Missing Tourist in Polynesia: Officials Dismiss Speculation of Cannibalism

A German tourist has disappeared in mysterious circumstances on the South Pacific island of Nuku Hiva. Shortly after he went missing, human bones were found in a remote fire pit, triggering media speculation that he was eaten by a cannibal. Justice officials, however, are dismissing such conjecture.

A German holidaymaker who had set out to tour the South Pacific island of Nuku Hiva with a local guide has disappeared, and the discovery of human bones and teeth in a remote fire pit has led to media speculation that the tourist may have fallen victim to cannibalism.

The 40-year-old man, who has been identified only as Stefan R., was sailing around the world and has been missing since October 9 when he visited the interior of the French Polynesian island with a local hunter, Henri H.

It emerged over the weekend that the Polynesian guide had returned without Stefan, and had told Stefan's partner, Heike D., that Stefan was sick and needed help. The 37-year-old woman followed him into the island but instead of finding her friend, the guide suddenly threatened her, sexually assaulted her and tied her to a tree. She managed to free herself and reported the crime.

Bones and Teeth Found in Ash Police mounted a search for Stefan and found bones, teeth and melted metal -- possibly dental fillings -- in a fire pit. Police said it appeared that a human body had been hacked to pieces and burned at the site. Animal remains were also found in the ashes.

It has yet to be ascertained whether the teeth and human bones belong to Stefan R. But the state prosecutor for French Polynesia, José Thorel, said there were indications that it was him, and has launched an investigation into sexual assault, kidnapping and manslaughter.

Stefan R.'s family in Germany is now anxiously awaiting the results of a DNA test on the human remains.

The German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) has also become involved and said it was doing all it could to solve the case as soon as possible. "At present the priority is to identify the corpse," a BKA spokeswoman told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Stefan R. was an experienced sailor. A friend who asked not to be named said she didn't believe the killing was an ordinary case of robbery homicide. "Everything I've heard suggests it could have been a ritual killing," she said.

After the case came to light, local as well as German and English-language newspapers speculated it could have been cannibalism. Some South Pacific cultures are believed to have practiced cannibalism right up until the 19th century, according to colonial-era accounts.

Experts Dismiss Cannibalism Speculation However, say police experts and people who know the history and culture of the remote region in the middle of the Pacific Ocean -- located about halfway between South America and Australia -- such speculation of cannibalism is unwarranted.

"I think it would be mistaken to conclude from these bone finds that this was cannibalism or has some cultural background," said police psychologist Adolf Gallwitz. "In Germany too, corpses are dilettantishly discarded, that doesn't just happened in the Second or Third Worlds," said Gallwitz, a professor at the police college in Villingen-Schwenningen in southern Germany.

"Any kind of premature conclusions should be avoided in this mysterious case," said Monika Arnez of the Hamburg-based Asia-Africa Institute. She said it was true that cannibalism did exist in late prehistoric times on the Marquesas Islands, which include Nuku Hiva. But the cannibalism resulted from tensions between social groups and was driven by a high population density and famine.

Colonial rulers insisted on labelling the inhabitants of the islands as cannibals in order to justify their own violence against the population, Arnez added.

Fears That Tourism Will Suffer

The deputy mayor of Nuku Hiva, Deborah Kimitete, told local newspaper Les Nouvelles de Tahiti that she was horrified by the discovery of the bones. "Nothing like that has happened here before. This is the first time, it's appalling," she said.

Tourism officials are concerned that the media coverage of the case could have a disastrous impact on tourism to the islands.

On Tuesday, German mass circulation Bild ran a headline: "Do Cannibals Still Exist on the Death Island?" and printed a 19th century etching of cannibals cutting strips of flesh out of a sailor tied to a post.

The prime suspect, Henri H., also known as Arihano H. in local media, has disappeared. Local police have widened the hunt for him and newspapers have printed photos of him, a muscular, young man with a large tattoo on his chest.

Stefan R., an engineer, and his girlfriend embarked on their catamaran yacht for New Zealand in April 2008 for a four-year cruise around the world's most beautiful sailing areas. Even before the trip, the couple had experienced their fair share of adventure -- and danger. On December 26, 2004, when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, they were on a diving holiday in the Thai coastal resort of Khao Lak, which was devastated in the disaster.