Saturday, May 24, 2008

Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been a Cannibal?

Papua New Guinea attracts anthropologists the way that New York City attracts stockbrokers and theater wannabes. It’s where the action is, the place where human cultural evolution took a left turn and never looked back. The local name there for a helicopter is, “Food mixer from sky blong Jesus Christ.” It’s a dark tropical place, ancient and unknown, enchanting and deadly, pandering throughout time to an exotic people with their dreadful rituals of exquisite mystery and peculiarity that seem to roll on through the ages in seamless linkage to stone-age antiquity.

Like some anachronistic throwback to Amazon mythology, much of PNG is a matrilineal society with most of the land owned by women who pass it down in families from mother to daughter. In these places where women hold the only meaningful power, they staff most of the governmental positions and sell the betel nuts. Both functions seem to be equally important. The visitor there sees the shriveled old black-skinned crones selling coconuts and bananas as well as that peculiar local mood-altering combination of betel nuts, lime powder ground from coral, and leaves from the betel pepper plant, and the visitor never knows that the person who controls the betel nut supply controls the society.

The dark-skinned men mostly fish all day, after first stopping by the market to load up on their mood-enhancers, and loading up seems the only proper description for the process where betel nuts are chewed along with lime and betel pepper leaves in a mouth-filling intoxicant mix that stains the teeth and gums a bright vampire red.

Considering the second-class status of the males in the society, it becomes all the more astonishing when one first encounters the life-size wooden carvings of the male ancestor spirit figures in the Sepik River region to the north. These are nothing less than an artistic poke in the eye of matrilineal female authority, with their anatomically-correct male members exaggerated in length such that the standing totems achieve a kind of geometric triangular stability based on the principle of the three-legged stool. The elongated wooden genitals are one of the defining features of PNG statuary.

In 2000, my wife and I joined an anthropologist in PNG to investigate an episode of true cannibalism that had just taken place a month or two before we arrived there. We made a trip up into the mountains to get to know the people involved in that affair, and to try to understand it from their viewpoint. To our surprise, we were struck by the absence of anger and hostility in the whole affair. A group of women had killed an unfortunate chap, drained his blood, gutted him out, cooked him over an open fire, and then ate him. The poor chap whose misfortune was at the heart of this episode was old and feeble. That’s part of what made it all seem so Darwinian.

They spoke English, or at least a kind of Pidgin English that has been perpetuated in PNG out of necessity. It’s the only common language they have in Papua New Guinea. All the various tribes speak six-hundred different native languages. So before the missionaries came, people in one village could simply not communicate with people in another village only twenty kilometers away. As we interviewed these strange people, we came to realize that at no time, apparently, had any of these female cannibals lost their temper. It all just seemed so very natural the way they explained it, and because of that calm demeanor, we never felt threatened in any way. I came away with the strange belief that there is much more violence on American highways than what we found on that adventure in the high mountains of PNG.

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