National Geographic : 2012 Feb
• helps Michael, while Michael's wife carries their listless baby on her back. Like wounded refugees from a jungle war, they depart single le down the slippery path. It will take them six hours to machete their way to the Manbungnam River, where we have a dugout canoe with an outboard motor waiting. From there it's another six hours downstream to reach the clinic. We have little hope that Lidia will live. Papua New Guinea created tremendous biological diversity, which in turn was accompanied by enormous cultural diversity: more than 800 languages in a country about the size of Califor- nia. Due to this diversity, a er colonial powers prohibited headhunting, cannibalism, and tribal warfare beginning in the 1880s, the region be- came a draw for both missionaries and anthro- pologists. Margaret Mead made her name here, as did Gregory Bateson (Mead's third husband) and, more recently, the writer Jared Diamond. Today the whole country continues to con- jure images of headhunters with bows and ar- rows, and bones through their noses. But that's about as accurate as imagining the American West filled with Indians still taking scalps. Many photos of feathered and painted Papua New Guineans come from tourist exhibitions akin to Native American powwows. It is only in the most deeply inaccessible re- gions of the country that enclaves of traditionally nomadic people, like the Meakambut, still exist. e group lives on two steep ridges hidden on the edge of the expansive northern escarpment of the Central Range. Boundaries between their land and the territories of surrounding settle- ments---Imboin, Awim, Andambit, Kanjimei, and Namata---are roughly demarked. eir ter- ritory is about a hundred square miles. e Meakambut were unknown to the outside world until the 1960s, when Australian patrols began to trek into the country's most ferocious topography. In 1991 Slovenian anthropologist Borut Telban spent a week in the area and found only 11 Meakambut living in roughly built shel- ters and caves. He recounted that the men wore kina-shell necklaces and leaf loincloths, and the women wore grass skirts. When Telban returned in 2001, he couldn't locate them again. But the related Awim people knew that the Meakam- but were still up there somewhere. Only three generations back the Awim had also followed a nomadic lifestyle, but they have since settled be- side the Arafundi River to gain access to schools and clinics. In hopes of meeting up with these last semi- nomadic holdouts, an anthropological research- er named Nancy Sullivan sent out a team in July 2008 to nd the Meakambut and inventory their caves. Sullivan, who runs a consulting rm in Papua New Guinea that conducts social assess- ments for development projects, is studying the region's cave paintings---hand stencils that re- cord generations of inhabitants. With blue eyes and owing white-blond hair, Sullivan bears a passing resemblance to Meryl Streep. She has lived in Papua New Guinea for more than two decades and has adopted a number of local children. Sullivan's team discovered 52 surviv- ing Meakambut and 105 caves with names, only a score of which were actively used as shelters. ey found clay pots, bone daggers, and hand stencils on the walls in nine caves, and human skulls in three. Many of the elderly had died. the Meakambut, our team ies by bush plane into the Sepik River basin, the oodplain that drains northwest Papua New Guinea. We then skim up smaller and smaller tributaries in a motor dugout until we are push- ing it more than riding in it. Finally we strike out on foot into the mountains. Two evenings in a row we try reaching them by jungle telephone: ree men pound the two- story trunk of a towering tree with wooden bats, the deep-voiced thumps reverberating out over the canopy. When this doesn't work, we set out on a grueling two-day foot patrol to the group's last known whereabouts, Tembakapa, Mark Jenkins wrote about land mines in Cambodia in last month's issue. Photographer Amy Toensing is currently documenting the Aborigines of Australia.