Does Biden's "Cannibal" Gaffe Reveal A Deeper Colonial Mindset?

Does Biden's "Cannibal" Gaffe Reveal A Deeper Colonial Mindset?

Unpacking the tensions between state sovereignty and Indigenous peoples' rights

Hello Interactors,

Biden’s recent reflective quip got me thinking about how European colonial doctrines like the "Doctrine of Discovery" and the "civilizing mission," continue to justify the dominance over Indigenous peoples, including those in Papua New Guinea.

These lingering narratives not only influence contemporary struggles for self-determination, they also impact global politics and economic globalism. Join me as I unpack the complex interplay of decolonization, sovereignty, and the roles international actors, and their maps, play(ed) in shaping these dynamics.

Let’s go…


Biden recently suggested his uncle was eaten by "cannibals". Reflecting on World War II war veterans, he said,

"He got shot down in New Guinea, and they never found the body because there used to be — there were a lot of cannibals, for real, in that part of New Guinea."

Military records show that his uncle’s plane crashed off the coast of New Guinea for reasons unknown and his remains were never recovered.

Papua New Guinea's (PNG) Prime Minister James Marape didn’t take kindly to Biden's remarks, stating that

"President Biden's remarks may have been a slip of the tongue; however, my country does not deserve to be labeled as such."

Marape reminded Biden that Papua New Guinea was an unwilling participant in World War II. He urged the U.S. to help locate and recover the remains of American servicemen still scattered across the country.

President Biden is a victim of depictions of "cannibals" in Papua New Guinea that are part of a deeply problematic colonial and post-colonial narrative still debated among anthropologists. These often exaggerated or fabricated historical portrayals of Indigenous peoples as "savage" or "primitive" were used to justify colonial domination and the imposition of Western control under the guise of bringing "civilization" to these societies.

During the age of exploration and colonial expansion, European explorers and colonists frequently labeled various Indigenous groups around the world as “cannibals.” These claims proliferated in PNG by early explorers, missionaries, and colonial administrators to shock audiences and underscore the perceived necessity of the "civilizing mission" — a form of expansionist propaganda.

German/Austrian publisher A. Hartleben produced a map in the early 20th century that depicted the range of anthropophagy, or cannibalism, around the world. The map showed areas where cannibalism was claimed to have been practiced (in yellow) as well as areas where it was assumed to still be ongoing at the time (in red). The map indicated that Europe was completely free of any historical or contemporary records of cannibalism, while Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania all had regions marked as having practiced anthropophagy. Source: Big Think
Mercator’s world map of 1569 includes an illustration of Indigenous people preparing human parts for consumption at the coordinates 40°S,305°E. The accompanying text reads “Indigenae passim per Indiam novam sunt antropophagi.” The natives of various parts of the New Indies are cannibals. Source: Wikipedia

European colonial maps like these served as vital weapons. They defined and controlled space to legitimize territorial claims and the governance of their occupants. In the late 19th century, German commercial interests led by the German New Guinea Company, expanded into the Pacific, annexing northeastern New Guinea and nearby islands as Kaiser-Wilhelmsland. In response, Britain established control over southern New Guinea, later transferring it to Australia. After World War I, Australia captured the remaining German territories, which the League of Nations mandated it to govern as the Territory of New Guinea. Following World War II, the two territories, under UN trusteeship, moved towards unification as the Independent State of Papua New Guinea in 1975.

Today, Papua New Guinea is central to Pacific geopolitics, especially with China's growing influence through efforts like the Belt and Road initiative. This is impacting regional dynamics and power relationships involving major nations like Australia, the US, and China resulting in challenges related to debt, environmental concerns, and shifts in power balances.

The Porgera gold mine, now managed by a joint venture with majority PNG stakeholders, had been halted in 2020 due to human rights and environmental violations but is resuming under new management. While the extractive industries are largely foreign-owned, the government is trying to shift the revenue balance toward local ownership and lure investors away from exploitative practices. Meanwhile, Indigenous tribes remain critical of the government's complicity in the social, environmental, and economic disruption caused by centuries of capitalism and foreign intrusion.


Early Western explorers used a Christian religious rationale, rooted in the "Doctrine of Discovery" and the "civilizing mission" concept, to justify the subjugation and "taming" of Indigenous peoples in lands like Papua New Guinea. This doctrine deemed non-Christian peoples as lacking rights to their land and sovereignty, positioning European powers as having a divine mandate to take control.

Pope Nicholas V decreed to the ruler of Portugal in 1452 that he had the right to attack, conquer and subjugate pagans "...and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property [...] and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude." Source: Wikipedia

The "civilizing mission" substantiated a European moral and religious obligation to convert Indigenous populations to Christianity, underpinned by a profound sense of racial and cultural superiority. Terms like "savages," "beasts," and "cannibals" were used to dehumanize Indigenous peoples and justify their harsh treatment, with the belief that this would elevate them from their perceived primitive state and save their souls, legitimizing the colonization process and stripping them of autonomy.

Indigenous peoples around the world continue to fight for their autonomy and right to self-determination. Papua New Guinea's path to self-determination has been fraught with the complexities of defining "peoples" and their rights to form a sovereign state. The concepts of state sovereignty and the rights of Indigenous peoples, particularly in the context of decolonization, were significantly influenced by international leaders like Woodrow Wilson. (for more on how the U.S. was instrumental in drawing the boundaries for Ukraine and other European states, check out my 2022 post on how maps are make to persuade 👇)

He promoted national self-determination near the end of World War I with the dissolution of empires and the creation of nation-states, though initially focused on Europe. This idea was further developed in the Atlantic Charter of 1941 and embedded in the United Nations charter, helping to fuel global decolonization movements in the post-war era.

However, there are intrinsic tensions between the sovereignty of states and the rights of peoples to self-determine. The rise of the US and USSR as superpowers after WWII, both of whom (at least rhetorically) supported decolonization, put pressure on European nations to decolonize. But both powers also supported autonomous self-determination only if it did not infringe or threaten their own domination. This Cold War context further influenced decolonization as newly independent nations were often courted by both blocs in the global struggle for influence and access to resources.

Newly independent states, such as India and Israel, became vocal supporters of decolonization within the UN. Meanwhile, Arab countries in the Middle East, including founding UN members like Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, played pivotal roles in shaping the Arab response to regional issues, particularly the Palestinian question. Collectively, these nations have used their UN membership to influence international discourse and actions related to the region.

The momentum for independence became unstoppable in many regions, particularly in Africa and Asia. However, economic interests, often aligned with former colonial powers, continue to influence the trajectories of independent states. In PNG, the extensive involvement of multinational corporations in mining and resource extraction poses questions about economic self-determination, intertwining with political self-determination. The struggle for self-determination in PNG is an ongoing process of negotiation among internal groups, the state, and external actors.

President Biden's recent gaffe could be seen as another instance of insensitivity toward Indigenous peoples, rooted in a "civilizing mission" mentality. Perhaps these unconscious biases influence Biden’s actions regarding other Indigenous populations lacking rights to their land and sovereignty. This mindset echoes the historical justifications used by European colonial powers to subjugate and control Indigenous societies — especially across the country he leads.

In fact, the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1960s and 70s played a pivotal role in inspiring the International Indian Treaty Council, which advocated for Indigenous rights at the United Nations. Much of the legally binding language used in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the United States initially opposed but has since endorsed, was written in the original treaties drafted by the United States.

These efforts were instrumental in forming the United Nations Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP) established in 1975 to address the rights of the Palestinian people, particularly their right to self-determination. However, the United States has not supported the CEIRPP. Curiously, while Ukraine initially found solidarity with the Palestinian cause they left the council under Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s first Jewish president.

These shifting geopolitical alliances reflect the ongoing complex dynamics surrounding the Palestinian issue. Microsoft (who opened its first R&D office outside of the U.S. in Israel in 1991) recently announced a $1.5 billion investment in a United Arab Emirates artificial intelligence holding company G42. This suggests capital interests are also shifting towards Arab countries.

Microsoft president Brad Smith poses with representatives from G42. Source: G42 Twitter Account

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has been leading negotiations with Palestinian contingents, other Arab states, and Western corporate leaders putting pressure on Israel to consider a future that includes Palestinian independence, self-determination, and autonomy.

May 3rd article in the New York Times by Patrick Kingsley stating, “The aim of the businessmen is to win international support for the idea in order to persuade Mr. Netanyahu that it would be worth his embarking on the difficult task of winning domestic backing for [a separate Palestinian state].” Source: New York Times

It's worth mentioning from 2018 to 2022, Saudi Arabia was the second largest arms importer globally, accounting for 9.6% of worldwide arms imports. During this period, the United States was the principal supplier, providing 78% of the total arms imported by Saudi Arabia. This included 91 combat aircraft, hundreds of land-attack missiles, and over 20,000 guided bombs.

Global share of imports of major arms by the 10 largest importers, 2018–22. Source: SIPRI: Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2022.

Perhaps the rise of AI data centers is a new form of "divine mandate" — a quasi-religious techno-utopian vision of progress and control cloaked in the language of innovation and efficiency. Just as Christian missionaries once sought to "civilize" and convert Indigenous populations with surveyors of land and resources, today’s tech purveyors seek energy sucking AI data centers in pursuit of loose regulations and a new frontier of cultural and economic domination.

Have we learned anything, or will this phase of technology and global capitalism be the next chapter of environmental and human exploitation at the expense of just and equitable futures? Maybe the globally networked AI overlord many preach can teach us how to better prioritize the rights, needs, and aspirations of local communities seeking their own visions of self-determination. Or will those in control fear that may itself cannibalize capitalism?

Leave a comment



Özsu U. Fixing Selves. In: Completing Humanity: The International Law of Decolonization, 1960–82. Cambridge University Press; 2023.

Slobodian, Quinn. Crack-Up Capitalism: The Deep Roots of the Disastrous Tilt. New York: Random House, 2023.

SIPRI. "SIPRI Fact Sheet: Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2022." March 2023.

Interplace explores the interaction of people and place. It looks at how we move within and between the places we live and what led us here in the first place.