Male infanticide in Papua New Guinea? Get real.

File this one under ‘public use of reason 101’.

On 28 November 2008 The Nation, one of Papua New Guinea’s two largest newspapers, ran a story entitled “Male Babies Killed To Stop Fights”:http://www.thenational.com.pg/281108/nation5.php which claimed that women in the Gimi area have decided to kill all their male children in an attempt to stop an ongoing tribal fight by, as it were, cutting off the supply of reinforcements. The story, sensational as it was, got picked up by “the Australian Broadcasting Corporation”:http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/12/01/2434537.htm and even made its way to “Fox News”:http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,460166,00.html.

Now, on the one hand this story is so outrageously exoticizing, so sensationalistically othering, so reliant on tropes of primitive, savage black people that it pushes all the buttons of Politically Correct Anthropologists. On the other hand, Melanesianists like myself often are wary of overly-eager professors who denounce myths of cannibalism and so forth because, well, Papua New Guinea is a place where cannibalism was practiced, a place where real cultural difference does occur, were there is fighting, and so forth: no one ever told anyone in PNG that we in the academy had developed an elaborate set of rules about how they were supposed to live their lives, if you see what I mean.

But even given these reservations, even given these reservations, this story still sounds absolutely ridiculous to me and stands, in my opinion, as a classic example of Papua New Guinea being trotted out again to serve Australian and American fantasies of primitive savagery.

For one thing, the Salvation Army has been in the Gimi area (so much for being ‘untouched’) and has worked to try to end the dispute, and they are quoted in the original news story. However, in a follow-up story the ABC has reported that “the Salvation Army denies that these killings took place”:http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/12/01/2434824.htm. According to this report “the Highlands women are making the point that there are so many murders they might as well kill their newborn boys themselves, rather than go through the pain of losing them in tribal fights.” Now this I believe, as this sounds very much the way that people talk about pain and suffering in PNG.

Moreover, experts on Gimi say that this area fits the pattern that we see in a lot of the world — that female infanticide, not male infanticide, is common. In an email to me Paige West, a professor at Barnard College, wrote

Historically Gimi in Lufa and Unavi practiced infanticide through subtle neglect and exposure if a baby was unwanted or if the mother was simply too overwhelmed by other young children (especially if there was one already breast feeding when the new one was born) to care for the newborn. This was more often than not done with female infants – so much so that in the census reports in the 60s and early 70s there was a marked gender imbalance among Gimi. Gillian Gillison’s work shows that in general in the 70s and 80s first born babies were more likely to die than to survive (See Between Culture and Fantasy: A New Guinea Highlands Mythology for Gillison’s in-depth discussion of Gimi ideas about conception, birth, and death).

Additionally, she writes:

No Gimi person I know would actually attribute the cause of fighting to their own immediate family (if between patrilines), to their own extended family group (if between ‘clans’), to their village (if between villages), or to their ethnic group (if between Gimi and others). They would attribute the cause of the fighting to whomever they were fighting so to kill male offspring in ones own line in order to stop fighting is nonsensical.

and

The thought process that is ascribed to the mothers in the story in some ways seems to be a Foucauldian management of population which is hard to imagine that any Gimi would apply to their own children and kin. The idea that eliminating one’s own child to create some future social benefit to all seems like a kind of governmentality that does not exist in Gimi society. Essentially the extent to which kinship controls social relationships means that that arguement would be a radical departure from Gimi social world views.

In sum, we have a typical story: inaccurate reporting which is picked up on on global media because readers find it exciting to read about Papua New Guineans behaving badly. Is anyone willing to defend the original National article in public? And, more importantly, when are we going to have some positive news coverage of everything that is going right in Papua New Guinea?

UPDATE: Its fascinating to watch this story mutate — now “Women on the Web”:http://www.wowowow.com/ is linking to the original story with the headline “Male Infanticide on Rise as Papua New Guinea’s Women Attempt to End War”:http://www.wowowow.com/post/male-infanticide-rise-papua-new-guineas-women-attempt-end-war-150858#comments. This headline makes it sound like the whole country is getting into the act (although to be fair the body of the article just repeats what is in the original National article).

UPDATE UPDATE: Here’s a link to “the Times version of this story”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article5265057.ece

Rex

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

6 thoughts on “Male infanticide in Papua New Guinea? Get real.

  1. By the way, according to The Times:

    The claims of infanticide, though shocking, have not surprised sociologists in Papua New Guinea

    “Those tribes are so remote that whatever happens up there (in Gimi) doesn’t come out,” Diana Panta of the University of Goroka told The Times.

  2. I _wish_ I could be completely convinced that this is just sloppy journalism. Firstly, Diana Panta of the University of Goroka (the geographically nearest scientific centre – am I wrong?) finds the reports not at all implausible. Another thing that keeps bothering me is what the original story quotes as supposedly exact words from the two activists:

    “‘All the women folk agreed to have all male babies born killed because they have had enough of men engaging in tribal conflicts and bringing misery to them,’ they said.”

    No hypothetical here, though I think I’ve read somewhere that Papuan languages tend to have elaborate aspect/tense/mood systems, so perhaps the hypothetical was lost in translation?

    If it is indeed a canard, then apart from the cultural superiority s**t you mention there was another bigotry blowing air into the balooney: the “men are the root of all evil”, “women are innocent victims”, “men/boys killed, women hit the hardest” discourse. I can see radfem fingerprints all over it.

  3. Before we flap about media fetishization of PNG and conflation of one group with the entire nation, could we just pause to contemplate the anthropological fetishization of PNG and conflation of that nation with the entirety of Melanesia. The latter can be equally as guilty of ‘trotting’ the latter out as the former. If we want to see significant change in a centuries-long pattern of ‘Savage South Seas’ reportage that needs to be seriously addressed.

  4. I don’t think that Diana Panta’s remarks can really be taken as a sign that this report is correct. What she appears to be saying is that she knows absolutely nothing about Gimi. This is hardly confirmation. At best her claim that there is no information about Gimi _at all_ might be construed as a rebuttal to the claim that these reports could not be correct because we would have heard about them sooner. But I don’t see how someone professing ignorance on the topic could somehow be used to argue against the statements made by an expert in the area and the Salvation Army itself both claiming that the story has been misreported.

    Or if you think “we don’t know it doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean that it could, even though the specialists in the area claim it doesn’t” is a great argument, then I have some weapons of mass destruction to sell you.

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