top of page

70. Green in Papua New Guinea during the 21st Century

APR. 19, 2023


We’re off to the Pacific Ocean to discover the nation of Papua New Guinea. Discover grim tale of the laughing death, find out how feathery fashions almost spelt doom for the bird of paradise, and discover the anthropologist who trekked into the jungle to witness a very unusual death

The Independent Nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a pacific nation in Melanisia, North of Austrialia. A large part of consists of the island of New Guinea, which is itself split in half, with the Eastern half belonging to Papua New Guinea, and the Western to Indonesia.
In fact, New Guinea is is the world's second-largest island, with an area of 785,753 km2, but Papua New Guinea as a nation also includes some islands of the Solomon islands archipelago.
Papua New Guinea is approximately 20% smaller than France in area, but has a much smaller population with France’s 68 million people dwarfing the 9million people who live in PNG.
It may come as a surprise, then to learn that this small population contains a multitude of languages. In fact it is estimated that over 800 languages are spoken in PNG, with the official languages being English, Tok Pisin (a creole of English), Hiri Motu and PNG sign language.
The flag of New Guinea is split diagonally with a black half which also includes five white stars, representing the Southern Cross constellation, and a red half which features a gold silhouettes of the national bird of Papua New Guinea, the bird of paradise. The flag was adopted in 1971, where it was selected as the winner of a competition and the entry was by Susan Karike, a 15 year old schoolgirl at the time.
Archaeological evidence indicates that humans arrived on New Guinea perhaps 60,000 years ago, probably from South East Asia. Tribes established themselves and lived hunter gatherer and agricultural lifestyles for centuries.
In 1526–1527 the Portuguese explorer Jorge de Menezes came upon the principal island and is named it "Papua", after a Malay word indicating the frizziness of the Melanesian people's hair. The Spaniard Yñigo Ortiz de Retez later applied the term "New Guinea" to the island in 1545 because he believed the people resembled those of the African Guinea coast.
In 1884, the German Empire took over the northeast quarter of the island and put it under the control of the German New Guinea Company. Meanwhile, in the South of the Island the British were doing much the same thing. What became called British New Guinea, was annexed on 4 September 1888.
In 1902 the area was put under the rule of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1902 and, when Germany lost power at the end of World War 1, the entire region came under Australian control.
In the second world war, the Japanese landed on the North side of the ‘tail’ of the island and attempted to move into the capital, Port Moresby, but they were stopped by a small contingent of Australian soldiers. These soldiers were ably supported by local people they recruited to escort wounded men back home, people who became known as ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’.
Elections in 1972 resulted in a government committed to self-government and then to independence and, true to their goal, Papua New Guinea achieved independence on 16 September 1975.
The country joined the United Nations (UN) on 10 October 1975.

Birds birds birds
The national bird of Papua New Guinea is the Bird of Paradise and it has long been prized for its dramatic long feathers, which are used as decoration by many tribes in rituals and dances.
It is thought the first birds of paradise were brought to Europe on Magellan’s ship, with 5 of the birds being returned in 1522.
These birds were presented as they had been prepared – with the legs cut off – and it was assumed this was their normal, living state. This gave rise to the belief that the bird of paradise had no legs, living its entire life on the wing and only touching ground on its death.
To this day the latin name for the Greater Bird of Paradise is Paradisea Apoda – the legless bird of paradise.
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, an explosion in demand occurred for the feathers of these birds to feed a rise in fashion for feathers in hats – the so-called plume bloom. This led to a huge trade in birds, massively damaging populations across the world.
Not everyone was happy with this fashion. In 1889, Emily Williamson started the Society for the Protection of Birds to campaign for change. She eventually joined forces with Etta Lemon and Eliza Phillips of the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk of Croydon to form the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Legislation was passed to restrict the feather trade, but some people argue that it was not changes in the law that caused the feather trade to wane, but changes in fashion. Some say it was the incompatibility of big feathery hats with the rising popularity of motor cars that caused it, others suggest shorter hairstyles adopted in the 1920s could not sustain large headwear. Whatever it was, the plume boom eventually, and mercifully, came to an end.

An anthropologist in Papua New Guinea
In 2019 Don Kulick, professor of anthropology at Uppsala University in Sweden released a book entitled A Death in the Rainforest, A: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea.
In it, he recounts his travels to Papua New Guinea to a tribe living in a remote swamp, where he aimed to study the way in which a language died. The tribe had around 80 people who had originally spoken Tayap, a language unique to this one village, but was rapidly being overtaken by Tok Pisin, the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea.
Living with the tribespeople for months at a time, he grew to know they people and their stories, and the ways in which colonialism, capitalism and Christianity combined to hasten the death of the Tayap language.
In this episode Don talks about his experiences in the jungle, his struggles with some of the local cuisine, and explains what he learned about language death.

bottom of page