The Fore People

Dr. Ekman, who sports a grey goatee beard befitting perhaps of a man with a reputation as “the best human lie detector in the world”, developed a belief that facial expressions of emotion were not culturally determined, but were universal across human groups. Unaware of the startling expressions of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, Dr. Ekman instead tested his hypotheses on the Fore people who live deep in the forests of Papua New Guinea and who, he read, were about as close to a pre-industrial culture that had been isolated from the West as he was going to get. The Fore people had also never met Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. Both of these facts – well one fact, one best guess – were very good news for Dr. Ekman’s research project. Having camped out in the jungle for several weeks reading the bemused locals everything from Jilly Cooper to Proust and then showing them a series of posed expressions immediately after the end, Dr. Ekman announced to the world that he was indeed right; we all know a happy face when we see one. Critics muttered that it was no good showing posed photos, for posed photos, as Ed Miliband discovered to the detriment of his own political career, are very different from spontaneous photos. Anyway that Dr. Ekman had a hypothesis on facial expression deserves some credit given many of us don’t have any hypotheses at all. He should also be applauded for his decision to head to Papua New Guinea to test his theory; Papua New Guinea being a country famous for its diverse and rugged terrain, scuba diving and the indigenous people’s taste for; each other.

The Fore people live in the Eastern highlands of the island and career prospects aren’t good, with the main activity during the day being slash and burn farming and avoiding nasty neighbours. The reason the Fore people were interesting to Dr. Ekman was that until the 1950s they had had virtually no contact with the outside world. The outside world being colonials, those intrepid sorts who had struck out from their mother country to teach the world how to talk properly, queue and hold a fish knife. The Fore people weren’t that interested in how to hold a fish knife, unless it was to be used to butcher and eat one of their neighbours. The first outsiders though were early patrol officers known as kiaps by the locals, who had ventured into the forests to try and conduct a census and get a grasp of how many people there were on the island. Kiaps were basically travelling representatives of the British and Australian governments who patrolled the island with a job description that you won’t find on LinkedIn. The kiap was both district administrator and commissioned policeman. He, or she, although given the local’s taste for bloodletting and witchcraft perhaps a better fit for a he, was both magistrate and gaoler. He may also have been engineer, surveyor doctor, dentist, lawyer and agricultural adviser. He was basically a one-man show, a representative of the government who lived life on a high wire, forever one rash or culturally misjudged move from being chopped up and season with cumin. In 1954 one kiap was killed with an axe for simply trying to do a census.

The Fore people would come to regret their taste for each other though, as it led to an epidemic of the neurological disease, kuru, which wiped out near on a thousand Fore. A thousand Fore might not sound much given what epidemics have done elsewhere, but given there are only about 20,000 Fore, this was about the same as the UK having the whole of Birmingham and its surrounds wiped out, which may or may not be a bad thing depending on what you think of the local accent. Kuru, though, is a nasty affliction. It is basically an incurable, neurological disorder that starts with headaches, joint pains and shaking of the limbs. It ends in death. Towards the end the victim has no muscle co-ordination, is unable to speak, can’t swallow and is incontinent. Death would often be from the infection of pressure sores. Now, this is where it gets a bit gritty. There is evidence that the outbreak of kuru was due to the eating of human parts. It is thought to have started from one individual who somehow spontaneously developed a nasty strain of the disease. He died. The custom back then was that his relatives would then eat him in order to return his “life force” to the village, as if that was a good thing given his unsavoury end. And it got worse. Some corpses were often buried for days, and then exhumed a week or so later once the corpses were infested with maggots. The body would then be chopped up and served with the maggots, as a side dish. W.T.F. Cannibalism was banned in the 1950s but the disease lingers, on account of it having an incubation period of anything up to fifty years. Thomas Cook don’t do Papua New Guinea, but if they ever do, it’s probably best to stick with the Algarve.

Papua New Guinea is also one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. There are, in a population smaller than London, no fewer than eight hundred and fifty-two languages. There are even twelve languages which don’t even have any known living speakers. And whilst she may not be aware of it, the Queen remains the country’s Head of State.

And that’s about it on all that. Don’t eat your family.


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