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The cultural sensitivities of cannibalism


ONE OF OUR more dedicated and prolific contributors, Barbara Short, has commented – with a little distaste, if you'll excuse my use of the word – on cannibalistic references in Jeffrey Febi’s short story which PNG Attitude published yesterday.

Readers may be interested to know that there is a back story to Jeffrey’s The Death of a Warrior, an entry in The Crocodile Prize.

Jeffrey understood his story could generate controversy or upset some people’s sensitivities, so he raised this issue with the contest organisers, saying: “The subject I want to write about might not go well with some readers; it's about cannibalism in the mid to late 60s. What do you think about this?”

The question provoked a fascinating offline email exchange between authors Phil Fitzpatrick, John Fowke and Russell Soaba. I don’t think this discussion should be lost, so here are some extracts.


Phil As a kiap I was involved with a couple of cases of cannibalism among the Biami at Nomad in 1971-72. It is a very complex subject. In the first case the young men who ate part of a corpse during their initiation were charged with “unlawfully interfering with a corpse” because there was no offence of cannibalism under the adopted Queensland criminal code.

They were acquitted after the Customary Recognition Ordinance was invoked, that is, what they did was a customary practice. The man who killed the person they ate was charged and convicted of manslaughter (which I thought was a bit rough because he was only defending himself). A later court reversed the approach and convicted some other men of an offence. Both court cases were long and explored the concept of cannibalism in great detail.

I think cannibalism and head-hunting are part of PNG's cultural past. If this is hidden under the bed, I don't think that does anyone any good. One of the aims of The Crocodile Prize is to encourage PNG people to both write and read. The organisers believe that the written word is a very powerful tool for good if used in the right way.

The short answer to your question is - please write about cannibalism. If it upsets a few people, well and good, that will encourage the debate. Our judges are mature and understanding people who will not be offended by the subject matter.


Fowke_John2 My view is that as cannibalism was practiced in many societies in PNG until relatively recently, it is a valid subject for consideration if you have a storyline which is based on fact, on an event or events, or of a real tradition or tribal legend.

But don’t tell the story in such a way that people from a district, or worse still individuals, will see themselves or their recent ancestors as portrayed. Fifty years ago cannibalism could be discussed in PNG without fear of offending as it was a recognised fact of life (“ol busman tru ia; gunika taudia kara idau inai!”), but this is very far from being the case now.

All of us have a cannibal ancestor in our background - the practice of eating parts of dead friends, relations and enemies so as to absorb and celebrate beauty, strength, intelligence, skills and accomplishments contributing to fame or respect has been part of our evolution as the world's only animal with an imagination.

The practice of eating human meat simply for nourishment and enjoyment was also common in some societies, and we only have to look to Polynesia for stories about feasts featuring delicious "long-pig" to encounter the use of man as a meal in lands where pigs and other large terrestrial animals were unknown and where birds and fish constituted the only source of protein.

Through my mother’s line I am descended from the people of the north-western part of Scotland. My mother's family name was McKee, evolving from the ancient Irish name Magoudh. The clan Magoudh is known to have crossed the relatively narrow bight between Northern Ireland and north-west Scotland some thirteen centuries ago and fought and intermarried with the indigenous tribes occupying Scotland.

These people, collectively named Pictoriae by the Romans who were never able to defeat them, were so called because of their practice of tattooing themselves from head to foot. They were not only ferocious guerilla fighters, but also cannibals. And the Picts, as we know them now, spread all through the Roman Empire from Britain through France, Italy, Northern Africa and the Middle East both because of their warlike nature and their habit of eating those they killed in battle.

The Romans generally left them alone. However, they did recruit a single Legion of Picts under Roman officers and incorporated these into the Roman Army as a sort of "terror squad". Just the news that "the Picts are coming!" was usually enough to cool any ideas of rebellion against the local Roman Governor.

So cannibalism is in most people’s background. To my knowledge almost all of coastal PNG and the hinterland knew cannibalism until relatively recent times. I met a small group of the last of the Gulf cannibals, who were brought to Kikori in 1958 from the area around Lake Tebera in the Purari hinterland. They had eaten a man who possessed the uniform of a Village Policeman, although it was later found that he had retained the garments after killing and cooking another man. These people were not in "controlled  territory" and were only known by repute to the government at that time.

Somewhere in the mess which constitutes my files, I have the record of a court case conducted at Okapa in 1973 where five sisters where accused and convicted of exhuming, cooking and consuming the newly-buried, stillborn child of one of their number.

The mother expressed the feelings of them all when she stated that this was a normal reaction for women to such a still-birth, where the mother, the matrix for a beautiful, fully- formed little child, together with her sisters, could not throw away such beauty, such an object of their combined sorrow, as would be done with a piece of rotten kaukau, and that it was with great love and sorrow that they each ingested a portion of their tiny daughter and niece.

Thus if we can step away from the acculturation we have drawn from the 20th.Century and from the teachings of the churches, there is much logic in so many practices of ancient times, when seen from within the worldview and the culture of the people concerned, which society at large finds abhorrent.

I once conducted a long interview with an elderly man who enjoyed considerable status both within his own area and among outsiders with a knowledge of PNG's pre-war and post-war development. Without prompting, this man gave me a full description of the practice of cannibalism among his own people, a practice known to have continued in his area until the late 1940s. He described the methods used for butchering and cooking and sharing, whilst making the point that as he had been only a manki at the time of the arrival of the government, he himself had never partaken!

He told me the reason for eating the flesh of the dead was so as to absorb strength, wisdom, fighting prowess and ‘name’ from men and youths, both enemy and of the home tribe, killed in warfare. As to women, in deference and in the hope of absorbing some of the comeliness and fecundity of very beautiful or very fertile girls and women, such people were consumed in part.

The bodies of the old, the sick, the maimed, the skin-diseased and the mentally-disturbed would just be buried and never consumed, he said. There was no consideration of human flesh simply as food.

I spent a long and enjoyable day with this elderly, highly intelligent and lucid man, a walking history book with such a lot to tell. I took my friend to the town’s main bus stop, gave him some money and wished him well, thanking him for all he had told me. As he alighted from my car he turned to me and said, "John, em hap tasol ia. Bikplela hap stori istap yet!" That was the last I ever saw of the old man. He died some years later.

Well, I take the long way round in making a point, I’m afraid, but I’m sure you understand my view on your project now! Good luck, and keep writing so long as doing it is its own reward; few of us ever make any money from our craft!


Reading all this about Jeff's venture into writing about cannibalism sheds new light into how much we all have had tucked under our belts about our history and respective ancestors. But it's the recent activity that makes me want to ask for more by way of knowledge; I sort of feel Catholic one moment and Anglican the next.


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Priscilla Igarobae Benoba

I read the story regarding how Mr Green was killed and some of the parts is not told properly by Stephen Barerebae.

My grandfather, who is Arthurnesis Iegarobae, son of the worrior leader Dandatta, told us the history over and over and passed it down to my father and us.

Mr Green's boots were given to a lady as everyone in the Mamba area knows and not what is written there. Also Mr
Green's pistol was given to the cook boy to shoot the parrots and birds to make soup for lunch as all the rifles were locked away.

The cook boy continually forced Mr Green to give his pistol until Mr Green gave in. Then the cook boy threw it into Tamata river.

Some of our village boys were diving there some years back and found the pistol....That's all and I just thought to clarify that...

Harry Topham

The subject of cannibalism at its very core invokes strong opinions based perhaps upon religious rather than metaphysical viewpoints, thereby attracting taboos rather than objective observations.

In this context the following extract of an article in an edition of “South Pacific" (vol 10 no 5, 1959) entitled “How my grandfather killed Mr J Green and ate his boot” may be of interest to readers.

Captain CAW Monkton in his book "Some Experiences of a New Guinea Resident Magistrate” recounts the events leading up to the murder of John Green, an Assistant Resident Magistrate, and a detachment of native police at Tamata in the Northern District of PNG.

A later recorded written history recorded in the Binandere language by Stephen Barereba, whose grandfather took part in the Mambare Native terrible act of revenge, recounts how John Green was killed in the following anecdote.

Stephen Barereba relates:

“Most of you know or have heard about the Mamba River.
Many years ago in the days of my grandfather, white men made their first camp at the place where the Tamata Creek joins the Mamba.

The people who lived there and still live there today are the Doepo, Giriri, Kanewidari, Gima-apipie, Demonda-unji Duiye- kane and the Ruriu.

The first government station was started near a little creek called Tema, which is between the mouth of the Tamata and the government station of Ioma.

The white men and their helpers camped at the mouth of the Tamata but walked to the Tema every day for their building work.

The people brought food to sell to the white men but as they were always afraid, they always carried with them their fighting spears and clubs.

One day, some of the Ririu people stole some things from the camp when they went to sell their vegetables.

The white men told the policemen to get ready to catch the thieves when they came again.

The next people who visited the camp were the Doepo and Giriri people (from Deugari and near Ave, where Father Copland King later started a mission station.

The policemen tried to catch them but they ran away into the bush.

The policemen fired their rifles and shot four men namely Tage, Mendura, Ade and Nongori.

Seven men were caught, Dumain,Tara, Pridi, Ade Tonguwa,Nongori and Masita) and taken away to Port Moresby where they were taught a better life as well as being taken to Thursday Island and shown many things they could tell their people about when they returned home.

After a long time Mr Green was sent to the Mamba as Magistrate and he took Dumain and Masita with him among the policemen whilst the other men were left in Port Moresby.

Mr Green went up the Mamba River and camped at the same place as before and began building a government station at Butema Nasi, near the first place at Tema Creek.

As Mr Green wanted a cook boy, Dumain chose his younger brother, Kanana.

One day in his time off duty, Dumain went home to see his friends.

Although his work with Mr. Green was very happy, when Dumain saw the orphan children and widows of his cousins who had been shot, he became very angry and told the people he was sure Mr Green was going to fight against them.

He talked with his relations and with my grandfather Petari, who was the leader of these people and made a plan for fighting.

Dumain told Petari “The white men are not many, I have seen them. So we will start with Misi Giriri (Mr Green) and kill them as they come, until we have killed them all”.

Dumain was very happy at the thought of fighting and Petari agreed with Dumain but was afraid of the rifles.

Dumain said do not worry because he knew of what to do with the rifles.

When Dumain saw Mr. Green at the camp next day, he told him: “ These people do not want to help us build the new station because they saw the their friends and relatives shot by the policemen and they are afraid of the rifles.

"If you want these people to carry timber from the bush to build the new station, you must tell the policemen to put their rifles away”.

Mr Green did what Dumain said and the policemen put their rifles away before starting work the next day but Mr Green kept the pistol, which he carried on his belt as well as his watch.

When they all went to work on the new station, Dumain sent word to his people who gathered around the new station but kept themselves hidden in the bush waiting for the sign from Dumain.

Mr Green asked where all the people were, Dumain told him they were cutting timber but they did not come all morning.
When it was nearly time for lunch, the cook boy asked Dumain to ask Mr. Green for his watch so he could be sure about the time for lunch.

Mr. Green was busy working with a Kiwai man called Gaewo on the building that was going to be the office.

When Dumain asked for his watch, so that Kanana could tell the time for lunch, he also said “and give me your pistol, too because I think that these people are afraid of it and that is why they are not coming”.

As he was busy on the house, Mr Green just took off his belt with the watch and pistol and threw it all to Dumain.

Dumain took the belt with the watch and pistol and threw it in the creek, then hitting the buttress root of big tree with the back of the axe, he pretended to sing but his words were calling out to his friends to come out and start fighting.

When my grandfather and his friends heard Dumain’s words they came out from their hiding places with decorations on their bodies and beating their drums and singing.

Mr Green asked Dumain, "What is all this noise I hear?”

“Fighting, fighting “ replied Dumain. “If your people had not shot out cousins, you would be safe, but you did so and we are here to take your blood”.

When he hears this Mr. Green said: “Dumain, I have helped you to sleep comfortably and I have given you good food and taught you things for your benefit but you are not loyal to me and are here with your people to kill me”.

But Dumain had no pity and jumped for joy at the thought of fighting.

My grandfather Petari and his cousin came out of the bush first and killed the two Kiwai men who were clearing bush near the boundary.

The other people killed all the policemen and workmen who were on the station.

Then they all went with Dumain to the office building where Mr Green and a Kiwai carpenter were getting ready for the fight.

They could not go very close because Mr Green was a strong man and was throwing pieces of timber, which he had sharpened at one end.

All the spears thrown at Mr Green and the carpenter were missing them and my grandfather told the people to stop.

Then he broke a spear in his hand to make it shorter and holding his shield over his head, he climbed up onto the building.

Mr Green looked up to Petari and my grandfather threw his spear into him.

He fell to the ground and Babugo broke his head with a club.

A spear hit the carpenter in the leg but he was big and strong and pulling it out threw it back at the crowd. Then another spear hit him and he fell to the ground where they then killed him.

The people brought all the dead bodies and put them in a line.

When they counted them and saw that they had killed more than their friends who had been shot, they put extra ones in another line. That made them very happy.

Dumain told his people to take Mr Green and all the stores and eat them.

But the people said they would not carry Mr Green or any of the European things because they thought that when more Europeans came they might smell them.

So they burnt everything that was there and all went away to their homes.

Dumain took a rifle for himself and carried it with him into the bush.

While all this was happening, two men were hiding in the bush and watching.

These two men now hurried to the place where Mr Green’s assistant was camped with some policemen down on the Mamba River and they told them everything that had happened at the fight.

So when the people came out of the bush, the Assistant told the policemen to fire their rifles into the air. The people were afraid of the rifles and dropping their weapons they ran away home.

The Assistant did not like to stay there so he took his policemen in their launch down to the Mamba to the sea where the Merry England came for them and took them back to Samarai.

Some months later, Mr Monckton was sent to the same place and was told not to shoot any more Mambare people.
My grandfather came straight away from his house to greet Mr Monckton and he was his first friend.

Mt Monckton asked him if he was one of the men who had killed Mr Green and he said he was and told him the whole story of how he had killed Mr Green.

Mt grandfather brought all the people to be friends with Mr Monckton except Dumain who was wandering in the bush with his rifle. But Dumain was soon caught by his brothers and brought to Mr Monckton.

They had a court case and Mr Monckton told Dumain, “You learnt many good things but you did not care, so you and your friends will go to Port Moresby and be prisoners”.
He left the other because they were ignorant.

That was the end of the fighting but I want to tell you one more thing!

When the dead bodies were lying in the line, my grandfather took the boot off Mr Green's foot for his supper because he though it was a European foot.

He cooked this boot and tasted it but it was still not cooked enough. So he cooked it again with cabbage and then ate the cabbage whilst the boot was still smoking over the fire.
He did this for many weeks but every time he tried to chew it, it was still too tough.

At last Dumain explained to everything that Europeans wear.

My grandfather then threw the boot away.

Gosewijn van Beek

Some of the comments rightly point out that cannibalism is a complicated topic.

As an anthropologist I have been trained to be sceptical about stories of cannibalism and especially the judgement that is often implied by them.

When during 1978-79 I stayed in Gofabi (near Mougulu) for my research, however, I did record many accounts of it and in 1979 a number of young men from a neighboring village did kill and eat a 'sorcerer' who supposedly had killed a fellow villager.

I cannot refrain from commenting on a passage in the contribution of Arthur Williams, however, when he writes that people working at the Mougulu mission would not travel alone along the bush trail to Nomad.

Me and my wife made this trip alone and together numerous times without any fear of being ambushed for meat, because of the simple fact that this would not fit with the philosophy behind the practice.

Tom Hoey surely must have known this and I suspect that the reluctance of taking 'the road to Nomad River Patrol Post' also had something to do with the antagonism of the Mission towards the (secular, beer drinking!) government settlement.

I am afraid it rather was case of fear management.

Arthur Williams

In 1970, sitting with a moderately old man from South Lavongai, he told me that when he was small he was taken by his grandfather to a cannibal feast near Mataniu on the south western tip of the island.

He explained the feast was of the remains of a group of neighbouring Tigak islanders who had been enticed to an apparent reconciliation between the two tribes.

When all were relaxed out came the axes and apparently only one Tigak was able to escape to tell the tale. My old relative, then approximately 75, told me how the thigh is the tastiest meat! Though later I learnt that, in the trade, ‘Plumrose’ butchers sell the calf meat as most expensive premium ham.

After moving back to the Moresby HQ of the Christian Pasuwe Ltd from the Gogodala in about 1981, I recall asking one of our Gogodala Christian employees, “Is K here today?” He just shrugged his shoulders and walked into the office.

K was also from the Gogodala. So on another day, and intrigued at this sudden change in a previously very friendly worker, I made a point of asking the same guy about K again. Once again I was unable to elicit any real response.

I spoke to another tribesman about the employer’s attitude and eventually understood that the sullen worker was from Pisi and the missing employee was from Aketa.

Apparently Pisi was one of the last communities to have its traditional longhouse burnt to the ground by the warriors from Aketa. The destruction was part of this big fight and several persons were alleged to have been eaten after the event. Even 30 or perhaps more years later there was still animosity between them.

A year or so ago there was a documentary on TV about the search for evidence of Jap soldiers practising cannibalism on other weak brother Jap soldiers.

An ex-Jap combatant in the north coast PNG battles recorded his search among survivors. He had made this his quest for a long time and eventually met up with an old man who had been involved in the activity.

We saw shots of the cannibal being attacked by the researcher. Luckily both men were quite old and no lasting damage was done to either.

I also recall that some Japanese ex-soldiers told how they preferred to eat white or Jap soldiers rather than the native flesh. Possibly because of the fear of silent stealthy payback from the people of the north coast if they ate one.

Finally, I note the post about the Biami story, which I had first heard at ASOPA. Mind, even in late 1978 none of the Mougulu station workers would dare to walk alone down the trail to Nomad.

They’d go if in a group but preferred a bone-shaking tractor trip if Tom Hoey, the resident misso allowed it.

Once when I went to check up on my storeman working at Mogulu Mission Station in late 70s, I got out of the tiny MAF Cessna and was at once surrounded by tribesmen in their traditional garb and having heard of the Biami story shrunk back a little as they fingered my lily white fleshy arms and muttered something in their local tongue. I naturally imagined that Welsh lamb was sweeter!

Phil Fitzpatrick

So you all must admit that Jeffrey's story is a brave and lucid attempt to discuss a hitherto tabu subject and he should be congratulated?

Hopefully this is the spirit that will inform the progress of The Crocodile Prize competition.

He has nearly finished another story, this time about corruption. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Ross Wilkinson

Except for cases of dire need, such as the starving Japanese in the Owen Stanleys and Gona, and the survivors in the Andes, most cannibalism is ritual as exampled by the anecdotes here and Jeffrey's story.

Paul's recollection of the incidence of kuru indicates that dire consequences sometimes arise from the practice.

There is an anecdote from the Gona fighting of the Japanese soldier who surrendered to the Australians when he was ordered to report to the cookhouse without his pannikins.

The inference was that he was going to be dinner that evening.

Paul Oates

Cannibalism. There might have been a number of logical arguments why cannibalism was not a good idea. First and foremost, it involves the death of another human being and who wants to be the victim?

On the other hand, if you thought you could prevail, perhaps it was an obvious thing to do, like in traditional Fiji where there was a lack of available meat and defeated enemies were often consumed.

In traditional PNG, if a death had been the result of a murder, it could start a never ending round of payback murders. However in many areas, it apparently didn't matter whether a payback death was a warrior, who might have been able to defend himself, or someone easier to overpower like a woman or child who may have been innocently working in the gardens.

In fact, sometimes it seemed like the traditional payback regime might really have been something to spice up village life when good hunting was scare. Nothing like a small war to fire up the younger generation and have the young bucks impress their girlfriends.

It also allowed a fight leader' to emerge and demonstrate his skills, and may have helped the elders impose their control over younger men.

Secondly, there is the problem that if a human body had died of a disease, the chances are that disease could be passed on through contact or consuming parts of the dead body.

Humans, as omnivores, tend to have a very lively set of bacteria, parasites and diseases that can easily be passed from one to another. The incidence of 'kuru' in the Highlands is classic example as is CJD.

Banning the consumption of omnivores like pigs and dogs could have be a logical extension of practical experience and may have given rise to the traditional abhorrence in some societies in keeping these animals.

Our society and the laws that have evolved over the centuries are based on a Judeo Christian belief in the sanctity of human life. This is not the case in other societies like traditional Japan yet the eating of meat was apparently frowned upon in that society.

But who knows what the future of the human race will be, given our incredible myopia for ignoring the effects of overpopulation.

The 1970's film 'Soylent Green', with Charlton Heston and Edward G Robinson, portrays an example of what may happen if the current push to overpopulate the world increasingly gathers momentum.

Trevor Freestone.

I once asked my school pupils to go home and ask their grandparents if they had ever eaten human flesh.

The next day I asked how many had eaten human flesh and why. One third of the children put up their hands.

Their grandparents had eaten the flesh of a loved one not because of hunger but because they wanted to inherit the great qualities that the dead person could pass on. It was a real compliment to have a small part of you eaten.

They went to great lengths to explain that only a very small portion was ever eaten and the rest of the body was respectfully placed in one of the burial caves nearby.

The practice died out a long time ago.

Peter Kranz

Stories about cannibalism abound in all cultures in their gory and sensationalist detail, which I think is intended to appeal to the rather sick preoccupations of modern culture(see recent vampire movies).

May I quote my wife Rose? She says "I have heard many accounts of this (cannibalism), but it was not practiced in my area (Simbu) in my lifetime.

"Nevertheless I have heard that if some big people died, local Sanguma (magic) believers thought that if you consumed part of his body you would inherit his properties of luck and wealth."

Peter Kranz

Interesting that cannibalism is one of the most universal taboos (along with incest), but most cultures practised it in one form or another.

The Romans criticised the Christians for practising cannibalism in Holy Communion.

1 Corinthians says in the King James version: "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?"

So don't think PNG is unique in such stories.

Paul Oates

In "Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice" by Garry Hogg (1980) published by Coles The Book People, Buffalo, New York, there was an interesting anecdote from the annals of Lieutenant-Governor and Chief Judicial Officer JHP Murray.

Murray wrote in a footnote: "Certain tribes here like human flesh and do not see why they should not eat it. Indeed, I have never been able to give a convincing answer to a native who says 'Why should I not eat human flesh?'"

Barbara Short

Thanks, John, for sharing your stories on cannibalism. I also have one from my time in the Sepik in the 1970s, but I am careful to whom I tell it! It can be offensive and is revolting.

I sincerely hope that cannibalism has now stopped in PNG.

Actually it was my husband, who has never been to PNG, who was really upset when I told him Jeffrey's story.

He is proud of his Scottish descent so I will remind him of the Picts.

For unsuspecting readers, I think Jeffrey's story needs to have a warning sign; something like - "Beware - story includes cannibalism!"

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