Sep 162013


Today is Independence Day in Papua New Guinea, officially named the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, a nation in Oceania that occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and numerous offshore islands.


Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. According to recent data, 841 different languages are listed for the country, although 11 of these have no known living speakers. There may be at least as many different traditional societies, out of a population of about 6.3 million. It is also one of the most rural nations in the world, as only 18% of its people live in urban centers. The country is one of the world’s least explored, culturally and geographically, and many undiscovered species of plants and animals are thought to exist in the interior of Papua New Guinea. The territory has long been an anthropologist’s dream. Although dated, and a bit contrived, the documentary “Dead Birds” by Robert Gardner, about the Dani who live(d) in the central highlands, is worth a look to get an idea. “Trobriand Cricket” is also a good window into traditional culture and colonialism.  Here’s an excerpt: Trobriand Cricket


After being ruled by three external powers since 1884, Papua New Guinea established its sovereignty in 1975 after the demand of the United Nations that Australia cease to administer it. It became a separate Commonwealth realm on 16 September 1975 without incident.  It is now fully independent but, like all Commonwealth nations, Queen Elizabeth II is the nominal Head of State.

Human remains have been found which have been dated to about 50,000 BP although this is an estimate only. Agriculture developed in the New Guinea highlands around 7000 BCE, possibly indigenously, but more likely brought by immigrants.  A major migration of Austronesian speaking peoples came to coastal regions in roughly 500 BCE. This has been correlated with the introduction of pottery, pigs, and certain fishing techniques. More recently, in the 18th century, the sweet potato was taken to New Guinea, having been introduced to the Moluccas by Portuguese traders. The far higher crop yields from sweet potato gardens radically transformed traditional agriculture; sweet potato largely supplanted the previous staple, taro, and gave rise to a significant increase in population in the highlands.


Little was known in Europe about the island until the 19th century, although Portuguese and Spanish explorers, such as Dom Jorge de Meneses and Yñigo Ortiz de Retez, had encountered it as early as the 16th century. Traders from Southeast Asia had visited New Guinea beginning 5,000 years ago to collect bird of paradise plumes. The country’s dual name results from its complex administrative history before independence. The word papua is derived from an old local term of uncertain origin, and “New Guinea” (Nueva Guinea) was the name coined by the Spanish explorer Yñigo Ortiz de Retez. In 1545, he noted the resemblance of the people to those he had seen earlier along the Guinea coast of Africa. The northern half of the country was ruled as a colony for some decades by Germany, beginning in 1884, as German New Guinea. The southern half was colonized in the same year by the United Kingdom as British New Guinea, but in 1904 with the passage of the Papua Act, it was transferred to the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia who took on its administration.


Papua New Guinea is part of the Australasia ecozone, which also includes Australia, New Zealand, eastern Indonesia, and several Pacific island groups, including the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu (see post 30 July). Geologically, the island of New Guinea is a northern extension of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate, forming part of a single land mass which is Australia-New Guinea (also called Sahul or Meganesia). It is connected to the Australian segment by a shallow continental shelf across the Torres Strait, which in former ages was exposed as a land bridge, particularly during ice ages when sea levels were lower than at present. Consequently, many species of birds and mammals found on New Guinea have close genetic links with corresponding species found in Australia. One notable feature in common for the two landmasses is the existence of several species of marsupial mammals, including some kangaroos and possums, which are not found elsewhere.


Many of the other islands within Papua New Guinea territory, including New Britain, New Ireland, Bougainville, the Admiralty Islands, the Trobriand Islands, and the Louisiade Archipelago, were never linked to New Guinea by land bridges. As a consequence, they have their own flora and fauna; in particular, they lack many of the land mammals and flightless birds that are common to New Guinea and Australia.

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The indigenous population of Papua New Guinea is one of the most heterogeneous in the world. Papua New Guinea has several thousand separate communities, most with only a few hundred people. Divided by language, customs, and tradition, some of these communities have engaged in endemic warfare with their neighbors for centuries. The movie “Dead Birds” documents such warfare among the Dani.


The isolation created by the mountainous terrain is so great that some groups, until recently, were unaware of the existence of neighboring groups only a few kilometers away. The diversity, reflected in a folk saying, “For each village, a different culture,” is perhaps best shown in the local languages. Spoken mainly on the island of New Guinea, about 650 of these Papuan languages have been identified; of these, only 350-450 are related. The remainder of the Papuan languages seem to be totally unrelated either to each other or to the other major groupings. In addition, many languages belonging to Austronesian language group are used in Papua New Guinea, and in total, more than 800 languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea. Individual native languages are spoken by a few hundred to a few thousand, although Enga language, used in Enga Province, is spoken by around 130,000 people.


Tok Pisin (Melanesian Pidgin), a creole of English and some Austronesian languages, serves as the lingua franca for Papua New Guinea. English is the language of business and government, and all schooling from primary Grade 2 is in English. However, only a small percentage of the population speaks English fluently. The overall population density is low, although pockets of overpopulation exist. Papua New Guinea’s Western Province averages one person per square kilometer (3 per sq. mi.). The Simbu Province in the New Guinea highlands averages 20 persons per square kilometer (60 per sq. mi.) and has areas containing up to 200 people farming a square kilometer of land. The highlands have 40% of the population where the people are subsistence farmers.


The Trobriand Islands are part of the nation of Papua New Guinea.  The first anthropologist to study the Trobrianders was C.G. Seligman, who mainly focused on the Massim people of mainland New Guinea. Seligman was followed a number of years later by his student, the Polish born Bronis?aw Malinowski, who visited the islands during the First World War. Despite being a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was at war with Australia who then controlled the Trobriand Islands, he was allowed to stay provided he checked in with authorities every now and then. Technically he should have gone to an intern camp in Australia. His descriptions of the kula exchange system, gardening, magic, and sexual practices are now all classics of modern anthropological research.  It was during his stay in the Trobriands that Malinowski created the, now normal, practice of participant-observer fieldwork. Previously anthropologists like Seligman had used interpreters, and paid local people to talk to them on the verandahs of their lodgings in order to learn about their customs.  Malinowski lived and worked sided by side with the Trobrianders, learning the language and participating in daily activities.

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It is the supreme “otherness” of Papua New Guinea which attracts the interest of anthropologists: the kula ring in which decorative armshells and necklaces (of no economic value) are endlessly traded around a series of islands in counter-rotating circles; warfare which is perpetual but which stops if someone is killed or if it is raining (because the warriors’ decorative hair feathers will be ruined); enocannibalism – the ritual eating of relatives when they die; Trobriand cricket (introduced by an English missionary) in which competition is fierce and yet it is predetermined that the home team always wins. The indigenous cultures of Papua New Guinea are an enigma which defy the norms of Western culture.


Probably the most traditional and widespread dish in Papua New Guinea is roast pork, slow roast in a pit or over hot coals as in most of the South Pacific. Otherwise recipes are blends of local ingredients and European methods of cooking (or else wholesale European imports).   So to celebrate you could either have a nice piece of roast pork (crisp skin essential) with mashed sweet potatoes (nothing wrong with that), or try this dish from Port Moresby, the capital. The peculiarity lies in the separate cooking of the vegetables using the same cooking water.  It does make a difference to the final taste. Sometimes cooks add a little curry powder.  Naturally this makes a good side dish for roast pork also.


Papua New Guinea Vegetables in Coconut Sauce


6 cups mixed vegetables (whatever is available, for example, you can use any of the following: carrots, fresh beans, sweet potato, zucchini, green or red peppers, eggplant, potatoes, and peas)
1 crushed clove garlic
2 fresh small hot chiles, seeded and chopped
½ cup fresh coconut milk
½ cup grated coconut
2 tbsp oil
curry powder to taste (optional)


Bring a cup of water to the boil in a medium sized saucepan.

Boil each vegetable separately in the same water.  When each is al dente, remove it with a slotted spoon and reserve. Top up the water if necessary as the cooking progresses. Reserve the cooking liquid when finished.

Add the garlic, chile, coconut milk, coconut, and oil (and curry powder if desired) to the vegetable cooking liquid, and bring to a simmer.  Add the vegetables and warm through for about five minutes.

Serve with boiled white or brown rice.

Serves 4