Papua New Guinea has one of the most culturally diverse and rurally isolated populations on earth. Though it has been independent nation since 1975 and is a member of the British Commonwealth that vows formal allegiance to the British monarchy, PNG’s seemingly infinite number of distinct tribal groups still speak a mindboggling array over 800 local languages, making PNG the world’s most linguistically rich nation. Less than 20% of the approximately seven million Papua New Guneans live in cities but instead dwell in the nation’s functionally impenetrable jungle interior.
Until the 19th century, few Westerners, other than a handful of Portuguese and Spanish explorers, had set foot in the eastern part of the Papuan island. (The Dutch had long controlled the western part of the island, which is now the Indonesian territory of West Papua.) On the other hand, Southeast Asians such as the Malay had been visiting the eastern part of the island for over five thousand years; the name “Papua” comes from the Malay word “pepuah” which indicates “frizzy Melanesian hair,” or at least so says Wikipedia’s entry on PNG. The land became known as “Nueva Guinea” when an
early Spanish explorer suggested a physical resemblance between people on the island and those from Africa’s Guinea Coast.
The eastern part of the island first came under Western control when the Germans colonized its northern half in 1884 and called it German New Guinea. In 1904 the British established themselves on the southern part of the island, calling it Papua. After World War I the League of Nations gave Australia a mandate to control the former German New Guinea while Australia administered Papua as a British Commonwealth possession, confusingly resulting in the northern and southern parts of the nation having different administrations and laws, albeit both under the thumb of Australia.
During World War II the Japanese attacked Papua New Guinea and the American-led Allied forces fought a brutal battle to maintain it. After the war the northern and southern territories combined to form a single nation called Papua New Guinea. In 1975 Australia granted PNG its independence. In 1975-’76 there was unrest on Bougainville Island and from 1988 to 1997 there was a more extensive independence revolt, inspired by the local population’s dissatisfaction with both its level of poverty and the PNG government’s partnership with the Rio Tinto corporation in the Panguna Copper and Gold Mine. (More information: See a slideshow of images from Bougainville Island | Watch “The Coconut Revolution,” a documentary about the more recent Bougainville rebellion | The copper mine closed in 1989 but will it reopen?)
Today PNG is a nation rich in resources that are important in the West such as oil, copper and gold, though international corporations are unlikely to move there en masse any time soon. Not only is the cost of developing infrastructure to access PNG’s raw materials resources very high, but the labyrinthine PNG system of land tenure essentially grants indigenous people the right to live on their traditional lands indefinitely.
More about PNG:
The BBC’s PNG country overview | Are there really cannibals in Papua New Guinea? | Are there really Christians in Papua New Guinea? Yes. In the 2000 census 96% of Papua New Guineans say they are members of a Christian Church. Learn about the history of Christian denominations in PNG | Should West Papua be free from Indonesian rule? George Telek, Papua New Guinea’s most popular world fusion musician, who we’ll meet below, thinks so.