THE LAST FIRST CONTACTS
For most of human history, human populations lived in a state of xenophobic isolation from each other, tempered by the need for trade and for exchanging spouses, but reinforced by differences in language and culture. In the modem world, 'first contacts' of isolated populations by outsiders have been accelerating, to the point where the last first contact is expected within the present decade. The end of our mutual isolation is bringing a tragic loss in our cultural diversity. Yet it also brings the hope that we may not continue destroying each other with increasingly powerful weapons.
On 4 August 1938, an exploratory biological expedition from the American Museum of Natural History made a discovery that hastened towards its end a long phase of human history. That was the date on which the advance patrol of the Third Archbold Expedition (named after its leader, Richard Archbold) became the first outsiders to enter the Grand Valley of the Balim River, in the supposedly uninhabited interior of western New Guinea. To everyone's astonishment, the Grand Valley proved to be densely populated—by 50,000 Papuans, living in the Stone Age, previously unknown to the rest of humanity and themselves unaware of others' existence. In search of undiscovered birds and mammals, Archbold had found an undiscovered human society. To appreciate the significance of Archbold's finding, we need to understand the phenomenon of'first contact'. As I mentioned on page 198, most animal species occupy a geographic range confined to a small fraction of the Earth's surface. Of those species occurring on several continents (such as lions and grizzly bears), it is not the case that individuals from one continent visit one another. Instead, each continent, and usually each small part of a continent, has its own distinctive population, in contact with close neighbours but not with distant members of the same species. (Migratory songbirds constitute an apparently glaring exception. But while they do commute seasonally between continents, it is only along a traditional path, and both the summer breeding range and the winter non-breeding range of a given population tend to be quite circumscribed.) This geographic fidelity of animals is reflected in the geographic variability that I discussed in Chapter Six. Populations of the same species in different geographic areas tend to evolve into different-looking subspecies, because most breeding remains within the same population. For example, no gorilla of the East African lowland subspecies has ever turned up in West Africa or vice versa, though the eastern and western subspecies look, sufficiently different that biologists could recognize a wanderer if there were any.
In these respects, we humans have been typical animals throughout most of our evolutionary history. Like other animals, each human population is genetically moulded to its area's climate and diseases, but human populations are also impeded from freely mixing by linguistic and cultural barriers far stronger than in other animals. As mentioned in Chapter Six, an anthropologist can identify roughly where a person originates from the person's naked appearance, and a linguist or student of dress styles can pinpoint origins much more closely. That is testimony to how sedentary human populations have been.
While we think of ourselves as travellers, we were quite the opposite throughout several million years of human evolution. Every human group was ignorant of the world beyond its own lands and those of its immediate neighbours. Only in recent millenia did changes in political organization and technology permit some people routinely to travel afar, to encounter distant peoples, and to learn first-hand about places and peoples that they had not personally visited. This process accelerated with Columbus's voyage of 1492, until today there remain only a few tribes in New Guinea and South America still awaiting first contact with remote outsiders. The Archbold Expedition's entry into the Grand Valley will be remembered as one of the last first contacts of a large human population. It was thus a landmark in the process by which humanity became transformed from thousands of tiny societies, collectively occupying only a fraction of the globe, to world conquerors with world knowledge. How could such a numerous people as the Grand Valley's 50,000 Papuans remain completely unknown to outsiders until 1938? How could those Papuans in turn remain completely ignorant of the outside world? How did first contact change human societies? I shall argue that this World before first contact—a world that is finally ending within our own generation—holds a key to the origins of human cultural diversity. As World conquerors, our species now numbers over five billion, compared to the mere ten million people who existed before the advent of agriculture. Ironically, though, our cultural diversity has plunged even as our numbers have soared.
To anyone who has not been to New Guinea, the long concealment of 50,000 people there seems incomprehensible. After all, the Grand Valley lies only 115 miles from both New Guinea's north coast and its south coast. Europeans discovered New Guinea in 1526, Dutch missionaries took up residence in 1852, and European colonial governments were established in 1884. Why did it take another fifty-four years to find the Grand Valley?
The answers—terrain, food, and porters—become obvious as soon as one sets foot in New Guinea and tries to walk away from an established trail. Swamps in the lowlands, endless series of knife-edge ridges in the mountains, and jungle that covers everything reduce one's progress to a few miles per day under the best conditions. On my 1983 expedition into the Kumawa Mountains, it took me and a team of twelve New Guineans two weeks to penetrate seven miles inland. Yet we had it easy compared to the British Ornithologists' Union Jubilee Expedition. On 4 January 1910 they landed on New Guinea's coast and set off for the snowcapped mountains that they could see only a hundred miles inland. On 12 February 1911 they finally gave up and turned back, having covered less than half the distance (forty-five miles) in those thirteen months.
Compounding those terrain problems is the impossibility of living off the land, because of New Guinea's lack of big game animals. In lowland jungle the staple of New Guineans is a tree called the sago palm, whose pith yields a substance with the consistency of rubber and the flavour of vomit. However, not even New Guineans can find enough wild foods to survive in the mountains. This problem was illustrated by a horrible sight on which the British explorer Alexander Wollaston stumbled while descending a New Guinea jungle trail: the bodies of thirty recently dead New Guineans and two dying children, who had starved while trying to return from the lowlands to their mountain gardens without carrying enough provisions.
The paucity of wild foods in the jungle compels explorers going through uninhabited areas, or unable to count on obtaining food from native gardens, to bring their own rations. A porter can carry forty pounds, the weight of the food necessary to feed himself for about fourteen days. Thus, until the advent of planes made airdrops possible, all New Guinea expeditions that penetrated more than seven days' walk from the coast (fourteen days' round trip) did so by having teams of porters going back and forth, building up food depots inland. Here is a typical plan: fifty porters start from the coast with 700 man-days of food, deposit 200 man-days' food five days inland, and return in another five days to the coast, having consumed the remaining 500 man-days' food (fifty men times ten days) in the process. Then fifteen porters march to that first depot, pick up the cached 200 man-days' food, deposit fifty man-days' food a further five days' march inland, and return to the first depot (reprovisioned in the meantime), having consumed the remaining 150 man-days' food in the process. Then. . The expedition that came closest to discovering the Grand Valley before Archbold, the 1921-22 Kremer Expedition, used 800 porters, 200 tons of food, and ten months of relaying to get four explorers inland to just beyond the Grand Valley. Unfortunately for Kremer, his route happened to pass a few miles west of the valley, whose existence he did not suspect because of intervening ridges and jungle.
Apart from these physical difficulties, the interior of New Guinea seemed to hold no attractions for missionaries or colonial governments, because it was believed to be virtually uninhabited. European explorers landing on the coast or rivers discovered many tribes in the lowlands living off sago and fish, but few people eking out an existence in the steep foothills. From either the north or south coast, the snow-capped Central Cordillera that forms New Guinea's backbone presents steep faces. It was assumed that the northern and southern faces meet in a ridge. What remained invisible from the coasts was the existence of broad inter-montane valleys, hidden behind those faces and suitable for agriculture.
For eastern New Guinea, the myth of an empty interior was shattered on 26 May 1930, when two Australian miners, Michael Leahy and Michael Dwyer, scaled the crest of the Bismarck Mountains in search of gold, looked down at night on the valley beyond, and were alarmed to see countless dots of light: the cooking fires of thousands of people. For western New Guinea, the myth ended with Archbold's second survey flight on 23 June 1938. After hours of flying over jungle with few signs of humans, Archbold was astonished to spot the Grand Valley, looking like Holland: a cleared landscape devoid of jungle, neatly divided into small fields outlined by irrigation ditches, and with scattered hamlets. It took six more weeks before Archbold could establish camps at the nearest lake and river where his seaplane could land, and before patrols from those camps could reach the Grand Valley to make first contact with its inhabitants. That is why the outside world did not know of the Grand Valley till 1938.
Why did the valley's inhabitants, now referred to as the Dani people, not know of the outside world?
Part of the reason, of course, is the same logistic problems that faced the Kremer Expedition on its march inland, but in reverse. Yet those problems would be minor in areas of the world with gentler terrain and more wild foods than New Guinea, and they do not explain why all other human societies in the world also used to live in relative isolation. Instead, at this point we have to remind ourselves of a modern perspective that we take for granted. Our perspective did not apply to New Guinea until very recently, and it did not apply anywhere in the world 10,000 years ago. Recall that the whole globe is now divided into political states, whose citizens enjoy more or less freedom to travel within the boundaries of their state and to visit other states. Anyone with the time, money, and desire can visit almost any country except for a few xenophobic exceptions, such as Albania and North Korea. As a result, people and goods have diffused around the globe, and many items such as Coca-cola are now available on every continent. I recall with embarrassment my visit in 1976 to a Pacific island called Rennell, whose isolated location, vertical sea cliffs without beaches, and fissured coral landscape had preserved its Polynesian culture unchanged until recently. Setting out at dawn from the coast, I plodded through jungle with not a trace of humans. When in the late afternoon I finally heard a woman's voice ahead and glimpsed a small hut, my head whirled with fantasies of the beautiful, unspoilt, grass-skirted, bare-breasted Polynesian maiden who awaited me at this remote site on this remote island. It was bad enough that the lady proved to be fat and with her husband. What humiliated my self-image as intrepid explorer was the 'University of Wisconsin' sweatshirt that she wore. In contrast, for all but the last 10,000 years of human history, unfettered travel was impossible, and diffusion of sweatshirts was very limited. Each village or band constituted a political unit, living in a perpetually shifting state of wars, truces, alliances, and trade with neighbouring groups. New Guinea Highlanders spent their entire lives within twenty miles of their birthplace. They might occasionally enter lands bordering their village lands by stealth during a war raid, or by permission during a truce, but they had no social framework for travel beyond immediately neighbouring lands. The notion of tolerating unrelated strangers was as unthinkable as the notion that any such stranger would dare appear.
Even today, the legacy of this no-trespassing mentality persists in many parts of the world. Whenever I go bird-watching in New Guinea, I take pains to stop at the nearest village to request permission to bird-watch on that village's land or rivers. On two occasions when I neglected that precaution (or asked permission at the wrong village) and proceeded to boat up the river, I found the river barred on my return by canoes of stone-throwing villagers, furious that I had violated their territory. When I was living among Elopi tribespeople in western New Guinea and wanted to cross the territory of the neighbouring Fayu tribe to reach a nearby mountain, the Elopis explained to me matter-of-factly that the Fayus would kill me if I tried. From a New Guinean perspective, it seemed perfectly natural and self-explanatory. Of course the Fayus will kill any trespasser; you surely do not think they are so stupid that they would admit strangers to their territory? Strangers would just hunt their game animals, molest their women, introduce diseases, and reconnoitre the terrain in order to stage a raid later.
While most pre-contact peoples had trade relations with their neighbours, many thought they were the only humans in existence. Perhaps the smoke of fires on the horizon, or an empty canoe floating past down a river, did prove the existence of other people. But to venture out of one's territory to meet those humans, even if they lived only a few miles away, was equivalent to suicide. As one New Guinea highlander recalled his life before first arrival of whites in 1930, 'We had not seen far places. We knew only this side of the mountains. And we thought that we were the only living people.
Such isolation bred great genetic diversity. Each valley in New Guinea has not only its own language and culture, but also its own genetic abnormalities and local diseases. The first valley where I worked was the home of the Fore people, famous to science for their unique affliction with a fatal viral disease called kuru or laughing sickness, which accounted for over half of all deaths (especially among women) and left men outnumbering women three-to-one in some Fore villages. At Karimui, sixty miles to the west of the Fore area, kuru is completely unknown, and the people are instead affected with the world's highest incidence of leprosy. Still other tribes are unique in their high frequency of deaf mutes, or of male pseudo-hermaphrodites lacking a penis, or of premature aging, or of delayed puberty.
Today we can picture areas of the globe that we have not visited, from films and television. We can read about them in books. English dictionaries exist for all the world's major languages, and most villages speaking minor languages contain individuals who have learned one of the world's major languages. For example, missionary linguists have studied literally hundreds of New Guinea and South American Indian languages in recent decades, and I have found some inhabitant speaking either Indonesian or Neo-Melanesian in every New Guinea village that I have visited, no matter how remote. Linguistic barriers no longer impede the worldwide flow of information. Almost every village in the world today has thereby obtained fairly direct accounts of the outside world and has yielded fairly direct accounts of itself.
In contrast, pre-contact peoples had no way to picture the outside world, or to learn about it directly. Information instead arrived via long chains of languages, with accuracy lost at each step—as in the children's game called 'telephone' or 'Chinese whispers', where one child in a circle whispers a message to the next child, who in turn whispers it to her neighbour, until by the time the message is whispered back to the first child its meaning has become changed beyond recognition. As a result, New Guinea highlanders had no concept of the ocean a hundred miles distant, and knew nothing about the white men who had been prowling their coasts for several centuries. When highlanders tried to figure out why the first arriving white men wore trousers and belts, one theory was that the clothes served to conceal an enormously long penis coiled around the waist. Some Dani believed that a neighbouring group of New Guineans munched grass and had their hands joined behind their back.
Thus, first-contact patrols had a traumatic effect that is difficult for all of us living in the modern world to imagine. Highlanders 'discovered' by Michael Leahy in the 1930s, and interviewed fifty years later, still recalled perfectly where they were and what they were doing at that moment of first contact. Perhaps the closest parallel, to modern Americans and Europeans, is our recollection of one or two of the most important political events of our lives. Most Americans of my age recall that moment on 7 December 1941 when they heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We knew at once that our lives would be very different for years to come, as a result of the news. Yet even the impact of Pearl Harbor and of the resulting war on American society was minor, compared to the impact of a first-contact patrol on New Guinea highlanders. On that day, their world changed forever.
The patrols revolutionized the highlanders' material culture by bringing steel axes and matches, whose superiority over stone axes and fire drills was immediately obvious. The missionaries and government administrators who followed the patrols suppressed ingrained cultural practices like cannibalism, polygyny, homosexuality, and war. Other practices were discarded spontaneously by tribespeople themselves, in favour of new practices that they saw. But there was also a more profoundly unsettling revolution, in the highlanders' view of what comprised the universe. They and their neighbours were no longer the sole humans, with the sole way of life. A book by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, entitled First Contact, poignantly relates that moment in the eastern highlands, as recalled in their old age by New Guineans and whites who met there as young adults or children in the 1930s. Terrified highlanders took the whites for returning ghosts, until the New Guineans dug up and scrutinized the whites' buried faeces, sent terrified young girls to have sex with the intruders, and discovered that whites defaecated and were men like themselves. Leahy wrote in his diaries that highlanders smelled bad, while at the same time the highlanders were finding the whites' smell strange and frightening. Leahy's obsession with gold was as bizarre to the highlanders as their obsession with their own form of wealth and currency—cowry shells—was to him. For the survivors of those Grand Valley Dani and Archbold Expedition members who met in 1938, such an account of first contact has yet to be written.
I said at the outset that Archbold's entry into the Grand Valley was not only a watershed for the Dani, but also part of a watershed in human history. What difference did it make that all human groups used to live in relative isolation, awaiting first contact, while only a few such groups remain today? We can infer the answer by comparing those areas of the world where isolation ended long ago, with those other areas where it persisted into modern times. We can also study the rapid changes that followed historical first contacts. These comparisons suggest that contact between distant peoples gradually obliterated much of the human cultural diversity that had arisen during millennia of isolation.
Take artistic diversity as one obvious example. Styles of sculpture, music, and dance used to vary greatly from village to village within New Guinea. Some villagers along the Sepik River and in the Asmat swamps produced carvings that are now world-famous because of their quality. But New Guinea villagers have been increasingly coerced or seduced into abandoning their artistic traditions. When I visited an isolated tribelet of 578 people at Bomai in 1965, the missionary controlling the only store had just manipulated the people into burning all their art. Centuries of unique cultural development ('heathen artifacts', as the missionary put it) had been destroyed in one morning. On my first visit to remote New Guinea villages in 1964, I heard log drums and traditional songs; on my visits in the 1980s, I heard guitars, rock music, and battery-operated boom boxes. Anyone who has seen the Asmat carvings at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, or heard log drums played in antiphonal duet at breathtaking speed, can appreciate the enormous tragedy of post-contact loss of art.
There has been massive loss of languages as well. For example, as I shall cescribe in Chapter Fifteen, Europe today has only about fifty languages, most of them belonging to a single language family (Indo-European). In contrast, New Guinea, with less than one-tenth of Europe's area and less than one-hundredth of its population, has about 1,000 languages, many of them unrelated to any other known language in New Guinea or elsewhere! The average New Guinea language is spoken by a few thousand people living within a radius often miles. When I travelled sixty miles from Okapa to Karimui in New Guinea's eastern highlands, I passed through six languages, starting with Fore (a language with postpositions, like Finnish) and ending with Tudawhe (a language with alternative tones and nasalized vowels, like Chinese).
New Guinea shows linguists what the world used to be like, with each isolated tribe having its own language, until the rise of agriculture permitted a few groups to expand and spread their tongue over large areas. It was only about 6,000 years ago that the Indo-European expansion began, leading to the extermination of all prior western European languages except Basque. The Bantu expansion within the last few millennia similarly exterminated most other languages of tropical and sub-Saharan Africa, just as the Austronesian expansion did in Indonesia and the Philippines. In the New World alone, hundreds of American Indian languages have become extinct in recent centuries.
Is language loss not a good thing, because fewer languages mean easier communication among the world's people? Perhaps, but it is a bad thing in other respects. Languages differ in structure and vocabulary, in how they express causation and feelings and personal responsibility, and consequently in how they shape our thoughts. There is no single-purpose 'best' language; instead, different languages are better suited for different purposes. For instance, it may not have been an accident that Plato and Aristotle wrote in Greek, while Kant wrote in German. The grammatical particles of those two languages, plus their ease in forming compound words, may have helped make them the pre-eminent languages of Western philosophy. Another example, familiar to all of us who studied Latin, is that highly inflected languages (ones in which word endings suffice to indicate sentence structure) can use variations of word order to convey nuances impossible with English. Our English word order is severely constrained by having to serve as the main clue to sentence structure. If English becomes a world language, that would not be because English was necessarily the best language for diplomacy.
The range of cultural practices in New Guinea also eclipses that within equivalent areas elsewhere in the modern world, because isolated tribes were able to live out social experiments that others would find utterly unacceptable. Forms of self-mutilation and cannibalism varied from tribe to tribe. At the time of first contact, some tribes went naked, others concealed their genitals and practised extreme sexual prudery, and still others (including the Grand Valley Dani) flagrantly advertised the penis and testes with various props. Child-rearing practices ranged from extreme permissiveness (including freedom for Fore babies to grab hot objects and burn themselves), through punishment of misbehaviour by rubbing a Baham child's face with stinging nettles, to extreme repression resulting in Kukukuku child suicide. Barua men pursued institutionalized bisexuality by living in a large, communal, homosexual house with the young boys, while each man had a separate, small, heterosexual house for his wife and daughters and infant sons. Tudawhes instead had two-storey houses in which women, infants, unmarried girls, and pigs lived in the lower storey, while men and unmarried boys lived in the upper storey accessed by a separate ladder from the ground. We would not mourn the shrinking cultural diversity of the modern world if it only meant the end of self-mutilation and child suicide. But the societies whose cultural practices have now become dominant were selected only for economic and military success. Those qualities are not necessarily the ones that foster happiness or promote long-term human survival. Our consumerism and our environmental exploitation serve us well at present but bode ill for the future. Features of American society that already rate as disasters in anyone's book include our treatment of old people, adolescent turmoil, abuse of psychotropic chemicals, and gross inequality. For each of these problem areas, there are (or were before first contact) many New Guinea societies that found far better solutions to the same issues.
Unfortunately, alternative models of human society are rapidly disappearing, and the tiiiie has passed when humans could try out new models in isolation. Surely there are no remaining uncontacted populations anywhere as large as the one encountered by Archbold's patrol on that August day of 1938. When I worked on New Guinea's Rouffaer River in 1979, missionaries nearby had just found a tribe of a few hundred nomads, who reported another uncontacted band five days' travel upstream. Small bands have also been turning up in remote parts of Peru and Brazil. However, at some point within this last decade of the Twentieth Century, we can expect the last first contact, and the end of the last separate experiment at designing human society. While that last first contact will not mean the end of human cultural diversity, much of which is proving capable of surviving television and travel, it certainly does mean a drastic reduction. That loss is to be mourned, for the reasons that I have just been discussing. But our xenophobia was tolerable only as long as our means to kill each other were too limited to bring about our fall as a species. When I try to think of reasons why nuclear weapons will not inexorably combine with our genocidal tendencies to break the records we have already set for genocide in the first half of the Twentieth Century, our accelerating cultural homogenization is one of the chief grounds for hope that I can identify. Loss of cultural diversity may be the price that we have to pay for survival.