Who are the Papuans?

One of the oldest human races and cultures...

By on August 18th, 2007 11:45 GMT
On the second biggest island in the world, there lives one of the oldest human populations: the Papuans. Today, the island has about 6.9 million inhabitants. New Guinea has mountains up to 5,030 m high (16,700 ft) which display glaciers in an equatorial area, and the vegetation goes from coastal mangroves and marshes with sago palms to lowland rainforests, home of ebony trees and ironwood to savannas and Eucalyptus while the top of the mountains present forests of Araucaria, a coniferous tree.

Papuans belong to one of the first human groups to have moved out of Africa perhaps 60,000 years ago. This group formed a race later known as Black Asians. 12,000 years ago, they were the main inhabitants of India, Indochina, Indonesia, New Guinea, Melanesia, and perhaps even eastern China. One of the most primitive forms of this race being represented by the Australian Aborigines. A later type is that now constituted by the Papuans.

Unlike African Blacks, these people have abundant beards, a lot of hair on the body, are shorter, have slimmer lips, a tilted front (not cambered), prominent eye ridge and aquiline noses. The hair is somewhat less kinky.

A recent research made at Temple University revealed that this race has one of the highest genetic diversity amongst current human races (being bypassed just by the Bushmen, the oldest living human race), the mitochondrial DNA showing an age of at least 35,000 years for this human type.

But later than 12,000 years ago, in India entered White populations from central and southwestern Asia, greatly displacing or mixing with this race. But even today, many Indian populations, especially in the south, still preserve this Black Asian racial type, and some Gurus from the south cannot be distinguished from a Papuan or Australian Aborigine. In southeastern Asia, they were replaced by Mongoloids coming from Tibet and central China.

Australian Aborigines could have entered New Guinea 40,000 years ago, before entering Australia. About 21,000 years ago, the Papuans entered the island. It was the peak of the last Ice Age and New Guinea was connected to the Australian continent via a land bridge, forming the called Sahul.

Still, before the Papuans, an ancestral type of Black Asians entered New Guinea: the pygmies. Today they are found only in remote mountains of the New Guinea. Today populations of pygmy race are found outside New Guinea only in central Africa, Philippines (Aeta), Semang in Malaya (Semang), Thailand (Mani), Andaman archipelago, Rampasasa from Flores island (Rampasasa) and Vanuatu archipelago, but once they inhabited Earth from Africa to Philippines, New Guinea and Vanuatu.

Today, in New Guinea there are about a thousand different tribal groups, and more than 700 distinct languages, falling in two groups: the Papuan languages and the Austronesian languages.

The original Papuans were in the stage of Paleolithic, being hunter gatherers. About 3,500 years ago, Austronesian people (a Mongoloid type, largely mixed previously with Black Asians from southeastern Asia), also called Malayo-Polynesians, reached the shores of New Guinea.

They were a Neolithic society, that grew pigs, dogs and chickens and cultivated plants. Austronesians occupied coastal and lowland areas, mixing with the Papuans, and today, even if they look more Black Asians than other Malayo-Polynesians groups from Indonesia and Polynesia, they speak Austronesian languages. These inhabitants of New Guinea have also "softer" facial traits.

But mountains regions were harder to penetrate, and here the Papuan languages and a more pure racial type remained. The Papuans do not call themselves like that. Papuan comes from an Austronesian word, "Papu", meaning "kinky", as the Austronesians typically had slick hair.

Pig-based trade between the groups and pig-based feasts are common with the other Austronesian peoples of southeast Asia and Oceania.

In the "Austronesian" areas, the villages can contain 2-3 common "Great Houses" where men live, while women live in small huts. Some of the "Long Houses" are impressive, up to 15 m (50 ft) tall! In the coastal and marshy areas, the houses can be built over pylons. The roof is usually made of palm leaves and built on two slopes. The walls are made of thin mats made of palm leaves and tree barks, closely intertwined. The door is low and narrow, so that only one man can enter at a time inside. The Great House has 2 or several fire beds, made of overlapped stones, installed on a thick bed of sand or on a wide clay platform, in order to prevent the firing of the wooden floor.

The Long Houses can host the young men, which could form a family and must stay away of their mothers. The Long Houses are also the place where men gather to chat, drink or plan war expeditions; they store the totems of the tribe, war shields, and conquered trophies (like the skulls of the enemies, whose bodies are devoured in cannibal feasts).

Traditional Papuan tools are made of stone, just how they were made 5,000 years ago in Europe. They use their stone axes from cutting down trees to carving canoes. Food is made of hunt, gathered plants, cultivated plants and domestic animals.

As cooking pots, Papuans may use bamboo trunks, but they also make pots of burned clay. An Austronesian method of cooking the oven-pot. Men dig a big hole which is sheathed with banana leaves. Nearby, in a big fire, stones are heated. When heated, stones are tossed on the hole, and over them are thrown plant and animal food items. Amongst and over the foods are thrown the rest of the stones, and all is splashed with some water. All is covered with leaves and earth. When time is ready, the tap is removed and the feast starts.

Papuans cultivate taro, yam, sugar cane, coconut palm and sweet potato with very primitive tools (a peg and a type of shovel). From Europeans they adopted squash, beans, corn, coffee, potato, peanuts and tobacco. Starch is achieved from the trunks of the Sago Palm (Metroxylon), and looks like tapioca achieved from manioc roots. Papuans drink kava, a hallucinogenic beverage obtained through the fermentation of the roots of kava plant (Piper methystacum).

On the rivers, lakes and coastal areas, fishing is practiced; canoes have floaters, an Austronesian invention. Canoes are usually made from a 10 m (33 ft) long trunk, on which 15 rowers fit. Canoes are emptied using fire and finished with stone axes. The main capture in the rivers are catfish and crayfish; in the sea they catch till sharks and sea turtles.

Hunting is made with the bow and arrow but also with blowpipes (an Austronesian tool). Papuans hunt everything, from giant rats, echidnas and cuscus (a type of a tree marsupial) to the giant bird cassowary (a type of forest ostrich), flying foxes (huge bats, with a wingspan of 1.5 m or 5 ft) and crocodiles, but their preferred game are the feral pigs (pigs are not native to New Guinea, they escaped and turned wild during Austronesian invasion), sought both for flesh and their fangs. Some birds, like paradise birds, parrots or cockatoos are hunted just for their ornamental feathers. In some areas, the grass is burned during the hunt, to chase away the hidden animals.

Amongst the domestic animals, Papuans do not eat just pigs, but also dogs and even cats introduced by the Europeans.

In the mountains of New Guinea salt is extremely rare and many tribes do not know it. Here, the salt springs are also sulfurous, fact that makes the salt toxic. But the indigenous have found an ingenious solution to get the salt. The spring's water is directed through bamboo pipes in an underground reservoir. Here, the people introduce bundles of extremely dry grass which absorb all the liquid. After that, the bundles are dried in the sun. On the grasses crystals of salt mixed with sulfur are left.

In this stage, the grasses are burnt, an operation that removes the sulfur (which oxidizes with air oxygen forming sulfur dioxide) and what is left is ash mixed with salt. The mixture is put in the water and decanted, resulting a saline solution without sulfur. The solution is put to evaporate in the fire, in clay pots covered with banana leaves. The resulting salt is not very pure, but it's all they can get.

The money used by the Papuans are ... the feathers of the paradise birds! The most valuable are the yellow ones. For a good one the men can get a pig or a nice ornamental shell.

Pigs too are 'living money'. Their value is conferred by ... the size of their lower canines! That's why the upper ones are pulled out early to allow the lower canines grow enormous. Another "money" employed by the Papuans are the shells of the marine mollusks, cut in pieces, like Tridacna or Turbo.

In the past, many Papuan tribes practiced rite cannibalism, eating the corpse of their deaths or of the enemies (to achieve their powers). Head hunting was also practiced, and the skull of the enemy was worn as a necklace by the proud warrior.
Scientists had been puzzled for long by the "laughing sickness" of the Fore Papuans (called "Kuru" 'trembling with cold and fever') in their language due to the outbursts of laughter in its second phase. Three stages were described in the progression of the always fatal disease and the patient died in three to six months.

In the last stage, the patient was unable to sit up without support; severe loss of coordination, tremor and dysarthria installs; urinary and fecal incontinence; difficulty swallowing; and deep ulcerations emerge. 1,100 Fore died between 1957 and 1968, mostly women, out of 8,000 individuals. 8 times more women than men contracted the disease. It later affected small children and the elderly at a high rate as well.

Only in 1982 did scientists finally find prions, infectious proteins and could explain kuru. The most known prion diseases are mad cow disease (or bovine spongiform encephalopathy) found in cattle and transmissible to humans and Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, found in humans and very similar in symptoms to kuru, but which develops during at least 30 years.

Mortuary cannibalism amongst Fore spread the disease. When an individual died, the maternal kin were responsible for the dismemberment of the body. The women would remove the arms and feet, strip the limbs of flesh, remove the brains and open the chest in order to get to internal organs.

Kuru victims were especially regarded as food, because the layer of fat on victims resembled pork, the most appreciated food item in New Guinea. Women fed morsels, such as human brains and various parts of organs, to their children and the elderly.

Kuru was transmitted through participation in such cannibalism or through wounds when removing infectious tissue from the body. The gender disproportion was later traced to the distribution of the corpse's remains between the sexes. The males ate the "good" parts of the body, usually the muscles and fatty organs. The females and children got the "bad" parts, including the brain and the other less desirable parts.

This way, the women and children directly ingested the prion, leading to a much higher occurrence rate of Kuru among women. The disease disappeared with the termination of cannibalism in New Guinea

The traditional Papuan religion is animistic, with spirits inhabiting trees, mountains, caves or rivers. They do not accept death as a natural phenomenon, but it is always the result of the evil action of a spirit. The spirits can be influenced through magic. Papuans believe in demas (the protective power of the totems, ancestors, shields or weapons) and taboos. The worlds of the Papuan spirits and magic forces combine into the totemic posts, located in the front of the houses or in the wooden shields and ritual masks. They do not connect sexual act to conception and believe women are fertile/sterile by the will of the spirits.

Due to the clime and their cultural level, Papuans do not wear clothes; the men just a loincloth, while the women fiber skirts whose length depends on if they are sole, married or widows. Sometimes the men wear just a penis sheath (to protect the organ from insect bites).

But the adornments are rich and indicate the social status. The most spread practice is the adornment of the nose cartilage, which starts in adolescence when it is perforated with a sharp bamboo. In the hole is placed a reed tube which is augmented step by step so that by adulthood, in the nose can be put complicated adornments made of cut shells or pig canines. Men can fix on their collars the skull of a killed enemy.

Papuan men have the habit of wearing wigs. The wigs can be very complicated, mixed with reeds and brightly colored feathers. Some Papuan tribes worshiping the crocodiles make themselves crocodile-like body scarring, an extremely painful procedure.

Warfare was common amongst Papuans, and the main weapons were stone axes, spears, bow with arrows and flint knives. Headhunting, rite cannibalism and accusation of black magic were the main accusations. By eating the meat of the enemy, it was believed his power entered the body of the warrior.

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