25 interesting facts about Papua New Guinea

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The most interesting facts about Papua New Guinea include isolated tribes, the world’s first gardeners, cannibalism and a poisonous bird.

Tribal culture account for several interesting facts about Papua New Guinea
Tribal culture account for several interesting facts about Papua New Guinea (Shutterstock)

Fast facts

Official name: Independent State of Papua New Guinea
Capital city: Port Moresby
Population: 7,259,456
Area: 462,840 sq km
Major languages: Tok Pisin, English, Hiri Motu
Time zone: UTC+10/+11 (Australian Eastern Standard Time)
(Source: CIA World Fact Book)

Interesting facts about Papua New Guinea

1. Archaeological evidence suggests humans first arrived in Papua New Guinea by island-hopping over the Indonesian archipelago from Asia around 60,000 years ago.
(Source: Lonely Planet)

2. Papua New Guinea used to be part of a prehistoric supercontinent called Sahul. It was composed of present-day Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea before they were separated by rising sea levels around 10,000 years ago.
(Source: History)

3. Papuans were plausibly the world’s first agriculturalists. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of gardening from up to 9000 years ago.
(Source: Lonely Planet)

4. In 1526, Portuguese explorer Jorge de Meneses became the first European visitor to Papua New Guinea. He named one of the islands ‘ilhas dos Papuas’ or ‘land of fuzzy-haired people’.
(Source: BBC News)

5. In 1873, British explorer Captain John Moresby surveyed the southeast area of New Guinea and founded the capital city, Port Moresby, naming it after his father.
(Source: Britannica)

6. Britain, Germany, Australia and Japan all occupied areas of Papua New Guinea until 1975 when the country finally gained full independence.
(Source: BBC News)

7. The flag of Papua New Guinea is red-black diagonally divided and features a yellow bird-of-paradise and the Southern Cross constellation.
(Source: Britannica)

The flag of Papua New Guinea
The flag of Papua New Guinea (Shutterstock)

8. Papua New Guinea is home to at least 750 tribes.
(Source: Lonely Planet)

9. Around 80% of Papua New Guinea’s population reside in rural areas with few or none of the facilities of modern life.
(Source: BBC News)

10. Many tribes who live in the isolated mountainous interior have little contact with one another or the outside world. As such, many live within a non-monetarised economy dependent on localised farming.
(Source: BBC News)

11. Papua New Guinea shares the world’s second-largest island, New Guinea. New Guinea is split almost equally between Papua New Guinea to the east and Indonesia to the west. Discounting continental landmasses such as Australia, only the island of Greenland is larger.
(Source: Steven Roger Fischer (2013) Islands: From Atlantis to Zanzibar. Reaktion Books: London. p. 12)

12. Additionally, New Guinea is (geopolitically at least) split across two continents (transcontinental): Oceania and Asia.
(Source: National Geographic)

13. The kink or “bite” in the international border between the two countries is a result of headhunting (the practice of taking and preserving a person’s head after killing them). In 1893, the area was awash with headhunting and the British, who controlled the southeastern quarter, found it difficult to combat due to the then vague border with the Dutch-controlled west New Guinea. The border was adapted allowing British authorities to patrol much further without having to cross international borders.
(Source: New York Times)

14. Some of the world’s most recent cases of cannibalism were reported in Papua New Guinea. During the 1960s in some villages among the Fore tribe, a recently deceased person would be cooked and consumed. It was considered an act of love and grief.
(Source: NPR)

15. At the time, experts suggested the cannibalistic practice led to a mad cow-like disease that was causing the death of up to 2% of the population every year. This practice has now led to the Fore tribe developing genetic resistance to the disease.
(Source: The Guardian)

16. As recently as 2012, 29 people were charged with alleged cannibalism in Papua New Guinea.
(Source: The Telegraph)

17. Papua New Guinea lies on the “Ring of Fire”, an area prey to volcanic activity. Recent eruptions include Mount Tavurvur in 2014, Kadovar Island in 2018 and Mount Ulawun in 2019.
(Source: CIA World Fact Book)

The eruption of Tavurvur volcano
The 2014 eruption of Tavurvur volcano (Shutterstock)

18. Papua New Guinea is the world’s most linguistically diverse country, with nearly 850 native languages spoken.
(Source: The Economist)

19. Papua New Guinea is a world-class birding destination and is particularly famous for the colourful birds of paradise (paradisaeidae). The national bird is considered sacred by some Papuan tribes but it is under threat from illegal trading, taxidermy and poaching.
(Source: Lonely Planet, Radio New Zealand)

20. Papua New Guinea is one of 17 megadiverse countries in the world. Megadiverse countries are the world’s most biodiversity-rich countries.
(Source: The Telegraph)

21. Tree kangaroos can be found in Papua New Guinea. In 1990, a new species of tree kangaroo, the golden-mantled tree kangaroo, was discovered in Papua New Guinea.
(Source: WWF)

22. In Papua New Guinea’s Sepik region, young men cut their skin to resemble crocodiles in a scarification initiation rite. The men slice their backs, shoulders, and upper torsos with razor blades to leave long raised welts resembling a crocodile’s hide.
(Source: National Geographic)

Tribal crocodile scarification in Papua New Guinea
Tribal crocodile scarification in Papua New Guinea (CC BY 2.0)

23. Shell money – known as tabu and formed of small shells threaded on strips of vine – is still used as currency by the Tolai tribe of Papua New Guinea. It is exchanged to mark births, marriages and deaths.
(Source: Royal Collection Trust, Vice)

24. During the 1930s, Australian gold prospectors famously ‘discovered’ around a million people living in the remote valleys of the New Guinea Highlands. Until then, white colonialists had deemed the area unsettled, but it turned out to be the most densely populated region of the country.
(Source: Smithsonian)

25. One of the world’s only known poisonous birds, the hooded pitohui, can be found in Papua New Guinea. Its feathers carry one of the most powerful toxins known to science.
(Source: Australian Geographic)