In a remote corner of Papua New Guinea, the scholar known internationally as the “British Indiana Jones” is tracking a global phenomenon of tribal people identifying themselves as a Lost Tribe of Israel.
Florida International University religious studies professor Tudor Parfitt recently conducted a research expedition to Papua New Guinea, where he studies the Gogodala, a tribe of former cannibals who believe they are one the Lost Tribes. The Gogodala are hunter-gatherers in area of western Papua New Guinea with very little connection to the outside world. But from the very first encounters with western explorers in the 17th century, the idea took root that ancient Israelite communities were to be found in the islands of the Pacific. Later, Australian missionaries further propagated the idea.
At the request of tribe leaders, a decade ago, Parfitt conducted DNA testing on the Gogodala to see if he could establish any link to the Middle East. The tests were inconclusive. Nonetheless, the Gogodala have continued to embrace Judaism. During this visit, he was surprised to see the extent to which Jewish practice has developed in the tribe.
“The bedrock of the religious identity of the Gogodala remains in some respects, their traditional belief system, upon which has been grafted Christianity, which was introduced to the tribe in the 1950s by missionaries,” Parfitt said. “On top of that has been grafted a kind of Judaism. More and more of the Gogodala wear yarmulkes and prayer shawls. They’ve started celebrating Jewish holidays and they are using more Hebrew.”
The idea that the population can trace its roots back to ancient Israel is shared by other tribes. Indeed there are those who believe that the whole Papuan population has its roots in the Holy Land.
Parfitt, who has written 25 books, has been studying Judaizing movements around the world for 30 years. He is best known for his work with the Lemba tribe of Africa, which was shown to have an historic link to Israel. His recent book Black Jews in Africa and the Americas records the growth of Israelite movements throughout Africa and elsewhere. His research trip shows that the Gogodala are part of this growing, global Israelite movement.
For more on the research trip to study the Gogodala, click here.