Oct 31, 2012


Blood-red droplets fleck the path to the skull cave. Oh, I know it's just spit from chewing buai (the Pacific’s ever-popular betel nut), but hairs prickle on my neck nonetheless. And that's quite a feat in the 92% humidity of Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea.
Skull cave in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. Image copyright www.amandacastleman.com.

Not even cannibalism has a single, succinct cause in one of the world’s most diverse countries. Some warriors ate flesh to steal power or terrify their opponents. Other tribes honored their leaders by consuming their bodies and showcasing their skulls on altars (in some areas, this funerary practice continued into the 1950s. Now studying its after-effects could lead to a cure for prion diseases like Creutzfeldt-Jakob, better known as “mad cow”). A minority, well, just liked the taste of long pig, giving rise to rumors of orphan farms and human meat sold candidly at markets even just a few generations ago.

Mythology and lurid, tourist-attracting yarns confuse the situation. Here, I’m told, the Hihiyaola subclan hid their headhunting trophies from disapproving missionaries. Or maybe the cave served as a prehistoric mausoleum. Whatever its origins, this dark, damp grotto contains several hundred skulls, making for a pleasantly spooky side trip from Tawali, one of the country’s top dive resorts.

(I dusted off this material, from a spring 2012 trip, to celebrate Halloween. I'll be chronicling my Papua New Guinea trip further on MSN, Wandermelon and Travelgirl Magazine soon.)

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