HERE BE CANNIBALS

CANNIBALISM IN NEW GUINEA



The Rev. James Chalmers, one of a long line of amazingly courageous missionaries who have worked there, and all too often fallen victims to the very practices they had devoted their lives to attempting to eradicate, was successful in discovering the legend underlying cannibalism in New Guinea. There is a curious parallel, here, to the Garden of Eden story, and one is inclined to suspect that the native who told him the legend was already a convert, and had learned at any rate the basic Old Testament story!

I asked him [Chalmers records] why they ate human flesh. He told me that it was the women of the tribes who first urged the men to kill their fellow human beings for the purpose of eating them. The husbands were, the man told me, returning from a successful hunt far inland. As was their custom, they were blowing their conch-shells and singing and dancing.

As they approached the village, coming down the river in their canoes piled high with wallabies, boars and cassowaries, the women called out to them: ‘What success, husbands, that you sing and dance so?’ ‘Great success,’ the men shouted back. ‘Plenty to eat. Here, come and see for yourselves.’

The women approached the canoes, and when they saw what was in them, they called out: ‘What, just that dirty stuff?’ And then, in voices of scorn: ‘Who is going to eat that? Is that what you call successful hunting?’

Then the men began reasoning among themselves: ‘What do our wives mean, mocking us like this?’ And one of them, wiser than the others, said after much thought: ‘I know. They want the flesh of man!’

Then, throwing the wallabies and boars and cassowaries over the sides of their canoes, they went quickly along the river to a neighbouring village and brought back with them ten bodies. But, the man said to me, the men returned in their canoes without their usual singing and rejoicing.

When the women who were waiting for them on the river bank saw them approaching the village, they called out: ‘What have our husbands brought for us to eat, this time?’ And then they looked, but their husbands did not look at them, only cast their eyes downwards at what lay in their canoes. ‘Yes, that is right!’ shouted the women. ‘Dance and sing again, now, for you have brought back with you something worth dancing and singing about!’

Then the ten bodies were taken out of the canoes and put on the river bank. And the women cooked them, and pronounced them good. And from that day till now, the men and women of these tribes have always said that the flesh of human beings is better than the flesh of any other animal.

Garry Hogg, Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice, quoting the Rev. James Chalmers, Life and Work in New Guinea, RTS, 1895




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 to me, ‘Why should I not eat human flesh?...’


The people of the Purari Delta are naturally secretive as to their religious beliefs and practices, and not inclined to discuss them with strangers, but information emerges in the course of trials and official investigations. For instance, in the year 1909 I tried a man called Avai, a native of Baimuru, who was charged with the murder of a woman of Baroi. His statement contained some curious details. He said; ‘Bai-i told us to kill three Baroi people. We caught Aimari and his two wives, in Era Bay. Kairi killed Aimari. I killed one wife, and Iomu the other. I killed the women with a dagger of cassowary bone. We put the bodies in the canoe and took them back with us. I did not bite off the woman’s nose. It is not our custom to bite off the nose of a person you have killed. If I kill a man or a woman, someone else bites off his nose. We bit off the noses of people that others have killed. We bite them off; we do not cut them off.

‘We left the three bodies in our canoe till morning. Then we took them into our village and put them on the platform. Then we singed them, cut them up into small pieces, mixed the pieces with sago, cooked them, wrapped them up in leaves of nipa-palm, and distributed them. I ate a hand of one woman, but it was not the hand of the woman I myself killed. It is not our custom to eat a person we have ourselves killed. But if, after killing a man, you go and sit on a coconut, with also a coconut under each heel, and get your daughter to boil the man’s heart, then you may drink the water in which the heart has been boiled. And you may eat a little of the heart also, but you must be sitting on the coconuts all the time.’

J. H. P. Murray, Lieutenant-Governor and Chief Judicial Officer in Papua, Papua, or British New Guinea, Faber Unwin, 1912




There suddenly began to appear in sight, with the first dim grey of dawn, the leading war-canoes of a powerful native armada. The came on up the river out of the semi-darkness with swift and steady strokes of the paddle, with a silence and regularity that was almost spectral.

When I examined their canoes I found that the marauders had captured some ten or twelve people. There were, in four separate canoes, four adult, undivided dead bodies. In another there was the body of a little girl of seven or eight, still tied by the hands and feet to the pole on which her tender little body had been carried.

A village had been raided, and the canoes were full of plunder. A host of miscellaneous articles had been collected, all of which were lying about in the canoes, with here and there a human hand protruding.

A nearer examination showed that the member had been detached, clumsily and unskilfully hacked from the body of an inexperienced hand, and this it was already half-cooked, probably to keep it longer sweet. On the platforms of the canoes were also little made-up parcels and packets of human flesh, deftly enveloped in leaves and tied with bark. On some of the platforms were large and small uncovered pieces, some cooked and ready for the table, others apparently the remains left over from an interrupted meal. One of these was a large portion of the back of a child, half cooked, and corresponding exactly to what is known to the cook as a ‘saddle.’ In the hold of the canoes were coils of human intestines, sorted as one folds a fishing-line, with a stick through the coil supporting it by resting on the edges of the canoe so as to let the coil fall into the hold but without the lower end reaching down to the bilge-water.

Sir William MacGregor, probably from the Foreword of Murray, Papua, or British New Guinea, Faber Unwin, 1912




Human flesh is stated to resemble pig in flavour, but to make better food, since – although they both taste much alike – the former has the more delicate flavour, as well as the further advantage, claimed for it by every one who can be persuaded to talk freely on the subject, that it never produces any painful feeling of satiety, or induces vomiting. It has been emphasized by these people that if too much pig flesh were eaten, a man’s stomach would swell up and he would be sick; but that human flesh might be eaten until a man found it impossible to swallow any more, without producing these unpleasant symptoms...


The court at Samarai tried a case of desecration of sepulchre, two adult women and a girl – mother and two daughters – being the offenders. The little child of the elder of the two daughters had died, and had been buried in the usual manner. About one day after the burial, the three accused had dug up the body, and eaten it. The women belonged to a village near the head of Milne Bay. They protested that what they had done had always been, and still remained, a custom of their country. In the light of their statement, the penalty they incurred was only a short term of imprisonment.

C. G. Seligmann, south-eastern New Guinea, The Melanesians of British New Guinea, Cambridge University Press, 1910




One of the New Guinea Papuan tribes has the custom of taking out its grandparents, when they have become to old to be of any use to the tribe, and tying each of them loosely in the branches of a tree. The populace will then form a ring round the tree and indulge in an elaborate dance, which has some affinity with the traditional Maypole dance. As they dance, they cry out in chorus a refrain which has a somewhat sinister double-barrelled meaning: ‘The Fruit is Ripe! The Fruit is Ripe!’ Then, having repeated this cry, they close in upon the tree and violently shake its branches, so that the old men and women come hurtling to the ground below, there to be seized and devoured by the younger members of the tribe.

A. P. Rice, in The American Antiquarian, vol. XXXII, 1910




We decided to rush the village of Kanau, but when we got there we found it deserted. In the centre of the village was a kind of small, raised platform, on which were rows of human skulls and quantities of bones, the remnants of many a gruesome cannibal feast. Many of the skulls were quite fresh, with small bits of meat still sticking to them, but for all that, they had been picked very clean. Every skull had a large hole punched in the side, varying in size but uniform as regards position. The explanation for this we soon learnt from the Notus, and later it was confirmed by our prisoners.

When the Doboduras capture an enemy, they slowly torture him to death, practically eating him alive. When he is almost dead, they make a hole in the side of the head and scoop out his brains with a kind of wooden spoon. These brains, which are often warm and fresh, were regarded as a great delicacy. No doubt the Notus recognized some of their relatives amid the ghastly relics...


We were talking in subdued tones for some time, expecting every moment to hear the thrilling war-cry of the Doboduras. We could hear the dismal falsetto howls of the native dogs in the distance, and they were not particularly exhilarating at such a time, and I more than once mistook them for distant war-cries.

The Papuans do not as a rule torture their prisoners for the mere idea of torture, though they have often been known to roast a man alive – for the reason that his meat is supposed to taste better thus. I have heard of cases of white men having been roasted alive, one case being that of two miners, Campion and King. But we had learned that this Dobodura tribe had a system of torture that was brutal beyond words.

In the first place they always try to wound slightly, and capture a man alive, so that they can have fresh meat for many days. They keep their prisoners tied up alive in the huts, and cut out pieces of their flesh just when they want them; we were told that, incredible as it may seem, they sometimes manage to keep them alive for a week or more, and have some preparation which prevents them from bleeding to death.

Monkton advised both Acland and myself to shoot ourselves with our revolvers if we saw that we were overwhelmed, so as to escape these terrible tortures, and he assured us that he should keep the last bullet in his revolver for himself.

H. W. Walker, FRGS, Wanderings among South Sea Savages, Witherby, 1909




The corpses of grown men were tied by hands and feet to a pole and carried face downward. In the case of a child, one hand was tied to one foot, and a warrior would sling the body over his shoulder as a hunter might a wallaby’s. Usually the victim was dead before being bound in this manner. An ingenious, if gruesome, method of carrying human flesh was observed by a former Resident Magistrate in the Division. The limbs had been peculiarly treated. The ankle-joints had been severed, leaving the Achilles tendon intact. The bones of the leg had been excised and the pelvic bone removed. The ham had been neatly cut off. The boneless leg was wrapped carefully round a three-foot stick and the foot secured to the stick by a piece of vine. In this manner the flesh could be carried comfortably on one’s back.

Brought home by the [Orikaivan] raiders, the corpse of the victim was set upright in the village, still attached to its pole. during the night there was dancing to the accompaniment of the drum and the hui, a trumpet of wood or shell. In the morning the body was taken down to the stream and cut up in the running water, in order to wash away the blood. Various portions were then distributed, as they are in the case of a pig, and little odds and ends were given to the children, who played at roasting them in the fires.

F. E. Williams, Orikaiva Society, Clarendon Press, 1930




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