Eating with Cannibals in Papua New Guinea

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  • Image: National Geographic Television

    Piers Gibbon with an elder in Negadai village. Some of the elders in this village claim to have practiced cannibalism.

    Cannibalism is a word to spread fear through your body at the thought of what it means. Yet for years, centuries even, it was practiced in various areas of the world, including England, where remains found in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge suggest that a man may have died as a result of this macabre practice. National Geographic Channel has gone out to learn about the whys and wherefores of cannibalism by speaking to the people who know best. Those that have killed and eaten other humans.

  • Image: National Geographic Television

    Piers Gibbon traveled to Papua New Guinea’s Western Province to try and discover if the practice is still going on and why it came to be in the first place. Australian patrol reports from the area in the 1960s suggested that the motive was a ‘gross insult’ against the victims, while other rumors were that it was ceremonial. Piers’ first stop was with the Samo people, who live a hard existence with minimal food and no electricity or running water, living in fact as they have since time immemorial. He had no trouble finding people willing to talk about the practice of cannibalism. As a village elder explained: “When I was little, a woman was killed. They cut her up with a bamboo knife. I tasted it. It didn’t like the meat, it didn’t taste like pig or cassowary, so I stopped.”

  • Image: National Geographic Television

    The picture above shows Piers with a bamboo knife. You sharpen it by peeling off the dulled edge.

    The reason the woman the village elder had tasted was killed is one that again and again showed itself to be a theme. She was considered a witch. “Magic men” or sorcerers were often divined by elders. In one of the fiercest fighting tribes, the Biami, a song leader would be told by his spirit guide who the sorcerer was, and then the fighters were sent to go and kill the magic man or woman and bring the body back for food.

  • Image: National Geographic Television

    Another theme was revenge. In one example from a tribal elder, a husband was sick and blamed his wife and her friend. He told others that if he died, to kill the two women for revenge. The elder added: “It was great meat, I ate all of it.”

    So it appeared to Piers that ritual and ceremony were not part of a meal of human flesh. It seemed much more mundane, just a question of not wasting valuable meat and boosting a protein-deficient diet. This brings us to a third reason: at one time tribe members actually went and hunted humans simply for meat. No revenge, no magic, just food.

  • Image: National Geographic Television

    During a Biami dance ceremony, the ‘Funny Man’ pours wax onto the backs of dancers to encourage them to keep dancing.

    Christianity made a huge impact on the tribes. Cannibalism has been out of favor since the missionaries really took hold, with all the tribes saying “not now” when asked whether it is still practiced. However, two of the oldest missionaries, Tom and Salome Howie, who have spent 40 years in Biami, are not so convinced that it has completely died out in all tribes, especially the most remote ones.

    “Eating with Cannibals” is a fascinating show and airs on Saturday April 9, 2011 on the National Geographic Channel. It is highly recommended for a glimpse into a totally different way of life.

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Michele Collet
Michele Collet
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History
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