The distinct languages spoken by more than 800 native tribes in Papua New Guinea are fast disappearing—and taking their family stories with them into oblivion. In response, employees of MyHeritage, an Israeli genealogical website, led a mission this past March to record and preserve those stories for future generations.
Founded in 2003, MyHeritage has nearly 80 million registered members worldwide, comprising 28 million family trees with 1.6 billion individual profiles, as well as hundreds of millions of family photos uploaded by people who speak 40 languages. But the indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea don’t have computers or phones. In fact, the MyHeritage team spent time in two villages without running water, let alone electricity. The team of five (plus a guide) brought a generator to back up the information they recorded every night after conducting personal interviews. They braved nearly constant torrential rain, difficulty with transportation, and issues with food.
And yet, said MyHeritage’s Golan Levi, “Papua New Guinea seemed the most natural place to prove the point that no matter the color of our skin or where we live, deep down we are all basically the same and we all care very much about our families. Beyond any doubt, this point was proven.”
The MyHeritage crew—communicating mainly in English—learned that many indigenous tribes were cannibalistic until the arrival of Christian missionaries less than 100 years ago.
“A lot of people we met, around 50 or 60 years old, told us their grandparents were headhunters,” said Levi. “In the spirit house you were taught how to live according to tradition and go out and hunt people from rival tribes. For each skull you brought back you were entitled to marry one wife. Great warriors therefore had several wives.”
Even today, many tribesmen have a blend of pagan and Christian beliefs and are given both Christian and tribal names, Levi learned.
There were some emotional moments as well. “We got an elder panel together in the highland area, and asked about their childhood memories,” Levi recalled. “Some of them recall bombings from World War II. Then, one of the elders saw our team member Tamar Friedland and said she reminded him of his daughter who died. He hugged her and started weeping.”
The team used the company’s Family Tree Builder program to document basic details on family history, lifestyle, and rituals. They videotaped the interviews for the sake of future generations.
They also took Polaroid photos of the people they interviewed. “This was critical because many of these people do not have a single photo of themselves to pass on to their descendants,” Levi said, adding that it was “something they really appreciated.”
While many anthropologists have studied the disappearing culture of Papua New Guinea tribes, Levi says this was not the intent of the Israeli mission. “We are equipped to help them preserve something for the generations to come. Whether or not we have accessibility to technology, we are all entitled to tell our stories to our children and grandchildren.”
Pro bono activity is part of MyHeritage’s culture. The organization’s genealogical detective work resulted in the reunion of brothers separated for 70 years since the Holocaust, one in Canada and one in Israel. Based on the positive experience in Papua New Guinea, MyHeritage may send other delegations on future missions.
“We do not think this single drop in the ocean will change the world,” says Levi. “Our goal is to inspire. If we can get a single person to get motivated and do the same thing, even with a simple notebook and smartphone, and send us the information, we will process it. Gradually we want to create a movement of awareness.”
[Photo: Christopher Michel / Flickr ]