National Geographic : 2012 Feb
some of whom are also very sick, he says, are coming down to a cave called Ulapunguna to- morrow to meet us. We set out for Ulapunguna cave at nine the next morning, Mark in the lead. e trail is a web of vines, but Mark glides like a phantom right over them. He points his toes, like a ballerina, con dently gripping root, rock, or mud. Leech- es are everywhere, and he stops periodically to shave them o his bare legs with his machete. Finally we reach Ulapunguna, a rock overhang 40 feet high with re pits and a quiver of arrows lined up against the wall. e featherless arrows are four feet long. Each has a point designed for a di erent prey. ere are three arrows for sh, two for birds, two for pigs. When I ask how o en they kill a pig, John says every week. It is clear he is proud to be a hunter. Mark says that "being a nomad is in our blood." And who is the intended prey for the arrow with a carved hardwood point and a foot of sharp, backward angling notches? Mark smiles, then thumps his chest once with his st and dramatically falls over. While waiting for the rest of the Embarakal to arrive, John begins to replace his bowstring and, through Joshua, explain cave life to me. e Meakambut spend several days to several weeks in any rock shelter or hut before moving on. e women and children plant taro, pump- kins, cucumbers, cassava, bananas, and tobacco, to be harvested the next time they pass through. The men hunt or help the women make flour from sago palms. He says they like their hunter- gatherer life and have no interest in changing it. Each of their caves has an owner and a name, and ownership is passed down from father to son. Mark and John own Ulapunguna cave. Some caves have legends, which are strictly propri- etary: Only the cave owner can share its secrets. Plucking his new bamboo bowstring, John in- dicates for me to follow him. We track through the jungle to a clearing, where he points up at a massive limestone wall. "Kopao," he says. Kopao is the Meakambut's most sacred cave. It is their creation cave, where they believe they originated, and John says he is the owner of this cave too. He will take me there tomorrow. When we return to Ulapunguna, the rest of the group has arrived. is is when we rst encounter Lid- ia, curled up by the re, coughing horribly. , while the sick begin their long journey to the clinic, I head to Kopao cave with John and Joshua. e trail ascends a ash ood gulley, abruptly ending at a vertical face. Without hesitation, John starts climbing the slick black stone, his toes finding pockets in the limestone. Eventually he nds a small tree protruding perpendicular to the face, knots a vine around the trunk, and lowers the end to me. I climb up hand-over-hand, feet slipping against the wet wall. We monkey up two more bands of slimy rock via slick vines before I insist we use a rope. It takes us more than two hours to climb a thousand feet. We crawl through tree limbs hanging out in space. e nal test is a tiptoe traverse along a glass-smooth ledge with nothing but an abyss of swirling mist beneath us. On the other side is Kopao cave. We hunch beneath a low overhang and stumble into a gantlet of skulls. Human skulls. ey are lined up as though they are whispering to each other. eir craniums have turned green and their dark, haunting eye sockets stare directly at intruders. John is conspicuously silent. He slides his ma- chete into his bark belt. ese are the skulls of his ancestors. e Meakambut may have Christian names, but they continue to engage in ancestor worship. As if trespassing, he delicately slips past the ossuary of skulls. Farther along the cave are the paintings, We try reaching the reclusive group by jungle telephone: pounding the trunk of a towering tree with wooden bats.