National Geographic : 1956 Mar
Scientist Measures + Stone Age Man The National Geographic Society Melville Island Ex pedition went to the little known land of the Tiwi in 1954 to study one of the world's most archaic cul tures. The Tiwi plant no crops, build no permanent houses, make no pottery, and col lect few possessions. Their basic tool is the ax-steel today, but stone only a few generations back. Their natural way of life as hunters and food gatherers is largely that of 50,000 years ago. Age-old customs are practiced side by side with ways recently adopted from white men. Dr. Carleton S. Coon (shown), anthropologist of the University of Pennsyl vania, spent 10 days with the expedition gathering physical data on the Tiwi (page 433). Charles P. Mountford the northwest shore of Apsley Strait, which divides Melville and Bathurst Islands. Supply ships failed to arrive, and the set tlers-assailed by hunger, tropical diseases, and occasional spears of the Tiwi-abandoned the fort after less than five years. Yet so vivid an impression did that gar rison make on the minds of the aborigines that 125 years later they were able to tell us about men who wore red clothes and large shiny buttons and who made loud noises (can non). They knew that men in dark clothes (the convicts) did all the work. It seems incredible that the detailed knowledge of such a brief settlement could have persisted for so long in the tribal memory. Centuries of Isolation Few white men have visited Melville since, although the hunter Joe Cooper lived there for a time 40 to 50 years ago, shooting herds of water buffalo whose forebears had been imported from Timor by Bremer's soldiers. The Australian Air Force maintained a land ing strip at Snake Bay during World War II. Back on the Triumph aborigines labored incessantly at the hand pumps as we limped along the coast for another 50 miles. Finally the rusty old barge made port at Snake Bay. Her next journey was to be her last. While she was being towed back to Darwin after her engines had failed, her rotten hull fell apart and she sank. At Snake Bay we found a warm welcome from the native affairs officer and his family. The aborigines, too, received us in friendly fashion, for they looked on our guide and mentor, Bill Harney (Bilarney), who had spent many years among them, as a "proper good-fellow" (page 423). With native help, we were soon camped on Banjo Beach about a mile north of the Gov ernment station. Bill, who had been our guide on the National Geographic expedi tion to Arnhem Land in 1948,* transformed some empty oil drums and a pile of corru gated iron into a dining shack and cookhouse. A lily-covered billabong, or swamp, filled with white-trunked paperbark trees made a backdrop; the ocean lapped constantly at our front door. A dozen of the aborigines with their families camped on the edge of the billabong to work as hunters, food gatherers, water carriers, and general handymen. Following custom, they threw together the rudest of brush shel ters for protection from sun and rain; at night they slept in the open between campfires. * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Exploring Stone Age Arnhem Land," by Charles P. Mountford, December, 1949; and "Cruise to Stone Age Arnhem Land," by Howell Walker, September, 1949.