The central highlands of the island of New Guinea was the last place on earth where there were significant numbers of stone age people with no previous contact to the modern world—and this was just 90 years ago.
The island had been politically divided right down the middle by a stark vertical straight line, completely at odds with the societies on the ground at the time where there was nothing in the interior straighter than a bow string. The island is the second largest in the world and is three times the land mass of New Zealand.
First, the western half of the island is part of Indonesia and has settled down a great deal, but it is the eastern side, Papua New Guinea, and their elaborate customs that I find so beguiling. The Papuans are in a time of huge transition from the old jungle dwelling ways to the modern world, and it is not going well. Maimonides is quoted in the Bible to having said, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Give him a Malibu Barbie Dreamhouse Playset and you’ll mess up his head bigly.”
The island is home to over 800 distinct languages including Tok Pisin, a Creole-based English understood by most folks. Having so many languages is typical of Melanesian culture which means that each tribe feels very little kinship with its neighbors, and as a result many are in a constant state of war. It’s an ultraviolent place, and although cannibalism is in steep decline it is still practiced on the down low.
The locals have had 50,000 years or so to smooth things out but apparently they need a little bit more time. Until they do you might wake up to a chest full of arrows or now, more commonly, a bullet hole the size of a walnut because some tribes have fashioned homemade rifles out of water pipe which they load with surplus US Army WWII 50 caliber machine gun rounds. Also your head might be missing.
Until the 1930s the world ignored the interior of the island, which was obviously uninhabitable. Then in the 1920s, gold was discovered along the coast and there was a gold rush with the accompanying denigrating treatment of the natives.
Once the gold played out, the place was forgotten once more until the three Australian Leahy brothers thought there might be gold in ‘them thar hills’ in the unexplored interior, you know the inhabited part. Once over the 10,000 foot crest they found an Eden-like parkland with tilled fields and over a million stone age residents, running around naked with bones in their noses and killing and eating one another. The brothers took a cameraman and got some pretty sweet footage.
One of the Leahy sons ended up staying and established one of the world’s largest coffee plantations. A fellow originally from Tasmania worked on this plantation as an overseer when he was 18. He went on to become one of the most famous actors in Hollywood and was often called the most handsome man who ever lived: Errol Flynn.
Now Errol was a ‘player’ in more than just the movies, and his penis got him into big trouble with several paternity suits and tales of underage girls who were purportedly deflowered on his yacht the Sirocco, which amazingly was tied up in King Harbor near our family boat when I was kid in LA in the early 60s. Flynn died in 1959, thus saving some flowers for the rest of us.
So right there the word penis slowed you way down didn’t it? But wait, there is way more penis yet to come in this article.
The thing about Papua New Guinea is there are so many amazing things to say that I’ll just take you to down one river, the Sepik River on the northern coast. There, many of the tribes still dress in the traditional fashion, which for men is the penis gourd or sheath. This comes in a wide variety of types and sizes and it doesn’t take a genius to see this a way to cheat in a dick measuring contest, as some of these devices are three feet long and have to be secured by a cord around the neck. I have not tried this, but I think it might make butchering your neighbor a bit more of a challenge.
Here this story takes a weird turn; something hopefully, you have come to expect from me. There is, in the middle of the Stanford University, a place called the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden, known affectionately as HardOn Park. In 1994, some folks thought it would be amusing to bring some woodcarvers from the Sepik River Valley to carve sculptures in a grove next to the Bowman Alumni House near the student union. Is it entirely coincidental that as a contractor I built the Bowman in the early 80’s? Coincidence? Let’s not forget about the yacht thing after all.
The sponsors hauled in stone and wood from Papua for the artists to carve on, which they chipped and carved for six months. They were wined (they must have loved the Stag’s Leap 1989) and dined in mansions, were taken to Disneyland, Pier 39 and presented with all sorts of gifts which, in typical fashion, would guarantee to ruin their lives and those of their families and villages. Pier 39, really?
In any case the wood carvers applied themselves diligently to their work and let their freak flags fly. Specifically, their art included vivid baseball bat-sized carvings of the male member as well as crocodiles in poses with women that are sexually graphic while also making lunch of them.
Some prominent Alumni Association members objected to the prominent members attached to the sculptures. But not to worry, as the most snap-offable parts were disjoined by trophy hunting frat brothers almost immediately. It was bit more difficult to remove the woman from the jaws of the crocodile, which is still there along with plenty o’ private parts in this public place well above snatch height.
Some will say there is very little cannibalism in PNG today because their official murder rate isn’t that high. But, honestly, if I was going to eat the guy next door I wouldn’t run to the police. No, I’d call the kids to dinner. Make sure to come properly dressed though.
Well, we’ve had lots of fun with Errol Flynn and a lot of untethered talk, but here are some more serious notes on the Island of New Guinea and Papua specifically. This long film shot in the 1980s isn’t the best resolution but it gives you a deep dive into the flora and fauna and a glimpse of the old ways, as well as a look at the stark destruction of this land with the copper strip miners and their ilk.
Some notes from the film:
When the first people came to the island they came by boat and no land animals seem to have come with them. The only mammals besides Man were bats, which still live there in great numbers and varieties from the three-foot Dracula-black fruit bats to tiny white ones that look like flying mice.
Eight thousand years ago there was a land bridge between Australia and New Guinea. But the only land animals to migrate were marsupials like kangaroos and platypus, which are egg laying mammals. They are entirely non aggressive so the only real predators are humans, mosquitos and snakes. Some of the kangaroos took to living in the fruit laden trees and lost their ability to jump about. Some birds don’t even guard their eggs as the threats are so minimal.
Other animals include the sugar glider, a flying squirrel and the colorfully named bandicoot and wallaby. There are 10” butterflies and 12”moths as well as football sized land crabs. The island has over 200,000 species of plants and animals, half of which have not been named. A single tree can have over 500 species living on it…plus the tree!
The land itself is a surprise. The coast is lush and tropical, but the island is divided by a razor-topped ridge of sharp limestone with a glacier on the 16,000 ft. peak. The island is so cut up that until about 50 years ago the individual tribes were actually 800 different cultures each with their own languages, customs and religions—and most of them were hostile to those next door. One group had a tradition of raiding the neighbors and bringing back human heads to put in the laps of boys as a coming of age present. “Really cool bar mitzvah present, thanks Dad!” and then chowing down on the brains for dinner. “Please pass the eyeballs.”
Some tribes live most of their lives in marshes and reside night and day in canoes. Others worship the bird of paradise and sport extreme headgear. Some are fishermen while others subsist almost entirely on the center pith of a specific tree rich in starch. Some eat bats as a primary source of protein. One tribe goes about caked in white mud.
So here is a serious question. Is it important to preserve ‘the old ways.’ Keep in mind that in the 200 thousand plus years of mankind, nearly all the culture mores have been left on the dust heap of history. Things change, so to hold onto ancient traditions (including those which have you eating your neighbor) is perhaps just a romantic notion about the good old days. And from what I can see, this nostalgia for the beauty of the past is generally an outsider’s notion of how things should remain for colorful ‘primitives.’ Maybe these traditional folks were happier. Probably, it’s like now—some are, some aren’t—but there is no doubt about it that back in the good ol’ days as Thomas Hobbs said, “…life was nasty, brutish and short.”