A Glimpse of the Stone Age

Daniel S. Weld

The rain surprised us with its suddenness. Dense clouds, mantling the surrounding limestone cliffs, had been edging closer for some time, stalking us. The deluge came at dusk like a calculated charge. We fled through the murky night, groping for the trail, stumbling on roots, and slipping down the slick edges of muddy pits dug by wallowing pigs and filling quickly from the soaking downpour. Our guide, Wamea, had rushed ahead, seeking shelter. David, Margaret and I struggled to keep up, accelerated by the cold bite of the rain soaking through our Goretex. A handful of Dani tribesmen swept quickly past us, moving speedily despite the dark and slippery track. Gingerly, we balanced across a narrow log spanning a swollen torrent which the rain had changed to coffee with tannin and eroded silt. Then we scurried up the bank and along the path.

The chill drops fringing my hood obscured the lamp until we were very close. Wamea beckoned us quickly inside the Dani hut, and the din of the storm vanished under the thick thatch roof. I shrugged off my pack by a litter of playful puppies and sat cross-legged on the straw by the hearth in the center of the tiny hut. The fire's flickering light gave the room a warm atmosphere. Directly across from me sat an elder Dani man. Largely naked, his ebony skin glowed dimly in the darkness, but his penis gourd (i.e., his ``holim'') gleamed amber in the firelight. Beneath a broad nose, his white teeth launched a smile as he handed me a roasted potato, hot from the embers. I peeled off the ash-crusted skin and bit deeply, savoring the sweet starchy flavor and the primal scene of the rural hut. After seemingly endless planning, our trip to Irian Jaya was a reality.

Irian Jaya, the western half of the huge island of New Guinea, is an exotic destination. Vast, mysterious, and beautiful, Irian Jaya rises ruggedly from tangled mangrove swamps through dense jungle to 16,000' pinnacles of rock and ice. Insects abound. Irian's 75,000 species of butterflies and moths span the visible spectrum, and its family of spiders includes a species so large and belligerent that it preys on birds. Frogs also grow to prodigious size - some as large as a human infant. The estuarine crocodiles are cunning man-eaters; one 23 foot behemoth devoured 55 tribesman before it was finally slain. Bones of Irian's largest land animal, a flightless bird called a Cassowary, have long been shaped and polished into amber-hued daggers, but the island is perhaps most famous for the stunning plumage of the long exploited birds of paradise:

[L]arge tufts of delicate, bright-colored feathers spring from each side of the body beneath the wings, forming trains or fans or shield. ... The middle feathers of the tail are often elongated into ``wires,'' twisted into fantastic shapes or dorned with the most brilliant metallic hues. Depending on the species, these accessory plumes spring from the head, the back or the shoulders. The color and luster of their plumage is the envy of all other feathered creatures. [Muller, 1990, p. 18]
The cultural diversity of Irian's human inhabitants rivals the variety shown by its animal species, and new tribes are still being discovered (In fact, first contact with one group was made just a few weeks after our trip). Until thirty years ago, most of these peoples relied on stone age technology: polished bone daggers and stones axes were considered the height of technology. Although the spread of missionaries has lead to widespread use of steel ax heads, the Christian groups have largely failed in their attempt to eliminate the ``phallocrypt'' tradition. Most men of the highland tribes wear nothing but the dried shell of a pumpkin-like gourd as a modest sheath over their penises. In the past, fierce ritual warfare was used to settle disputes between neighboring tribes, but this tradition has been forcibly terminated. Other than this, the tribes have changed little in the past centuries. Visiting them, we hoped to witness their unusual dress and culture and observe their traditional practices of pig husbandry and sweet potato farming in an unspoiled land.

Since Indonesia acquired Irian Jaya from the Dutch in 1974, we planned our journey to this New Guinea province to follow our exploration of Bali, another Indonesian island. Our flight on Garuda was the equivalent of a crowded bus ride across the archipelago: ten hours of travel with six stops on different islands. In an apparently universal, commercial routine, the stewardesses garnished each leg of the trip with a snack. However, unlike United Airlines, Garuda served a clump of spiced sticky-rice wrapped neatly in a banana leaf and packaged in a small box emblazoned with a smiling purple rhinosorous whose gold sash read ``Visit Indonesia Year 1991''. As I pondered this slogan I noticed a new puzzle: why, across the aisle, were the passengers stroking the ceiling with their napkins? The mystery was soon solved when I felt the first drops of condensation on my own head. For the rest of the flight I mimicked the frantic gestures, and my clothes became no worse than damp. Finally our destination approached, and we could gaze downward at the turquoise lace of the coastal reefs, hemmed with verdant foliage.

When we landed in Jayapura, capital of Irian Jaya, we were assaulted by the heat. I kept remembering the description from Redmond O'Hanlon's epic adventure "Into the Heart of Borneo:"

On the tarmac, crossing to the airport sheds, the heat of the equator hit me for the first time. It squeezed around you like the rank coils of an unseen snake, pressing the good air out of your lungs and covering you in a slimy sweat. Fifteen yards of this was enough, a mile would be impossible, 500 miles an absurdity. [O'Hanlon 1987]

Our humble objective of only 50 miles provided little reassurance that we would succeed, but I knew that the highlands would be somewhat cooler than these coastal swamps and I yearned to move onwards. We had been told that the process of obtaining a Serat Jalan (travel permit) was a bureaucratic nightmare, but for us it passed with an improbable, almost dreamy efficiency. The next morning we were off.

The flight to the highlands revealed rugged terrain: deep chasms choked with jungle and white limestone cliffs fringed with green. Then, suddenly, we swept through a pass and beheld the broad Baliem valley, an idyllic Shangri La first discovered by westerners in 1938. As we descended, we noticed a huge lazy river snaking sinuously through the meadows; then a delicate network of irrigation channels emerged, painstakingly embroidered on the carpet of green.

We landed in the capital of the central highlands, a small town called Wamena. After a quick annotation to our Serat Jalans, we were released into the waiting crowd and besieged by eager guides, porters, merchants, translators, drivers, valets, and Irianese who appeared to want nothing more than to practice their English with idle chit chat. We pushed through the throng out to the street, declined repeated offers to purchase an ``authentic set of bow and arrows,'' ignored the insistent offers of aid and directions, tried to overlook the myriad faces that pushed close to monitor our money-changing transactions at the bank, and finally found a hotel room: relief from the intensely claustrophobic curiosity of the friendly Irianese. After regaining our poise, we interviewed possible guides and chose a middle aged tribesman named Wamea. Although he had good recommendations, we were at first concerned by his inability to speak English. A short afternoon hike, however, convinced us that our halting Indonesian was sufficient for communication, and Wamea's sense of humor was the harbinger of a zesty trip. One minute he would deadpan stark seriousness and the next guffaw at our surprise when he stuck tawny orchids though an unseen hole in his nasal septum, creating a flowing yellow mustache. By the trip's end we truly missed his loyalty, irrepressible raillery and ubiquitous pranks.

The next morning, well stocked with rice and other staples, we boarded a Twin Otter for the weekly charter to the grass landing strip at a village called Kelila. Our packs were dumped on the ground. Then, with dozens of children frolicking in the propeller's back draft, the Twin Otter turned and raced down the strip, banking quickly to avoid the mountainous obstacles. The plane gone, the town surrounded us and followed as an old man, armed with a rifle, escorted us to the police station to stamp our Serat Jalans. At first, I thought it odd that the man pointed his rifle so carelessly, almost whimsically, at our midriffs; the enigma grew as I observed that the villagers failed to give him the courtesy and respect that such an implement demanded, but finally, I noticed that the weapon was carved of wood and that the fellow was distinctly daft. Slowly, my pulse returned to normal.

After Wamea had selected a porter, we started our trek with a hot climb to the south. As we marched Wamea described the local cultures and described the differences between the Dani and Lani tribes among whom we would travel. Irian Jaya has a plethora of peoples, practicing a vast array of customs, and speaking as many as 800 different languages. Of course, Wamea spoke several of these, and taught us how to say ``Hello'' in Dani --- it was terribly complicated since different phrases were used by men and women, and the greeting varied depending on the sex and number of recipients. Our confusion was so great and performance on his quizzes so poor, that we began to suspect that Wamea was joking, but he insisted, between laughs, that he was not.

At afternoon's end, we neared a small hamlet. Sharp picket fences encircled the village, confining the grunting but beloved pigs. We climbed over the barricade and were quickly welcomed by a host of onlookers. As the word of our arrival spread, the whole community rushed to observe us. The men approached boldly to watch in clear fascination as we unrolled our tent, but the women and children clustered together at a safe distance. There was a gasp of surprise as we tensioned the poles and the VE-24 took shape. The onlookers inched closer, chattering and pointing. The children remained timid the whole evening, fixed on us with the nervous fascination of mice in the company of snakes. It was impossible not to exploit this, so in the privacy of the tent David became a giant worm by slipping his sleeping bag over his head like a colossal condom. When he burst from the VE-24 portal and charged the children, they fled with terrified glee but swiftly returned to an ever closer circle of devotion. Myriad games were possible and the reactions were so fresh that it was impossible to tire of playing.

As the sun set it grew quickly cold so we donned sweaters and hats, but the youngsters remained naked (only the adolescents wore holim and grass skirts) and the children curled their arms completely around their necks in a double jointed embrace that was unbelievably endearing. Apparently, we were so interesting that they forsook the warm shelter of their huts. One evening Margaret and I were sitting on a small bluff above a village when dusk came. We had been relaxing after a long day's march, writing until the light fell. As usual, we were surrounded by close to thirty natives, but by now the novelty had worn off a bit. Since we couldn't speak Dani and they didn't know Indonesian, communication was almost impossible. Engrossed in our journals, we had almost forgotten the presence of our observers, when the grave rumble of an approaching tempest startled us back to our surroundings. A chill breeze had condensed the children into a dense group that clustered closely about us. In the distance, flashes of lightning interfused the advancing thunderheads with luminescent pulses. Silhouetted against these pyrotechnics stood several Dani hunters, their bow and quiver striking shadows against the stormy sky. Transfixed by the scene, we absorbed the evenings orchestra: percussive thunder overlaid with a string quartet of insects, cicadas in the lead. Suddenly, the children, moving closer to us, started singing in beautiful harmony. Magical, mystical, it was without question the most memorable moment of our trip. We alternated favorite songs --- first the children, then Margaret and myself, and the music lasted until the sky painted ochre. Finally, the rain arrived and the inevitable addition of sunset's malarial mosquitoes sent us scurrying for the smoky men's hut and Wamea's cooking. We had purchased a stock of rice, sugar and other essentials before starting the trek, but we bought fresh fruit and vegetables when we stopped each night. In the Baliem valley itself, the farming was quite sophisticated, with a complex network of irrigation channels supporting sustainable yields. But here in the highlands, primitive slash and burn techniques were practiced. After ten years of crops, the depleted fields force abandonment of the village and people move on to clear new terrain. During our week's trek we saw little virgin jungle, but many spent hillsides: fuzzy in appearance, reclaimed by weeds, but no longer capable of bearing crops or native vegetation. On reflection, the region's future seemed bleak given the economic realities and the population trends, but it was easy to forget this in the exotic evening scene inside the men's hut.

Built with two concentric walls of thinly split logs, the circular huts were of astonishingly good design. Cool by day, they stayed warm in the chill evenings. The cooking fire saturated the thatch roof with smoke that discouraged mosquito entry. Finger-thick stalks of bamboo woven tightly in parallel formed a raised floor; covered with straw, the surface was comfortable and yielding. The same technique produced a ceiling four feet high, and a small ladder led up to a sleeping loft nestled under the thatch. The absence of windows forced everyone's attention inwards to the flickering light of the central fire which was raised on a small platform that protected the straw from accidental ignition. Surrounding the hearth were four wooden pillars supporting a drying rack; tendrils of smoke curled lazily upwards to caress some blackened faggots and a few desiccated ears of corn. Wamea crouched by the embers, blew them to life, and set some garlic and ginger frying in the oiled wok. After a spicy dinner of stir fried noodles with vegetables, we lit a candle to supplement the dimming fire. The evening activities alternated between the puzzle of Wamea's cryptic language lessons, our struggles to follow his banter with the Danis ringing the fire, twanging tedium as he tuned a Jew's harp interminably, and quiet absorption as a group of children repeated a beautiful harmony, this time accompanied by the percussive rhythm of elder men rapping fingernails against their holim. Late each evening we would crawl for the door. Wamea implored us not to leave: ``You will die if you go to sleep so early!'' but we insisted on rest before the next day's early rise. The sound of rain, previously silent under the thatch, was magnified by our tent's taut fabric shell. Nearby, pigs grunted, squealed, and shuffled as one rolled, half slumbering, on top of another. Randomly, the night was pierced by the cries of cicadas like car alarms.

In the morning the rain stopped. Lowering patches of fog dozed along deep wet green. The morning sun illuminated the wisps of smoke steaming from the wet thatch of the hamlet roofs. Before we even emerged from the tent, several dozen watchers assembled. Margaret became the focus of attention when she revealed a small photo album; the whole village swarmed to see pictures of our wedding, but they grew even more excited when we brought out a picture book of Irian Jaya. The crowd erupted in tremendous chorus of glee at the people pictures, whether of their tribe or their neighbors. In one village someone recognized a person in our book, and although we couldn't follow the subsequent staccato story, we can attest to the laughter.

After breakfast we resumed the trek. The terrain and conditions varied: at times orange mud caked our boots as we slid down an eroded ravine, one day we negotiated deep jungle, but frequently we navigated a network of twisting trails connecting gardens and their adjoining habitations. The need to continually clamber over picket pig-fences was a constant nuisance, and the corrugated countryside, while spectacular, led our winded guide to a cheerful, broken-English refrain: ``Is da up; is da down.'' We crossed fantastic limestone gorges, poised above churning, silt-laden water on rickety suspension bridges woven with vines and branches. We searched for fossils on the Baliem rivers' wide gravel beds. One day we were passed by a scurrying group of Dani in mourning; two were shouldering a pole hung with a huge pig trussed and grunting. Its fate was grim. Although the scenery was spectacular, the ethnic encounters were of supreme interest. We found the bare breasted women shy, but many men greeted us excitedly with the traditional arm embrace, finger snapping, and repeated cries of ``Wa Cau Ogna''. Once we were sniffed enthusiastically by a man of bronzed ebony skin who wore nothing but a tawny penis gourd, feathered black cap, dark arm band tied with bits of fur, and a wilting fern tied between his buttocks.

However, the most puzzling aspect of the trek was our entourage. We never walked alone. It seemed as if whenever we walked through a village we accumulated a few more companions. At one point I noticed that our tiny troupe had grown to more than a dozen. Some of the wanderers were clearly assisting Wamea by carrying our provisions, but we think they came for curiosity rather than for payment. After a few hours or perhaps several days, they left as enigmatically as they came, splitting off silently at unseen junctures, burdens mysteriously assumed by our continuing comrades. Since our trek took us through several different ethnic groups, we were treated to a virtual fashion show of men's clothing (the Lani tribesmen wear holim that are relatively short and stout when compared to those worn in the central Baliem). The constant flux of people frequently provoked Wamea's cheerful refrain: ``Is da Lani; is da Dani!''

The highlight of the trip was a rare opportunity to attend the funeral and cremation ceremony of a ``Big Man'' (i.e., a village chief). The Irianese used to mummify a select few of their leaders, keeping the dried bodies in the men's hut as a conduit to the supernatural world. Although the preservation techniques are no longer practiced, we saw one village's desiccated and silently screaming mummy. Blackened with smoke, it appeared ageless. Other aspects of funeral behavior have also have been abandoned in recent years. Historically, death of a relative resulted in the amputation of a woman's finger. No anesthetic was used, but the woman was slapped for distraction immediately before the ax's blow. Many of the elder women we saw had less than ten digits remaining. Violence is an undeniable funeral accompaniment. In the past, relatives of the deceased might rampage nearby hamlets, killing pigs and even small children. Although Indonesian authorities have firmly banned such actions, we met one man who refused to attend the rite since he felt compelled to guard his swine. The numerous police respectfully attending the rite --- in full uniform --- suggested that the concern was warranted, but we saw only mock violence. Wailing warriors slashed through the trunks of palm trees, lifted the saplings in the air like spears, strutted about the field, then thrust the trunks viciously into the soil to create temporary shade for the increasingly numerous throng.

Delegations had come from many villages, some several days distant. The guests approached in waves, men first, women trailing. The immediate relatives of the late warrior stood in greeting, smeared with greasy mourning ashes and adorned with jewelry of cowry shells, bone medallions, strings of beads, and feathers and fur. As the visitors approached, all eyes were cast downwards and the air was rent with loud wailing. The two clans of men formed opposing lines and greeted each other with loud cries of ``Wa'' and a sequence of long embraces. Meanwhile, the women moved to the side, scurried past the men, dropped their gift bags of potatoes and provisions, and climbed the lower dais to wail continually at the side of the corpse. After fifteen minutes of anguished moaning, the visitors flowed to the shade at the edge of the clearing, thus making way for a new wave of tribute. In stark contrast to the ritual mourning, the peripheral scene had a casual atmosphere; men and women sat in separate groups and joked among themselves.

We were sad to leave before the actual cremation, but we were even more disappointed to leave Irian Jaya itself. Although the logistics were difficult, our trek was supremely rewarding --- the island holds by far the most unusual set of cultures I've been privileged to visit. I yearn for a second, longer journey: for another glimpse of the stone age.