Israeli genealogical site digitizes Papua New Guinea’s traditions
Going where no genealogists have gone before

Israeli genealogical site digitizes Papua New Guinea’s traditions

MyHeritage seeks to ensure the old tribal ways are not forgotten

One of the photos of a Papua New Guinea tribe documented by MyHeritage (Courtesy)
One of the photos of a Papua New Guinea tribe documented by MyHeritage (Courtesy)

After cataloging the family histories of – among others – Jews in Israel, Protestants in Denmark and Mormons in Utah, an Israel-based online genealogy platform is going where no genealogists have gone before.

A MyHeritage team last month visited Papua New Guinea, determined to document the family history, lifestyle and rituals that have been passed along only by word of mouth within tribes.

The project, said Golan Levi, who headed the Israeli delegation, was undertaken to prevent further erosion of the collective memory of the mountain people of Papua New Guinea, who are losing some of their long-held traditions as modernity begins to creep into their traditional way of life.

“As part of our Tribal Quest project we returned with information about the family relationships of thousands of members of the community, including photos, data about burial sites, and documentation of rituals and and ceremonies. The kids were especially interested in participating, in order to ensure that their tribal traditions are not lost,” said Levi.

MyHeritage is one of the two biggest geneology platforms in the world (only US-based MyAncestry is bigger), with over 80 million active users and 1.6 billion biographies in its database. Users upload information about their family trees, storing it in MyHeritage databases, where it can be searched and accessed by other members of a family or community around the world in order to better establish where a family came from, and “ingather” its scattered members.

Golan Levi (C) with members of a Papua New Guinea tribe (Courtesy)
Golan Levi (C) with members of a Papua New Guinea tribe (Courtesy)

Beyond that, the site has implemented a number of search services and forged partnerships with various organizations in order to enhance the construction of a family tree. in October 2014, MyHeritage teamed up with personal DNA service company 23andMe to provide DNA testing as an option for MyHeritage users, and in December of that year, it signed a deal with the the Danish National Archives to index census and parish records from 1646 to 1930.

The site’s most ambitious project is perhaps the digitization of cemeteries around the world together with Utah-based BillionGraves, which is an online visual database of cemetery headstones. BillionGrave’s app allows users to upload a photo of the headstone, as well as GPS location information. The headstone data is then transcribed by BillionGraves, creating a searchable database of information about people buried in cemeteries old and new. With its partnership with MyHeritage, users of the app can match up information about people with gravesites in order to complete the picture of their family trees.

MyHeritage decided to bring its tech to Papua New Guinea to help for the first time digitally document information about the lifestyles of the residents of the isolated communities in the interior mountain regions of the island country. As modern life encroaches, the old ways are in danger of being lost, MyHeritage believes, and it decided to embark on the Tribal Quest program in order to ensure that those ways are not forgotten.

According to Levi, “the residents of the villages were eager to participate in the project. While the elders are still clinging to the old ways, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be more affected by technology and have more access to it. With these digital records, they will be able to keep in touch with the histories and stories that otherwise may have been forgotten.”

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