Flag of Papua New Guinea
Circumcision in
Emblem of Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea


Location, political and cultural history

No analysis of the history of Papua New Guinea (PNG) can be complete without considering its principal land mass as one half of the island of New Guinea. Palaeo-anthropological research suggests that this island was first inhabited about 60,000 years ago, as part of the first wave of human migration from South-East Asia towards Australia. It might be said that PNG awakened the world to the possibilities of studying human migration through genetics; iron deficiency anaemia attributable to α-thalassaemia is so prevalent in the area as to provide a clear genetic marker tracing population movements prior to eventual settlement.

Long before colonial rule by European powers, a unified cultural and ethnic Melanesian group formed distinct from the Micronesian peoples to the north and the Polynesians to the East. The extent of ‘Melanesia’ is shown on the map below-left. Some researchers extend the boundary further west, to include the whole of what is now the Indonesian province of Maluku.

Melanesian cultural area

The island of New Guinea in relation
to the Melanesian Cultural Area
  Map of Papua New Guinea

Territorial extent of the nation state
of Papua New Guinea (since 1975)

The colonial era saw three powers dominating the region - the Dutch, the Germans and Australia as proxies for the British.

The Dutch, based thousands of kilometres to the west in Batavia (now Jakarta), occupied the western half of New Guinea - a somewhat artificial division that persists to this day. Prior to the First World War, the north-east part of New Guinea was ruled by Germany. Hence the Germanic names of Mount Wilhelm (the country’s highest peak) and the Bismark Sea. The third force in the area were the Australians, occupying only the south-eastern coastline. German influence came to an abrupt end in 1914 in consequence of invasion by the Australian army. After the cessation of the hostilities of World War One, the Australians ruled the former German colony under a League of Nations mandate; that continued until the Japanese invasion in December 1941. The defeat of Japan in 1945 saw Western New Guinea restored to Dutch rule; hence the territory is Indonesian today in consequence of Dutch decolonisation. Australia returned to govern not only the eastern part of New Guinea but also the smaller islands of New Britain, New Ireland and Bougainville.

Independence came late by the standards of decolonisation generally. Papua New Guinea became self-governing on 1 December 1973 and fully independent on 16 September 1975, composed solely of the territory administered by Australia since the end of the Second World War.

Cultural background to circumcision in Papua New Guinea

Male circumcision in PNG pre-dates not only colonial influence, it also appears to pre-date Islamic influence as experienced in, for example, the Malay Peninsula and some parts of what is now western Indonesia. Despite the absence of written records from before the colonial era, this can be deduced from the style of circumcision prevalent in PNG. A review of literature from the colonial era is reported to be in progress (November 2011).

Research by Tommbe et al (see item below regarding seminar on 22.Sep.2011) establishes the following with respect to the adult population in the first decade of the 21st century:

Style name Style description Frequency
Uncircumcised Natural foreskin unmodified 43%
Longitudinal cut Any form of longitudinal incision of the prepuce that
exposes the glans but does not remove the prepuce
Circumferential cut Full removal of the prepuce with full exposure of the glans 10%
88% of participants originated from the principal land mass of New Guinea, 12% from outlying islands

The prevalence of the Longitudinal Cut shows that the cultural driver for circumcision is a norm associated with other population groups in Melanesia and the Philippines, rather than a function of Islamic trader influence. It also rules out influence of Australian-based healthcare provision in the mid-20th century, a time when infant circumcision amongst the ruling white population of Australia was near-universal. Any such influences would have greatly increased the incidence of circumferential cuts.

22 September 2011 : Seminar regarding circumcision in PNG held at Cairns Base Hospital

Researchers investigating male circumcision as a possible way to reduce HIV transmission in the diverse cultural surroundings of Papua New Guinea presented their work at a seminar and discussion panel at Cairns Base Hospital, Queensland, Australia, on Thursday 22 September 2011 as part of James Cook University’s Celebrating Research@JCU series.

“Papua New Guinea has more than ninety per cent of all the cases of HIV in Oceania”, Professor McBride said in a press release advertising the gathering. “This disease is having a major impact on our nearest neighbour’s social, economic, educational, and cultural development.

“This is also a critical issue for our region. PNG is only an hour and a half flight from Cairns and just four kilometres from Saibai Island.”

Dr MacLaren said male circumcision might be an additional way to reduce HIV transmission, but there was little information on current circumcision practices or whether this would be an acceptable approach in PNG. “We have been working in partnership with Pacific Adventist University and Divine Word University in PNG to explore whether increasing the number of men who are circumcised would be an acceptable and feasible way to reduce HIV transmission”, he said.

The researchers talked with over 860 men in four locations and found that only about 10% of men were circumcised in the true sense, but that a further 47% had less complete forms of circumcision where the foreskin had been cut but not removed. “One of the issues that emerged is that the majority of men we spoke to had the procedure outside any health facility, most often done by friends or relatives”, Dr MacLaren said. “Many of the procedures differ from a classic circumcision and we now need to investigate whether these types of cuts help reduce HIV transmission.”

The researchers have also interviewed 510 women on whether male circumcision was a good thing for their partners and their children. Some were happy with the health benefits of male circumcision while some worried that men might feel less at risk of HIV and so be less likely to practise safe sex.

The research was presented at a well-illustrated seminar and panel discussion at Cairns Base Hospital on Thursday, 22 September 2011.


The following resources were used in the preparation of this web page:
Logo Wikipedia
Flag of UK BBC Logo Roberts, A. The Incredible Human Journey, 2009. London:Bloomsbury. pp 90-91 and the associated BBC-TV series.
Flag of Australia Logo of JCU Seminar presentation “Cutting Edge Research: Investigating Male Circumcision for HIV Prevention in Papua New Guinea”, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia.
Thumbnail Thumbnail Maps courtesy of Wikipedia and the US Central Intelligence Agency.

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