Papua New Guinea is a small country that shares the island of New Guinea with Indonesia. Speak of it in most circles, and you are likely to end up visualising it as exotic and mysterious. Maybe even scary, if you’ve heard of its dalliances with headhunting and cannibalism. However, there is more to this country than the stereotypes. Read on to discover facts about Papua New Guinea – it’s a country that we found absolutely fascinating.
Things to know about Papua New Guinea
1. Land of many tongues
Papua New Guinea has just about 7 million people belonging to around 1000 ethnic groups, but it is home to at least 850 languages. This makes it the most linguistically diverse country in the world! As you can imagine, this makes communication between different ethnic groups quite a challenge. When Papua New Guinea was ruled by colonial governments, the speakers of all of its languages were forced to work together on plantations. This resulted in the birth of a creole, Tok Pisin. Today, the government recognises Tok Pisin as an official language. It is rapidly spreading across the island, limiting the influx of other link languages (like English). For the near future, though, Papua New Guinea is likely to maintain its reputation as a land of many tongues.
After the Amazon and Congo, the third largest rainforest in the world is on the island of New Guinea. Biologists estimate that at least one in every twenty plant species can be found here, as can 150,000 species of insects, 800 species of coral, 650 species of fish and more. Animals unique to the region include the Huon’s tree kangaroo, mountain cuscus and New Guinea harpy-eagle. Perhaps the biggest reason why Papua New Guinea has such diverse wildlife? It lies at the meeting point of the Gondwana and Asian biospheres. Sadly it, with the rest of the planet, has been struggling with the ill effects of climate change and human over expansion for the last few decades.
3. Now you see me, now you don’t
Despite decades of exploration, Papua New Guinea remains one of the last few frontiers on the planet. Many think that deep within its jungles, there are still uncontacted tribes waiting to be found by modern Papuan society. In the near future, who knows how many of their cultures, languages, religions and histories will be touched by Western civilisation? Papua New Guinea’s undiscovered forest regions are also exciting for zoologists. They are very likely to have yet unknown wildlife species. Of course, the primary concern should be to make these discoveries without bringing in too much of the chaos that defines industrial civilisation.
4. An ancient wayfarers’ home
The name ‘Guinea’ is from the Portuguese guine, or ‘land of the blacks.’ The island of New Guinea was named by the Spanish explorer Ynigo Ortiz de Retez, who thought it looked similar to Africa’s Guinea coast. Of course, it is important to note that his view was tainted by the colonial brand of racism that was considered acceptable in his time. However, this brings us to another interesting fact: many of the island’s current inhabitants – now referred to as Austronesians – came from other parts of the world in the last 4000 years. But, the overwhelming majority of them arrived 50,000 years ago, with the very first wave of migrations out of Africa.
5. Connection to World War II
During the Second World War, Japanese soldiers and ships terrorised East Asia, bringing ruin to Allied forces stationed in the region. However, they were eventually thwarted and the beginning of their undoing had roots at the Battle of Milne Bay. When a group of Allied soldiers in Milne Bay, now part of Papua New Guinea, were attacked, they probably expected to be overwhelmed and lose control of their airfields. However, although the ferocity of the attack was an initial shock, they held their ground long enough for their planes to bomb and cut off Japanese supply lines. It’s fascinating to note that this one battle on a small Oceanian landmass helped turn the tide in the favour of the Allies.
6. Terrifying traditions
Some of Papua New Guinea’s tribes have indeed practised cannibalism for thousands of years. They believe it to ward off evil spirits, lend vigour, or honour fallen friends and family. Today, reports of cannibalism in the country are very rare; with reports of only a bare handful of cases every year. Another ancient New Guinean practice that contemporary society might consider heinous was headhunting. According to several archaeologists, this was usually a part of warfare, with victorious tribes preserving and displaying the severed heads of their enemies for all to see. Fortunately, the establishment of the modern state in Papua New Guinea seems to have put an end to this. Unless you intentionally risk your life in the jungles, you should be safe.
7. Part of a greater whole
It can be difficult to view Papua New Guinea as being part of a continent. After all, it does appear to be located on a small island. In truth, though, it lies on the same continent as Australia… But a large part of this continent, Sahul, was submerged thousands of years ago, some time after New Guinea’s first settlers had finished crossing a land bridge. Unfortunately, none of us is going to be around when the waters subside and Sahul rises again. So, we can only wonder what life on the greater continent must have been like.