The interplay of headhunting, pacification and epidemic diseases among the Marind-Anim

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Date & time

Monday 07 December 2020


Online - Zoom


John Richens


School of Culture, History & Language

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By 1920 thousands of New Guinea headhunting tribesmen of the Marind community had fallen sick with disfiguring, unexplained genital ulcers. The evolution of this extraordinary and unique epidemic can be traced from the opening up of the Pacific region in the 19th century, through the period of forcible pacification by the Dutch authorities and on to a remarkable campaign by an outspoken Flemish missionary to secure help from the outside world. Experts were sent to investigate and a German husband and wife medical team conducted an remarkable exercize in case finding and treatment to roll back the epidemic. The missionaries experimented with a new model village programme which successfully isolated uninfected young families and was later adopted by the government as a substantially more coercive blueprint for the entire population. Today’s Marind are marginalized by mass transmigration from other parts of Indonesia and a shocking land-grab by international agribusiness interests.

The semen practices of the Marind made them highly vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections. The suppression of headhunting and the epidemics which afflicted the Marind almost certainly intensified these practices at a time when they most needed to rein them in. Three different epidemics devastated the Marind, commencing with tubal infertility (due to gonorrhoea and/or chlamydia), then the eruption of donovanosis and then the highly lethal Spanish influenza of 1918. A new hypothesis is presented to explain the dramatic eruption of donovanosis which has no parallel anywhere else in the world. The conclusion made is that, unlike tubal infertility and influenza which were imports from outside, donovanosis was previously a sporadic endemic disease whose transmission was amplified dramatically by intensified semen rituals in response, firstly, to a severe and rising infertility which could no longer be offset by abducting infants during headhunting raids and, secondly to the devastating impact of the Spanish influenza epidemic.

About the Speaker: John Richens is a retired doctor born in and living in Cambridge, UK and son of Dick Richens who is credited with the invention of semantic networks for machine translation in 1956. He studied classics and then medicine at King’s College Cambridge and King’s College London. He worked as a general physician in Goroka New Guinea from 1984 to 1990 after studying for a Master’s degree in clinical tropical medicine at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. His interest in the tropical sexually transmitted infection, donovanosis, was sparked by the patients with this infection he encountered while working in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Following his return to the UK he worked and taught as an academic specialist in HIV and sexually transmitted diseases at University College London and overseas as a consultant to the World Health Organization and other aid agencies.

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