[Making contact with cannibals for the first time is usually fraught with suspense. Father André Dupeyrat’s missionary journey into cannibal territory in 1930s Papua New Guinea was no exception to this rule. In his Savage Papua, 1954, he describes the final moments leading up to formal introductions:]
They would take one step forward and two back, a skip to the right and another to the left, than all together, they would leap forward, yelling louder than before. Their aim was to frighten me, and in this they succeeded only too well. But I could not afford to betray my fear. Smiling and sweating, I continued to advance. Joyfully, as though in greeting, I waved my traveling stick—my only weapon, for missionaries travel unarmed on principle. A wise principle—for had I had a rifle or revolver at that moment the temptation to use it would have been too great. A few spears and arrows flew in my direction. But such missiles are not like bullets. One can see them coming, and dodge. Then I advanced once more, waving a friendly but shaking hand, with smiles at once sickly but amiable, and forcing through my dry throat the glad cries of one who has stumbled upon old friends. Arrows abruptly ceased to hum past my ears. Spears were lowered. The bellowed chant and the frenzied leaping slackened. As if turned to stone, the warriors watched my approach. Some of them even took to flight. In this fashion, I managed to get up to one of the leaders of the dance. I had in my hand a cheap little round mirror, and I thrust this under his nose. He looked, and raised a loud cry of astonishment at seeing his face in the hollow of my hand, having never seen it before except possibly in a pool of water. Other warriors crowded around him, roaring with laughter, then snatched the mirror for themselves, and began crowing with pleasure at their own reflections. Suddenly, a chant quite different from the first swelled out amidst an unbelievable uproar. It was the song of welcome. . . .
[Father Dupeyrat had been fortunate in choosing this particular village. The man under whose nose he had thrust the mirror was not only the chief, but a friendly soul with a fairly cool head. Indeed, Golopoui and he became rather good friends. Nevertheless, the cultural chasm between them was deep, as can be seen in the following incident.]
One day Golopoui came to see me at an unusual hour. By his manner I could tell that he had something special to say to me. He left his bow and arrows at the door of my hut, signaled to me to come out, then taking me by the hand, led me to his own personal hut. It was the first time I had been inside. Like all the other huts, it looked more like a large beehive than a small human habitation. He was the first to enter, wriggling through the narrow doorway rather like a worm sliding into its hole. Being a mountain dweller, Golopoui had a thick-set body, yet he was supple and muscular. What was more, his movements were not hampered by clothes. I followed, but the entire structure shook to its foundations before I had managed to cross the narrow threshold.
Having entered in this undignified manner on all fours, I tried to straighten up; but my head hit hard against the low-slung branches which carried the leaf roof. The darkness was almost absolute, and the heaviness of the atmosphere oppressive, while its smell—compounded of soot, stale smoke, decay, and squalor—was quite overpowering.
Golopoui was talking, but I barely heard him, wholly occupied as I was with recovering my breath, peering vainly into the darkness, and trying to keep my balance on a floor of branches that shifted under one’s weight. Suddenly, a flame shot upward. The chief had lit an armful of leaves with an ember from the hearth. The sudden flare certainly lit up the hut, but also filled it simultaneously with suffocating, blinding smoke.
One adapts oneself to everything, however, and I could soon distinguish Golopoui squatting in one corner of his lair in front of a big pile of dried and rustling leaves, which he was sweeping aside with broad gestures. Gradually two skulls and human bones were uncovered, shiny and polished like ivory. From this funeral heap, distracted ants fled in columns.
“You see?” said the chief, turning to me. “You asked where my parents were the other night. They’re here. That one is my father”—he pointed at one of the skulls with his big toe—“and that one is my mother.”
I spoke his language sufficiently at that point to be able to ask him how his parents died. Without the least embarrassment, Golopoui explained.
“They had got too old. You know what it’s like. My father had become so feeble that he could no longer shake a spear. He had no teeth left, and he ate like a child... As for my mother, her skin had got as wrinkled as an old lizard’s, and as black and flaccid as the wing of a bat. She could no longer go to the vegetable garden. Her eyes were full of filth. It was then that I realized that their time had come.”
“Golopoui, my friend, what do you mean?”
“Don’t you know? I asked my friends from Ghivena to help. You know their village, on the other side of the mountain.”
“Yes, and what then?”
“Well, the people of Ghivena are my very closest friends. So I asked them for the favour which friends do for one another in such cases. They sent a delegation to invite my parents to a banquet at their village. On the way there, they brained them with clubs, strapped them on to a branch and took them back to their village. Then they cut them up, cooked them in a stone oven, and ate them. Afterwards, they washed and cleaned the bones, and brought them back here. You can see what good care I take of them. . . . But then, I’m a dutiful son!”
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