Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Papua New Guinea's Fine Young Cannibals

In a world filled with taboos few even come close to cannibalism.  The act of consuming human flesh is viewed today as abhorrent and unforgivable.  Early explorers sailed the world and returned home with tales of savages eating their enemies.  There have been cases, such as the infamous Donner Party, where people resorted to cannibalism in order to survive.  A case from Papua New Guinea last month made headlines, not only because it involved cannibalism, but also because the cannibal was the young victim’s father.

Early last month in the island nation of Papua New Guinea, north of Australia, two boys reported witnessing more than just a murder to authorities.  The boys had climbed a tree near a settlement in Lea.  From their perch they saw a man dragging what turned out to be his 3-year-old daughter into a clearing and began biting her neck.  The boys told officials they were spotted and the father, Rex Eric, laughed at them while he continued to eat the flesh and suck the blood of the child. The father was quickly arrested.

While this story may seem horrific among today’s headlines, it isn’t all that uncommon in such areas. The past couple years have witnessed a rash of vigilante violence in Papua New Guinea.  29 individuals who were members of a cannibal cult were arrested last July for the murders of seven men suspected to have been witchdoctors. The cult members ate their brains, and made soup with their penises.  In February the town of Mount Hagen witnessed a 20-year-old woman tortured and killed by the townspeople after she was suspected of practicing witchcraft.  

Responding authorities watched helplessly as a mob of nearly all the town’s citizens poured gasoline on Kapari Laniata and burned her alive.  Firemen and police officers who tried to intervene were attacked and ran off by the mob.  Leniata was accused of sorcery after a young boy in the village fell ill and died.  Her brutal death attracted attention from the United Nations.  Even more recently a former schoolteacher was decapitated by an angry mob after being accused of using witchcraft to kill a colleague.

There is a widespread belief in witchcraft and sorcery in Papua New Guinea, especially in rural and isolated areas, and recent years have seen an increase in black magic-related crimes.  In 1971 the country passed the Sorcery Act which criminalizes the practice of witchcraft and recognizes the use of sorcery as an acceptable defense in murder cases.  Suggestions have been made, by the United Nations human rights office among others, to repeal the Sorcery Act as a solution to vigilante witch hunts. Amnesty International has also gotten involved in the crisis.

Papua New Guinea natives

The current law distinguishes between “innocent sorcery,” such as healing methods, and “forbidden sorcery,” which carries a sentence of up to five years.  Broken down, the crime is not practicing magic, but doing so with harmful intent.  False accusations of sorcery can land you up to a year, and possession of sorcery “tools” can also get you a year.  Sources inside the country say while the number of headlines have risen lately, the actual number of witchcraft-related crime has actually decreased, although the actual number of deaths each year may be in the hundreds.  Very few, if any Sorcery Act cases are ever tried in court, but some feel it’s criminalization fuels the public’s view that it is punishable.

To civilized nations practices of witchcraft are laughed off, but in lesser developed regions, such as Papua New Guinea, sorcery and cannibalism play a big role in the cultural history.  People have eaten other people all throughout history, for a number of reasons.  History, legends, mythology and fairy tales are filled with tales of humans eating humans.

Neanderthals are believed to have practiced cannibalism. Some anthropologists think our early history saw humans practicing ritual cannibalism.  Ancient Australian Aborigines are thought to have consumed any opponent killed in battle.  The Bible tells the story of a pact between two mothers to kill and eat their children (2 Kings 6:25-30). During Europe’s Great Famine of 1315-1317 cannibalism was frequently reported among the starving population.  War has seen soldiers resorting to cannibalism often.  It was reported during the First Crusade, in China during the Tang Dynasty, and throughout the history of Mesoamerica to name a few.   

The Aztecs practiced exocannibalism, the practice of members of one group consuming the members of another group.  This form of cannibalism was used to show tribal power and to scare off invading armies.  Often those consuming the flesh believed in doing so they were acquiring the knowledge and skills of those they ate.  Conversely the consumption of members of ones own group is known as endocannibalism and is often associated with ritual burial ceremonies.  Mortuary cannibalism is thought to be the most widely practiced form of endocannibalism, excluding murder to only consume those already dead. It was not uncommon for tribes to practice a mix of these types of cannibalism, along with others, such as cannibalism for survival and consumption for taste or nutritional value.

The Iroquoian Indians of North America believed sacrificing and consuming the bodies of their enemies would please their war god and allow them to absorb the person’s spirit, empowering them with their enemies’ attributes.  Stories of cannibalistic tribes in Africa still persist today, often involving organ trade on the black market as well.   Cannibalism took its name from the Carib Tribe of the West Indies.  Early Spanish explorers encountered what they described as savage natives who ate the bodies of their dead enemies.  The history of the South Pacific islands are filled with tales of cannibalism.  Fiji used to be known as the “Cannibal Isles.”

Other than being a major taboo for most people, the practice of cannibalism brings with it the risk of contracting a disease known as Kuru.  It has been described as the human equivalent of mad cow disease.  The name comes from a native word that means “to shake,” referring to the symptom of body tremors. It is also referred to as “the laughing disease” because sufferers are prone to pathological bursts of laughter. 

Kuru was first noted among the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea in the 1950s.  Investigations into the regional epidemic found the disease rose from eating human flesh, especially the brain.  An infectious protein, prion, causes the illness which has no known cure and usually causes death within one year.  The following video shows a native suffering from kuru and may be disturbing to some viewers:


When Lost Creek researchers first came across this story it was very timely.  Our team was simultaneously involved in putting together a haunted house for our local community center, and sadly, the Medicine Show was neglected.  We plan to pump out several more new blogs in the very near future that were began but had to be pushed to the back burner in order to meet our community obligations.  Hopefully this hiatus has given these ideas time to simmer and will be more in depth than they originally would have been. Stay tuned for the next stops along the journey. 

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