National Geographic : 1953 Apr
New Guinea's Rare Birds and Stone Age Men 453 Our intentions may have been more honorable or innocent than those of the natives who kill them with shotgun and bow and arrow, but the birds apparently assumed that we had rigged some devilishly lethal device that should be shunned at all costs. Our expectations, dashed by this first en- counter with the Greater birds, were raised by the addition to our party a fortnight later of Robert Carmet, who has made excellent wild- life movies in Africa and elsewhere. Carmet, it turned out, had been able to take only $84 with him from France. Yet he had made his way half around the world and ar- rived on time, in sneakers, to be sure, and not much else, but with cameras that rivaled my own. We began planning a trek into the 12,000- foot mountains of the Kubor. Carmet re- marked rather testily that the highest he had ever climbed was into the seat of a jeep station wagon, but he exchanged his sneakers for spiked boots willingly enough and, in the early hours of an April morning, our boss boy sang out for a party of bearers. From under my mosquito net I heard the bellowed notes picked up by natives on the other side of the valley and relayed, in dwind- ling but still awesome volume , across the forests of the W ahgi and the Omong Rivers. By 5 a.m. " seven-fella ten men" had as- sembled outside camp. We loaded these 70 bearers with tents, food , cameras, lights, weapons, and other gear and set off over hilly grasslands through Chief Maima's prov- ince (page 428). In 10 days we reached the north slopes of the Cambia region, true Stone Age territory. Few natives here had even seen steel. Beside their low little grass huts lay their own tools- stone axes ground in the age-old manner on a dampened sandstone. White Woman Amazes Natives My wife was the first white woman these people had ever seen. They greeted her with amazement, dancing and howling around her. One huge native, coated with pig grease, hoisted her aloft and carried her through the procession for 20 or 30 yards. Food proved no great problem. In exchange for salt, razor blades, powder paint, and matches, the natives brought us string bags of sweet potatoes, sugar cane, pigs, chickens, and even a few eggs. They wanted our trade goods; yet we noted that they had been able to live without them very well. Fire, for example, they make by plucking a dried vine from their string aprons, threading it through a cleft stick, and sawing it back and forth until, under friction, it breaks into a punklike glow. Salt they manufacture by soaking bundle after bundle of dried grass in salt springs. These are then thrown on the fire and burned. In the ashes a salt cake forms amid the lye. \Vhen it is thick enough, they remove it and bind it with others into disks about the thick- ness of three or four phonograph records. The Kubor people still make most of their decorative dyes and paints from seeds, soft stones, clays, and ashes , but quantities of beads from Czechoslovakia and Italy have filtered into the interior from the coast. We saw scarcely an aborigine who wasn 't as fes- tooned with beads as a gypsy fortuneteller. Murder in the Stone Age We noted these little encroachments of civi- lization with some alarm , not simply because we disliked seeing one of the world's last pockets of Stone Age people lose its pristine uniqueness, but because , paradoxically, it is the coming of the white man which tends to make the native rapacious. Almost invariably explorers in New Guinea have found the aborigines friendly when first approached. Only after they have become aware of the treasures which the white man carries-shells and axes and trinkets- do their thoughts turn to murder and loot. Helmuth Baum, a veteran of many sorties into the interior, died with a Kukukuku stone blade in his skull a few seconds after he had opened his trade box and revealed half a dozen steel axheads. The Leahy brothers- Michael and Pat- suffered near-fatal wounds in an attack on their camp in 1931 by natives who had always been quite amicable. Nevertheless, as an ornithologist, I felt that whatever risks I was running among these Stone Age primitives were greatly outweighed by the rare opportunity I had to study New Guinea 's strange birds and people. And in New Guinea, in contrast to parts of Europe and America, the naturalist is regarded as almost sane. Here the savage is vitally interested in the plants and insects and animals of his region. To him, the white men who come to scratch for yellow metal in his stream beds are the ones who are " long-long " -crazy. The native, moreover, is as well-informed about flora and fauna as he is interested. Without any sort of written language he manages, nonetheless, to pass on from genera- tion to generation a steadily increasing store of expert knowledge. I didn't find it always easy to believe; yet when I tested the Kubor people on some particular question, they in- variably came through with top marks. For example, a boy wandered into camp with a drab little nest made by a bird which he called a dengalap. I knew that this was a sort of flycatcher rarely seen in the Kubors.