I have been fascinated by Papua New Guinea for several years now. It’s a place I would very much like to visit, and a few years ago I did quite a bit of research into doing exactly that, only to find it was horrendously expensive. To really do it right, and that means flying into the interior, to the Sepik River region and cruising the river in order to reach the villages and really get the full experience runs in excess of $1000 a day per person.
Someday I’m going to go. In the mean time I continue to learn more about the place. I collect artefacts from there, including storyboards, masks and ancestor carvings. It is truly one of the last unspoiled, primitive places on earth.
Papua occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea in the south-western Pacific. It is part of the area known as Melanesia. Its capital, and one of its few major cities, is Port Moresby. Truly one of the most diverse countries in the world, with over 850 indigenous languages and at least as many traditional societies, out of a population of just under 6 million.
Papua is also one of the world’s least explored regions, culturally and geographically, and many undiscovered species of plants and animals are thought to exist in the interior of Papua New Guinea. It wouldn’t surprise me if future breakthroughs in cures for diseases ends up coming from there.
It has a very rugged geography. A range of mountains runs the length of the island of New Guinea, forming a populous highlands region. Dense rainforests can be found in the lowland and coastal areas. Papua New Guinea gained its independence from Australia in 1975. It remains a Commonwealth realm.
PNG is an ancient place. Human remains have been found which have been dated to about 50,000 years ago. The inhabitants probably had their origins in Southeast Asia. A major migration of Austronesian speaking peoples came to coastal regions roughly 2,500 years ago, and this is correlated with the introduction of pottery, pigs, and certain fishing techniques. Little was known in the West about the island until the nineteenth century. There are hundreds of ethnic groups indigenous to Papua New Guinea, the majority being from the group known as Papuans, whose ancestors arrived in the New Guinea region tens of thousands of years ago. The others are Austronesians, their ancestors having arrived in the region less than four thousand years ago.
There are three official languages for Papua New Guinea. English is an official language, and is the language of government and the education system, but it is not widely spoken. The primary spoken language is Tok Pisin (commonly known in English as New Guinea Pidgin or Melanesian Pidgin). The only area where Tok Pisin is not prevalent is the southern region of Papua, where people often use the third official language, Hiri Motu.
The culture of Papua New Guinea is very complex. It is believed that more than a thousand different cultural groups exist in PNG. Because of this diversity, many different styles of cultural expression have emerged; each group has created its own expressive forms in art, dance, weaponry, costumes, singing, music and architecture.
What inspired me to write about Papua today was a newspaper article from Port Moresby, the capital. Police in Kerema, on the south-western coast arrested four people, members of a cult, who had murdered and eaten a woman. Ironically, the killers were enticed to act by being bribed with foodstuffs. Cannibalism, though, has a long history in PNG, as it does in most of Melanesia, especially Fiji. Stories are told of it being the women who first enticed the men to kill other people for food, as they had grown bored with the usual fare. The odd thing about the news story is that the events took place in a city. Usually it’s confined to the mountainous interior.
PNG is indeed a wild place with a culture that is still very primitive despite continual contact with the western world. I will go there one day. I must. There is no other place like it on earth.