Koori History Newspaper Archive

Story of deadly blood feud sparks $14m claim

Australian April 25, 2009
Author: David Nason, New York correspondent |

A NORTH Queensland academic has emerged as the power broker in a bizarre US lawsuit pitting two Papua New Guinea tribesmen against The New Yorker magazine and the internationally renowned evolutionary biologist and anthropologist Jared Diamond.

Professor Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who speaks 12 languages and who is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius award", is accused of making up the story of a blood feud between plaintiffs Henep Isum Mandingo and Hep Daniel Wemp.

The unlettered tribesmen hail from a remote PNG district where bows and arrows are still used to settle grievances and pigs are a form of currency. But that hasn't stopped them filing a lawsuit in the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan this week seeking a minimum $US10million ($14 million) in compensation plus punitive damages for libels by Professor Diamond in an article published last year in The New Yorker.

The statement of claim says Professor Diamond's article, Vengeance is Ours: What Can Tribal Societies Tell Us About To Get Even, falsely accuses Mr Mandingo and Mr Wemp of "serious criminal activity and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, including murder".

According to an independent analysis of the article by a non-profit media unit at the New York-based Art Science Research Laboratory, Professor Diamond took casual conversations about tribal revenge he had with Mr Wemp in 2001-02 and turned them into a single, bloodthirsty narrative marked by six pitched battles.

The narrative makes much of Professor Diamond's excitement at discovering his driver is a secret killer.

According to Professor Diamond's article, the feuding resulted in the death of 29 men and 300 pigs and left Mr Mandingo, allegedly the killer of Mr Wemp's uncle, paralysed and confined to a wheelchair.

ASRL investigators sent to PNG to check the story found Mr Mandingo to be a fit, able-bodied man who had never been in a wheelchair.

The lawsuit threatens to expose the declining fact-checking standards in US publishing, but if a law lecturer and PhD student at Australia's James Cook University, Mako John Kuwimb, gets his way, the case will never go to court. Mr Kuwimb, who yesterday described himself as "the principal guy assisting and advising on the lawsuit", said Mr Mandingo and Mr Wemp were hoping for an apology and a cash settlement.

"If we don't get that, we want to proceed with the lawsuit," Mr Kuwimb, a PNG national, said yesterday. "This is a serious defamation and is causing a lot of trouble back at home."

Mr Kuwimb sent a long letter to The New Yorker this week responding to Professor Diamond's article paragraph by paragraph. He said he began writing the letter last year after reading Professor Diamond's article in the course of his PhD studies.

He said his clan group in PNG had also been offended by the article and wanted an apology too. Mr Mandingo told the ASRL investigators he was a peace officer in his village, had not been involved in a blood feud and had not killed anyone. He said he had not been contacted by Professor Diamond or the magazine prior to publication.

Mr Wemp, who is the only quoted source in the story, told the investigators the final article is a lie that has placed his life in danger. Mr Kuwimb, who has lived in Australia for several years, became involved after the ASRL investigators met his brother in the course of their inquiries.

Professor Diamond could not be reached for comment.