Jens Bjerre gives sympathetic accounts of primitive and cannibal social customs  
Cannibal Culture

Selected excerpts from Jens Bjerre’s The Last Cannibals on primitive beliefs and customs

New Guinea

Cannibal Courtship and Customs (1)

The confusion which arises when white men impinge on native custom and habit was illustrated in another episode when a high-ranking official and his lady were due to visit a certain village. Word was sent ahead to the chief, suggesting that the girls of the village should wear more clothes than usual lest their naked breasts should shock the lady. When the party arrived for the reception, however, the girls were observed to be wearing their usual costume of raffia skirts and flowers in the hair. But as the official’s wife stepped ashore all the girls modestly lifted their raffia skirts and held them over their breasts.

Watching a Morombo dance

The next morning broke fine and sunny, and warriors from surrounding villages came streaming in, all magnificently decorated with coloured feathers from the birds of paradise, and many with their faces daubed with vegetable dyes, soot and boar grease. After sitting about over food and drink until midday, they began the ceremony. They [the Morombos and their guests] stood in long rows, in the middle of the open square, half of them carrying snake-skin drums, the others clutching spears or bows in their hands. The dance which they performed consisted of hopping and stamping to the accompaniment of the drums, and as the tempo quickened they worked themselves more and more into a state of frenzy. The sweat poured from them and some of them shouted threateningly at me when I pointed my camera or microphone at them. Suddenly, there was an interruption. A group of young girls came yelling out of the guest hut, caught hold of one of the young men among the dancers and dragged him off, violently protesting, into the jungle. Through Maio I learned that this was a frequent occurrence during the dancing feasts. When one of the young girls takes a fancy to a man, she lets him see it; and if he ignores her overtures, she collects her girl friends and carries off the reluctant lover.

Next morning it was raining when the Luluai came to my hut and told me that I could attend the ceremony of boring the boys’ noses...

The procession sets off in the rain for the nose-piercing ceremony

It was all very much like the Kukukuku’s initiation ceremony. Later in the afternoon, through pouring rain, the procession went back to the village, some of the men playing bamboo flutes. When we reached the village everyone streamed out gaily to meet us, the women and children gathering around the boys, each of whom now had a short piece of bark in his pierced nose. Fires were lit in the square, and soon the dancing and the drumming were in full swing. Many of the young girls, I noticed, now took part in the dancing, their bodies smeared with boar grease. As they danced, often very close to the men, there rose upon the air a penetrating odour of sweat and desire from their naked bodies. The glare of the fire was reflected from their excited eyes and on their white teeth and in the sea-shells and paradise feathers with which they were so liberally decorated. I was very late into my sleeping-bag that night.

I awoke next morning to find there had been a visitor in my hut during the night. My baggage had been ransacked, the sack of salt and all my other articles of barter had been stolen and most of my stores, except a couple of tins of coffee essence. Luckily my film camera and sound recorder had not been touched. I rushed angrily out of my hut and came upon a party of warriors stuffing themselves with my food. I kicked the tins out of their hands and shouted for the Luluai, but the chief was nowhere in sight. The warriors took on a threatening demeanour, and one of them threw his spear demonstratively towards my hut, a few yards from where I now stood. The gesture obviously meant: get the hell out of here, or else!...

I immediately told Maio to get ready to depart. While I was packing my precious films and recordings the Luluai shamefacedly came forward with some of the older men, apologized for the theft, and by way of compensation gave me a couple of billums – large carrier-bags – full of fruit and kau kau. I noticed as he did so that he had several of my stolen articles stuck into his bark belt, but I decided to say nothing; I was getting anxious not to miss the plane back.

Jens Bjerre, The Last Cannibals, Michael Joseph, 1956 pp. 55, 116-118

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