papua new guinea

So, in my art history class today, my professor was talking about something that is so fuckin awesome.

These are warrior shields from the Wahgi people of Papua New Guinea. The warriors paint them with imagery meant to symbolize animals who have traits they wish to embody in battle. These depictions are intended to give the person using it the powers of what they’re depicting.

Now. Look at this Wahgi shield:

Hmm. That looks a bit different from the others.

That looks VERY different. Why, it looks like

The Phantom… American comic book character by Lee Falk. And that’s because it is.

The Wahgi people were isolated from the rest of the “modern” world until 1933. They came into contact with WWII service men who shared some aspects of western culture with the tribesmen. In particular, they showed them the comic books they read while shipped out. The Wahgi loved them. In particular, the Wahgi adored the stories of the Phantom, who wasn’t even particularly popular in its home of America.

He is so popular that the few Wahgi who can read english will read the comics out loud in the village center and hold out the pages for everyone to see, so the whole tripe can enjoy them and marvel at the Phantom’s might in battle.

They identify with the Phantom because he came from a jungle territory, like them, wore a mask to fight, like them, and came from a long line of warriors, which the Wahgi, who worshiped their ancestors, deeply respected. Further, despite not really having superpowers, the Phantom is strong, clever, and incredibly fast. He was so fast that his enemies began to believe that he was impervious to bullets and could not be killed.

Therefore, the Wahgi began painting HIM on their shields to invoke HIS abilities in battle. There are TONS of Phantom-Wahgi shields out there.

So, you might think that you’re huge comic book fan, but the Wahgi have taken their Phantom fandom to the next level and have made the Phantom a fucking talisman to carry into battle for strength.

#Volcanofriday part 2

Earlier today we covered the initiation of an eruption in Iceland. On the other side of the world, an eruption that is much more serious also is unfolding as I type this. This ash cloud is pouring out of the volcano known as Tavurvur on the island of New Britain, in the nation of Papua New Guinea.

Tavurvur is part of a much larger volcanic complex known as the Rabaul Caldera that sits at the far northeastern tip of New Britain. This caldera is the remnants of several large volcanic explosions, the most recent of which took place 1400 years ago. A caldera is a giant hole in the ground; when a large magma chamber beneath the Earth’s surface empties during an eruption, it leaves empty space and the rocks above the magma chamber collapse downward, forming a huge crater in the ground.

The Rabaul caldera is about 8 x 14 kilometers in size. On its southeastern slope, the rim of this caldera has been breached by the Pacific Ocean, flooding the caldera center and creating a natural harbor, protected from the open ocean by the eastern and northern walls of the caldera.

This setup, a protected harbor, is a solid place for economic activity. By the early 1990’s, about 50,000 people lived on the coastline of this harbor, but the volcano had something to say about that.

Calderas don’t die when they erupt. It can take thousands of years for their magma chambers to rebuild, but the magma supply doesn’t shut off after large eruptions. Typically, small volcanoes will begin growing on the edges of the caldera what is known as the resurgent phase of caldera activity. Tavurvur is one of these volcanoes. In 1994 it erupted simultaneously with another cone known as Vulcan on the volcano’s rim, decimating the area. Thankfully, the population was mostly evacuated the night before the eruption as earthquakes gave an early warning, leading to only 5 deaths, but today the population of the area today is a small fraction of what it was before these eruptions.

Tavurvur rumbled to life again today, sending ash clouds high into the air and producing fountains of lava. There is video of the eruption up at our blog, 

This volcano is a direct hazard to many more people on the ground than the current eruption in remote Iceland, and has also caused aviation alerts and forced the redirection of some flights due to ash in the air.


Image credit: Oliver Bluett/AFP

Read more:


The people of Menyama in Papua New Guinea have a ritual that involves the bodies of their warriors. These ‘Aseki Smoked Bodies,’ as they’ve come to be called, are smoked for preservation purposes and then placed upon cliff faces so that they look down upon the village below. These bodies act as protectors of the village, constantly watching so that the locals feel safe. 

Last fall, Ornithology Collections Manager Paul Sweet was one of a team of Museum researchers who travelled to the island nation of Papua New Guinea on an Explore21 Expedition. Sweet and his colleagues Brett Benz and Chris Raxworthy will be discussing their fieldwork at the next SciCafe on Wednesday, March 4. (If you want to learn more before the talk, you can also read the team’s reports from the field here.) Sweet answered a few questions about his time in the field:

You were in the field for seven weeks on this expedition. How do you prepare for a trip like that?

I’ve led and participated in many expeditions, so I have a packing list ready. You have to be prepared with camping gear like your tent and sleeping bag, as well as equipment to capture and prepare specimens. There’s a visit to the doctor to get inoculations up to date, as well as prescriptions for malaria prophilaxis and antibiotics. But every trip is different. For instance, we knew this was going to be a very wet trip, so gear like a wet bag—a waterproof backpack that rolls closed—was key. And then there’s the research prep, like studying field guides and loading the vocalizations of birds we hope to encounter onto an iPod.

Was there anything you wish you had packed once you were there?

A better pair of hiking boots. I decided not to buy a new pair for this trip, because hiking boots take some time to break in. But the moisture in Papua New Guinea was such that the soles detached from my boots within the first day. So I was stuck hiking in “muck boots,” which are like heavy-duty rain boots. They’re not meant for the heavy hiking we were doing, and they cut my legs up pretty badly.

Read more on the Museum blog.