Papua New Guinea and the myth of the living fossil

What exactly is ‘an ancient tribe’? One could associate it with some very far off, extraordinary and distant past, a civilization which is either very old or very dead. Maybe the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea would seem like such an oddity, such a far removed and utterly romanticized tribal community, but contrary to our Western fantasies, Papuan people are still very much thriving and their cultures are of many riches, prospering in a challenging region under military controle of Indonesia, dispossession from mining and rapidly turning into a hotspot for the palm oil industry and grand scale deforestation.

Having featured as main characters for many anthropological documentaries and research in the 1960s and 70s, perhaps well-known Papuan tribes like the Dani and Korowai have turned into a model for what tribal cultures are like. If we think of indigenous people, we automatically paint a barbaric picture in our head of a scarcely dressed man in an impenetrable jungle hunting for wild boar using a stone axe, fighting over territory with neighboring tribes and practicing the exchange of gifts to each’s own benefit. Indeed, the Dani have for many centuries practiced such ways of living and partially still do, the potlucks dinners included. But over 50,000 years of habitation of the second largest island in the world, these people have also largely developed; the jungle proved to be highly suitable for agriculture, complete with drainage systems and the social networks of exchange across the island are highly complex and well thought out.

The region’s cultural complexity has made it highly fascinating for anthropologists to investigate and penetrate the island towards its highlands. Ofcourse, the rumours of digit amputations and cannibalism have highly contributed to the sheer desire and simultaneous horror to understand the ancient customs of these people and why they are prone to expose such violent acts. Australian journalist and writer Paul Raffaele was the first Western man to have ever infiltrated the flesh-eating Korowai tribes in 2006, in an attempt to understand their reasoning behind the practice of what might seem like a ritual of retaliation. While the communities downriver had been repeatedly exposed to Western culture, those further upriver still lived in isolated groups and continued to practice the customs they have done for millennia. In an interview with Vice, Raffaele explains how even the Indonesian police didn’t dare going that far up the river. Defying his fear, he endured a few hair raising moments but eventually made it into the interior to find a clan of people who live by a revenge based justice system. But it’s not as scary as it sounds. For the Korowai, if someone falls out of a tree house or is killed in battle, reasons for their death are pretty obvious. But since they are not familiar with the germs that fester in the jungle, it seems to them like anyone dying from disease must have been possessed by a so called khakhua, a witchman coming from the spirit world who’s taken possession of their loved one and eaten them from the inside. To send the khakhua back to the spirit world, it is imperative they pay back by eating the witch man in return and since he’s living inside the dead body of the deceased it is also imperative they eat the body to get rid of it. So when Raffaele asked the his Korowai guide why they eat human flesh, he responded by saying: ‘We don’t, we eat the khakhua’. Makes sense, right?

So a few remaining Papuan people still practice cannibalism as a form of retaliation but it’s not out of sheer barbaric violence towards outsiders or other tribal communities. In fact, a khakhua is always embodied by a member of the Korowai tribe. That isn’t to say there’s an absence of violence between indigenous Papuans. The ritual amputation of digits is common across the island. As anthropologist Karl Heider tells in his ethnographic examination of the Dani, close female relatives of males killed in warfare have their fingers chopped off to ward off the spirits of the deceased, as a form of sacrifice. Eventhough this sounds like a harsh tradition, there is a philosophy behind it: “each finger of the hand is related to life, universe, and each other.” The fingers of one’s hand are distinct and unique, but they all must work together to reach a goal, like picking something up. Like people in a community, if one of the fingers is hurt, it will reduce the potential of all others.  They use this philosophy to explain their actual willingness to sacrifice their fingers, the physical loss is a link to the universe and family and friends who have gone before them. So again, the retributions are tools to restore a certain kind of balance within the world of these ‘ancient’ people, an intelligent culture of reciprocity.

To display their peaceful inclination, over a 100 tribes from all over the island have come together once a year in september since 1957. During the 3-day Goroka or SingSing festival, Papuans show their beauty and celebrate their differences by displaying distinct dancing, traditional dress and ceremony to each other. Instead of fighting over ancient feds and cultural differences, the idea is to get together and celebrate diversity, take part in competitions, and intermix peacefully. Both men and women come together wearing beautiful headpieces and painted face masks with striking colours and feathers from birds of paradise, sporting as many shells as they could find across their chests to display their wealth. Mount Hagen warriors form a spear line, but chant and whistle cheerfully while grass-skirted Engan girls dance and sing as their men play the bamboo flute. Some tribes act out stories about spirits and ancestors in song and shaven headed children wear their hair as beards to act out the roles of pygmy ghosts.

Festivals like Sing Sing unify the people of the island to act as one voice against oppression from the government based out of Jakarta. Eversince the former Dutch colonists recognized sovereignty over Indonesia in 1949, Western New Guinea has been in a political limbo. Both the Indonesian and Dutch authorities declared that the people of the island were ethnically different from the rest of the Indonesian state and not capable of self-governance, thus in need of their continued ‘support’ to handle local affairs. The indigenous population of Western New Guinea has since been subject to genocide by the Indonesian government, targeting the Free Papua Movement and making way for local industries. However, the local populations are highly resilient, literate and remain well-informed, they have conducted various protests and ceremonies raising their flag for independence or federation with Papua New Guinea, and accuse the Indonesian government of indiscriminate violence and of suppressing their freedom of expression. Over 500,000 Papuans have been killed, and thousands more have been raped, tortured and imprisoned by the Indonesian military since 1969 and the Indonesian governance style has been compared to that of a police state, suppressing freedom of political association and political expression.The Indonesian government restricts foreign access to the Papua and West Papua provinces due to sensitivities regarding its suppression of Papuan nationalism.