Greetings from Enga Provence in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
We’re sitting this afternoon at over eight thousand feet in front of a warm fire as the chilly afternoon rains set in. I’m reading (the recently passed) Peter Matheson’s classic “Under The Mountain Wall” about the Dani People (50 years ago) and Stone Age culture in Papua New Guinea. Currently we’re in the Enga province of the Central Highlands staying at the Kumul Lodge (constructed of traditional materials and built by the Enga people), having spent the morning (successfully) seeking out and viewing two species of the absolutely astonishing Birds Of Paradise (see more, and photos below).
We’ve now been in Papua New Guinea (PNG) for a little over a week, having initially skirted Cyclone Ita (category 4) that brushed Alotau, our first stop, located in the Milne Provence at the extreme southeastern tip of PNG. At Alotau, we spent several days SCUBA diving on pristine coral reef systems after spending a half-day exploring the sites and artifacts of the fierce fighting in August 1942, where several thousand Australian/American forces handed an equal number of landing troops of the Imperial Japanese Army their first land defeat of World War II. Though seventy years ago, the War was still very much remembered in Alotau and in the villages around Milne Bay, and they gladly shared their remembrances, and the fascinating albeit rarely reported local point of view from a culture with one foot still in the stone age at that time.
AIRPLANES, OTHER ASTONISHMENTS AND THE WAR
Seventy years ago, few Papuans had ever seen an airplane, let alone conceive of the concept. While waiting for a transfer flight at the Alotau airport and with several hours to kill, I struck up a conversation with an older local man and I asked him about the War. He described the experience of his father as a young boy and others while out fishing from their outriggers in front of their village one day on Milne Bay in August 1942. Suddenly, a fighter plane came roaring up over the ridge south of them and dropped down to wave hopping level, most likely an American built P-40 on its way to strafe the landing Japanese Troops, the fighter flying from the Australian air strip miles distant (which is now the Alotau airport where we were both sitting). Everyone paddled back to the village as fast as they could, only to find all members turned out on the beach. The elders quickly convened a discussion as to what they had just seen, and the consensus was it was some kind of very fast, huge, noisy bird. Male villagers were to carry their spears, bows and arrows in case it returned to attack the village. Later, communication with villages up the coast on the matter indicated that white men (Dim-Dim) were seen emerging from the giant birds when they landed, which explained where the white men (which they had already encountered) came from – the giant bird had clearly given birth to them. They were the children of the giant, fast noisy birds! Later, they learned the Dim-Dim had built the giant birds, they called “aiplen”, but that just opened up a Pandora’s Box of questions, wonders and bafflements as the war raged through New Guinea (paramount was “Why the hell are you guys here?”). As an epilogue, just a few years ago, a man hunting in the forested mountains behind Alotau, discovered a P-40 fighter in and below a giant rainforest tree. The remains of the pilot, to that point a MIA, was determined, solving a 65-year-old mystery and providing closure for an Australian family. A pair
of fifty caliber wing guns from the wreck sits below that hunter’s house (see pictures). As one can imagine the War was a life changing experience for the Papuans and other Melanesian cultures of the South Pacific, so much so that it spawned a new religion – The Cargo Cult, that still is practiced today (more on that in another blog).
ON PAPUAN CULTURE AND THE ORIGIANAL ORGANIC GARDENERS
In the 30’s a pair of Australian gold prospectors named the Leahy Brothers were the first whites to penetrate the (eighteen thousand foot high) Central Ranges of PNG. It was assumed that the Central Ranges were devoid of human population. Much to their astonishment, they discovered a huge valley (one of many) at over eight thousand feet populated by thousands of persons living a stone age, agricultural existence (download the documentary “First Contact” shot by the Leahy Brothers with their 8mm camera). This meeting astonished both cultures: the Papuans by these cadaverous looking people…or the incarnation of their ancestors…..or whatever they were….and the Leahys (and their entourage) by the massive and most unexpected audience they had created. The epilogue of this First Contact was that the Leahys never found much gold but discovered these high valleys were perfect for growing coffee…brown gold… and the Papuans established contact with the outside world. This cultural encounter happened near the Central Highlands town of Mt. Hagen, about an hour from where we are now. Less noticed and/or publicized at the time was the fact that the Papuans had been gardening successfully in the same valleys for thousands of years without depleting the land. It goes without saying they used no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, but they also used sophisticated composting, crop rotation and drainage techniques…all many attribute to the “organic farming revolution” of the 60’s and 70’s…sorry guys, you’re about 5,000 years late: the Papuans had been conducting organic gardening”since most Euro/Mediterranean cultures were emerging from hunter/gather lifestyles. And they still do. Most Papuans (including our guests) still grow nearly all their own food, using these same practices on the lands they have lived on for millennia (stone tool artifacts have dated the populating of PNG back at least 50,000 years).
With over 800 distinct languages spoken, New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse place on earth. For fifty thousand years,hundreds of cultures have lived in isolation from each other in high mountain valleys, remote islands and lowland floodplains separated by vast wetlands. Most now communicate with each other with a creole of English: Tok Pisin.
So what are our rural Papuan hosts like ?(photos an video clips to follow). As with all diverse peoples, hard to generalize, but there are many cross cultural traits we’ve encountered: kind,curious (most have still have had limited contact with people of European ancestry), soft spoken, and very much a tightly knit social society. As long as you are invited, announce yourself, or escorted by a member of their clan they respect, you are invariably greeted with a smile and a handshake.
ON ORGANIC GARDENING….
One fascinating thing about our (highland) guests is their straddling of the modern and traditional worlds. Few wear shoes, and most still grow their own food. They still live in traditional thatched homes with walls and floors of woven split/pounded bamboo-like materials. Yet most also own cell phones and use them not only to keep in touch with relatives but also to establish the best time to harvest and/or sell cash crops, such as coffee, small plots of which many grow. Their life is still ruled by their traditional and ancient clan relationships. If you’re a young man and want to get married, you’ll still have to meet a bride price from the clan in question, usually payable in pigs (Papuans traditionally have only two domestic animals: pigs and dogs, with pigs serving more as a store of wealth/currency than a food source). Another aspect of Papuan culture, much studied since health writer Nathan Pritikin made note of their near complete lack of heart disease (amongst those still living traditional lifestyles) and obiesity, due to a naturally low fat, vegetable based diet, and naturally high in fiber and nutrients. Though infant mortality is high, it is not uncommon for rural Papuans to live to, and beyond, one hundred years, like the 95 year old woman we met walking down the road in Alotau who well remembered cooking for the Australian soldiers 75 years ago as the fighting raged back and forth through her village (see her portrait, below).
Coming in next blog: On to the Bismarck Archipelago – Rabaul, Kimbe and the Bismarck Sea.