How would you like to hunt huge crocodiles with the descendants of cannibals and head hunters? Donald MacIntyre, the journalist, had the nerve to do just that.
He has travelled to some of the world’s toughest environments to research how people manage to survive with few resources. He presented his findings in a recent TV series called ‘Edge of Existence’.
In the first episode of ‘Edge of Existence’, he went to Papua New Guinea to live with the Insect tribe of Swagap who, in living memory, were a warrior tribe of head hunters and cannibals.
The Insect tribe are named after the praying mantis which they worship and their lives centre around a river full of crocodiles – the Sepik.
Donal commented on his arrival at Swagap:
“Deep in the jungle of Papua New Guinea and I’m a long, long way from home. I’m about to come face to face with the Insect tribe. Not so long ago this tribe were cannibals and head hunters and still, today, violent disputes flare up in this part of the rain forest.
“I have come to launch myself into a completely alien world on the very edge of existence. I must prove myself by hunting crocodiles and pigs with nothing but a spear to defend myself. This is a truly hostile environment. This may be an adventure too far!”
Donal showed how he truly felt when he was filmed at night in a dug out canoe while out hunting crocodiles:
“Get me the hell out of here! Guys!”
However, he did not feel this way all the time. He had discovered a people that he could respect and whose company he obviously enjoyed.
“I have travelled thousands of miles to get to Papua New Guinea and hundreds of miles on waterways to get to the Insect tribe of the Sepik river.”
“The preconception is of cannibals, of warriors and of a stone age civilization but the reality is right here. You can hear it. It’s right ahead.”
Donal was referring to the tremendous welcome in song he received as the tribe prayed for the guardian spirits to protect him during his visit. The tribe have learned that prayer, at the very least, makes you feel safer and better about what you are doing!
There are 223 members of the insect tribe. They live on what they catch from the river, hunt from the jungle or dig out from the sago palm trees. They live on the edge of existence and were unknown to the outside world until the 1950’s.
The only means of transport are the canoes. If you can’t manage one of these you are going nowhere. Donal had already had an accident with his canoe and realised he needed to practise more and ‘try harder’.
The Insect tribe are part of the commonwealth but they jealously guard their own ancestral beliefs and customs such as polygamy.
Donal stayed with a man who had two wives and three children. One man in that region had 12 wives and 115 children.
The Insect tribe maintain their warrior spirit in the present by spearing boars and savage salt sea crocodiles. Donal took part in both activities. Spearing boars and crocodiles was routine for the tribesmen but terrifying for Donal.
A wild boar is 400 pounds of pure muscle that charges through the forest and impales any victim that gets in its way. Several hunters had been killed and injured.
Before the hunt began the ancestral spirits were called upon to banish evil spirits of the forest that might bring bad luck. A modern equivalent might be to exclude the negative thoughts and comments which can ruin any project. The hunters now believed a good spirit was with them. They expected success.
The chief placed Donal with the elders on a bamboo platform well off the ground. They would wait there until the younger men drove some boars towards them.
Donal sat with James, an elder, who would be his hunting mentor. He asked James if he believed in the magic ceremonies. James replied:
“I believe, I believe. If there are one or two pigs out there, we will kill it today. I believe.”
“The magic is powerful?”
“I believe the magic is. It will work.”
James told Donal to throw his spear first. He assured Donal that he would miss and then he would throw next and hit since he ‘knew how to kill a pig’.
Donal and James, the descendant of head hunters, were like naughty school boys chatting and joking when they should have been focusing. The chief signalled his disapproval.
The hunters passed the time by chewing betel nut with a root of ginger dipped in powdered seashells. It is a mild stimulant which turns your teeth red.
As the drums grew louder, it was obvious that things would happen. Something was coming fast – it was a boar streaking towards and past them.
Donal and James threw their spears but both missed. The other elders also threw their spears. They also missed. Donal commented:
“That was a pig!”
However, the younger men had managed to kill a large sow while they were beating the wild pigs towards the elders. The tribesmen did not forget to sing their thanks to the spirits for a successful hunt.
“As with many indigenous peoples, the men and women of the Insect tribe have strictly defined roles. The women do all the chores. It is their job to fish and make sago from the pith of a sago palm tree. Sago is the staple of the tribe’s diet.
“The men expect me to spend time exclusively with them. They become suspicious when I ask to spend some time with the women of the tribe. ”
However, Donal and Philip, the translator, headed upstream with the women and children to a spot where they could find clay in the river bed. Philip and Donal had to stand in their canoes in the dominant role. The women must sit in the submissive role.
This is clearly a cultural status thing. I once canoed down the Ardeche river in south central France on a school trip. It seemed as if I spent as much time capsized in the water as in the canoe.
My companion in the canoe was a woman school teacher. When she took the leading role at the front of the canoe we soon capsized but the same thing happened when I took the lead. I think it was more about skill and balance than about whether you were male or female. In any event we really enjoyed the trip, including the capsizing, and had a great laugh.
But we would not have been laughing if we had been in a dugout on the Sepik river. Falling into water where there might be crocodiles or borecutters – the Sepik’s equivalent of pirhanha – was not a laughing matter.
In the event, Donal jumped into the river and collected some evil smelling clay. He soon found out that he was doing the job on his own! He joked and laughed with the children and the women.
But when he tried to question the women, they were reluctant to answer his questions. There was a tribal taboo which did not allow women to talk to men outside their own families.
If a woman breaks the taboo, the penalty is death which is usually caused by some kind of accident inspired by the spirits at the request of the elders.
One woman, at least, was bold enough to tell Donal that his efforts at pottery were useless! She handed them over to the kids to put right. Despite the shared laughs, Donal found the world of the women in this male dominated society to be impenetrable.
The day came that Donal had been dreading – crocodile hunting in a dugout canoe.
They were hunting saltwater crocodiles that are valuable for their skin which fetches high prices in the fashion trade. They can grow up to 23 feet long and have been known to snatch people from the riverbank:
“We are hunting a creature so fearsome that they can rip you to shreds in seconds. Make no mistake this is terrifying.”
The hunters were making noises that imitated the sounds of juvenile and adult crocodiles to bring them closer to the dugout. Donal was appalled:
“To me this is absolute madness but Alphonse, the leader, takes it in his stride To him, it is like another day in the office.”
He asked Alphonse:
“Do you eat the meat?”
“Yeah, we eat the meat. This meat is good.”
“What does it taste like?”
“It tastes like chicken. It makes you strong”
“But a chicken won’t bite your head off.”
Donal reflected that the whole experience of standing up in a dug out canoe surrounded by crocodiles was simply not a wise thing to do.
“For them it is like a 9-5 job. For me it is the stuff nightmares are made of. I just want to go home quickly!”
The crocodile is vital for the insect tribe’s survival. They can sell parts of the crocodile for high prices and the meat is very tasty. Crocodiles are the only source of hard cash.
However, there is a looming threat that could destroy their way of life. Five hours boat ride upriver there are plans to build a gold mine. The villagers fear it will contaminate the waters of their beloved Sepik river. They have good reason to worry.
Alphonse expressed their fears:
“We don’t believe in new technology. This is man made thing. It can’t work.”
The head of the spirit house said that the power of the spirits could not control the mining company. The spirit house is the focal point for the men in the village. It is full of beautiful wooden carvings.
Donal asked if could enter the spirit house but was refused entry. In the past a missionary removed and burnt their effigies in an attempt to convert the tribe to Christianity.
For now, the tribe have managed to hold on to their time honoured warrior traditions like archery for hunting and war.
The men practised their archery. Donal’s arrow broke before it left his bow to the amusement of the others. He had to ask:
“May I borrow another arrow?”
“You can’t help but think that, only decades ago, headhunting and warfare went on with these weapons – spears and arrows. In their psyche there seems to be a sense of preparedness for war. Can you imagine being in the middle of the jungle facing the prospect of war with these weapons – spears and arrows?”
The head of the spirit house remembered the stories of war and head hunting told him by his father as a boy:
“The warfare used to take place on the lake. They used arrows and spears. My father was a great warrior He used to fight fiercely. He killed several men from other tribes.”
Donal was now brought back to today’s reality which was frightening enough:
“It may not be war but it is certainly dangerous. Crocodile hunting is on the agenda again – this time in the pitch dark. We gather in a secret huddle for another magic ceremony calling on the spirits to protect us during the hunt. It is going to be a very long night.
“It is so dark in these crocodile infested swamps that we need night vision cameras to see what is going on. At night the crocodiles are more active than in the heat of the day…
“The crocs are very close. It is a terrifying prospect. The hunters are the best in the world but crocodiles are very unpredictable.
“I can’t believe what I am seeing. One of the men is standing in the water just a few feet away from a huge crocodile. It’s totally insane He tried to spear the crocodile but just failed to make a hit.”
Later, Alphonse picked up a baby crocodile and then dropped it back in the water. They eventually captured a four foot crocodile which they kept in the dugout after tying up its jaws. Donal was still highly nervous:
“Every time we career headlong towards the river bank after a crocodile I break out into a cold sweat. If this canoe capsizes we become the hunted.”
It seemed for a moment as if this had happened as the world appeared to turn upside down as the cameraman lost his balance or control of the camera or both!
They had just missed killing a huge crocodile about twelve feet long worth a six months’ salary to a Swagap villager – the croc was harpooned but escaped with the harpoon.
“Well, tonight the big one got away but the hunter’s are happy with their catch. For me, I’m just glad that the ordeal of croc hunting is finally over. I’m just counting all my limbs and they are all here.
“The beast is there. He’s huge and thrashing about and we are six inches from the water and we’re less than a metre away from him. These guys are made of stern stuff but I just want to go home quickly.”
That evening Donal was invited to join the tribe for a crocodile feast:
“When I first came to live with the Insect tribe, I imagined a fierce warrior race.
They are certainly fearless hunters but they are also a generous and resilient people living entirely from their natural surroundings. What impressed me most was their real sense of community.”
When one man’s house was burned down, the entire village turned out to the very next day to rebuild the house from top to bottom.
Donal commented: “That’s the measure of this place.”
But things are changing. The tribe wear shorts and t-shirts and have developed a taste for alcohol. A college student recently brought home the recipe for an alcoholic drink called ‘Steam’. The tribesman followed the recipe and created ‘Steam’.
The tribesmen were intensely interested in Donal’s world in Britain and their shared head of state the queen. Later, a visit was arranged to Britain for some of the Swagap people.
While the hunters celebrated, the head of the spirit house now invited Donal inside and explained that he had learned to respect Donal enough to allow him in.
Days later, western music was playing at Donal’s leaving party Donald drank some ‘Steam’:
“That is absolutely awful!”
Survival and success tips can be learned from both Donal and the Insect tribe:
Prayer, at the very least, makes you feel better about what you are doing! Your belief and expectation could make a miracle more likely.
Banish any evil or negative thoughts that might sabotage your results and start believing in the laws which could bring you good results. Expect success.
Don’t forget to give thanks for everything you receive. Gratitude attracts more to be grateful for.
Appreciate and make the most of the power of team work and the community
We all need to practise more and do better at our canoeing, archery, spearing or whatever. Darcey Bussell, Britain’s most famous living ballerina, has just retired. She started training late at the age of thirteen and was laughed at by the other students. She soon silenced the laughter by spending extra time practising until lights out.
Stay curious and apply what you learn. Your ‘Steam’ may be awful at first but it can improve.
Don’t judge by appearances and past history. The former cannibals turned out to be a brave, kind and intelligent people.
Keep your traditions alive or replace them with ones which are less lethal. The national sport of Papua New Guinea is considered to be rugby league. It has been seen as a replacement for tribal warfare!