March 02, 2014

The People of Papua New Guinea

by Ann Mallard
Jacaranda Press 1969
NLA link

When the first Europeans sailed into the Pacific Islands hundreds of years ago, they found many people here, a strange mixture of races whose origins have tantalized historians and anthropologists ever since. Everyone agrees that the Pacific Islanders must have migrated here, probably in several different waves, but as the people themselves have no written records, no one can be sure where they came from and when.

The most widely accepted theory today is that the original inhabitants of New Guinea and some of the other Melanesian islands were Negritoes, small people with Negroid features and frizzy hair. These are thought to have migrated down from South-east Asia at the end of the last ice age, 20,000 to 25,000 years ago, when the sea was much lower than it is today and the continental shelf which links Malaya with Australia was probably at least partly dry land. These Negritoes were probably followed about 8000 years ago by a taller Negroid people who travelled by canoes along the coasts of the land masses. These larger people may have forced the Negritoes into pockets in the mountains and themselves settled on the coasts of New Guinea and other islands of Melanesia as far east as Fiji.

The last two waves of migration only touched New Guinea briefly. The first of these was the great migration of the Polynesian peoples who came into the Pacific in their great canoes between one and two thousand years before Christ. Although in the main they settled in the islands east of Tonga and Samoa, one can see among the Trobriand Islanders and some of the Papuans on the south-east coast the influence of these Polynesian sailors. On the north-eastern edge of the New Guinea islands and the Solomon Islands is a chain of tiny islets, the Tasmans and the Mortlocks and several others which support a pure Polynesian population--stocky, light-skinned people with wavy black hair and a Polynesian language. Possibly these are the offspring of Polynesians whose canoes became lost or separated during the original migration.

The last migration of peoples into the Pacific Islands was fairly recent. The Micronesian people look in many ways like the Polynesians only they have a much more dominant Oriental (Mongoloid) strain. These people probably entered the Pacific from the Philippines. The Micronesians settled on the large groups of tiny islets and atolls to the north. The islands known as the North-western Islands, which lie west and north of Manus Island in the Territory of Papua New Guinea have a predominantly Micronesian population. Even the Natives of Manus have some Micronesian characteristics.

Thus it is now easier to see why there is such a fascinating welter of racial types and cultures in the island of New Guinea. The mountainous country split these people still further, as impassable rivers, vertical cliffs and trackless swamps made communication almost impossible. Suspicion, hatred, and continual raids and fighting erected even stronger barriers, until practically every large village or group of hamlets became its own little unit, speaking its own dialect, and fighting constantly with its neighbours on every side. These village groups are too small to be really referred to as `tribes'. Anthropologists use the word 'clan' because this also indicates the complex social structure which ruled the lives and controlled the land ownership in each group. Except in the Trobriand Islands there was never a system of great chiefs, as in other parts of the Pacific. The peoples of New Guinea were hopelessly fragmented and torn by such constant fighting that no leader ever seemed to have a chance to unite a group large enough to form a seat of power.

Tourist buying souvenir. Trobriand Islands. (Robin Smith)
In the traditional village life the men were the warriors, constantly on guard to protect their homes and families. The women traditionally did most of the carrying, usually in large bags of woven fibre called 'bilums' carried by a band over the forehead. This meant that the man was always free to use his weapons in defence. Today, despite the fact that there is now no need for it, one often sees the women carrying tremendous loads on their backs while their menfolk may carry almost nothing. Most New Guineans are gardeners, and much of this work is done by the women. The men made most of the simple tools and weapons and usually tried to supplement the diet by hunting and fishing.

All the inexplicable things in the world to the New Guinea villager were attributed to magic and the spirit world. The sorcerer, who had some control over this spirit world, was the most important and the most feared man in the village. Death and illness were usually blamed on the sorcery of a rival village; often this was the cause of another small war, or a pay-back raid of revenge. When Europeans first came most of the village houses were built on the ground and the people suffered badly from hookworm and other diseases. But fear of sorcerers made it very hard to convince them to change; sorcerers can get under a raised floor! Even today people really die because of the magic of sorcerers, and so real is their power that dying men have been cured by magic when a trained doctor could not do anything with modern medicine. Now of course sorcery is against the law, and sorcerers, when found and proven guilty (not easy), are subject to prison terms.

There is a rhythm to life in the New Guinea village, from season to season, the hard work of clearing and planting to the time of harvest and festival. The working year was generally broken by several big festivals and celebrations; some of these still continue and can be seen by visitors. There are the yam festival seasons in the Trobriand Islands (Milne Bay District) and in the Maprik area of the Sepik District, and there is the pig-killing season in the Highlands. Dancing and feasting could go on for days without stopping and in the recent development of the Highlands, several airstrips were finished off when the government organized a sing-sing and the area was pounded flat and hard by thousands of dancing and stomping feet.

Now in many villages the Christian church has replaced the earlier men's cult house or magical-religious centre. A familiar sight in villages on a patrol route is the government rest house, built well off the ground and generally equipped with a rough shower recess, latrine and cook house. There may be a mission or government school in the village or nearby. Also in­creasingly common are the medical aid-posts staffed by a medical orderly and stocked with basic medecines. There may be a trade store selling cloth, tinned goods, tobacco, kerosene, and steel tools. Slowly but very certainly, the New Guinea village is becoming a part of the modern world.

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