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    Witch Hunts in Papua New Guinea: The Dark Side of Human Nature

    Before last week, all I knew about Papua New Guinea was that its capital was Port Moresby and that it was that island on top of Australia. But while I was searching the internet for examples of the country’s musical offerings, I was fascinated to learn that over 700 languages are spoken there, that most of the island doesn’t have access to television and can only be reached by airplanes, and that there is an incredible diversity of flora and fauna in the mountains and rainforests.

    I watched one particularly interesting video about a still-existing tribe of cannibals. In the video diary, a group travels to the far interior of West Papua, which shares the island of New Guinea with PNG, but is under Indonesian control. There, they encounter a tribe that has never before laid eyes on any Caucasians. The video is about sixteen minutes long, and, at the end provides some insight into why there are reports this week about an increase in witch hunting in PNG. Embedding is disabled, so you'll have to click.


    Amnesty International reports:

    Authorities in Papua New Guinea are being urged to take greater action to prevent further killings related to allegations of sorcery.

    A father and son became the latest victims on Sunday. Local men in Ban village shot dead 60-year-old Plak Mel Doa and threw his body into a fire. His son, Anis Dua, was dragged from his home and burnt alive. Local people had accused them both of causing the death of a prominent member of the community by sorcery.

    There has been an increase in reports of sorcery-related killings over the last year. According to the media there were over 50 such deaths in 2008.This is either because of an actual increase in such incidents or that more incidents are now being reported.


    According to another report, this happened close to the city of Mount Hagan, which is the capital of the Western Highlands province and also where the Papua Tribe Festival featured in my PNG music blog takes place each year.

    If watched the entire video, you learned that when there is an unexpected death, the Korowai tribe, ignorant of modern science and medicine, attributes the death to black magic, or khakhua. Relatives of the deceased exact revenge for the death by killing and eating the witch deemed responsible. How they determine the identity of the witch seems a little bit arbitrary.

    On the east end of the island, in PNG, the witch hunting continues, without the cannibalistic aspect but by the same rationale. People place the blame for untimely death onto black magic, declare a witch, and then brutally murder her or him.

    Crazy, right?

    Maybe not. All of us look for something or someone to blame when things go amiss. At the moment, I’m fairly certain that, if someone wanted to burn one or two of those Wall Street bankers at the stake, I’d have to take a long, deep breath before suggesting that maybe it’s not such a great idea.

    When cause and effect is too complicated to be easily understood, we all want a scapegoat toward whom we can direct our anger and pain. Please don’t get the idea that I think witch hunting in PNG should be allowed to continue because the grieving need to feel better. I’m with AI on this one, and maybe we could get the PNG Highlands some science textbooks while we’re at it.

    But why is it such a strong human desire to attribute blame and exact revenge? It’s food for thought, hopefully only metaphorically speaking.


    Witch hunting has a long history in many cultures, so I wouldn't be shocked if it happens in PNG, but this story stinks to me. It's sensationalist and fetishistic. I recommend this criticism of the piece.

    There are many secondhand accounts of cannibalism and some circumstantial evidence like apparently gnawed bones, but there is no conclusive firsthand documentation of indigenous cannibalism (outside of starvation conditions) anywhere in the world ever. If you have can find an uncontroversial case, please let me know.

    On there other hand, there are numerous examples of "civilized" cultures fetishizing cannibalism and attributing the practice to every mysterious tribe they come accross. This Sixty Minutes story is only the latest instance of a centuries-long tradition.

    Now why do I have the feeling that we're about to see the first DOCUMENTED case of cannibalism? Have you taken leave of your senses, G? RUN for it, man.

    The main point was supposed to be the witch hunts in PNG, which are documented by Amnesty International, among others. The video and the lore of the tribes in West Guinea were meant to be more of a backdrop of historical information. And I'm not as offended by the video as the guy who wrote the article you linked to. The video showed that the tribe was uneasy about, or even scared of, the foreigners until they started to communicate with one another, which seems to me pretty normal.

    I also don't think, based on the terrain of the island, that it's far fetched to think that there are people living there who have never seen Caucasians before. When I lived in South Korea, I met people who had never seen Caucasians before, although they had the benefit of television and movies to make the experience less scary I suppose.

    The cannibal lore exists, regardless of who started telling it, and it's the same rationale that's being used in the current witch hunts in PNG, sans the eating of human flesh. There could be people who don't believe the supersition but use it to settle scores. But there have to be enough people to believe that dark magic is used to kill people or the score-settlers wouldn't get very far. 

    I can't comment on the Indonesian police, cited in the article, but another piece I watched suggested that the police are persona non grata in the Highlands of PNG, where tribal warfare is still common. They can't stop tribes from waging battles and it doesn't appear that they can stop mobs from murdering supposed witches either.

    The reason for the witch hunts might seem unbelievable, because of modern knowledge of causes of early death. But the phenomenon of witch hunts is not unique to PNG, especially in the metaphorical sense.

    My umbrage wasn't directed at your post or the Amnesty International reports but rather the 60 Minutes story. The moment this Paul Raffaele guy started breathlessly speaking about looking for the physical evidence "that they actually do eat people," my B.S. detector went off. He later confidently told the journalists, "They eat everything except the teeth, the hair, and the nails. Everything." Uh huh. I guess that's why he never found his physical evidence.

    This quote from the critique I linked stood out to me:

    Korowai people have also had a lot to do with tourists since the late 1980s when their region became something of a pilgrimage site for adventure primitivists. People like Paul Raffaele, who brought 60 Minutes to Wa-Wa, are commonplace in Papua. His work does not enhance understanding of the KorowaI but panders to a Western public hungry to consume the primitive. The Korowai, like other tribal groups portrayed by Raffaele, are presented by him through a series of either/ors: either they are bright-eyed upholders of a fragile Eden, or else they are darkly menacing, horrifying us with their cruel customs.

    I took a class in college about Western fascination with the Primitive in which I read many voyeuristic accounts like this one. Since the 17th century, Europeans from Columbus to Conrad have presented Native Americans, Africans, and Pacific Islanders exactly the same way: innocent and pure or cruel and terrible (and cannibalistic).

    The other quote I liked from the critique was this one:

    Those who saw the 60 Minutes report perhaps did not notice the shorts being worn by members of the "forgotten" tribe, and the black plastic bags they were holding? And did audiences notice that they were speaking Bahasa Indonesia, rather than, as was claimed, an ancient dialect? And did anyone critically ask if the skull the journalist held might have been a prop, or whether the narrative about how the Korowai had enjoyed a cannibal feast had been spliced over mundane footage such as eating rice?

    That said, though cannabilism is dubious and the 60 Minutes report is attrocious, witch hunting is well documented throughout the world, and the Amnesty International reports about witch hunting in PNG seem credible. My reaction to video was just so visceral that I focused on that.

    Yeah, that guy was weird in a creepy sort of way, but I used to work for an anthropologist who would lecture foreign visitors about their own culture in a way that made me wish the earth would open and and swallow me to save me from the shame, so maybe I'm desensitized to the colonial masters mindset. What I really liked about the video were the faces of the tribe, especially the kids, interested in this new experience they were having. And again, I thought the recounting of the superstition at the end was instructive in understanding the witch hunting that is still going on.

    The one thing that did make me roll my eyes was the suggestion at the end that maybe the world should just let the killing continue because in 30 years their culture will be destroyed anyway. The destruction of culture line seemed a little dramatic--cultures are "destroyed" all the time as the world moves forward--and also I was a little taken aback at his cavalier attitude about the victims of murder. I'm guessing they wouldn't mind trading a 30 year acceleration of their culture destruction in exchange for, say, another 30 years of life.

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