Papua New Guinea: Biden’s controversial cannibal anecdote

A statement by US President Joe Biden has caused outrage in Papua New Guinea. Biden told an anecdote about his uncle from the Second World War who was allegedly eaten by cannibals. At a campaign appearance in Pennsylvania, he said: “He was shot down over New Guinea, and they never found his body because there really were a lot of cannibals in that part of New Guinea.” But this story turned out to be a legend shortly afterwards.

James Marape, the head of government of the Pacific state, immediately rejected the anecdote about the uncle being eaten. In fact, Biden’s uncle Ambrose Finnegan crashed an airplane over the waters of Papua New Guinea in 1944. Since then, there has been no trace of the plane or its crew members.

A spark of truth in the cliché?

Simon Tewson bei der Kontaktaufnahme mit den Bewohnern der Insel Panasia / © Foto: Georg Berg
Simon Tewson making contact with the inhabitants of Panasia Island / © Photo: Georg Berg

However, this diplomatic skirmish does not mean that the cliché is false and that there is no longer any cannibalism on Papua New Guinea. During my trip to Papua New Guinea in 2019, our guide Simon Tewson told me an incredible story. He was talking to someone about cannibalism in the local language and said that it must be long gone. His counterpart confirmed that he hadn’t eaten a human in over 30 years. What do YOU mean?

Am Fuß der Kaverne mischt sich Meerwasser mit frischem Regenwasser, das als Trinkwasser in einem Behälter gesammelt wird / © Foto: Georg Berg
At the foot of the cavern, seawater mixes with fresh rainwater, which is collected in a container as drinking water / © Photo: Georg Berg

He told me this story on the island of Panasia, where only a few families live. Drinking water is collected there in underground caverns and fruit and vegetables are in short supply. There is not enough food for everyone every year. Not so long ago, such living conditions led to raids on neighboring islands. There was a widespread belief that by eating their dead enemies, they could gain their strength.

On the trail of the last cannibals

Auf der unbewohnten Insel Pana Wara Wara sind Wege mit Palmwedeln gedeckt / © Foto: Georg Berg
On the uninhabited island of Pana Vara Vara, paths are covered with palm fronds / © Photo: Georg Berg

We were invited to travel together to the uninhabited neighboring island of Pana Vara Vara, where there are still remains of a cult site. A path covered with palm fronds led through dense jungle to a cave in which we found cooking pots and a large number of human bones.

Kannibalenhöhle auf Pana Wara Wara. Der einheimische John führt uns durch steinige Gemüsefelder zu einer unscheinbaren Höhle / © Foto: Georg Berg
Cannibal cave on Pana Wara Wara. The local John leads us through stony vegetable fields to an inconspicuous cave / © Photo: Georg Berg
In einer Höhle von Kannibalen zurückgelassene Schädel auf der zu Papua Neuguinea gehörenden Insel Pana Vara Vara / © Foto: Georg Berg
Skulls left behind by cannibals in a cave on the island of Pana Vara Vara in Papua New Guinea / © Photo: Georg Berg

More about Papua New Guinea:
Detailed article about encounters on Papua New Guinea. The report on the plane wreck deep in the jungle recalls the Second World War and the shooting down of the Japanese General Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbour. Bougainville: the emergence of a nation. In 2019, the population of the former German colony of Bougainville voted in favor of independence from Papua New Guinea with a majority of 98 percent.

The costs of the boat trip were not charged to the editorial team

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