consume. Even 70 years later the tribe had its own special descriptive words for the best pieces of meat. Think it was the inside upper thigh which was most sought after.

Doug was a UK relative who had been well looked after while working closely with a practising Hindu in the Qatar. One day my wantok had an opportunity to repay his good friend when the latter came to London.

They went out for a show and then to a very good restaurant. Doug was amazed to see the Indian order a large steak which was demolished with gusto.

He had to say something, “Rashna, you told me you couldn't eat cow because it could be a relative reincarnated. Yet you just ate steak?”

“No problem with that Doug,” the man replied “that was in India, here it was more likely to be your grandmother. Certainly not mine!”

Guess my own ancestors, who may have been Silures tribesmen enjoyed good protein when it was available.

John K Kamasua

And thank you Peter...for sharing the video. Good to have a laugh or two about people's ignorance.

John K Kamasua

Thank you my friends for your responses. All your comments are valued. One of the points I am trying to get across is that if isolated cases of such related to rituals or what not that happened, then like all other places on earth so be it.

To be referred to as cannibals and primitives in the 21st century by people who have no knowledge or appreciation of what we are as a people now is still to me, one of the worst forms of racism and really degrading!!

Phil Fitzpatrick

In 1971 I arrested seven men near Nomad River for cannibalism. There was no offence under the adopted Queensland Criminal Code for cannibalism so they were charged with unlawfully interfering with a corpse. I collected the various bits of the guy they had eaten and used them as evidence in court.

I've still got the Supreme Court verdict and cuttings from the Post Courier.

The seven men were only young and I imagine some of them are still alive.

Chris Overland

I think that Des Martin's story about the foot in the boot may be a commonly repeated joke at the expense of credulous kiaps and missionaries.

Exactly the same story was told to me while I was stationed at Kikori, this time related to the infamous incident on Goaribari Island (8 April 1901) when the locals ambushed and then consumed two missionaries, named James Chalmers and Oliver Tomkins, plus 10 of their acolytes.

This was not utterly surprising given that the islanders had a well founded reputation as serious cannibals who terrorised other people living in that part of the Gulf of Papua.

In 1904, the then Administrator (C.S. Robinson) was sent to investigate the incident and arrest those deemed responsible for Chalmer's murder. He proceeded to Goaribari Island in the Administrator's yacht (the "Merrie England", later renamed "Laurabada") and, somewhat predictably, things turned ugly.

In the ensuing mayhem, concentrated rifle fire killed at least 8 people in Dopima Village, with numerous other casualties. Needless to say, this greatly discouraged cannibalism amongst the survivors.

As a footnote, the hapless Robinson found himself greatly criticised for his actions and subsequently committed suicide and was replaced by the remarkable Hubert Murray.

Subsequently, the history of the event became the subject of endless repetition and distortion and, I believe, the part of the story about who got to eat what somehow generated the humorous story about someone scoring a foot in a boot or sandshoe.

What the truth may be, who can tell.

Garry Roche

My response to a query about cannibalism in PNG was simply to say that there has been more authenticated cases of cannibalism in Germany in the past 20 years than in most other countries. I could be wrong but I am not aware of any authenticated case in PNG in that time.
As others have said, - a sense of humour can help to silence those seeking scandal.

Des Martin

The May River Patrol Post in what was the Ambunti sub-district when I was ADO 1960-63 was open to protect the remaining elderly, women and children as all the young males were in the Kalabus for killing and eating some thirty folk from the Yellow River who had come downstream fishing. They were invited to dine with the May River group not realising they were to provide the main course at dinner.

Of course cannibalism was practised among many PNG tribal groups. One of the many jobs we Kiaps had was to curtail tribal fighting which often led to the enemy deceased being eaten.

Earlier in my my career when I was ADO Baniara A very old female was trotted out when I was patrolling one of the mountain villages. In the earlier colonial years the people had killed and eaten three miners seeking gold. The old woman who was a young teen ager at the time was given a foot to eat which was still inside the owner's boot giving rise to the myth that European feet were not worth eating. This tale was told with a great deal of humour by the hanua polis and some embarrassment to the old lady.

Des Martin

Joe Herman

Peter has a good point. Best is to use humour against ignorance. Keep in mind the magazine's aim to retain its readership in a competitive market.

Chris Overland

I can well understand John Kaupa Kamasua's frustration and annoyance about this topic.

During my 5 years as a kiap in PNG (1969 - 1974) I never came across any incident or even report of cannibalism. To the best of my knowledge the practice had entirely ceased by then.

That there had been cannibalism in PNG prior to and during the early colonial era is undoubtedly true but its nature and incidence have, I think, been greatly exaggerated in popular culture.

So far as I can ascertain most cannibalism was ritualistic in nature and, contrary to the sensationalist stories of some journalists and film makers (as referenced by Peter Kranz), the routine hunting and consumption of other humans as a major food source simply did not happen.

In any event, by the 1970's I seriously doubt that even ritualistic cannibalism took place: the combined impact of law enforcement and mission influence had extinguished the practice by then.

It is more than slightly ironic that the most widely documented recent incidents of cannibalism have been in South America (by the survivors of a plane crash) and by infamous murderers in the USA and Germany.

Unfortunately for PNG, the "yellow press" never lets the facts get in the road of a good story, so I guess this topic will continue to pop up from time to time.

John K Kamasua

Thanks Peter for your comments.

Face painting, dressing in traditional regalia and so on are part of our rich cultural heritage.

But people in PNG are the like the same people one can find anywhere in the world. Many people who have been in the country and especially to different part of the country have a very different view of the people and their cultures....yet there are ignorant people still out there.

Peter Kranz

John - the cannibal myth and sexploitation of PNG has a long history in the sorry sad story of western movies and shock-horror penny dreadfuls.

True it is based on woeful ignorance, but also the fascination with cannibal porn. We westerners have a lot to answer for.

Perhaps the best response is humour. "Nuova Guinea, L'Isola dei Cannibali" is a classic movie poster, but it reveals far more about western psycho-pathology than anything about PNG. It is so terrible it is funny.


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