Trevor’s Travel Trivia – Part VI – Papua New Guinea Trivia

I spent one month in Papua New Guinea as a development consultant in 1998 and I’ve been fascinated by Papua New Guinea trivia ever since. To me PNG is the epitome of adventure, so hopefully this should make for some tremendous travel trivia.

That’s one HUGE travel trivia: World’s second largest island

Papua New Guinea covers the eastern half of the world’s second-largest island, New Guinea, in the southwest Pacific. Greenland ranks #1, Borneo #3, and Great Britain #9. The western half of the island belongs to Indonesia.

PNG Map 

Stock photography, mainly Pexels, except where indicated otherwise. 2nd pic (c) Simon Hayes, AdventureBagging.

It never rains in Southern California?

Well it certainly rains in PNG. There is only one country with higher rainfall, the tiny Sao Tome and Principe. You thought it rains a lot in Old Blighty? You might want to think again. It rains more than 2.5 times as much in PNG. It is sunny most of the time. PNG ranks similar to Australia in terms of hours of bright sunshine per year. But when it rains, you better take out your snorkel and put on your wetsuit.


Colonial past

PNG gained independence from Australia in 1975. The northeastern part of the archipelago used to be a German colony. Many of the locals still give their children archaic Germanic names that they know from the monks that evangelised them. Names like Aloisius, Humbertus, Ansgard, Brunhilde, Clothilde, or Gottfried.


1st pic (c) Simon Hayes, AdventureBagging.

Cultural and linguistic diversity

If you are familiar with one or more Papua New Guinea trivia, then the following is likely to be one of them. Approximately 825 tribes live in the country, each with their own language, making PNG the world’s most linguistically diverse country. Ranked in #2 is Vanuatu with 113 languages, and in #3 the Solomon Islands with 76 languages. Often, groups of up to 30 languages form a family of languages. The languages within that family are as closely related as Dutch and German or French and Italian.

However, the difference between the languages of one family and those of another family are much more significant. They can even fall into completely different groups like Papuan and Austronesian. English and Tok Pisin are the national languages. Neither of them is Papuan or Austronesian like the remaining languages. Tok Pisin is the lingua franca spoken by everyone. Its name derives from the words ‘talk’ and ‘pidgin’, meaning pidgin language. Local Westeners call it PNG Pidgin. It is a creole language derived from pidgin English. The vast majority of locals speak no English or only very broken English.

PNG Paradise Bird 2  PNG Paradise Bird.jpg

The world’s largest and highest tropical island

New Guinea, the island that PNG shares with its neighbour Indonesia, is the world’s largest and highest tropical island

World’s third largest rain forest

After the Amazon and the Congolese rain forests, the local rain forest is the third largest in the world.


When it comes to biodiversity extremes, everyone thinks of the Galapagos Islands or the Amazon rain forest, so the following is one of the lesser-known Papua New Guinea trivia. Largely as a result of the aforementioned factors and due to its remoteness and comparatively low degree of exploitation, PNG is a safe haven for global biodiversity. It is home to about 8% of the world’s vertebrates and 10% of the world’s fish species, despite only covering less than 0.5% of the world’s land surface. The country has 781 species of bird and a paradise bird adorns its national flag.

PNG gift  PNG tribesmen

Gift Economy

The defining feature of social organisation of the roughly 7 million citizens is still the tribe, with so-called big men having the last word on everything. They become big men and retain their status by giving gifts to other members of their tribe.

Culture and Cults

During WW II the Allied Forces dropped vast amounts of boxes of supplies on parachutes from airplanes onto some remote islands, hoping they would be picked up by their soldiers on the ground. Locals, who often had never seen anything outside their world, started so-called cargo cults. They variably attributed divine qualities to specific American officers, all Allied Forces, airplanes, the boxes and items dropped, or a combination thereof. The cargo cult is my personal favourite of Papua New Guinea trivia, even though the next one is pretty fun, too.

PNG cargo cult 2 

1st pic (c) University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Library’s Melanesian Archives in association with Island Culture Archival Support; 2nd pic (c) Simon Hayes, AdventureBagging.

Islands of the Frizzy-Haired People

When Portuguese explorer Jorge de Meneses became the first European visitor to Papua New Guinea in 1526, he named the islands ‘Ilhas dos Papuas’ or ‘islands of the frizzy-haired people’.

Cannibalism and Cows

In July 2012, 29 local tribesmen were arrested in northeast Papua New Guinea after eating seven people believed to be sorcerers. Decades ago, cannibalism was rather prevalent in some tribes such as the Fore tribe. During the 50s scientists estimate that about 2% of the population died each year as a result of a disease called Kuru, which is very similar to mad cow disease. However, over time they developed genetic immunity against the disease. Scientists are now hoping that the study of this immunity will lead to progress in Alzheimer and Parkinson research.

Vicious volcanos

Rabaul on the island of New Britain is generally considered to be among the world’s three most active volcanoes. The town of the same name at the foot of the volcano regularly gets destroyed as a consequence of eruptions, lastly completely wiped out in 1994. Luckily, only five people lost their lives.

PNG rabaul eruption 

Left pic (c) Volcanodiscovery dot com.


PNG’s highest mountain, Mount Wilhelm, is 4.509m high. Carstensz Pyramid on the Indonesian part of the island is the highest point between the Himalayas and the Andes. Moreover, it is the highest island peak in the world. It soars to 4.884m. When Dutch explorer Jan Carstensz first sighted the glaciers on the peak of the mountain in 1623, he was ridiculed in Europe for saying he had seen snow near the equator. Carstensz Pyramid is one of the Seven Summits.

Vast parts of the mountainous interior of the country are only accessible by road for a few months per year because of the risk of floods and mudslides.

Papuan Peasant People

People in New Guinea were among the first crop farmers, and the first outside Northern Africa and the Middle East. Often ignored by school history books, the trail-blazing locals started crop-farming 9,000 years ago. This was way before China gave it a shot, some 800 years later.

(c) www dot papuaerfgoed dot org and Johannes Veldhuizen.

Last First Contact in 1974

In the 1930s Australian gold prospectors stumbled across hundreds of tribes with an estimated total population of 1 million in the highlands of PNG that no one had known of before. The last major tribe that was discovered is the Korowai Tribe. In 1974 a group of scientists made first contact and were surprised that such a primitive tribe would be able to build giant tree houses more than 40 metres off the ground.

When I visited Papua New Guinea nearly 25 years ago, there was a lot of doubt as to how many million people lived there. Some estimated the population to be a mere 3.5 million, others as much as 8 million.

More Travel Trivia from Trevor

Enjoyed reading about Papua New Guinea trivia? Check out Trevor’s other Trivia, for example on Bhutan, on the river Thames, or on peasants’ food turned posh. That’s it. Tenkyu and gutbai (thank you & goodbye in Tok Pisin).

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  1. I remember reading the one month in PNG and enjoyed it thoroughly. I knew I’d like this.

    The worlds 3rd largest rainforest is something I never knew nor did I know hiw wet it is we will pack the snorkel and flippers if we make it there

    Loving the trivia posts at the moment

  2. Papua New Guinea’s remoteness has long captured many adventurer’s imagination and dreamers alike, myself included 😉 PNG is one of those places that exudes an utterly unchanged quality to it despite the arrival of modernity. Thanks for sharing this travel trivia 😉 So handy too on a pub quiz night 😉

    1. Thanks for reading, Jan, yes, absolutely agree, PNG is quite something if you look for adventure. Also, yes, indeed, I did have pub quiz nights on my mind when I assembled this list of trivia. It’s been way too long since Ellie & I took part in pub quizzes. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  3. I read a book several years back about one of those World War 2 planes crashing on the island, and how the survivors had to deal with the local tribes who were certainly surprised by their arrival, and vice versa. I don’t remember a lot of the details but your post rattled my memory a bit – enough to go looking for it. Lost in Shangri La by Mitchell Zuckoff. I remember it was a good read.

    1. That’s the second book recommendation of yours in recent times that I’ll almost certainly follow up. The other one was that book about the Thames which stretches over two millennia. Thanks, mate. 🙂

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